FEBRUARY 23, 2009

Fukui to retire, Honda F1 future unclear

Honda Motor Co has announced that Takeo Fukui is to retire as president and chief executive officer in June. He will be replaced by Takanobu Ito. The 55-year-old joined Honda in 1978 and worked in R&D for much of his career, heading Honda R&D in the Americas from 1998 onwards. He went on to become head of Honda R&D in 2003 and stayed in that position until being appointed chief operating officer of automobile operations in April 2007. He has been the general supervisor of motorsports since April 2004.

The good news for Honda is that he is a motor racing man but given the state of the car markets at the moment it is unlikely that this will change Honda's decision to quit F1. The emphasis will be on technological innovations and more environmentally-friendly vehicles and thus if F1 can provide good value for money and development in this area, Honda could one day return. Thus it makes little sense for the team to be disbanded and the assets sold off. To waste that investment makes no sense and so the idea of a management buyout remains the most likely way forward, with Honda perhaps retaining options to buy the team back when the financial outlook improves. Honda is expected to report profits on March 31 of around $856m, which is a lot lower than forecast but a healthy sum nonetheless.

At the announcement in Japan Fukui said that selling the F1 team has not been easy and that "we have not seen any serious buyer yet".

This being the case, Honda must decide what to do as an engine deal is needed if the team is to go ahead this year. The cost of keeping the team alive is not very different to the cost of closing it down but thus far Honda has baulked at the investment and has been hoping that backing could be found from outside sources. Nick Fry and Ross Brawn have been looking for money but are clearly not accepting support from just anyone as Bernie Ecclestone told the News of the World over the weekend that they had turned down a bid for him to control the team.

The obvious conclusion is that they felt there were better options. Honda wants to avoid closing the team at all costs as this would be a major blow to company prestige and so it has been baulking at paying the bills this year, but this may now be the only option available. That move would buy Fry and Brawn 12 months in which to find money to move the team on, although the budget that would be needed for 2010 is likely to be much lower as cost-cutting measures kick in.