Sunday, November 16, 2008

Honda will go young

This week the Formula One world will begin their assault on the 2009 season at Barcelona. Honda will obviously be there but they will be bringing some young blood to the party.

Last month I discussed that Honda must choose wisely in terms of drivers and it is shaping up that they will go young. The question is which young driver will partner Jenson Button in 2009?

Honda will test a pair of young Brazilians; GP2 and Renault test driver Lucas Di Grassi and GP2 driver Bruno Senna, nephew of 3 times F1 champion, the late Ayrton Senna. I had previously discussed Renault race driver Nelson Piquet (another Brazilian) but thanks to a solid finish to the season, Nelson Piquet will again be paired with Fernando Alonso in 2009. However, it does not change Honda's premise....go young.

The fact that Honda's Nick Fry is quoted in saying "I think it is important that we bring some fresh blood into F1" and has told Barrichello he is free to seek opportunities elsewhere is a great sign that Honda is shifting focus. Another but more subtle sign is Jenson Button's posturing that Honda keep Barrichello. It is clear that Button needs an external motivator; a young driver to potentially build around that will threaten Button's job security is exactly that. I am not sure Button likes it but it is what he needs in that let us remember that Button was beaten by Barrichello in 2008, 11 points to 3 points.

Also in terms of speed, in the 3 years they have been teammates Button and Barrichello are only separated by .011 seconds. Moreover, Button only holds a 27 to 26 advantage in start position. Either Barrichello was that quick or Button suffered from "Kimi-itis" and lacked the necessary interest the last couple of seasons. Honda team boss Ross Brawn thinks they are indeed closely matched. However, I think it is the latter.

In any event, another interesting and clear aspect about the drivers Honda are bringing is that these young drivers are Brazilian and in my opinion it is not coincidence (Barrichello is also Brazilian). Let us not forget there is a marketing component to racing and Honda seem keen to keep the South American connection with a choice of Di Grassi or Senna. All one needed to do is watch the Brazilian Grand Prix to see the support that the Brazilian fans will give their countrymen, i.e. Ferrari's Felipe Massa. A choice of a qualified, young Brazilian driver will keep or raise Honda's profile in the region.

Nevertheless, we must see how Di Grassi and Senna perform in the car; how they interact with the engineers, how their speed develops and to see if they are requested to come to another test. I will be watching the times that these drivers set, but it will be through the lens of what is the test program and what is the feedback from the team. Still, at this point I would be shocked if the choice is not one of these drivers.

Honda must go young while Button is still a viable barometer and develop new talent that can just focus on being fast and not minimize mistakes. If for some reason they keep Barrichello or go with another veteran driver, it will be a mistake that Honda will regret for the foreseeable future.

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