Saturday, October 11, 2008
Honda need to choose wisely
Honda appear to be in no rush in confirming their driver line-up for 2009. It is reported that they are waiting for Renault's Fernando Alonso to finalize his plans, but that will not happen until after the season. However, let us be realistic. Alonso has a contract with Renault and the performance gains they have made has demonstrated and reconfirmed the winning abilities of Alonso and of the team.
Also, Alonso is very familiar with Renault and they are already pulling in one direction. A move to Honda would simply put Alonso back to square one in terms of understanding a new team, learning the personnel and trying to develop a totally new and different car with no point of reference. Not to mention that there would be no guarantee the car would be very drivable even if Honda perfects their KERS system. Moreover, even with the prospects of working wit Ross Brawn and the resources of Honda, a move like this would be foolish and Alonso would simply be wasting time.
So, if Alonso is out of the frame, who can they choose? I think Jenson Button is still a quality driver even though his career has been the definition of potential not translating to tangible and consistent success. Honda have put a lot of faith into Button over the years and he has shown glimpses of really having drive and hunger but there is something missing from Jenson Button's driving. He does not seem to 'take the bull by the horns' and seems content to wait for Honda to build him a better car. Again, he is still a quality driver and worthy of a seat in Formula One, but what Button amounts to is a very good number 2 driver. So, you can say he is another Barrichello.
Speaking of which, Barrichello confirmed the rationale of Honda keeping him. He came to help support Button and helped to develop the car. The problem was Honda engineers in the past were not on board with his feedback and Button and Barrichello's driving styles were very different. This makes development difficult because you are pulling data from two different places. Now that the team has employed the service of a quality test driver in Alex Wurz, having someone like Barrichello in the era of reduced testing and standardization is not as important. So, even though he did what he was asked to do, I do not see Rubens Barrichello in Formula One in 2009. I think we will see Barrichello driving in the American LeMans Series with Gil De Ferran in 2009.
So with no real prospects of landing a real bonafided number 1 driver like Alonso and with no reason to sign Barrichello, but having a very serviceable Button and Wurz as your solid tester, Honda can go in 3 directions:
1. Support Button: After spending time with Super Aguri and developing his racecraft and calming down his style a bit, Takuma Sato would be an ideal choice. He is familiar with the team and he has plenty of speed. Also, he has shown that he has reduced the amount of mistakes that cost him his job at Honda the first time around. Moreover, it would raise the profile of Honda on par with Toyota who have a couple of Japanese drivers in addition to Nakajima.
2. Challenge Button: If Toro Rosso boss, Gerhard Berger has a mental breakdown and drops Sebastien Bourdais, Honda should waste no time in scooping him up. With a year's worth of F1 experience under his belt in addition to the wealth of overall racing Bourdias' speed, professional and practical approach can be a catalyst to get Button move motivated or get the engineers to be working with a proven winner and champion that is in his prime racing years. However, if Berger is of sound mind and keeps Bourdais then Honda can do the following:
3. Go young: This direction can actually have 2 effects: a) a quick, young driver can motivate the more experienced and demotivated driver. We have seen this before with Robert Kubica and Nick Heidfeld; b) Honda gets to develop a young driver to eventually replace Button. So, who can fit one or both of these?
There are two candidates for this job and both are at Renault. Honda will be well served to get either Lucas Di Grassi or Nelson Piquet. Di Grassi has solid lower formula experience and has been schooled in the ways of Formula One given his tenure in Renault's Driver Development Program. Moreover, he has demonstrated speed and ability to finally make the leap to Formula One. As a matter of fact, it is reported he is in line to replace Nelson Piquet.
So, how can Piquet be an answer to Honda's driver choice if he himself is replaced? Well, it is clear that Piquet has F1 experience and has shown glimpses of consistent speed. However, Piquet's failing has been his mental approach and a growing lack of confidence in his abilities; and is making big mistakes as a consequence. Moreover, his job has been in jeopardy for most of the season, which only amplifies the lack of confidence and questions of 'do I belong'. One needs to remember the Piquet we saw in GP2 in 2006. There was a reason Renault signed him.
I think being in a team where he is not comparing himself to a double world champion that is proficient in many areas will help Piquet's confidence. Honda is a place where I think Piquet can develop and grow. I think having a driver like Wurz would be helpful in that he is not there to take his job but to help develop the team; and Button's laid back style would be non-threatening. So, with experience, teamwork, personal growth and reconstituted confidence, I think Piquet can quickly put the pressure on Button. Thus raising everyone's game.
Honda will have a lot to think about and really figure out what is it they want to achieve in Formula One and who can get them there.