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Honda Chooses Environment Instead of Speed

Behind the automakers withdrawal from F1 lies 100 years of change

  • December 15, 2008

A strong sense of vexation lingered as Honda Motor Co.'s president spoke. I still feel strongly about the hope to keep working on it, but the circumstances no longer allow us to do so, said President Takeo Fukui. I regret we have to withdraw without making any achievement. Im really sorry.

With those statements, Honda is withdrawing from Formula One (F1). Fukui remained grim throughout the press conference held to announce its withdrawal from the races. Fukui loves auto races, and he himself took command of the companys reentry in the F1 race in 2000, so his sorrow must have been heartbreaking.

The biggest reason for the withdrawal was the rapidly deteriorating economic circumstances surrounding the automobile industry from October through November. The world turned around 180 degrees from the way it was in spring. Were faced with so many discouraging factors and we just cant see into the future, Vice President Koichi Kondo said.

Hondas F1 team, consisting of more than 1,000 engineers, has been working on the project, and its annual expenses are considered to top 50 billion yen. Like many other automobile makers, Honda has announced plans not to renew contracts with some of its temporary employees, and has made it clear it will have no sanctuaries in reviewing its business plans.

Reasons for withdrawal rather than temporary suspension

Im really shocked. I thought Honda was going to stay in business even if all other companies withdrew from F1, said Fumito Akita, a joint owner of Super Aguri F1 Team who had been taking part in the F1 races with engines supplied by Honda until May of this year, It must have been really heartbreaking.

Honda took part in the F1 races three times in the past, and announced it planned to suspend the activities temporarily after the first two events. But this time, it was withdrawing altogether and has no plans for the future, according to President Fukui.

What is the difference between the past events and the latest one? Fukui said, The automobile industry has entered into an era of big changes heading for the next 100 years. In this age of global warming, environmental regulations will be further intensified in the advanced nations. And there is keen competition going on to develop new driving systems to replace gasoline-consuming internal combustion engines.

To override the changes, it will be necessary to exert all-out efforts in developing next-generation technologies, including those to cope with environmental problems. That was the reason why Fukui avoided using the expression temporarily suspending, which suggests a possible reentry in the future. He could have chosen a way to keep supplying just the engines for F1, but he felt that such an indecisive attitude would make the engineers feel reluctant.

His idea was to let the nearly 400 F1 engineers turn to developing environment-oriented automobiles instead. The company will strengthen the development of fuel-efficient mini cars even smaller than the Fit with an engine capacity of 1300 cc or hybrid cars scheduled to go on sale next spring starting with the new model Insight.

F1s fuel efficiency is 2 km per liter

Concentrating on F1 in itself does not lead to an advancement of environmental technology. The top priority is speed, and whether or not the car can turn corners at high speed decides victory or defeat in any given race. Although it provides the engineers with an excellent opportunity to test the most advanced technologies, F1s fuel efficiency of 2 kilometers per liter would seem to be terribly fuel inefficient from the standpoint of ordinary drivers, as an executive member of the car race team put it.

Yet, the F1 existence was big within the company. As it was started by Hondas Founder Soichiro Honda, the F1 project had a tremendous power to attract engineers.

F1, known even among children, is a symbol of Honda, and withdrawal from the project leaves us feeling deserted. Some of the engineers may become nervous for a time. But if they can look forward, those who have been aiming at becoming the worlds No. 1 will surely become big powers within the company, said Sachito Fujimoto who is in charge of the development of Hondas fuel cell electric vehicle (FCEV) FCX Clarity.

The judgment will be made depending on how things work out in five years. How much new values can be produced with the power borne out of withdrawal from the F1 development program? I hope it will be regarded as a good judgment, Fukui said.
The success or failure of the bitter judgment will depend on how far Honda can go in the area of environmental protection.

(Ryohei Yamazaki, Hideaki Emura, Staff Writers, Nikkei Business)

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