** Since this article was written, Honda has unexpectedly announced its complete withdrawal from F1. For the latest stories on this subject, please click here.
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Honda team principal Ross Brawn has blocked speculation about his team’s activities on the driver market by confirming it will retain Jenson Button and Rubens Barrichello for the 2009 season.
Rumours had begun to grow linking the Brackley-based team with a move for Renault’s double world champion Fernando Alonso, but Brawn used a Q&A session with the Formula One website to insist the team’s priority was getting the car right.
He admitted giving some thought to drivers, but it was clear from his answers he believes the benefits available from building a better car vastly outweigh any possible gains from changing who sits in it.
He said: “Our priority is to sort the car out because we believe, with the drivers we have, if we produce a good car then they can produce from their side. So we are not looking at anything major on the driver side. Our main priority is the car.”
Asked directly if that meant the team would field the same two drivers in 2009, he simply answered “yes”.
This means another season for Barrichello – already the most experienced driver in F1 history – and Button, who has been distinctly anonymous for most of this year. But it also represents a disappointment for ambitious GP2 driver Mike Conway, who is a member of Honda’s driver development programme.
Brawn said Honda’s efforts are currently being focused on next year’s car and on improving the team’s organisation. There will be very little more work on this year’s car, but he does want to work on improving he team’s dismal recent form in qualifying – in fact, he seemed to admit that he had underestimated the importance of it.
He said: “We seem to be a little bit more competitive in the race configuration than we are in qualifying configuration. I have to be frank – we don’t fully understand it.
“Possibly we need to focus a bit more on qualifying in testing and other areas, because I have come from a team where qualifying was never the vital thing, as the vital thing was always to be good in the race.”
But, overall, he sees clear signs of the positive future that Button is enthusiastically predicting: “The car is not as competitive as we obviously want, but I see a lot of reasons to be optimistic with the team. I have seen the team move forward a long way.
“I could come along and explain that Ferrari was not doing one thing exceptionally well – it was doing everything exceptionally well that makes the difference. Some people think that there is a magic bullet to winning in Formula One – it does not exist. It is just a very high level of effort and a hell of a quality in every area.”