Did Honda throw a championship away?

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

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143 comments on Did Honda throw a championship away?

  1. JungleJap said on 21st October 2009, 12:29

    Success is a sum of many small parts. Mercedes engine is one, but don’t forget the 120 million pounds or so that Honda has put in to the team this year without taking credit and many more millions before. Racing is in Honda’s blood. Compare that to the attitude of a certain German company already mentioned by others. Honda revealed recently that they have asked 30% spending cut to their major parts suppliers and their annual production is more than 30% down this year. It was unsustainable for Honda to stay in F1 under those circumstances but they didn’t abandon the team completely either. Give credit where it’s due.

    • I think other posts have paid a lot of tribute to Honda’s exit performance last winter JungleJap.

      Honda are certainly an example to other companies of how you manage an exit strategy when your business is collapsing about your ears. They deserve our respect and, for the most part, they get it.

  2. Ned Flanders said on 21st October 2009, 12:30

    I always just assumed that Honda would have been as successful this year as Brawn have been, but I never really considered that the opposition might have discovered the diuble diffuser concept earlier and perhaps caught them. And there is little doubt that the Mercedes engine is beeter than the Honda would have been.

    But I still think that with a full winter of testing and Honda’s vast resources being pumped in throughout the season, the team would have been even more dominant, and they would have sustained their dominance over the entire season rather than the first 7 races.

    • three4three said on 21st October 2009, 12:44

      a full winter of testing and Honda’s vast resources being pumped in throughout the season

      Surely the point is that these “vast resources” were non-existent?

      • Ned Flanders said on 21st October 2009, 15:16

        The money was obviously there. Honda may have been badly hit by the recession, but not so badly that they couldn’t give Ross Brawn £120 million to run Brawn GP this year.

        Also, by winning the championship this year Honda would have earned about £300 million, both in TV rights (something like £100 million) and in good publicity (worth £200 million according to a media monitoring company)

        • three4three said on 21st October 2009, 16:35

          Also, by winning the championship this year Honda would have earned about £300 million

          Sure, but if you were on the board of directors for Honda, would you vote to stay in F1 for another year banking on a possible championship win? Sounds risky to me.

          Besides, although £120m is a lot of money to you and me and no doubt as much as Honda could justify, it would have cost considerably more to run the team this year. Something Honda evidently could not afford.

          As many here have already said, hindsight is a wonderful thing. That’s why I propose we leave this ludicrous game of “what if.”

      • The resources were there if they were willing to declare losses just to continue like Toyota did. If I remember correctly, the pulling out was instrumental in stabilising their P and L figures which explains the major pressure on Toyota to do the same…

        But in any case the resources were there. :)

  3. What happened is what happened and hindsight will not help. I dont think that the Japanese company setup shows up well in the motor racing world and am surprised that Toyota are still plugging on.
    Regrets are that Honda did not ask for rear wing badging once they knew that the cars were good, surely Ross would have given that to them and that Rubens is moving on though no doubt as team leader.

  4. Regarding the double diffuser, and the argument that had the Honda/Brawn been out testing earlier its superior pace would have led to either its banning or other teams developing their own version, remember that the double diffuser appeared from the first on the Williams and the Toyota, and the advantage both on paper and on the track which it is gave to them at that early stage was clear for all to see, albeit not quite as devastating as the advantage it gave the Brawns when they finally hit the track. As I understand it, the other teams were reluctant in going down the double diffuser track because they believed it was illegal, but they could not get an definitive decision on this until the stewards at an official event, ie. the Australian Grand Prix, gave their verdict. The stewards gave it the thumbs up of course, so the complainants took it to the Court of Appeal, which sided with the double diffuser teams. This meant that the affair dragged on well into the start of the season, by which time Brawn had been cleaning up in the early races while the others were left waiting on the Appeal Court’s decision, unsure whether to plough their development funds into a concept that may well have been outlawed.

    Would this have played out differently had Honda not pulled the plug? It’s impossible to say for sure, but I doubt it. As Williams and Toyota demonstrated, it doesn’t matter how early the double diffuser appeared, the fact that the procedure allows only for technical ambiguities to be formally protested to the grand prix stewards meant that final clarification would have arrived no sooner than it actually did. In my view, this way of working is definitely flawed, and a lot of time and money could have been saved had the FIA been able to rule on the matter during winter testing.

    • Adrian said on 21st October 2009, 16:10

      My only comment here would be that if Honda has turned up with the RA109 and been as devastatingly quick as Brawn turned out to be, then the non-ddd teams may have decided that they couldn’t afford NOT to develope their own version earlier…

  5. Mussolini's Pet Cat said on 21st October 2009, 12:45

    I still think it’s amazing that Brawn managed to shoe-horn the Merc engine into their chassis and be so competitive straight away.. Our (Britain) economy may be up-the-spout, manufacturing almost disappeared, but we’ve still got the best engineering minds and talent in the world.

  6. 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?

  7. 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.

  8. GeeMac said on 21st October 2009, 13:12

    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.

  9. sumedh said on 21st October 2009, 13:16

    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.

  10. 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.

    • Keith Collantine (@keithcollantine) said on 21st October 2009, 20:04

      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.

      • Daffid said on 21st October 2009, 20:22

        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.

      • 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.

  11. Snow Leoprd said on 21st October 2009, 13:22

    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.

    • 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!

  12. sato113 said on 21st October 2009, 13:32

    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)

  13. 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.

    • Journeyer (@journeyer) said on 21st October 2009, 13:50

      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.

    • GeeMac said on 21st October 2009, 15:28

      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!

  14. Ronman said on 21st October 2009, 13:50

    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…

  15. schumi the greatest said on 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

    • PeriSoft said on 21st October 2009, 15:07

      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!

      *vomit*

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