DECEMBER 23, 2001
UNDERSTANDING the motives of the Honda Motor Company in Formula 1 has never been easy. The Japanese manufacturer often consciously goes against conventional F1 logic - even if people within its hierarchy know that by doing so it will make life difficult for itself. Creating problems has always been part of the Honda heritage. The company founder Soichiro Honda started out building motorcycles before diversifying into trucks and sports cars. To learn and to attract publicity Honda launched the new car company into Formula 1 in 1964. The program went against all conventional logic and chose a little-known American racer named Ronnie Bucknum to be its F1 driver. The logic in this move was that hiring a star would result in the driver taking most of the credit for any success and it was better to hire an unknown. If everything went wrong he could take the blame and if the program was successful Honda could take the glory.
The current approach in F1 seems to be rather similar in approach. In this program (Honda's third) the company is trying to achieve more than simply victory as an engine manufacturer. The company is sending an increasing number of engineers to BAR and to Jordan to learn about F1 chassis technologies. This will eventually result in Honda being in a position to go its own way with its own factory team. The company says that it has no plans as such but the acquisition of expertise is a sure sign that Honda will one day be in a position to take that route - if it chooses to do so. Honda's bitter rival Toyota is approaching F1 with a rather more blunt approach. It is going full steam ahead at the sport with a willingness to learn from mistakes and not be put off by the bad publicity. That is likely to be a painful experience for Toyota and Honda's current approach seems a little more logical.
The advantages of being with the midfield teams are that if the company does eventually enjoy some success it will take all the glory. When in partnership with a team like McLaren or Williams the Japanese have to share the success and only real gain the recognition of being an engine manufacturer. The company does not get the knowledge and the reputation of being good at building chassis.
It also gives Honda a perfect excuse if the program is not very successful. At the moment no-one is quite sure whether or not Honda's lack of success is due to the engine or the cars. The teams will (and do) say that their chassis are competitive and that the engines are not perhaps what they should be. Honda will suggest (diplomatically) that with a top team perhaps the engines would be successful. No-one knows for certain.
Honda's decision to go on with its association with two teams for another two years (at least) thus makes rather more logic than at first appears to be the case. Nothing in F1 is ever sure but this way Honda is learning without being seen to be making mistakes; it is lulling the opposition (mainly Toyota) into a false sense of security and the damage it is doing to itself is minimal. Neither BAR nor Jordan look at the moment as though they are teams which are going to be in a position to win in the short-term so any success that does come along will be a bonus.
Honda will have a completely new engine in 2002 and our spies tell us that this is rather more unconventional that some of the rival units. It is a typical Honda response to the problem.
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