Japanese car giant Honda confirmed its withdrawal from Formula One this morning, becoming the first in what could turn into a chain of falling dominoes that would change the face of the sport.
Team boss Nick Fry said he was talking to three serious potential buyers for the outfit, but FIA president Max Mosley warned the decision to pull out could be followed by other manufacturers, saying the prospect “seems likely”.
F1 observers suggest Toyota’s continued participation is in doubt, given today’s disappearance of its main commercial rival and its relative lack of success despite major investment. This would, in turn, create problems for the underfunded Williams, which relies on Toyota engines.
However, Mosley chose the immediate aftermath of the Honda announcement this morning to outline more details of his low-budget engine plan, revealing the terms of a deal he is in the process of striking with long-term F1 engine partner Cosworth.
The cost to teams will vary depending on how many sign up to the plan, which is for a full power train including transmissions, but if four sign up then the annual charge for a three-year deal will be just £5.49m, with an upfront fee of £1.68m – pocket money by today’s F1 standards.
Teams that don’t want to join in the deal may either build their own licenced versions of the Cosworth engine, or adapt their existing units so they match its performance.
In a statement, the FIA said: “The announcement of Honda’s intended withdrawal from Formula One has confirmed the FIA’s longstanding concern that the cost of competing in the World Championship is unsustainable. In the FIA’s view, the global economic downturn has only exacerbated an already critical situation.
“As the guardians of the sport, the FIA is committed to working with the commercial rights holder and the remaining members of FOTA to ensure that Formula One becomes financially sustainable.”
Honda’s announcement today followed hours of frenzied rumours triggered by a wave of job applications from Honda staff to the other teams.
CEO Takeo Fukui told a press conference this morning: “Honda must protect its core business activities and secure the long term as widespread uncertainties in the economies around the globe continue to mount. A recovery is expected to take some time.
“Under these circumstances, Honda has taken swift and flexible measures to counter this sudden and expansive weakening of the marketplace in all business areas.
“However, in recognition of the need to optimise the allocation of management resources, including investment regarding the future, we have decided to withdraw from Formula One participation.”
He thanked the team’s fans for their support over the years: “Surmounting many challenges, the Honda Team achieved a grand prix victory in 2006, enabling Honda to receive overwhelming support from Honda fans around the world that were looking forward to greater success.
“It, therefore, has been an extremely difficult decision for us to come to this conclusion without having been able to fully meet the expectations of our fans.
“We would like to take this opportunity to sincerely thank our fans and all those who have supported Honda’s Formula One efforts.”
As expected, Honda announced there would be a short window before the team was shut down during which attempts would be made to sell it as a going concern.
Team bosses Nick Fry and Ross Brawn are leading the efforts to find a buyer, with Brawn thought to be engaged in nailing down a supply of Ferrari engines from his old employers after that team’s partnership with Force India ended.
Fry believes British driver Jenson Button is one of the assets that might make the team attractive to potential buyers: “Jenson has a contract with the team and if we can find new owners then we are hopeful he will continue. He has been very much an integral part of the team for quite a few years now and he is a fantastic driver and a big asset to the team, which hopefully make the team even more attractive.”
In words unpleasantly reminiscent of the struggles undergone last year by Honda offshoot Super Aguri, he said he was hoping the team would be on the grid for the first race of next season.
He said: “We have only had a short amount of time but in the last 12 hours we’ve had three serious people come to us suggesting they would like to buy the team, so we are still hoping to be there in Melbourne,
“This is a completely different situation from prior Formula One teams stopping, this team is one of the best funded, it has the best assets, the best resources in the pitlane with a fantastic group of people with a car designed by Ross Brawn. I think we are a quite a desirable asset for somebody.”