I noticed a recent poll on ITVs F1 website which asks a question that usually gets asked at this time of year: Can Honda challenge the big guns in 2007 and win regularly? To be honest, the question is usually answered already by Honda themselves, as the hyping-up of the Japanese teams potential success in the pre-season has become a tradition of Winter Testing. This year though, Honda have remained a little more conservative, and it is this lack of hyping that has caught the interest of the media and the fans alike.
So, despite Honda’s lack of hyping, can they win the 2007 crown?
To answer this question, I feel new fans of Formula One will need a little background information. For those who are well-versed in the ups and downs of the Brackley based team, just skip down to the part titled, “Well, can they?”.
Honda were previously known as BAR (British American Racing), and the team was initiated into Formula One in 1999 after tobacco giant BAT bought the remains of the Tyrrell team. This was at a time when tobacco sponsorship was still considered acceptable (just about) and the team seemed to be flush with cash. This was evident after the 1997 World Champion Jacques Villeneuve joined the team after his difficult post-title-winning year in 1998, complimenting his mentor and team boss Craig Pollock.
The team signed up re-badged Renault engines Supertec as an engine partner, and generally speaking, the squad looked like a well-run and well-managed operation that would surely climb the ranks of Formula One and find success in about five or so years. BAR, however, had other ideas. It was stated in the press by a high-ranking member of the team that BAR would win their first race –
quite one helluva statement that as I’m sure you can imagine, caused quite a stir in the paddock.
Testing went okay for the new team, and Jacques seemed buoyant at his new home. However, things didn’t go quite as well as they would have hoped for, and needless to say, their first season went winless. In fact, BARs first year in Formula One went pointless. Humble pie was plentiful that year in the BAR motorhome. The only good thing that came from 1999 was the signing of Honda to replace the aging Supertec units on the engine front.
The following years went by with similar success, with each hyping ending in anti-climax and disappointment. It seemed as though BAR just couldn’t find the formula to take the car to the chequered flag in first position. Jacques’ reputation took quite a battering, and many people were left thinking that he had lost his edge – a skill that once marked him out as a great racer back in 1996.
After re-structuring the managment countless times, and after so many political issues and in-fighting, the team needed re-direction. They brought Jenson Button on board after his great debut year with Williams and crushing of other team mates since, and despite the initial clash between the Briton and Villeneuve, Jenson settled into the team well during the 2003 season. He also gave Jacques a run for his money, and it wasn’t long before Villeneuve felt the pressure.
In 2004, Jacques bowed out of the team, slagging them off in the process and burning a bridge that he may well regret as I type this. The team were admidst a purchase from the Honda Motor Company, and things, at last, seemed to be taking a turn for the better. Tobacco sponsorship became a target by well-living high-powered executives and was given a final date for being outlawed. BAT saw the writing on the wall and allowed Honda to take over the squad. They finally built a half decent motor and Jenson powered it to second place in the 2004 constructors championship, despite not actually winning a race. Button gave promise to BAR, and the pace of the 2004 car shocked everybody, including the team themselves. As did Button’s yearning to drive for Williams, and if BAR hadn’t taken the issue to the Contract Recognition Board, the young Briton would not have been driving Honda this year or last year. Now though, it should be pointed out, Jenson seems happy at Honda.
Therefore, pre-2005, the hyping went into overdrive and Jenson was undoubtedly on the verge of crushing Ferrari’s might and taking the title from the the Scuderia. Unfortunately, it wasn’t to be, and the ’05 car looked like a sick dog in comparison to the reformed Renault team and young whipper-snapper Fernando Alonso. Renault creamed the field that year, and BAR said goodbye to Formula One after a humiliating defeat. Jenson could only manage ninth place, with the team finishing in sixth.
2006 was to be the re-build year. The year where they got back on their feet, and ensured they remained firmly on the ground. The car was better – not incredible – but better. The team partnered Jenson with ex-Ferrari number two and proven race winner Rubens Barrichello, and initial statements read something like, “This is the strongest driver line up the team has ever had.” Things were on the up again. Barrichello took most of the season to settle into the team, but after his initial transferrance issues, drove relatively well. Button took his and the teams maiden win in Hungary, and everything and everyone was rosey in the Honda garage.
And so we come to 2007. Well, Can They?
The poll on ITVs website is currently 50.31% yay, and 49.69% nay, from a total of 1749 votes. Is this a fair assessment of peoples expectations of the Honda? Is this a fair expectation of Honda on their own team? Probably yes in both cases. Honda seem to have trouble in maintaining development over the Winter season. They build a great car, let it run its course through the season, and then completely re-build the thing over the Winter, starting again from scratch. While that is probably a slight exaggeration, it is certainly how it looks from the outside. But if Honda continues with the 2006 car (which had reasonable pace) and just develop it rather than throw the blueprints in the bin, they may have a chance at claiming more victories next year. Jenson has finally won – and this is a big hurdle – and Rubens can win. The team have continued their drivers over for at least another year – something Frank Williams has always said helped him in his championship winning days – and Honda have prior experience of Bridgestone rubber, unlike two of their three primary rivals Renault and McLaren. Ferrari have run on Bridgestones since the tyre supplier came to Formula One.
Speaking of rivals, 2007 will be a year of capitalising on others initial misfortune. McLaren have a big challenge, partnering reigning champion Alonso with rookie Lewis Hamilton, and it will be a tough job for all concerned. They have also lost the talent of Adrian Newey in the design department and although they should run well, they very easily could not. Ferrari have lost Michael Schumacher, and while they’ve gained Kimi Raikkonen, the team is currently going through a major upheavel of management, with Ross Brawn taking a year out (at minimum) and Paulo Martinelli moving away from the engine management side of things. Renault – it has to be said – look weak as well. Ferrari were close to the Anglo-French team in late 2006, and with Alonso’s defection, they are solely relying on Giancarlo Fisichella to produce the goods, as new-boy Heikki Kovalainen will find his maiden season a steep learning curve.
If Honda can produce a decent car, and if they can run their cars well in races and resist the temptation to balls up the pit stops, then they may have a solid chance this upcoming year. The ifs are quite big, and I think it will need some bad luck from the other teams to give Honda the initial boost at the start of the season, but they could do it.
Of course, they could also mess up their race strategy as they have done many times in the past and let everyone else trounce all over them.
What do you think? Do you agree with ITV-F1 voters? Do you think I am being fair on Honda? Or will Honda completely annihilate the entire grid in a 1998-McLaren-style bashing? Have your say…