SEPTEMBER 18, 2001
The Honda Way
IF you ask around the Formula 1 paddock about the successes and failures of the 2001 season, it is not long before you hear someone say that Honda has been the big disappointment. It is easy to understand why the critics think this way. Honda was a completely dominant force in Grand Prix racing in the late 1980s when the company's engines powered the cars which won six consecutive Constructors' titles between 1986 and 1991: two with Williams and four with McLaren.
It was inevitable that there would be high expectations when Honda decided to return in an official capacity at the start of last year with British American Racing. This was a pretty poor effort in comparison to Honda's immediate rival BMW. The Williams-BMW team finished third in the Constructors' title with 36 points. BAR-Honda finished fifth with 20. Honda knew that it had to do something to improve matters and so hedged its bets by agreeing a deal to this year supply Jordan Grand Prix with identical engines to those used by BAR.
And here we are with two races to go in 2001 and BMW Williams is thundering up to McLaren in the battle for second place in the Constructors' title with 73 points. BAR has 17 and Jordan 16. If you add the points of the two Honda teams together and double it, it is still not the same as BMW Williams. Embarrassing though that may be, there is no getting away from that fact.
The Honda men applaud BMW's achievement because there is nothing else they can do. They work hard. In fact they work themselves to the limit. And they have enormous resources and yet they are still being beaten. It is impossible to say whether this is down to the engines or whether the cars must take the blame. The relative performance between Sauber and Prost - which both use the same Ferrari engines - shows that the team can make a big difference and the fact that Jarno Trulli can qualify fifth at an engine circuit like Monza (albeit a second off the pace) would seem to indicate that something is right but if the potential of the engine is being wasted by the teams then Honda should be doing something about it - and there are no signs that there will be much in the way of change next year.
Many in Formula 1 argue that the Honda policy in F1 is wrong - but that is to see it in isolation from the main company and its roots and traditions. Honda argues that the critics must look at its engagement in the sport in a totally different light. F1 people say that Honda needs to get a grip on its sporting programs and stop using a scattergun approach. If all the engineers were concentrated on the F1 program rather than messing about with CART and F1, things might be different. There is also an argument that there should only be one team in F1.
These are all sound arguments but Honda people argue that the company's culture is based on taking risks and sometimes failing and that the fact that the company is doing as much as it is in sport is a sign of its ambition rather than its mismanagement. They call it "The Honda Way".
The Honda engineers believe that in the end they will win not just in Formula 1 but also in CART. In doing so they will prove what they believe: that they are the best. They know that Formula 1 these days is not easy. Renault has also had its years of domination and is coming back looking for more. Mercedes-Benz and Ferrari are not planning to slip backwards. Ford has great hopes for Jaguar (and very nice little engines) and Toyota has big ambitions. Things are not going to get any easier. In fact they are certain to get tougher.
Honda men have always had big ideas - and often they have achieved what they set out to do. There is no argument that if they can do that then they deserve all the plaudits they will get.
The question is whether they can.
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