NEWS FEATURE

Is Honda really going to pull out of Formula 1 in 1993?

The Formula 1 world is buzzing with the rumours that Honda - the most influential engine manufacturer in Grand Prix racing in recent years - is on the verge of announcing its withdrawal from F1. All the company will say is that there will be a decision in September - probably during the weekend of the Italian GP.

This is big news in F1. Honda's recent record is quite extraordinary and the company's involvement with the McLaren team has formed the backbone of one of the most successful packages in racing history: Honda, McLaren, Senna. The three have been tied together since the start of 1988 since when the McLaren-Honda combination has scored 41 victories in 74 races - Senna collecting 28 of them and Alain Prost (11) and Gerhard Berger (2) the remaining 13. McLaren and Honda have won the last four FIA Constructors' titles (1988-89-90-91) Honda adding to the previous two in 1986 and 1987. The Drivers' championship has been won by a Honda-powered man every season since 1987: Nelson Piquet (Williams) being followed by Senna (1988-90-91) and Prost (1989). It is quite remarkable.

That run of success, however, is over. There is now little doubt that Nigel Mansell will win the Drivers' title this year, with Williams-Renault dominant in the Constructors' series.

Honda has been beaten.

The company's president Nobuhiko Kawamoto has warned McLaren's Ron Dennis that the partnership could end after the Australian Grand Prix.

This puts McLaren in a very difficult situation. If it waits for a decision from Honda and the decision is negative, McLaren will be very late starting the 1993 project, even assuming that there is another engine manufacturer waiting in the wings to power McLarens.

The late nature of the official decision would seem to suggest that the company will stay another year or risk dropping McLaren into serious difficulties. Honda has proved in the past, however, that it is willing to make harsh and ruthless decisions: the company dumped Spirit in 1983 to take up with Williams and left Frank Williams in a dreadful mess in 1987 when it switched to McLaren. Williams had to fall back on uncompetitive Judd engines.

To lose Honda would be a huge setback for Dennis, for it would also mean that the relationship with Senna - still widely held to be the greatest driver currently racing - would be fundamentally weakened. Senna has been with Honda since the start of 1987 and McLaren has long believed that as long as it had Honda engines it would have Senna. Now Senna's market value is something in the region of US$20 million for a season and there are teams out there ready to pay. Ferrari is the obvious candidate.

Dennis will certainly be aware of the things that can go wrong in the months ahead. He refuses to comment on whether he has been talking to other engine manufacturers about a deal for 1993, but a man of his management skill will certainly have taken steps to have a contingency should Honda dump him at this late stage. Current rumours suggest that BMW has a V12 ready to go racing in Munich and with the McLaren road car using BMW engines it would a logical step for the two compnies to become linked in their racing activities. BMW has proved in the past that it is capable of building World Championship-winning engines and the same basic team that built the turbos of the early 1980s, led by Paul Rosche, is still together at BMW.

One other possible development should not be excluded. McLaren might drop Honda. The current state of the F1 driver market is such that decisions will be happening very soon. When the market starts to move, Dennis will have to make a decision whether to wait for Honda and risk being dropped - a risk which Senna might not be willing to take - or sign up another deal and risk losing Senna. Dennis and Honda may be close, but there is no way that Ron will let Honda drag the McLaren company down by a late decision.

Honda and McLaren have enjoyed a remarkable working relationship over the years with the stresses and strains of intense competition being funnelled into going forwards rather than being destructive. Even when Honda's top engineer Osamu Goto left the company and joined McLaren, the relationship was not seriously damaged.

Dennis's decision to rely on a good team rather than have an outstanding designer has brought him much criticism, although there is no question that it has also given McLaren a stability which is not always possible with the highly charged egos of 'star' engineers.

The result, however, has been that McLaren has relied very strongly on Homda engines in recent seasons and, as Williams has proved this year, is now behind in the technology stakes.

The stresses and strains of losing have made life more difficult for McLaren and Honda. Kawamoto is thought to be disappointed that McLaren has not taken advantage of extra technical assistance being offered by Honda, including the development of active suspsension and semi-automatic gearboxes. McLaren has not been happy with the performance of the latest Honda V12 engine because it is both heavy and not very fuel efficient.

Ultimately, however, the strains with the relationship are unlikely to cause a divorce. It is the outside pressures which will force Honda to stay or to go. The current worldwide economic depression has hit the car manufacturers very hard and Honda, although doing well in comparison to others, is no different. The F1 programme costs an estimated US$80 million and that money could be used elsewhere.

Honda, however, wants to retain its hard-won sporting image and the lure of Indianapolis is stronger than ever. Honda's push into the North American market through American Honda Motor and Acura has been impressive. Acura handles the Legend and Integra models and this is the market where the biggest push is coming.

'Creation of the Acura network,' said American Honda Motor vice-president Cliff Schmillen at the time of Acura's launch, 'is the biggest challenge our company has ever faced. The luxury and sporty car fields, which we are now entering, are the areas where highest growth rates are expected in the 1990s.'

It thus makes sense to target the motor sports-oriented in North America. For thsi F1 is virtually useless as the Grand Prix circus no longer visits the USA and coverage of races worldwide is extremely limited.

In F1 itself, Honda has won everything there is to win Adding to the statistics is not pushing into new markets.

In addition to all this, Indycar racing is considerably cheaper than F1 with the competition less intensive.

For several years now it has been assumed that Honda is going to go to America to try to win the Indianapolis 500. In Europe there have been stories of a Honda Indycar V8 engine up and running on the test beds in Japan. There have been very well-sourced stories suggesting that the Japanese company already has a Phase Two engine on the dynos and, more recently, suggestions that Honda has bought a Lola Indycar with which to begin a track-testing programme in preparation for an Indycar campaign next year with Bobby Rahal.

Rahal is a Honda dealer and this year established Rahal-Hogan Racing by buying up the assets of Patrick Racing. Rahal is a double Indycar title-holder and won the Indy 500 in 1986. In short, he fits the bill perfectly to lead Honda's American campaign and the establishment of Rahal-Hogan Racing at the start of this season was seen by observers as the first step in the programme for Honda and Rahal to work together.

When one considers the current situation, therefore, it is clear that there is a strong argument for Honda to quit F1 and move to Indycar racing from a sporting and a marketing point of view. There is nothing left to win in F1. The problem is that if Honda does decide to pull out at the end of this season the move could be construed as the compnay being beaten and turning away from the fight. This could be a powerful marketing weapon for Renault and one which must be considered before any decision from Honda.

The other factor, which is much more difficult to quantify is the loss of face which Honda might feel, withdrawing having been beaten. There is no question that it is better to leave with a victory and perhaps Honda will decide on this course of action and put an extra effort into winning the title next season.

We shall see...

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