In 1996 Benetton F1 manager Flavio Briatore took control of the Ligier Formula One team. When previous owner Tom Walkinshaw sold out if left the door open for Briatore to take control of a second Formula One outfit.
Briatore’s concern in Ligier was merely financial. He wasn’t interested in transforming the team into a winning one, but was instead after a return on his investment. He got exactly that when the team was sold to Alain Prost twelve months later.
The on track results Briatore cared about came from the team he managed, Benetton. You can imagine his frustration then when Liger took victory in 1996 and Benetton failed to do so. He would have much preferred it to be the other way around since Benetton were trying to defend a world title.
Ligier’s sole win at Monaco with Olivier Panis was lucky but statistics count. Ligier won in 1996 and Benetton didn’t.
Briatore could be forgiven for feeling the same frustrations again this year as history appears to be repeating itself.
Benetton won two consecutive titles with Michael Schumacher but went into a downward spiral when he left the team. It is all happening again to Briatore as now Renault are struggling without Fernando Alonso at the helm. Not only are their cars lacking pace, but they risk falling behind Red Bull to whom they currently supply engines.
Mark Webber has matched the Renaults in qualifying and the Red Bull’s race pace has generally been quicker. Coulthard who stared from 21st in Bahrain was able to catch and pass both Renaults quite easily. Reliability is all that stands between Red Bull and consistent points.
Only twelve months ago Renault’s long term commitment to Formula One was in doubt. The team were losing their main sponsor, their lead driver, and had achieved all of their marketing goals by winning the World Championship. Company boss Carlos Ghosn made it quite clear the team would only remain in Grand Prix Racing if it was viable to do so.
The arrival of ING as a new sponsor secured the team’s future but there will be a lot of concerned faces if Red Bull starts to outperform them with Renault engines.
They probably won’t be as concerned as they are over at Honda though.
Not only are Honda having a dreadful season, they are being outpaced by their secondary team.
Super Aguri are controversially running last years Honda, but one of their cars has been able to outqualify the works team in each race so far.
Rumour has it that Honda are so embarrassed by their lacklustre performance they plan to start giving Super Aguri detuned engines and will limit the technical support their customer team currently enjoys. It’s a sensational story if true, that Honda would willingly slow one of their teams in order to avoid company humiliation.
It might be a bit late for that.
The Japanese team are a long way from their ambition to be fighting for championships. The company whose engines have won 72 Grands Prix have not even looked like scoring a point as yet in 2007.
The high point of BAR/Honda’s most recent foray into Formula One came arguably at the 2004 German Grand Prix. Although last year’s win at Hungary was their best result, the race at Hockenheim three years ago was far more significant.
Jenson Button started thirteenth due to an engine change but charged through the field on his way to the podium, only eights seconds behind race winner Michael Schumacher. BAR had been fast all season but Button’s performance in Germany was the strongest evidence yet that Honda had arrived. The team was showing genuine promise and looked capable of fighting for race wins. They had a quick car and they had a driver on top of his game along with a fast, if erratic, number two in Takuma Sato. BAR were well on their way to second place in the championship and it was boding well for the future.
That must seem a long time ago now. This has not been a good year for the Brackley team who have experienced troubled times in Grand Prix racing from the very start.
When British American Racing was created for the 1999 season they incurred the wrath of the FIA before the first race had even begun. The new team wanted to paint both of their cars in different colour schemes in deference to separate British American Tobacco products. This is quite clearly against the rules which state “both cars entered by a competitor must be presented in substantially the same livery at each event” and action was brought against them.
The result was a car painted blue on one side with red and white on the other. Team boss Craig Pollock admitted that it looked ridiculous and even went as far to say his mechanics resembled “court jesters”.
BAR’s first season was as terrible as their appearance. Despite a seemingly unlimited budget the team failed to score a single point and Jacques Villeneuve even broke the record for most consecutive retirements (11). The confounding financial management at BAR was evident when they arrived at pre-season winter testing with unnecessary luxuries such as heated garage awnings. It became embarrassing for the team when they spent millions of pounds on transporters only to discover they were too big for the F1 paddock.
The only good thing that came out of the debut year was a deal to run Honda engines from 2000 onwards.
In the years that followed, BAR emerged as a regular points scorer. By 2004 the team’s performance had raised to a level where they could finish second in the championship to Ferrari.
Unfortunately trouble was not far away.
The 2005 car was hopelessly unreliable and it failed to suit Takuma Sato, effectively rendering BAR a one-car team. They struggled in the first three races and it only got worse.
Both cars finished in the top five at San Marino but were subsequently disqualified for an illegal fuel system. After the race an FIA court hearing banned BAR from competing in the next two races as punishment for cheating. Although they were lucky not to be excluded from the championship the ban had a huge negative effect on the team.
Being caught and punished for cheating is awful for PR and it’s awful for morale. The timing was particularly unfortunate for BAR Honda who missed the Monaco and the Spanish Grands Prix. Monaco is the glamour event on the F1 calendar and is the best place of them all to schmooze with sponsors. They weren’t much better off in Spain where a group of Honda officials had been scheduled to visit.
It was a massive embarrassment for the company who did everything they could to put it behind them.
Now it looks like Honda are going into damage control again.
2007 isn’t the first time that Honda have been outgunned by their ‘B’ team. As well as supplying engines to BAR in 2000, Honda also supplied older ‘Mugen’ powerplants to Jordan. Despite having less horsepower the Jordan was still quicker and finished twice on the podium. BAR never made it onto the rostrum and only squeezed ahead of Jordan on points in the final two races.
Honda does not want a repeat in 2007. They are preparing to introduce a new car mid-season and will be praying is displays a marked improvement. All the teams want good results but Honda are going to need them. The myearthdream concept is a good one but they would much rather have ‘ING’ or ‘Vodafone’ bringing in money on the side of their cars. The best way to make themselves attractive to sponsors once again is with results.
Perhaps they should ask Super Aguri for a little help?