Honda F1 team on horizon

Car giant promises increase in F1 profile

Honda looks set to run its own team in Formula One for the first time since 1968 following an announcement that it intends to buy a 45 per cent stake in BAR.

The Japanese giant, which has supplied engines to BAR since 2000, is widely tipped to complete a total buy-out and rebranding of the team within the next two years. It has already drawn up plans for a new $50m wind tunnel and has pledged an increased investment of $100m a year on top of the similar amount it already spends on development.

The team's main shareholder and primary sponsor British American Tobacco is apparently keen to sell its existing stake in light of stringent anti-tobacco laws to be introduced across Europe in 2005. There is a fly in the ointment, however: former team principal Craig Pollock, who still owns BAR shares, is taking legal action to stop Honda's buy-in. The move could embarrass BAT, but is unlikely to thwart Honda's long-term ambitions.

The manufacturer has enjoyed huge success in F1, but only as an engine supplier to Williams, Lotus and McLaren during the late 1980s and early '90s. It came close to a full-blown return in 2000, with Jos Verstappen testing a Dallara-built Harvey Postlethwaite-designed test mule in '99, but Honda's board refused to sign off an annual budget of £125m and the plan was shelved. It appears that opinions have changed.

Former world champion John Surtees, who transformed Honda's GP fortunes during the '60s, is sure that the new-look team will prevail: "I think what it is often overlooked here in Europe is that Honda is in motorsport to develop people; the publicity aspect is secondary. It has a proper management structure and what people learn in racing is carried through into the production of road cars. There is a real legacy of engineering at Honda. When it pulled out of F1 at the end of 1968 the Civic was unveiled not long after and suddenly Honda was seen as a serious manufacturer. Its take-on-the-world attitude stemmed directly from motor racing. A lot of people I knew on the F1 team went on to run the company.

"I can see no reason why Honda won't be successful again in F1."

BAR finished second in the 2004 constructors' standings on the back of Jenson Button's 11 podiums. Otmar Szafnauer, vice-president of Honda Racing Development, said Button is key to the team's future: "We have specifically targeted 2006 as the year in which we want to win the title. We fully intend to win a number of races next season. The increased investment, together with closer technical collaboration, is a reflection of that... We need a driver ofJenson's quality to do that."

But David Richards, the architect of BAR's run of results in 2004, will not be on board to steer the revised team. With his contract up for renewal, he has already left.

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Fact File -- Honda in Formula One

1964: After testing a Cooper chassis, Honda builds RA271. Unknown Ronnie Bucknum drives it in three GP's

1965: Richie Ginther wins Mexican GP in RA272

1967: John Surtees wins Italian GP in Lola Indycar-derived RA300

1968: Honda withdraws from F1

1983: Honda re-enters F1 with Spirit 201

1984-87: 23 GP wins and two world titles with Williams; two GP wins with Lotus

1988-92: 44 GP wins and four world titles with McLaren