F1: Can a phoenix rise from Honda’s ashes?

By LJ Hutchins

CalendarTuesday, December 9th, 2008

 
 

Now the dust has settled on the news that the Honda management had been busily digging an exit tunnel out of F1, how are things looking for the team and for its British driver Jenson Button?

We’ve learned that the manufacturer has given team principal Nick Fry and technical supremo Ross Brawn until the end of the year to find a buyer, otherwise the Brackley-based outfit will be closed with the loss of around 600 jobs.

It wasn’t just fans caught out by the suddenness of the decision. Fry, in an interview shortly after the announcement was made, said he felt “a real, deep, from-the-stomach feeling of sickness, and a feeling of huge disappointment and anger that this had happened to us.

“Ross, especially, was very upset from the point of view that we are so near but yet so far.”

Can the removal vans be kept from the door at Brackley?

Can the removal vans be kept from the door at Brackley?

The duo, two of the sharpest operators in F1, have rolled up their sleeves and set to work to save the Brackley operation. Brawn was able to work his contacts, at Ferrari and elsewhere in the paddock, to ensure the team would have a supply of engines whether or not Honda continued to manufacture them.

But, however talented the people and exceptional the facilities on offer, it has to be admitted that they are facing a painfully tall order in finding a buyer under the present economic circumstances.

And the team, recognising that, is said to be prepared to release Button if he manages to secure another drive. Inevitably he has been linked with Toro Rosso (along with any other unemployed F1 driver or young hopeful you care to name).

Apparently the pull-out wasn’t a topic of conversation when Jenson Button went to Honda’s Motegi circuit in Japan at the end of November for a fan event – something that has reportedly left the driver feeling distinctly irritated.

So, who is rumoured to be interested in this unique opportunity to enter top-flight motorsport in a potentially winning position?

Dubai Investment Capital is the cash behind the Magma Group that briefly looked into buying Super Aguri earlier this year and also recently bought out both The Tussauds Group and the Travelodge hotel chain. It has a stake in Daimler but failed in a recent bid to acquire Liverpool Football Club.

Trevor Carlin, boss of the successful Carlin Motorsport outfit that won this year’s British F3 International championship, is also said to be in the game.

Other names that have been mentioned include the manufacturer Peugeot/Citroen, a rival to Renault for road car sales. Peugeot has been competing with some success in sports cars including the 24 Hours of Le Mans and its various spin-off series.

Button, meanwhile, has maintained his unshakeable optimism in the face of the announcement. After initially admitting that he was as shocked as anyone else at the team’s Oxfordshire base to hear the news, he raillied and now says he’s confident that the team will continue.

He told BBC Sport: “With the team and the attitude we have I can’t believe there is not anyone interested in buying it and helping us out. The team are working their backsides off to produce a great car for 2009.”

One name that keeps being mentioned in connection with its future is that of David Richards, the Prodrive boss who was set to enter F1 on his own account in 2007 until a row about customer cars torpedoed his plans.

On one hand, he’s an obvious candidate – perhaps too obvious, given his earlier association with BAR. And it’s very possible that the ill-feeling generated between him and Jenson Button over the latter’s 2005 attempt to switch teams has not entirely dissipated.

On the other hand, he has his hands full trying to bring back the golden days of Subaru rallying success, something he pledged to do after the collapse of his 2007 F1 bid, as well as running Aston Martin subsequent to fronting a Kuwati buy-out of the sports car marque from Ford.

Richards is, in his own words, keeping an open mind. He has said of the situation: “I want to know all the facts, first of all. I want to know the exact lie of the land before I commit myself to anything.

“It’s all very well making the commitment to buy because I don’t think that will be too onerous. The real issue is to make sure that you have the resources to sustain it for the foreseeable future.”

And what of the other teams? Well, Toyota has been quick to deny that it will be the next manufacturer to follow Honda out the door, issuing a statement that through its careful use of the words “current commitment” has left wriggle room for the conspiracy theorists in the audience.

Williams, bless them, who benefit from Toyota engines and are believed to have spent their considerable reserves over the last year or two, issued the following statement: “We are unequivocally committed to F1. Unlike many of our competitors who are owned by carmakers, for us the consideration to stay involved is superfluous, as we only exist to race.”

The Big Three and associated manufacturers (Ferrari/Fiat, McLaren Mercedes and BMW Sauber) rushed to give assurances that they were swimming not sinking while both Force India and the Red Bull/Toro Rosso axis have their tame billionaires to ward off the cold drafts of economic hardship.

Dietrich Mateschitz has reportedly said that it would make no sense for him to pull out of F1 given the money he has committed, but added that he would welcome cost-cutting measures.

Of course, attentive readers will note one glaring omission among this lot. As has already been observed by several commentators, Renault has not joined the rush to reassure supporters of its continued involvement with quite the enthusiasm of the others.

Long thought to be one of the more vulnerable manufacturers, the company’s bosses are failing to see the business case for having double world champion Fernando Alonso trailing round in the back half of the field. Though the later races of 2008 gave cause for hope and, if Peugeot/Citroen came in, the situation might change dramatically.

Alonso himself would probably take the record for the shortest ever period of time spent out of work by any member of F1 personnel.

Something that Jenson Button, sad fact though it is, won’t be able to claim.

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