JANUARY 7, 2009

Ferrari is not Honda's only choice

There has been much reporting in the last day or so which suggests that the team formerly known as Honda Racing F1 is close to a deal to use Ferrari engines in 2009. This is not as clear-cut as some of the stories have suggested. Since the agreements made between the F1 teams and the FIA in December, the F1 engine world has become a buyer's market. The FIA plan for standard engines disappeared without trace after the December 11 deadline passed and no-one signed up, suggesting that no-one was ever really interested in the idea and that it was never more than a negotiating tool.

The big manufacturers all have large engine departments, but with even tighter freezing of the engine regulations and a ban on testing during the F1 season, there is going to be a lot of excess production capacity at the factories. And that means that unless new customers are found there may have to be lay-offs, unless the companies concerned can redeploy staff to other roles, such as KERS.

At the moment the F1 engine supply business is led by Ferrari with its 2.4-litre V8s being used by Scuderia Ferrari and by Scuderia Toro Rosso. Last year the engines were also supplied to Force India but there was rarely any indication of this as the Force Indias were slow. The fact that the Silverstone team has since switched to Mercedes-Benz suggests that it was not happy.

Renault supplies its own team and Red Bull Racing but has already made significant cuts to its programmes, which led to a significant cut in staff at Viry-Chatillon last summer. The cutbacks also probably contributed to Mecachrome being forced to seek legal protection from its creditors.

Toyota supplies engines for itself and for Williams, which leaves BMW Sauber as the only organisation without a customer at the moment as Honda has decided to close down its engine operations completely.

It is worth noting that the teams that lobbied the FIA for equalising engine performance last autumn were Renault and Honda, which suggests that the Japanese V8 was probably not very good, a fact borne out by the qualifying results at Monza - where horsepower is of key importance. The Hondas were nowhere, while the comparison between Scuderia Toro Rosso and Red Bull Racing - which used the same chassis - gave a clear indication that the Renault was well down on the levels of horsepower that Ferrari enjoyed.

Having said that, at the fast tracks Lewis Hamilton was always quick with his McLaren-Mercedes. Heikki Kovalainen was slower but he seemed to be underperforming on a regular basis.

Toyota and BMW both had acceptable horsepower levels but it was clear that the fight for the best engine was only ever between McLaren and Ferrari. It is worth noting that engine insiders say that the Mercedes was the better engine because at the end of 2006 the team picked up a lot of people from Cosworth, which was generally agreed to have had the best engine in 2006. Williams left the Northampton firm because there was a better financial deal on offer from Toyota.

Some sources towards the end last year reckoned that the Mercedes V8 was producing as much as 25hp more than the Ferrari.

Therefore it is safe to assume that the team formerly known as Honda Racing F1 will be beating a path not only to Maranello, but also to Brixworth.