BAR were the revelation of 2004. When the all-conquering Ferraris left the opposition behind, the Brackley outfit stepped forward as the only team able to consistently run at something approaching the pace of the leaders.
And while Renault, McLaren and Williams were each able to pinch token victories, it was BAR who deservedly took the “best of the rest” spot come the season’s end. But what does 2005 have in store for them?
It has taken five years for BAR to turn around from being the under-performing laughing stock of 1999, with not a championship point to their name, to regular podium contenders. And much of the credit for the turnaround belongs to David Richards, who ousted the hapless Craig Pollock at the end of the 2001 season.
Yet, astonishingly, on November 19th, 2004 David Richards announced that Honda would purchase 45% of BAR and he would leave the team. His replacement would be Nick Fry, Richards’ former right-hand man. The popularity of Richards within the team and the suddenness of the departure lends weight to suggestions that all is not well at BAR, and their high of 2004 may prove to be a one-off.
What makes this argument more persuasive is Jenson Button’s attempt to jump the BAR ship for 2005. On August 4th, 2004 he signed a three-year contract with Williams on the understanding that BAR had failed to take up their option on him for 2005 properly. Although the Contracts Recognition Board ultimately ruled in favour of BAR it is widely held that the severity of the performance clauses in Button’s current contract are such that unless BAR have a similarly successful year in 2005, he is free to take a Williams drive in 2006.
All this would suggest that the wheels are coming off BAR’s bid for the front before they’ve even truly got there. The all-new Geoff Willis-designed 007 has looked effective but unspectacular and there are serious doubts that Honda’s new RA005E engine can last for two race distances as dictated by the new engine rules. The 2004 engine gave a lot of trouble in this respect, mainly for Takuma Sato.
The reality, though, is somewhat different to what this bleak assessment might suggest. The departure of Richards, for example, is actually a symptom of the good health of the team. Richards is leaving as part of the arrangements under which Honda will eventually buy the team outright, coinciding with British American Tobacco’s desire to leave as tobacoo advertising becomes increasingly prohibited. Honda are under no illusions about the vast resources and wealth that arch-rivals Toyota have at their disposal, and are focused on tasting major victory before their rivals do.
But even this may not be enough for them to hold on to Button. It is believed that if he is not within a significant percentage of the championship leader’s points total at the halfway point of the season, he is free to move on. His decision then may hinge on the simple balance of whether BAR or Williams offer the most convincing package. As we cover in our feature on Williams, the only thing that keeps Button at BAR is that Williams are no longer far enough ahead of them to make the move worthwhile, even if Frank Williams is at best lukewarm in his regard of Nick Heidfeld, and has freely admitted he would like Button back.
At least BAR can console themselves with the knowledge that even if Button does leave they have the highly-rated Anthony Davidson to take over from him. And after Button’s attempted betrayal of the team last year, there may well be elements there who would rather see him go. The early races of the season should give us an understanding of whether BAR are keeping everything together or coming apart at the seams.
Image © Honda