Honda recovery will take time

Money doesn’t buy you happiness, nor does it buy you success as Honda have been quick to realise this season.

The arrival of former Ferrari Technical Director Ross Brawn to the struggling Brackley based team, along with a series of other high profile appointments, illustrates Honda’s new found commitment to long term capacity building as well as continuing to throw money at research and development. But patience will also be required if Honda are to return to winning ways.

It has been a dismal season for the Anglo-Japanese team; the worst in Honda’s modern history.

The team’s 2007 challenger the RA107 was dogged by aerodynamic instability, consistently outshone by its 2006 predecessor and managed a sum total of six championship points, barely enough for 8th in the constructors championship. The result was a far cry from the success of 2006 in which Jenson Button scored his maiden victory at Hungary.

To make matters worse, the team’s performance did little to promote or even justify the team’s environmental message conveyed in the car’s innovative ‘Earth’ livery.

I must shamefully admit to an element of satisfaction in seeing a team with one of the biggest budgets in the sport – estimated to be just under $400m along with Mclaren and Toyota – struggle so badly; especially when you look at teams such as Williams perform so well with only a third of Honda’s budget.

I take great comfort in the knowledge that despite all the money that pours into and is generated by Formula One, success in the sport is by no means dependent on budget alone and this should add weight to any future cost-cutting proposals.

You would have to wonder if Honda have had a different view these last couple of years. Heavy investment in R&D has coincided with some very poor decisions surrounding key personnel.

The wind tunnel debarkle in the summer of 2006 was a case in point.

First came the appointment of Schuei Nakamoto as the team’s Senior Technical Director. Nakamoto was a former project manager for Honda’s motorcycle racing operations and later Race and Test Team Manager for Honda F1.

Geoff Willis, the team’s previous technical lead and a chief architect of BAR Honda’s turnaround and success in 2004, had effectively been sidelined. He eventually ended up leaving the team after it became clear that newly appointed chief aerodynamicist Mariano Alperin-Bruvera would oversee work at the team’s new £30 wind tunnel – a role Honda claimed had been set aside for Willis.

Now, hindsight is a wonderful thing but even the most casual of F1 followers would have expressed doubts about the decision to appoint over the head of the vastly more experienced Willis a man whose engineering background had predominantly been in motorcycle racing.

It seems to me that with the loss of Takuma Sato, the appointment was heavily motivated by a desire to promote Honda back in Japan. Team Principal Nick Fry had little say in the matter as did Jenson Button who went out of his way to back Willis.

Much of the RA107’s aerodynamic problems have since been attributed to these personnel changes though the team reportedly also had major problems getting the wind tunnel up and running.

Seeing the error of their ways Honda went on a massive recruitment drive in 2007. The team poached several high-profile aerodynamic specialists including ex-Williams chief aerodynamicist Loic Bigois, the replacement for Mariano Alperin-Bruvera who left for BMW-Sauber.

With one of the biggest budgets in the paddock and a strong set of staff headed up by Ross Brawn Honda are well poised for a recovery. But this will take time.

Ask anyone responsible for driving change in an organisation and he or she will tell you that it isn’t the new flashy idea in itself that motivates progression but the way in which that idea is put into practice and becomes ingrained in the routine day-to-day practices.

Ross Brawn will have a limited influence on Honda’s 2008 challenger. Indeed the recent testing in Jerez suggests Honda are still off the pace by a big margin.

His best bet would be to focus on the more mundane technical processes and systems – something that Ferrari excelled at – so that the design he does have control over has the maximum impact and can be properly tested and monitored. This is something Honda have suffered from badly with the team even admitting once to resorting to the traditional method of throwing parts on the car and seeing if it goes quicker.

The big question now for Honda and Jenson Button in particular is how much time they are prepared to give to the team’s recovery.

Christopher Hayes

5 thoughts on “Honda recovery will take time”

  1. Quick update on this story regarding Nakamoto. Just been reading an article from Sidepodcast.com (see HERE) and was amused by the following:

    **********
    Tucked away in that last article [of an F1 Racing magazine] are two sentences that are both incredibly enlightening, and at the same time, comedy gold.

    “The former senior technical director, Shuhei Nakamoto (now deputy MD technical reporting to Ross Brawn)… had no prior F1 experience.”

    “Nakamoto admits he didn’t grasp the nuances of downforce…”

    Hang on a second, the technical director didn’t understand downforce? Doesn’t this seem slightly odd and/or scary?

    I don’t know the interview technique for positions of this level, perhaps they don’t ask about your aerodynamic knowledge, assuming that if you’re applying for the job, you might have a clue what was going on. I’m wondering what my chances are of blagging my way in to a top level job.

    It’s no wonder Honda struggled so badly last year, isn’t it?
    **********

    And according to Autosport.com, Honda chief executive Nick Fry has compared Brawn’s arrival to “the difference between being taught to parachute by a man reading a manual or by a veteran of 6,000 jumps”.

    An implicit dig at Nakamoto’s lack of experience?

  2. >>> Hang on a second, the technical director didn’t understand downforce? Doesn’t this seem slightly odd and/or scary?

    Welcome to the real world 😉 Most businesses have people in them who don’t understand their market and are only in their job because they talked BS and used the right buzz-words in their interview…I guess F1 is no different 🙁

  3. Hi Kevin,

    Yes, worryingly I think your probably right.

    I’m amazed that Nakamoto has been kept in a job albeit in a subordinate role to Ross Brawn.

    I would love to know what Brawn makes of him.

    I think I am right to say that Nakamoto was also heavily involved in developing this year’s RA108. If winter testing is anything to go by the car shows little signs of improvement.

    Nothing against the guy, I’m just not sure he’s that competent.

  4. Ultimately to win, Nick Fry should also leave because of the need for a culture change in the team. So this is tough, but that is how things work. With Ross coming in it is half done anyway – so at least Nick has seen into this requirement. There is too much complacency and the team requires more discipline in dealing with basic activities such as pit stops. It currently looks like every error is excused. The team may be ‘gifted’, but it helps nought without a disciplined approach (which hopefully Ross will instill). Barrichello and Button should wake up too. I can’t see Honda ever winning with the current attitude of these drivers. Its a pity that Alonso could not have a go at taking their car around the track. I am sure he would extract the best out of the car. I don’t know why Ross Brawn is happy with a driver that seems to have regular trouble in getting his car around turn one at the start of a race. All Button really has to do is back-off and let the idiots in the bunch wipe themselves out in the first corner. For a mid-field contender, the race is long enough to recover – it is not won to the first corner. (For the leading cars this may be different story).
    Barrichello, by now, should know about the red light thingy that comes on for a while during safety car outings, and if he doesn’t, perhaps someone in the team could warn him about it?!
    There are also technical solutions to the pitstop errors the team is making, but of course, I doubt they will be interested in knowing of these from an amateur tuner. Honda should make better use of their motor-cycle and American (IRL) engineers to extract more power out of the plant. I am sure the engine can be made to flow better and the fuel/ECU used should be subject to further testing to optimise timing and torque delivery. The car should get up to speed quicker before aerodynamics come into play. This is essential to match Ferrari and Mclaren motors. Anyways, if I were Honda Corporation, I would want to see much better results or put in the axe.

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