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. Charles Fox said on 21st October 2009, 13:57

    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.

    So…
    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

  2. 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.)

  3. Prisoner Monkeys said on 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.

    • three4three said on 21st October 2009, 16:41

      Spot on!

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

  4. A Singh said on 21st October 2009, 14:12

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

  5. 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 :)

  6. theRoswellite said on 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.

  7. 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.

  8. 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.

  9. Accidental Mick said on 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.

    • 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.

      • 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.

      • Accidental Mick said on 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.

  10. antonyob said on 21st October 2009, 16:44

    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.

  11. pSynrg said on 21st October 2009, 16:51

    Not sure about these ‘What if?’ pieces. Makes an interesting read but not discussion.

  12. what ifs are that and we will never know.

  13. damjan006 said on 21st October 2009, 17:59

    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.

    Keith didn’t they see the double diffusers from Toyota and Williams on the early tests??? And knowing this weren’t they tempted of using this loophole of the regulations?? Who prevented them of constructing their own double diffusers??

  14. Platine said on 21st October 2009, 18:23

    Radical compromises by Brawn at the last minute, scary for everyone else to imagine what they will produce with all teething problems out of the way, and being Mercedes prefered team.

    Hard to evaluate the team moral aspect of having survived, making sacrifices for a car tyey belive in which then cleans up.

    I suspect the lack of heavy heirarchy and corporate control frees a team significantly, when its full of so much talent, Im sure its beneficial for them to have freedom in all operations.

    If Honda cant make an engine that keeps up, of course they could not have done this without having switched to Merc. Someone mentioned 70bhp, thats almost the diff between KERS active or dormant, the whole all lap, each and every lap! No chance, wonder why they even bothered.

  15. gabal said on 21st October 2009, 18:35

    We will never know, I think they would have probably win it – especially the WCC championship. Brawn dropped significantly after first half of the season and with Honda funding they could have developed the car better during the season.

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