Did Honda throw a championship away?

Posted on | Author Keith Collantine

Would the team have achieved more as Honda or as Brawn?
Would the team have achieved more as Honda or as Brawn?

The remarkable story of Brawn has generated many column inches since the team won both championships on Sunday.

But the flip side to the story is whether Honda’s decision to sell the team ten months ago must now be considered one of F1’s greatest blunders.

Earlier this year I asked a Brawn engineer whether he thought the team would have been as competitive if its cars were still using Honda engines instead of Mercedes.

The response came back firmly in the negative, and various disparaging remarks were made about the quality of Honda’s engines and their inability to remove the skin from rice pudding.

In one respect at least, the team’s transformation from Honda into Brawn may have done it more good than harm.

There’s also something to be said for the streamlining of the management process. No longer accountable to the parent company back in Japan, the racing team could now operate with autonomy. And it would be hard to find a better person to take up that responsibility than Ross Brawn.

On the other hand, the sudden change to Mercedes power forced Brawn into some tough compromises. One Brawn engineer told the BBC:

The chassis had the back six inches cut off to fit the engine in – the sort of thing you wouldn’t normally do even with a test car. And the gearbox was in the wrong place because the crank-centre height is different. There’s a massive amount of compromise in the cars.

Timing is also important. As Brawn missed the first two months of testing in January and February, no-one had any idea how quick they were, and no-one had time to respond.

Had Honda stayed, and the team stuck to a regular testing programme, its rivals would have known as early as January that the RA109 (not the BGP 001) was quick. It may have led them to develop double diffusers of their own more quickly, preventing Honda/Brawn from running away with all bar one of the first seven races, and changing the outcome of the championship.

Similarly if Honda had stayed there was a chance Bruno Senna would have taken Rubens Barrichello’s place. The loss of such an experienced driver could have hurt the team on the days when Jenson Button struggled to match Barrichello, particularly in the second half of the season.

How much better would the car have performed without the technical compromises? Was Honda’s departure a blessing in disguise?

There’s no clear answer to the question – it’s destined to become another of F1’s great conjectures to chew on with a few mates down the pub.

Do you think Honda missed out on a championship this year? Have your say below.

Button and Brawn, world champions

143 comments on “Did Honda throw a championship away?”

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  1. First of all there is the matter of the Honda engine, whether it would have been as competitive as the Mercedes (almost certainly not). There is also the question of what damage Honda’s unorthodox management structure had caused the team previously (in my view, a lot).

    But particularly of interest is the fact that, once Honda withdrew from the 2009 world championship, Brawn were not an entrant and could therefore flout the rules on development as they wished (full-scale wind tunnel models, etc.) Whether or not they did this I don’t know. But they could have – and if they did, what difference did it make to their competitiveness?

  2. I don’t think Honda would have secured either title had they stayed in.

    But Brawn GP owe a lot to Honda for the base they built on, the vast funds from last year, not to mention the severance money to keep them afloat for the one season.

    Even if they had had the exact same staff and set-up, had Brawn been an entirely new team it would not have done anywhere near as well. So Honda didn’t throw anything away, but in essence “gave” the championships to Brawn.

  3. Honda is often praised for being the “best of the Japanese car manufacturers” because it was formed by a man, not a corporation. This gives Honda a passion for making automobiles which other Japanese car manufacturers just don’t have. The decision to pull the plug on Honda’s F1 team was definitely made by the accountants, and wasn’t made by people in the team who must have known they were onto a good thing with the RA109/BGP001.

    It just goes to show that you shouldn’t let accountants dabble in sport.

    As much as I dislike Toyota’s passenger cars I really admire them for not pulling the plug on their F1 team which has really failed to live up to the board’s expectations… I may have just spoken too soon though seeing as their budget for 2010 hasn’t been agreed yet! ;-)

    I’m prety sure the RA109 would have still been quick with a Honda engine in the back. Maybe it wouldn’t have been “class of the field” quick, but it certainly would have been a regular points scorer/podium finisher and may have managed a win or two.

  4. Excellent article, Keith.

    I believe that Brawn would not have won without Honda’s infinte money. But I also believe that Brawn would not have won with Honda’s engines. This year showed that Mercedez engines were much better than the rest.

    Brawn got the best of both worlds when they had Honda’s money but not Honda’s engines. But most importantly, which you rightly mentioned, was the timing of Brawn’s absence from the testing scene in January-February.

    Although, Toyota and Williams had shown that the double decker diffuser had pace, they weren’t consistently fast enough to prove the worth of the diffuser. Brawn proved that the DDD was indispensable. But it was too late for the other teams by then.

    Also, I have a slight feeling that Nick Fry had more say in matters when Honda were boss which contributed to Honda’s dismal form. Once Ross Brawn had autonomy, he probably showed Nick Fry his place and took matters in his own hands. I am not saying Nick Fry should be shown the door, but he is certainly not in the same league as Ross Brawn.

  5. The article sums up most of what I was going to, when I first read the title, as I think it will go down as a big what if people will debate with strong arguments on both sides.

    Would the engine equalisation before the season have meant that the Honda engine wouldn’t have been as bad people think it would have been?

    Even if the Honda engine had been poor, did the advantages of the Mercedes unit make up for all the compromises made fitting it to the chassis.

    Did the streamlining of management outweigh the advantages they would have had of the full Honda budget, the BBC blog quoted in the article said that Brawn only built three chassis all year and didn’t build any to correct the compromises made for the Mercedes engine because finances were tight.

    Also Honda had been developing their own KERS system, if they had not quit they would have been more likely to use it, how would this have changed things.

    I defiantly think that Barrichello’s experience helped them with things such as setup decisions, as it was said that Button often Barrichello’s setup at least in the early races. But then if they had had a full testing program would it have been as much of an issue, for example I remember the commentators saying the first time the car had run in the wet was at Malaysia.

    Before Honda announced they were pulling out I thought they would be competitive this season because of all the time and resources they had put into their 2009 car. Because of having to change engine late on and not testing much I thought Brawn would be midfield, but I wasn’t totally shocked when they were setting good lap times straight away in winter testing.

    1. Would the engine equalisation before the season have meant that the Honda engine wouldn’t have been as bad people think it would have been?

      Weren’t only Renault allowed to tweak their engine between 2008 and 2009? I don’t remember the same favour being offered to Honda.

      1. IIRC Keith it was offered to Honda but then became academic when Honda withdrew. Can’t swear to it, but sure I read something – probably on Grandprix.com who are pretty reliable – that after Renault were given permission, Honda requested and were given an OK.

      2. Honda was entitled to retuning their engine, just like Renault. AFAIK, Brawn ended up with nearly 80 bhp more when they switched to Mercedes engines.

  6. It’s obvious that Jenson Button is the legitimate world champion but I doubt that he is the best driver. A bit of number crunching reveals why the champion is being questioned so much. Opening 7 races of 2009: 6 wins from 7 races (85.71%); Rest of Career: 1 win from 164 races (0.00609%). The sole win of his pre 2009 career was a weather affected affair. It is normal to question whether JB’s trophy is due to his brilliance, the double diffuser advantage at the start of the season, the fact that this car had been 2 years in the making (most of 2008 plus 09), the beast of a Mercedes engine, Rubens’ setting up of the Brawn or a combination of all of the above.

    1. The best drivers still show up even in average equipment. Alonso in Japan 2008 and Hamilton and Kimi this year. But still I have to give Button credit for the passes he made in Brazil. He finally earned my respect although I thought it was weak to whinge about Kobayashi. Just take the rookie to school Jenson!

  7. the brand ‘HONDA’ is much greater and more recognised than ‘BRAWN GP’, so perhaps if Honda stayed, they could have benefited alot more financially. (provided the car would still be competitive)

  8. None of this success story would have happened without the massive contribution of Jean Todt. His inspired management decision that Ross was superflous at Ferrari made the whole thing possible.

    1. I’d disagree. If anything, it’s Luca di Montezemolo who we should be crediting. He picked Stefano Domenicali to be the new Ferrari team principal over Ross. As Todt was on his way out (some say not in good terms with LDM), I doubt he had much say in the decision.

    2. Hang on!

      Congratulate Jean Todt and Luca Di Monty for getting rid of Ross Brawn and “Making the whole thing possible”… that’s going a wee bit too far don’t you think!

      1. I’d like to thank Ross’ Mum and Dad without whom none of this would have been possible… ;-)

        1. I’ll drink to that, or anything else for that matter (I’m an alcoholic).

  9. There’s no clear answer to the question – it’s destined to become another of F1’s great conjectures to chew on with a few mates down the pub.

    that answers really Keith, and the fact that the delay in testing gave them a head start on the DD…

  10. schumi the greatest
    21st October 2009, 13:50

    i think you’ve got to remeber how important an engine is to the performance on an f1 car.

    How many times ive heard experts say that a certain car was efficient but suffered from a lack of grunt.

    Its not just straight line speed from the engine though because the engine influences cornering alot. If the engine delivers the power to aggressivley then coming out of slow corners the driver will be fighting massive slides and wheelspin which costs time.

    I also think that the lack of japanese management defintiley helped along with alot of other things like the car only testing a few times so other teams couldnt see what was happening.

    I dont think brawn will be as good next year, maybe best of the rest behind ferrari and mclaren. The circumstances surronding this years championship make it too unique i dont think they can do it again

    1. Indeed. Thank goodness that the FIA is here to save the day by ensuring that all engines have exactly the same performance. After all, that’s what F1 is about!


  11. I still think, that due to one of Honda’s reasons for leaving being the lack of engine development permitted(the japanese and most OEMs in F1 do it alot to show off their engine building ability) was not substantial enough for them to continue just funding a poor performing race team, if they could carry on working magic and end up with a decent powerplant to speak for it they may have stayed longer.

    Why did they not stipulate that this year the team was Honda the chassis constructor/race team, with another engine in the back. Running a Honda Racing F1-Mercedes or Brawn Honda Racing F1-Mercedes, surely when the team (Brawn, Fry and co) were negogiating the management ‘buy-out’, where Honda leaves them with this years budget(maybe through negogiation added a few million extra). Either way everyone knew the reason they were funding them as they didnt want to lose face too much/pay for 650-700 redundancies.

    The car was developed by the Honda Racing F1 team, as were the previous cars, it never was by honda the parent company, but as they were leaving they could at least add value to the final years ‘throwing away money’ period? thats what i would have done

    1. A Honda-Merc? That’s crazy. It would be like Honda admitting they can’t make a good engine. They’d either compete with a Honda engine, or not compete at all.

      1. Mussolini's Pet Cat
        21st October 2009, 18:38

        Honda pretty much admitted that by pulling out of F1.

  12. It’s hard to guess whether the team would have been just as successful as Honda. I see a lot of “maybe, maybe not” factors in there. The car, for example, could have functioned better without having to compromise, arguably, significant portions of the design to accomodate the change, however, if there had indeed been a significant performance differential between, say, the Honda and the Mercedes engine actually used, these two factors might have canceled each other out.

    The drivers are a similar point. Barrichello’s experience was valuable to the team, on the other hand, had Honda remained and chosen to run Senna, he could have had the full amount of pre-season testing to get ready for his job, putting him in a position at least far better than any of the rookies who did debut mid-season this year. If he had delivered good performances, a young, motivated team mate might have pushed Button to the same results he was as things happened.

    And so on, and so forth…

    I agree it’s an interesting topic for speculation, but I suppose there really can’t or won’t be anything else than that. (Unless someone were to devise a machine that can help us tap into some alternate universes.)

  13. Prisoner Monkeys
    21st October 2009, 14:09

    Honda had to make a decision based on what they knew at the time. They had just endured two embarrassing seasons – the RA107 and RA108 were two of the worst cars in the sport’s history – they were losing money because of the well-meaning but fatally-flawed Earth Dreams concept, and the RA109 chassis had never been on-track. There was no way they could know that the car was a championship winner, and there was no guarantee the car would win either championship if hey ran it. I’m led to believe that the Honda engine they would have used was not in the league of the Mercedes, and while carving up the back end to make the Mercedes engine might have meant the car was less-than-optimal at the rear end, the Honda engine could have been just as detrimental, if not worse.

    1. Spot on!

      Now let’s celebrate in Brawn’s successes and leave this hindsight-fuelled game of “what if.”

  14. They gained through reliability which was essential given they did no testing

  15. I think the mercedes engine is indeed a better engine I think.
    That might have helped them… but I do think the development rate would have been higher if Honda stayed.

    But hell we now have a good racing team not backed by carmaker… not yet tough :)

  16. theRoswellite
    21st October 2009, 14:44

    If you cut out all the fat surrounding this little piggy you have a few acorns which will remain for years:

    Honda did blow it. Over the years they spent zillons on an F1 team, then walked away moments before the ultimate double success. In the long term it may be seen as a metaphor for the inability of huge corporations to simply “spend” their way to a championship. (although Toyota may have already acquired pride of place in this dubious category)

    The car design was the base from which all good things followed. It was originally (and for a long enough time)faster, considerably, than the other guys. Period.

    The prowess of Ross Brawn, not just as a technical mave, but as an organizational genius…………….now places him in very rarefied company.

    And, a side note which should certainly be pointed out…

    The REALLY big losers this year?……….Red Bull.

    They have finally defeated both McLaren and Ferrari, and yet are denied by a stepchild of a team…certainly a bitter pill to take, even if you get your energy drinks for free.

  17. It’s the engine; and another key factor: not all teams could exploit the rules equally.

    The Mercedes factory team was hamstrung because their squad was in the FIA doghouse. There was no way Whitmarsh was going to turn up in Australia with a diffuser design that other teams were going to scream bloody murder about. The FIA would have cleaned their clocks. For its part, recalling the whole bendy-floor business, Ferrari was also likely gun-shy about pushing into a clear gray-area of the rules and suffering a major development set-back

    This was the the jump-start Brawn needed and took. Woking, and to a lesser degree Ferrari, developed a car that was than miles off the pace into a race-winner, without private track testing. Brawn is brilliant technical director, but this tells you where the superior engineering resources are on the grid. McLaren had other aero issues early on, but, clearly, with the same motor, plus KERS, if they had a double diffuser-concept car, they would have been fairly dominant by mid-season. This season is where the team really paid the price for Stepney-gate.

  18. Honda most certainly did not throw away a championship. Had they continued on with team ownership they would not have been successful this year. The primary reason being that the team was overwhelmed with huge bureaucratic infrastructure. They probably had to have a board meeting to decide where the portable toilets were to be positioned. In addition to the reasons stated by Keith in the above piece, the absense of Honda’s corporate stucture immediately allowed the team to function in a fast, streamlined, decisive manner when implementing decisions impacting the day to day functions of the race team.

  19. Accidental Mick
    21st October 2009, 16:02

    Forgive me for going a bit off the point but this is a gripe I have had with the FIA for a long time.

    To his credit, Ross Brawn pointed out the loop hole regarding the rear diffuser last year when the rules were first published.Three teams backed his standpoint and developed double diffusers. The others didn’t.

    The FIA, when asked, should say, in advance, if something will be deemed acceptable. They refuse and will not give a decision until srutineering at the first race. This will always cost some teams money as the teams who have gone done the wrong route have to play catch up.

    I know this is an extreme case but it was this stance of the FIA that forced Ken Tyrrell out of F1. He spent a year developeing that awesome six wheel car and everone knew. Even the tabloid press discussed it. Yet on the first race of the season it was declared illegal and a new rule was introduced limiting the number of wheels to four. The Turell team never recovered.

    This is no way to run aprofessional sport.

    1. I know this is an extreme case but it was this stance of the FIA that forced Ken Tyrrell out of F1. He spent a year developeing that awesome six wheel car and everone knew. Even the tabloid press discussed it. Yet on the first race of the season it was declared illegal and a new rule was introduced limiting the number of wheels to four. The Turell team never recovered.

      I’m not sure you’ve got that right. The Tyrrell six wheeler ran for two years (1976-77) but what killed it was a lack of front tyre development. The concept was intended to reduce drag from the front wheels while increasing the overall tyre footprint. It worked well enough to run competitively and even win a race.

      But it was ultimately a dead end. Goodyear provided custom made front tyres, but couldn’t justify putting the same amount of time developing them and they inevitably fell behind the normal tyres in terms of grip and durability. The six wheeler was also notoriously tricky to set up, not a brilliant characteristic with Ronnie Peterson (fast but not technical) as your lead driver.

      The concept was dead in the water, but Tyrrell went on for more than 20 years – what really did for it as a competitive force was the ballast scandal of the mid-1980s and its opposition to turbo engines.

      F1 cars weren’t restricted to four wheels until the early 1980s, around the time Williams was experimenting with its own six wheeler – but this had four back wheels, not four fronts. Even this wasn’t a totally new concept – March had wheeled out a prototype a few years before, although it was more of a publicity stunt.

      1. Just a quick sidebar to your comment. Back in the mid ’70’s I saw the Tyrrell six-wheeler run at the Canadian GP at Mosport. Cool car. Funny thing happened after, I believe qualifying, someone made off with the front tires! A plea was issued to please have whoever took them to return them so the cars could participate in the next days race. (I presume with no questions asked as long as they were returned.) Sunday, race day, came and the Tyrrells lined up for the GP so I can only assume someone either found them or they were indeed returned.

      2. Accidental Mick
        25th October 2009, 11:21

        @ Tim

        I stand corrected. Thank you – you obviously have a better memory than I.

        But I still hold to the point that teams should be given the right to ask for clarification of the rules before race day.

  20. Fundamental to their success was being able to unilaterally make decisons without passing them up and down the management chain in a different time zone. Yes the Honda engine was 70bhp down on Mercedes and yes the DD was an allowed cheat but the key to consistency was being dynamic. No team really managed it this year when horses really were for courses but Brawn, if not Button, were at or very near to the front every race.

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