MAY 26, 2001

Do Sato and Panis hold the key for Honda?

THE Japanese revival in Formula 1 is coming to the boil as Honda weighs up its options for 2003.

THE Japanese revival in Formula 1 is coming to the boil as Honda weighs up its options for 2003. Currently supplying both Jordan and British American Racing, the Japanese giant must decide whether to continue its policy of supplying two teams or to focus all its efforts on one outfit.

The benefits of supplying two competitive, points scoring teams can largely be measured in miles - as the split effort allows for double the opportunities to test and race its fast, if seemingly frail, V10. Both teams are also working hard to ensure the promotion of the Honda brand is maximized and the spirit of competition between them to shine in the eyes of the money men at Honda.

Yet Honda is also aware that it is only through single-mindedness that Mercedes-Benz and BMW have been able to meet the challenge posed by the dominant Ferrari team and as it goes hungrily about finding success Honda may yet be forced to concede that the German way of doing things is perhaps the better.

BAR has seemingly established stronger links with its engine partner by virtue of a full year's head start in its relationship, and incorporates the input of Honda technicians as it develops the entire package. It also has a world famous name in the form of Jacques Villeneuve. Jordan meanwhile is dedicated to the Honda cause, even putting its name to an entry in Honda's one- make powerboat championship. It is also shown capable of getting in amongst the Ferraris and McLarens in outright pace, and is even within striking distance of race-winning Williams in the constructors' table, which currently holds that cherished 'best of the rest' slot behind Ferrari and McLaren.

If anything is to sway that decision it has to be in the driver market, as Honda has placed great importance on seeing a Japanese driver be promoted to the top flight. As Formula 1 enjoys its classic street race in Monaco the fate of Jordan and BAR could well be nudged along by its junior stablemate, the Pau Formula 3 race, where the leaders of Europe's three most influential junior series' go head-to-head in an all-Japanese shootout.

Current points leader in Britain is Carlin Motorsport driver Takuma Sato. Carlin is the BAR junior team, boasting Sato and Anthony Davidson - both of them nominated test drivers for the Brackley- based Formula 1 team. Sato will face German F3's points leader Toshihiro Kaneishi and Ryo Fukuda, the French F3 pacesetter so far this season, and should he emerge victorious will see his stock rise ever-higher with the men from Honda.

Of Honda's two teams Jordan looks the more likely to find space for Sato, with Jarno Trulli's time 'on loan' to Jordan from his manager, Flavio Briatore, coming to an end and Briatore known to be keen to have the man from Pescara in his own Renault Sport team in 2002. Eddie Jordan has professed himself to be a big fan of current test driver Ricardo Zonta, but in the hard light of commercial reality the Brazilian - exiled from BAR after two years - may yet see a potential comeback slip from his grasp.

BAR meanwhile has seen its main thrust come not from Villeneuve but instead Frenchman Olivier Panis, returning to race duties after a year testing for McLaren. Panis has a year to run on his contract with BAR but might leave the team if an offer came along from McLaren. This is only likely to happen if Mika Hakkinen decides to retire - and that does not look likely.