Honda Pulling Out Might Be the Saving of Formula One

Sam Devereaux@DevroxPrimeContributor IDecember 4, 2008

Shock waves have been sent throughout the world of Motorsport. When at 04:30GMT today, Honda Motor Company announced their immediate departure from Formula One.

The reaction from many to this bombshell has been to signal the death-knell for the world's most glamorous sport.

So, is it all over for Motor Racing's premier category?

Many will say that now Honda have set an example the other under-achieving manufacturer teams will doubtless follow suit. Soon Toyota and then Renault will signal their intention to depart and we will have to endure a delay to the 2009 season as more teams are found to fill up the depleted grid and chuck £300M into the wasting pot that is F1. This, of course won't happen and by this time next year, Formula One will cease to exist.

But, will it happen that way?

The reason that F1 has become unsustainable in the first place is due to the profligacy (induced by a worldwide financial boom) of the big manufacturers. Perhaps F1 would be better off if these behemoths left F1 and allowed the sport to once again become the domain of innovative privateers?

But F1 costs £300M a year at least doesn't it? And if you're not backed by a huge car maker you'll be bringing up the rear won't you? 

This has certainly been the received wisdom of the last few seasons. But why?

Essentially, Formula One has been bloated into it's present unsustainable shape because large manufacturers, fat off the profits of a worldwide financial boom chose to match their might against each other by buying or starting F1 teams.

In the presence of testing restrictions team's focus turned to CAD, windtunnel testing and other forms of off track development. This process isn't new; but around 2002, when Mclaren (chastened by the loss of the 2001 title to Ferrari) chose to expend an unprecedented level of funding on the MP4/18, the level of development publicly took off into the stratosphere.

As it happens the MP4/18 was a disaster, but in funding this expensive failure Mclaren raised the bar bar on expenditure at exactly the time that Renault and Toyota were entering F1 as full manufacturer teams. Over the coming seasons, teams competed by spending more and more on off-track development. Some built a second wind-tunnel, while others poured funding into accurate driving simulators.

Engine restrictions and a single tyre supplier were brought in to cut costs. But teams with the backing of the big car makers, simply poured the money they were now saving into ever more elaborate development programs for aero-dynamics, gearboxes and suspension.

The effect of all of this in the cold light of a global recession has been to force manufacturers like Honda to realise that £300M for 14 points in 2008 was a completely ludicrous way to spend money.

Good. It's about time the teams woke up to the reality of their own profligacy.

So where did this all start?

It's arguable, but an instructive starting point would be the 1995 season. It was the year that Mercedes joined with Mclaren and although nobody knew it, it was perhaps the beginning of the manufacturer based dominance that was to cripple the privateers and send costs out of control.

Now given that there are those who are wincing at the thought of so called "customer drivetrains" from 2010, let's examine the teams from 1995.

In terms of manufacturer teams there was only one: Ferrari.

All of the other teams were either so called "Works Partners" (Benetton, Williams, Mclaren, and nominally: Tyrell, Jordan, Ligier, and Footwork) or they were customers. No fewer than five of the teams in that year used a Cotsworth engine.

And what of the 1995 champions, Benetton. It is thought they utilised a budget of some £25-£35M, which adjusted for inflation is still less than Williams spent in 2008.

Going back as far as 1970, eight of the twelve teams on the grid used a Cotsworth engine. Included in this were eventual champions Lotus.

Of course, back in 1970, many teams didn't even use sponsorship!

The most telling fact of all is that between the years of 1979 and 2000 not one single manufacturer team won the Formula Drivers championship. The sole constructors success for the manufacturers in that period was Ferrari in 1982.

The point of the above, is that is was never necessary to spend obscene amounts of money to win in Formula One.

In the opinion of this writer, the problem is development.

If the FIA want to cut costs to levels that they and FOTA will agree are sustainable they need to go further than bringing in cheap customer engines.

It is to the eternal shame of the FIA, that they didn't identify the spiralling developmental expenditure teams were making earlier and restrict the level to which teams were permitted to develop their machines throughout a season.

But Honda leaving is a chance to recify that.

The FIA need to, quite simply, ban continuous development.

If all the teams were allowed, for example, a single upgrade from season start to season end, they wouldn't be able to dispose of £20M to try and find one tenth of a second every six weeks . They wouldn't be able to bring a bespoke front wing to almost every circuit.

What they would all be able to do is compete; due to the (almost certainly) more level racing environment that lower costs would create.

Many F1 fans look back misty eyed at the golden age of the privateer. An age of Ken Tyrell winning the World Title out of his garden shed. Or Colin Chapman, constantly coming up with innovative ways to beat off his better funded rivals. Or Frank Williams and Patrick Head infuriating the opposition with their perennially strong (and lower-cost) Chassis'.

In 2008 there are extraordinary contructors like Prodrive and Dallara who would relish a crack at F1 if the costs were realistic. Who knows, even Lola might give it another go?

Honda's withdrawal from Formula One can be it's renaissance, not it's end.

Whether the FIA and FOTA will recognise their opportunity and make F1 work again for teams with small budgets and big ideas remains to be seen.