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Honda's Formula 1 plans

AS we predicted back in March, the Honda Motor Company will enter Formula 1 in 1999 with an announcement expected to be made at the British Grand Prix. The story has resurfaced in recent days with much excitement in the British specialist press.

After dallying with the idea of a deal with British American Racing we understand that Honda has decided to concentrate on a one-team, in-house project to be run by former Grand Prix driver Satoru Nakajima with technical assistance from Harvey Postlethwaite.

Our spies in Japan report that the Honda project is a lot further advanced than is obviously the case with a Japanese-designed car already under construction there.

We believe that Honda management has given a five-year commitment to Formula 1 and that the project has already found considerable commercial backing with rumors suggesting that there is a major tobacco company involved. The obvious candidate is RJR Nabisco through its Camel brand. The company has been out of F1 since 1993 when RJR Nabisco was sold in a leveraged buyout to Kohlberg Kravis Roberts for $30bn.

RJR spent the next few years streamlining and reducing its debt but in recent months has been expanding its international cigarette business. It is significant that all Camel's major rivals are involved in F1. Camel has balked at returning to F1 to date because it has not been able to find a competitive enough team. The other tobacco company which might be involved is Imperial Tobacco with the John Player Special brand.

Traditionally Honda has worked with the Shell oil company in F1, enjoying enormous success with McLaren between 1988 and 1992. Shell has been involved with Ferrari for the last three seasons but may be frustrated that the Italian company has not achieved as much as had been hoped, despite the best efforts of Michael Schumacher.

The soon-to-be ex-President of Honda Nobuhiko Kawamoto was in Britain last week and we believe that there will soon be an announcement about the F1 program with news of where the racing team will be based. Given the fact that secrecy has been maintained in recent months it is likely that the current operation is being built up inside another Honda facility, most likely at Cricklade, near Swindon.

While the location of Honda's racing factory remains a mystery it is worth noting that there is a complete F1 chassis and engine factory available in Norfolk. The TOM'S GB factory at Hingham was designed for an F1 project by John Barnard but the idea was cancelled. The facility has all the necessary autoclaves and dynamometers for an F1 team. It is also worth noting that while TOM'S is connected with Toyota we have heard stories in recent weeks of a fall-out between the two parties.

Toranosuke Takagi is expected to be one of the Honda drivers with current speculation suggesting that Alex Zanardi will be the team leader. Jacques Villeneuve has also been mentioned.

The F1 program will be part of Honda's expansion plans in Europe. The company last week unveiled an $800m investment in its British facilities with the aim of producing 100,000 new cars a year for the European market.

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