Honda: Will They Ever Get Their Act Together?

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Honda: Will They Ever Get Their Act Together?

One thing has gone under the radar this season, an issue which has been (quite rightly) overshadowed by the increasingly exciting and controversial championship battle, is the continuing demise of the Honda F1 team.

Indeed, Honda have amassed just 14 points (eight coming from a very wet Silverstone). Jenson Button has scored just three points all season. That, unbelievably, is worse than the 2007 total, in a season when reliability and predictable races were more commonplace.

To help explain this fall, one must remember 1999. Probably the most catastrophic debut year for a team was made worse by the team's belief in instant success.

With considerable tobacco sponsorship and a title-winning driver, some speculated that BAR would win the first race of the season and even challenge for the championship.

However when the dust in Australia had settled, BAR could only take away the knowledge that they had the ugliest car on the grid; that Jacques Villeneuve, for his large salary, could only get the car into the midfield; and that neither driver finished due to reliability.

But this was surely a blip for the team? They would almost certainly win at least one race? Alas, the car remained doggedly midfield and fiercely unreliable.

Villeneuve failed to finish a race until Belgium, some 12 races into the season, and the team were beaten by lowly minnows Minardi in the constructors champion.

However, almost from nowhere, in 2004 BAR finally built a fast, reliable car after five seasons of being in the wilderness. 2004 remains Honda's most successful season, as the team finished second in the constructor's championship and their talisman, Jenson Button, finished third in the drivers standings.

There was real hope in 2005 with the belief that the team could challenge for the championship. However, this failed to materialise with disqualifications, unreliability and some erratic driving.

The team amassed only 38 points, 81 less than the year before. While 2006 was much more competitive with a first win and a strong end to the season for Button, they still struggled heavily during the summer months.

These seasons are important in understanding the failings of Honda as they are a team which have underachieved hugely when considering their credentials.

While 2004 was a very successful season, they have failed to repeat such a feat and have barely matched that tally in the seasons after 2004.

But why has Honda fallen by the wayside? That question is probably the most important issue to solve for Honda, as they seem completely unable to diagnose their problems, nor create a solution.

While other teams can steady the ship, Honda have always been erratic, very rarely consistent.

The problem is that a stand out issue with the team cannot be placed. While many criticise the drivers, there is little basis for such attacks.

Jenson Button and Rubens Barichello have between them over two decades of F1 experience, multiple wins and experience in top teams such as Ferrari and Williams.

Honda have the most experienced driver line-up on the grid. Not many would claim that Button and Barichello are slow either...

And surely they have the staff (with Ross Brawn at the helm and an established team which have been functioning for a decade), finance (a gigantic budget beaten only by Ferrari, Toyota, and McLaren) and hearty competition (The battle with Toyota).
There is no shortage of reasons or incentives for Honda to be a race winning team...

However, the most likely reason for the team's demise is that there is a chronic lack of belief within the squad, which has infected the team like a virus.

It has had such a turbulent history of perennially underachieving, after pumping in all the time and resources, that a thick fog of gloom has enveloped Honda.

Take Ross Brawn's comment after qualifying in Italy as an example: "Our car is not too bad in the wet, and so if we get on top of the problems we experienced today, we should still be able to take advantage, despite our positions on the grid." (Autosport.com)

It doesn't exactly sound like a positive outlook when a member of staff claims the car is not too bad. Surely he would be shouting praise to the heavens unless the car was totally inept (savvy with the PR needs).

Also look at Button's comments on the same qualification session (after qualifying 19th):
"We were expecting these conditions to help us, so I am surprised that we have ended up so far back in qualifying today." (Autosport.com)

I might be analysing too much, but both comments seem to show that the team are in the position of being slow and yet have no idea on how to improve.

Such a failure can be attributed to the fact that Honda have put a car together that is slow, unreliable, and aerodynamically challenged.

If you look at all the little bits on the cars nowadays, for example, shark fins, dumbo wings etc., Honda seem to rely on these small aerodynamic pieces hugely, more than any other team.

This shows a huge weakness in the aerodynamic properties of the car and a lack of ideas, as they have to pilfer pieces from other teams.

Of course, this is common practice in F1, but not to the extreme that Honda takes it to. They also seem to have no clear idea on how to improve their performance.

In 2007, for example, Honda tested the infamous "dumbo wings," a huge sign of desperation as they struggled to find pace in a poor car.

This mirrors 2004-2005, where there was the feeling that BAR/Honda had struck on the design strengths of the 2004 car only by chance, and the new aero changes for the 2005 season had wiped that advantage, meaning that the team could not develop their car beyond aligning them with the 2005 regulations.

This failure in the aerodynamic department is consistent to Honda's 'long-term' strategy. Everything they do is for the 'long-term' benefit.

Every year (including unbelievably this year) they claim they are going to be fast the following season, or the year after that. Look how many times Button says next year in this excerpt:

"I think the team's focus should be on next year. If I score a point, it will be a surprise in a way. And we should be focusing on next year, although a lot of the stuff that we are doing with this car is to do with next year." (Autosport.com)

This would be fine if they were achieving such goals, but they never do. Honda never thinks about the short-term needs.

Hence, they don't develop their cars as quickly as other teams and fall back, failing to keep up with the "aerodynamic arms race."

In 2006, for example they went backwards after starting in a relatively strong position and had to pick up the slack when failing to improve their car.

The appointment of Ross Brawn was obviously seen as a long-term benefit, but he also needs to be used in the short term. In Brawn's comment above, even he seems mystified when trying to improve the fortunes of the Honda team.

Such problems have led Honda to their lowest point since entering the sport. At the time of writing Honda face the prospect of another year of effort and time gone to waste...with a slow car and a minuscule points tally.

This trend is not showing any sign of going away, as under the 2009 regulations, F1 is set to change radically.

This does not suit the Honda ethos as their long term strategy does not gel with strenuous rule changes (2005, for example).

Sadly, Honda's problems don't look like they are going to go away anytime soon.

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