It’s a long-established fact that the Mercedes-Benz FO108V engine is the engine to have. The Brawn BGP-001 was originally known as the Honda RA109, and designed with Honda’s RA808E engine in mind. Of all the engines that competed in 2008 – Honda’s final season – the Honda RA808E was one of the poorest-rated engines, particularly in terms of power. Since the RA808E would have been carried over to the RA109 chassis, it’s questionable as to whether they would have won one or both World Championships. They probably would have won something, but I doubt we would have seen Button’s early-season whitewash.
At the same time, the maiin reason why Brawn slumped in form from the British Grand Prix on was because they ran out of money. One of the reasons why the BGP-001 did so well early in the season was because of the way it performed in hot weather. Button won in Australia, Bahrain, Spain, Monaco and Turkey, all of which were very hot races. Even if Malaysia was a wash-out, it was still humid. But when the British Grand Prix came around, the temperatures were much cooler. The team brought an upgrade for the race, but they knew they weren’t going to dominate. They weren’t expecting to return to form until Hungary, the next “hot race”. So they struggled at Silverstone and the Nurburgring, and attributed it to the climate. But then they struggled in Budapest, and realised the upgrade hadn’t worked. By now, they were almost out of money, even with Richard Branson paying them on a race-by-race basis. They had one late-season upgrade planned, but because they had to find a solution to the problems caused by the Silverstone upgrade, Brawn GP had to sacrifice that last update to undo the damage (after all, Button finished the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix in the same chassis that he had run in every race, qualifying session and practice session since FP1 in Melbourne, which has pretty much bene unheard of for decades). They managed to get something together for Valencia, and sure enough, Barrichello won in the hot Spanish weather. Valencia was probably the only race of the season where Button had the car to win, but didn’t make good on it. And by this point, everyone else – particularly Red Bull – had well and truly caught up.
A lot of people accuse Jenson Button of being a poor World Champion because he “didn’t try” in the secnod half of the season, or simply lucked into a good car (but as many of Barrichello’s early performances showed, it was more than siply luck). While the Brawn BGP-001 might have been the strongest car at the start of the season, it was – at best – only third after the Red Bull RB5 and the McLaren MP/4-24 (and, depending on the circuit, the Ferrari F60) by the time Button claimed his championship in Sao Paulo. Button struggled because the team struggled.
Now, assuming Honda had stayed in the game, the RA109 would have been down on power because of the RA808E engine. But it almost certainly would have been a strong car despite this; not strong enough to win championships, but certainly strong enough for regular podiums (if not outright wins). Upon seeing this success, Honda would have thrown more money at the team. They did, after all, have one of the highest budgets when they left the sport. With a blank cheque in hand, the team would have been able to run a more-extensive development program, with more regular updates and parts. Even if the Silverstone upgrade had still gone awry, Honda would have been able to overcome the problem and upgrade the car sooner. They would have been able to extract more aerodynamic performance from it, which may have been enough to offset the problems caused by the under-powered RA808E.
Of course, all of this is speculation. We’ll never know for sure.