OCTOBER 5, 2001
Just how much is Honda calling the tune for Jordan Grand Prix?
The Jordan F1 team says that there is no pressure whatsoever from Honda to sign up the 24-year old Japanese driver Takuma Sato as Giancarlo Fisichella's team-mate in 2002.
Honda may not be calling the shots with its two F1 partners, Jordan and BAR, but it's hard to avoid the conclusion that it regularly sends strong subliminal messages to both of them. That is Honda's way. Even when they were partnered with the World Championship winning Williams and McLaren squads, they were very much in the driving seat.
In 1986 after Frank Williams's road accident left him paralyzed and in a wheelchair, their acute concern about the management of Williams GP Engineering led them to terminate the engine supply deal at the end of the following year ('87) - a year before it was due to expire. Honda's heavy-handedness brought the team briefly to its knees. Their decision to part company with Frank was also strengthened when Williams - quite rightly - declined their invitation to partner Nigel Mansell with Satoru Nakajima in 1988.
It wasn't much different with McLaren, either, although Ron Dennis prepared himself well by boning up on how to deal with Japanese etiquette and character. That at least taught him to bite his tongue and let McLaren take it on the chin for any short-term performance deficit - even though it was often obvious that Honda's engine development ( or lack of it) was the real culprit. Ayrton Senna, however, was less inhibited and would occasionally give Honda personnel a severe dressing down if he believed they were falling down on the job.
Jordan may or may not have learned from his rivals' experiences. What is now clear is that he's aiming for the big time and the first step along that road is to ensure that BAR don't get Honda engines beyond the start of 2003. Jordan wants exclusivity as his team pushes to close the gap to Ferrari, McLaren and Williams at the sharp end of the grid.
"Our long term strategy is to get ourselves out of F1's second division and chase a place in the first division," said Ian Phillips, Jordan's Director of Business Affairs. "Historically, such progress has always been made in conjunction with an exclusive engine supply deal."
Phillips admitted that Honda was "very keen" to see Sato in F1, but had exerted no pressure on the selection process. He added; "We have three drivers still under consideration. Jean Alesi, Justin Wilson and Sato."
However, insiders believe that Sato is the favorite and that the hugely talented Wilson, who tested again for the team at Mugello last week, will be written out of the equation due to his height and the consequent cockpit packaging problems that will involve.