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Honda not ready for 1998

HONDA MOTOR COMPANY President Nobuhiko Kawamoto has said that there are no plans for an official Honda comeback in F1 in 1998. If this is indeed the case it is very bad news for several teams which are currently trying to convince the company that they should be its factory team.

Although the Honda company has always been run by racers its primary function is to sell cars and its major push in recent years has been North America. This has been very successful both on and off the race tracks with Chip Ganassi Racing dominating Indycars this year with Jimmy Vasser and Alex Zanardi. The sport has helped Honda advertise its products but Kawamoto has always maintained that motor racing is more value to train engineers, to nurturing innovative thinking and to motivate the workforce.

The US car market is now so competitive that even giants such as Ford, General Motors and Chrysler are looking at the global markets. Honda is no different. It manufactures products in 40 countries but its car sales are heavily biased to the US followed by Japan, Europe and the rest of the world. The company's motorcycle sales are currently booming, notably in Asia. This market is not yet sufficiently developed for the sale of cars on a large scale but that will follow. Asia is expected to be F1's major growth area before the turn of the century and so it makes perfect sense for Honda to be considering a return to F1 to attack the global market again.

Honda has kept a technical involvement in F1 through the Mugen Honda V10 engine project - although this remains an unofficial link - and there has been evidence this year that talks are taking place with Williams, Benetton and Tom Walkinshaw. Yoshinobu Noguchi, project leader of the Honda Motor Sport Department, has been seen at several races and in Japan he was joined by Kawamoto.

Since Honda quit F1 in 1992 engineers from the company's elite Research & Development facility at Wako have built and tested a Honda-Honda F1 car. In January it was announced that Honda would probably begin "a discussion over getting back into F1 racing" this year. Initial suggestions were that Honda would build its own cars and engines. This made a lot of sense as Honda proved in the late 1980s that it could dominate as an engine manufacturer and that doing the same again would serve little purpose as an engineering exercise. To beat the dominant British F1 teams in chassis-building would be an extraordinary achievement - and just the kind of challenge that Kawamoto would like for his young engineers.

Informed sources in F1 reckon that Honda will probably either quietly support the planned Dome-Mugen operation when it enters F1 in 1998 and then take the operation over as it becomes more competitive, or fund the takeover of one of the smaller F1 teams. Rumors in Japan suggest that this could involve Satoru Nakajima who says he is trying to buy a share of the Tyrrell F1 team.

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