DECEMBER 23, 2003
Review of the Year: 5th - Lucky Strike BAR Honda
British American Racing was one of the four teams involved in the battle for fifth place in the Constructors' Championship and the fact that the team emerged ahead of Sauber, Jaguar Racing and Toyota is an indication that progress was being made. The team achieved this despite the fact that it was obviously handicapped by its Bridgestone tires.
The season ended with the decision to switch to Michelins in 2004 - a logical choice if politically-complicated. The first tests on the French tires left the team cock-a-hoop with excitement as the lap times came down by more than one second. At the same time the new 2004 Honda engine was a lot more powerful.
In many respects 2003 was an uncomfortable year for the team because Jacques Villeneuve remained, a symbol of the old regime at BAR. The team was frustrated that it had to spend so much money on his salary (a deal agreed before the David Richards takeover of the team) and was not happy that his performance was not significantly better than that of new recruit Jenson Button. Button ended up with 17 points to his name; Villeneuve got six and Takuma Sato, who came in to replace Villeneuve at Suzuka, picked up three with an impressive sixth place in Japan.
Villeneuve did suffer far too many mechanical failures in the course of the year, which led to considerable frustration on his part, but it is fair to say that his relationship with the new BAR seemed to be doomed from the start. With Takuma Sato sitting quietly in the wings, BAR had the whip hand in negotiations, something which Villeneuve's management did not seem to appreciate. If Jacques is now out of F1, it is because he and Craig Pollock did not read the signs correctly. Times are changing.
The BAR-Honda 005 was the first to be built by Geoff Willis's new technical team and it was a much better car than previous versions. Willis comes from the Patrick Head no-nonsense school of engineering at Williams and so the emphasis was on pure performance and no frills. Honda had a new team of engineers in place as well and although their work will not be fully felt until 2004, there were signs that Honda is climbing back up the F1 mountain.
The 2003 engines were very powerful but they were not reliable and they had a center of gravity which was rather too high. Reliability was such a problem in Australia that the team took the decision to fit older spec engines after an embarrassing series of failures on Friday and Saturday morning. As the year went on the package improved and perhaps most importantly the links between Honda and BAR were strengthened with engineers at Honda Research & Development in Japan becoming more and more involved in the design of the suspension, structures and electronics of the car. Much of the work was in the form of calculation and simulation with the data being used by BAR designers to build the car. Honda strengthened its team with the hiring of former Sauber technical director Leo Ress to help the company with its Formula 1 chassis research and development programs.
As the year went on Willis concluded that he needed to streamline the technical team a little more and so appointed Gary Savage as Deputy Technical Director. Savage took over the day-to-day running of the design and test programs, freeing up Willis to concentrate on racing the car. The problem with the car's high center of gravity could not be designed out in 2003. The new engine is lower and lighter. With Michelin tires as well, it is safe to say that BAR will be mounting a much stronger challenge next year.
When he joined the team David Richards laid out his plans for the team over the next five years and at the moment things are going to plan. Now BAR must break through and challenge for podiums and perhaps the occasional win.
Button has risen in stature during the year, having had a less than easy time at Renault in 2002 (not unusual for a driver who is not wanted in a team). Everyone was interested to see how Jenson would cope with Villeneuve and he did well. The relationship started badly with Villeneuve mouthing off about having no respect for his team mate and then in Melbourne Jacques pitted in front of Button and caused the Englishman to be seriously delayed. Villeneuve said that he had not heard his radio but there were indications from within the team that there was nothing wrong with the equipment. What was significant was that by the end of the race Button was right back behind Villeneuve again, a clear sign that he had more speed than Jacques. There followed a series of unpleasant public exchanges between the two men which indicated that the partnership was never going to be a very happy one but towards the end of the year Villeneuve had the good grace to accept that he had gained some respect for Button.
Button's season was all the more impressive given that he had to overcome a huge crash in Monte Carlo but by the midsummer he was picking up points again, despite the problems with Bridgestone.
Some say that Sato is not good enough to ever be amongst the top drivers in F1 but in Suzuka he drove like a future champion. It will be interesting to see how things develop in 2004.
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