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Jenson Button on pole in Oz

Here we go again.

Jensen Button
Jenson Button (left) and Rubens Barrichello of Brawn

With Formula One changed almost out of recognition, a row broke out yesterday at Albert Park, where the Australian Grand Prix is kicking off the new season tomorrow.

Brawn (formerly Honda), Williams and Toyota occupied six of the top seven places in practice, allegedly because they are running double diffusers of contested legality which exploit a grey area in the rules.

The Brawn team now occupy both pole and second on the grid for the Sunday’s race. Button is firm favourite to take the chequered flag in the Grand Prix.

Last year’s champ, Lewis Hamilton hardly got a look in after his gear box had to be replaced and finished 18th on the grid. The other McLaren is 12th.

So, if Hamilton does poorly, we may yet have a British winner in Jenson Button, albeit in a German car.

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Honda pulls out of Formula One

Monte Carlo The shock news that Honda is to pull its team out of Formula One is still reverberating around the sport of motor racing.

Honda’s F1 executives, Ross Brawn and Nick Fry, are seeking new owners for the British-based team before the 700 workers receive their redundancy notices. Honda has just announced it will give the management up to three months to find a buyer.

Meanwhile motor racing’s ruling body, FIA, will host an annual dinner in Monaco on Friday to discuss the crisis and, almost as an afterthought it seems, Lewis Hamilton will be presented with his first World Drivers’ Championship regalia.

McLaren co-owner Ron Dennis said: “We know we have to reduce our costs to cater for the inevitable downturn in income that is coming in 2010 and 2011. We predict that our turnover will drop to as low as £175 million a year. Our budget comes from the advertising budgets of the companies that support us, and inevitably advertising budgets get slashed or, at least are significantly trimmed in times of economic strife.”

FIA president Max Mosley said: “The FIA would join with FOTA (Formula One Teams Association) in seeking to persuade FOM (Formula One Management) to divide the prize money so that up to 12 teams are guaranteed at least $50 million (£34 million) each. This would ensure a full grid with a strong possibility that new teams will enter the championship, filling vacancies.”

The developing economic depression will not leave many unscathed, including the wealthiest of operators.

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Honda’s Woes

I don’t know who “Helios” is (which is the idea, I think) but he appears to be a member of the Honda team. Certainly, his article for Pitpass today is written from an insider’s viewpoint. And it makes pretty depressing reading, especially if you were hanging on to the last shreds of hope that Jenson Button might yet get the chance of a few decent results this year.

Hondas

The way Helios tells it, Honda’s problems stem from a lack of leadership and too much interference from board room level. It is an all-too-familiar scenario to me, having worked for a few companies that suffered from the same disease. Racing teams need to be small, closely-knit groups of people utterly dedicated to their task and not subject to the whims and theories of people who know nothing of F1.

Saddest of all was to hear of Button’s attempts to re-inspire the team. He is trying, apparently, but his body language shows that he does not have much hope for success this year. It reminds me too painfully of Bernie Ecclestone’s assessment of Jenson last year.

Can you see Michael Schumacher in such a situation? I am no fan of Michael but I know that he would have insisted on the team being allowed to work the way he required and he would have brought about a unity of thought and ambition that would have seen them conquer their problems by now. It seems that Bernie was right and Jenson lacks the ruthlessness and singlemindedness to create an efficient winning team such as the German did at Ferrari. As does Rubens Barrichello, it seems.

Helios is in agreement with all the other Honda-watchers in citing Nick Fry as the source of their weakness. And one cannot argue with the fact that the buck stops at the desk of the team manager – he is the only one with the power to make changes in the team in the quest for greater efficiency. So far, that does not seem to be happening.

It’s a picture of a team in disarray, unable to explain the deficiencies of the car this season, embarrassed by the greater success of their tiny sister team, Super Aguri, and unhappy with the management. I have to say that, on this evidence, Button can forget any chance of winning a race this year and he will find it hard even to score points.

So much for my hopes of a championship for him this year.

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Joining the Club – Super Aguri

Against all expectations, Super Aguri survived their first year rather well, developing an ancient Arrows chassis into something like a modern GP car and finishing the last race of 2006 in tenth place. This season they have a development of last year’s Honda, a car that won in Hungary, and have taken a leap forward in performance as a result.

Davidson

Anthony Davidson in the Super Aguri SA07

The big question is: can they maintain the pace of development and consolidate their position in the midfield? Although they are currently embarrassing their parent team, Honda, I feel that sooner or later the car will reach the limit of possible tweaks and adjustments and will begin to slip towards the back of the grid again. This is not to suggest that there is anything wrong with the team (indeed, they have done wonders so far); they are working with last year’s product, that’s all.

Super Aguri provide us with a glimpse of the customer teams that are likely in the future, much more so than Toro Rosso which is more like a B team to Red Bull. They are enthusiastic, dedicated and ecstatic over each small success that comes their way. And they have shown that it is not absolutely necessary to have the latest equipment to compete in F1. They might never win races but points are not completely out of the question.

The team’s choice of drivers is not bad, too. Takuma Sato is no slouch and, on occasions can be very fast indeed. And Anthony Davidson is talented and quick. Although he has taken time to get into his stride, he out-qualified Sato in Bahrain and may be about to show us how good he really is.

Treated as something of a joke last year, Super Aguri have earned their spurs and it is hard not to wish them well. If nothing else, they reflect the overwhelming enthusiasm of the Japanese for motor racing, F1 in particular.

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