Just back from a few days in Wales. The trip was an eye-opener.
There were two main topics of conversation in the service areas, and around the bars, during the course of what is now known as Wales Rally GB. That’s the RAC Rally of Great Britain to you and me, except that the event is now staged entirely in Wales. Anyway.
Everybody wanted to talk about Honda’s withdrawal from Grand Prix racing and everybody was talking about the weather. These were not related but in their own ways were equally important.
Last Friday morning, very early last Friday morning (this is rallying, remember) we crawled out of our beds in the Marriott Hotel and stumbled to the door to grab our free copies of the Times newspaper. And there it was, right across the back page. Honda can no longer afford to stay in Formula One, the company is suffering from a slump in sales and so, sayonara Honda. Not a huge surprise, possibly, but a shock nonetheless when it came. Had the Japanese manufacturer just won the World Championship then no doubt it would be staying put.
But, clearly, the Grand Prix team has been going nowhere, and this despite the recruitment of Ross Brawn, oodles of cash and state-of-the-art technical facilities which are the envy of many a smaller team. It was inevitable, considering the slowdown in car sales worldwide, that something had to give, and it gave. Poor old Jenson Button, I thought, as I headed out to the service park in Swansea, he really hasn’t been in the right place at the right time, for a long time. But then, if he’d stayed at Williams, or at Renault, he probably wouldn’t have fared much better. Jenson’s a damn good racing driver and he deserves better. But, in Formula One timing is everything, just as in the real world.
David Richards, Team Principal at the Subaru World Rally Team and formerly the same at BAR Honda, expressed his disappointment and his sympathy for the staff facing an uncertain future. “I gather the team has been given three months to find a buyer,” said DR, wrapped up against the Welsh winter, “and they will probably find one, be on the grid next year. I don’t think this is the last we’ll see of Honda but it might not be the only team to pull out as a result of the global slowdown.” Would he be interested in dipping into his pockets one more time? “I won’t be rushing into anything,” he said, “ their overheads are huge, there are certain problems, and I will be watching to see what happens over the next few days and weeks.” Right then and there, the blue Subarus of Solberg and Atkinson were his primary concern – that and flying Japanese executives to the rally stages in his helicopter.
Then there was the weather. Why would that be a problem for rally drivers, you might ask? Surely they dance on ice, plough through snow and thrash through fog? Not now they don’t. New regulations drawn up by the FIA mean that gravel note crews are banned and only one type of tyre may be used throughout the rally. This in turn means that the stages have not been noted immediately before the start and that –if there is ice – the Pirelli Scorpion gravel tyre will not be as effective as it otherwise might be.
There was ice and the tyre wasn’t happy. Nor was multiple world champion Sebastien Loeb, first man out on the initial stages in the early morning frost. “There is no recce from the gravel crew any more,” he said, “and you just don’t know where the ice is, where the mud is, or what is round the next corner. I’d rather go home.” He didn’t go home of course – he won the rally with a sensational drive on the final two stages. It was frosty, it was sunny, the sky was blue and the Brecon Beacons looked more beautiful than ever. I hope those sheep know how lucky they are.
You can read lots more about the extraordinary Monsieur Loeb in the next edition of the magazine. Five times WRC champion, mighty quick in a Red Bull Grand Prix car, right on the pace in the Peugeot 908 HDi – this is a truly gifted racing driver.