How Honda got 2007 so horrendously wrong is quite simply beyond belief. This time last year, most of us knew and had accepted that the RA107 wasn’t going to be a great car, but I don’t think many of us expected the junior team to wipe the floor with the factory team for most of the season. The fact that Super Aguri led Honda in the championships right up until the Chinese Grand Prix should serve as serious embarrassment for the Japanese car company. Honda absolutely have to improve and return themselves to the regular point-scorers they once were. Failure to achieve this could spell disaster for the future of the team.
So how have Honda gone about this change? Well, they’ve managed two major positives over the winter, that being the employment of Ross Brawn and Alex Wurz. Ferrari’s former technical director has become known as one of the sport’s more astute individuals, helping Michael Schumacher to many of his titles. However, after a decade at Maranello, Brawn took a year out and then decided to leave to become the team principal at Honda.
In the short time Ross has been in charge he has stated many times over that he is impressed with the morale of the team, the resources they have and the general working environment. Ross has stated that while picking up the pieces will take a long time, the actual job shouldn’t be that hard. Brawn has said that he will take everything slowly at Brackley, and will only make changes on a one-by-one basis. It was also announced that Ross wouldn’t be seen on the pitwall deciding strategies as much as he once was at Ferrari. It will interesting to see if this decision is one Brawn will come to regret, or if it was a wise move made with a lot of foresight.
Both drivers from 2007 have been retained, with Jenson Button and Rubens Barrichello stating their happiness at Honda and hoping to see further extensions to their contracts. Although it should be noted, these words of encouragement from the drivers were only voiced after Ross Brawn was announced as team boss.
Jenson Button, prior to 2008, was very critical of the RA107, stating on live television in Brazil that he was happy to see the back of the car following his retirement from the race. It was his words said in Brazil that pretty much summed up his 2007 campaign, with just a measly six points in comparison to Button’s 2006 haul of 56. But Jenson has managed to turn his morale around and after Brawn was announced he returned to testing with a smile on his face. At the launch of the RA108 Button was upbeat, telling reporters he’d been working his backside off in Lanzarote to ensure he is as fit as possible for the new season.
Unfortunately for Rubens Barrichello, while Button’s 2007 campaign looked shockingly poor, Barrichello’s was actually worse. The most experienced driver on the Formula One grid endured his first point-less year with the RA107, the Brazilian driver also pleased to see the back of the car at his home grand prix, like Jenson, also after retiring from the race.
Rumours started to circulate late last year about Barrichello’s long term future with Honda, and because of his age, therefore the sport. While Rubens is the most experienced driver, he should surpass Patrese’s record of 256 starts this year, the Brazilian is still motivated and the addition of Brawn the team was likely to be key for Rubens’s contract renewal. Brawn and Barrichello worked together at Ferrari and the Briton probably helped Rubens in each and every win of his. Brawn was open about his affection for Barrichello, stating early on that he wanted the Brazilian to stay. Sure enough, a contract was soon signed and the Brackley team have continuity into 2008 which should help them with the development and stability of the chassis and team.
The appointing of Brawn was one of two key moves over the winter. The second good decision was acquiring the testing skills of Alex Wurz. The Austrian driver who first arrived on the Formula One scene in 1998 has just retired from competitive driving after a difficult, but not terrible season with Williams. However, while Alex isn’t perhaps the greatest of racers, he is quite possibly the finest test driver in the business at the moment. Only Pedro De La Rosa or Luca Badoer could challenge Wurz for this title, and Honda have done well in getting his name on a contract.
While Alex hasn’t spent a great deal of time in the new RA108, this is likely because it has already been built and ultimately, Wurz won’t be able to do too much that will affect its abilities. Instead Wurz has taken the time to acclimatise himself to Honda and has put in a fair few laps in the old RA107. One gets the impression that Alex has adopted the methodical approach of knowing what the problem is before attempting to solve it. Seeing how the RA108 develops over the year into the RA109 is going to be very interesting indeed.
Could it be any worse than last year’s? Well, yes it could. But with an increase of key people working hard at re-establishing Honda as winners, I don’t think the car will go any further backwards. Stability in the rules will also help, with only relatively minor changes made between ’07 and ’08. How much of an improvement is made though is a very different kettle of fish, particularly as many teams surrounding Honda in the championship finished well last time around.
Testing hasn’t exactly gone well for the team, so far. In fact, the RA108 has spent most of the time nearer the bottom of the timing sheets than the top. However, testing should always be taken with a grain of salt and the times set are done so without knowledge of fuel levels, set up or intention. What is clear from the drivers quotes is that the car isn’t superb and 2008 will be a year of difficulties for the squad. However, with the right people working on the right things the performance should improve during the season and the realistic aim is a return to the top of the midfield.
Another year of struggles, but the light at end of the tunnel should become brighter. Both drivers will score points with an outside chance of a podium if everything aligns correctly. Rubens will challenge Jenson more and they should finish ahead of Scuderia Toro Rosso and Toyota.