Anthony Davidson must be the smallest man in the paddock. Affectionately named 'The Ant', BAR's third driver has been a permanent fixture at the team's motorhome for the past couple of years, but this year he seems to stand out far more than ever before. That's what topping the times on a Grand Prix practice session - or coming second only to Michael Schumacher - can do to your stature. Since Formula One changed the rules at the end of last year to allow any team finishing outside of the top four in the Constructors' Championship to run a third driver in the practice sessions on Friday of a Grand Prix weekend, Formula One fans have been able to appraise a new generation of drivers, and none have shone brighter in that time than Davidson.
"We didn't really know what to expect from the way it was going to run on Friday at the beginning of the year," – 'we' being Davidson and his manager – "but we knew it would be good to get out there, learn all the circuits, and that it was all going to be such valuable experience," Davidson says, adding with a laughter: "It seems to be one of the things that teams are concerned about - whether a driver knows the tracks or not, which is really bizarre to me because you learn a track in ten laps, that's all it takes. So I don't know why they are so het up about a driver knowing a circuit or not.
"But of course I should be saying it's massively valuable! And now I've got that under my belt for next year, and it's been really good; learning the whole environment, how it all works, the build up to a race weekend; that's the kind of thing you can't learn just testing, you do pick things up here as the year goes on."
Davidson isn't thinking of next year for nothing: with Formula One up for one of its biggest line-up reshuffles next year, the Briton from Hemel Hempstead is a natural candidate for any open seat, be it Jaguar or Williams. What his chances are of landing a seat at any of the teams remains to be seen, but for now he is utilising his opportunity in the Formula One limelight better than any of his testing peers.
"I hate that, I hate the thought of me just being a test driver," he says, "because I really miss the racing. I miss it so much, and it's the one thing that I know I'm good at and you never get a chance to prove it, to show that. Going into the season, I was hoping that this testing job would lead to people saying, 'hey, who's this Davidson guy, he's up there'; that's what we were hoping for, and it's happening so far, which is great.
"So this year has been really amazing, but I really feel that the next natural progression is going to be getting into a whole full season in a good car and doing a good job."
DC: So what are your plans for next year, then?
Davidson: "I wish I knew! I think I plan to be driving racing cars - yeah, that's probably it. That's a safe bet!"
DC: Are there any negotiations going on with other teams at the moment?
Davidson: "No, not really. If negotiations mean talking to people in the paddock then yeah, I suppose there are. But it's not really negotiations; I see that as talking money, talking drive, talking seriously; so no, there's not."
DC: There has been talk linking you specifically to Jaguar, since your agent used to work for HSBC. Are you going to see you racing there next year?
Davidson: "We know Tony Purnell really well, but knowing someone really well and getting a race drive when it's down to business… You can know someone as well as you want to, but when it comes down to that then getting a race drive it doesn't matter who you are; they're going to give you the same story as they give everyone else."
DC: Would you pay for a drive next year?
Davidson: "If I had a sponsor I'd pay without a shadow of a doubt, straight away; give me the money and I'll pay! I'm not using my own money to pay, because I haven't got any! But it goes without saying that I wouldn't pay if I was going to drive a Jordan and I had to pay them three or four million quid; I'd go and buy a house! I'd have a nice life thank you very much, and buy a go kart and drive around and have fun!"
DC: What would you consider the ideal team to join, then? What would be the pros and cons of joining any of the existing teams?
Davidson: "Well the biggest con you have is going with a team at the back of the grid, because no one looks at you. It's very, very hard, and particularly with the gap you have now between the guys right at the back and the guys at the front; it's never been bigger than this, I don't think. So to do something special in a car where you just do not stand a chance of showing what you can do is impossible, and at the end of the day you're going to have to pay for that anyway so forget that; we're not in that position anyway.
"But that makes it even worse for the guys who are paying for it; they're paying to be at the back and not get noticed, and it's really hard; it's so unfair. I wouldn't say there's any con with going with a good team, because you're always going to be doing a good job, and no matter who you're up against in Formula One you've always got a good teammate; that's not an issue there."
DC: So if you had all the teams to choose from you'd go to Ferrari, because they're doing the best?
Davidson: "Of course; you go for the best car."
DC: It's not uncommon, however, to hear drivers say they don't want to go to Ferrari while Michael Schumacher is there...
Davidson laughs. "Yeah, but he's not going to be there forever, and at my stage it would be quite a good bet, wouldn't it, to go there and wait for him to bugger off!"
Davidson was of course already given an opportunity to race in Formula One, when in 2002 he replaced the underperforming Alex Yoong at Minardi for two races. It was a mixed result; his times were more competitive than the man he replaced – and he was certainly closer to teammate Mark Webber - but he still qualified at the back of the grid for both races, and he failed to see the chequered flag on either occasion.
"I think it's funny that you call it races, because I don't think driving around at the back all by yourself is a race!" Davidson laughs, when asked to reflect on his F1 debut. "For me it wasn't a race; in fact it was like testing, because I drove around with a clear track in front of me, and you just do what you need to do! In Hungary, it was awful having to get out of everyone's way, and it's not why you do it - it's not why you want to be a racing driver, to be looking in your mirrors all the time.
"But that's just so in the past. I mean, I wasn't really ready for it back then - physically I wasn't really ready at all, and the worst thing is I had to bloody pay for it! So I look back on it now and think, that was alright, really, considering how inexperienced I was and how hard the car was to drive. And also who my teammate was - because at the time we didn't really give him respect. We all just thought, 'Webber, hmm, how good is he really?' and it was only when he got in the Jaguar and started putting in those performances that we thought, 'hmm, actually this guy's pretty special'."
DC: So what do you think is the biggest difference in yourself now from back then?
Davidson: "I'd say definitely experience, and experience gives you confidence, and confidence gives you speed; knowing why the car's quick or slow. It's just the same as Jenson: he came into Williams and you could see he had a bit of potential, did some amazing results at the end of the year, and you could see that there was a natural talent there.
"It just takes time, when you're testing especially and not racing; in those two Minardi races I learnt far more than I did in the whole year in testing; in two races you just learn and pick things up, and when you go to the next test you're more confident and you go 'well I've been racing now, so this is just a test', whereas when you are a tester you go 'wow, the next test is coming up, ooh ooh'; now after doing these on Fridays going to a test is just like going to the office for work; you're not in awe of anything and it just flows, and speed comes from that."
DC: Still, I get the impression that Friday is a bit of a pressure cooker with only two hours, with a crowd watching you and TV cameras and the media – all evaluating you
Davidson: "Yeah, but when you get out there, you just forget all of that. Australia was a bit 'ooh - this a serious test day now', but you just get on with your testing. It's just, for me, like a normal test day, and the guys are always saying 'hey, you're so relaxed, you take everything in your stride' but I think I'm not doing anything different to what I do at a test, because at the end of the day you're testing, and the only thing that's different is you only get one or two shots on new tyres in the afternoon when the track's faster.
"But when you know your test programme, and you know that the car is going to be faster - not for you but in that session - it can sometimes give you pressure or take away pressure; when you have to do a good job and you want to see a fast lap time then yeah, that's a bit of pressure. But when you know the car is just set up for a fast run then it takes pressure away from you, and it's just like a normal test day."
DC: It strikes me that going out and getting a really good lap on the new tyres, pushing the car right up the grid, is very important to you
Davidson: "The new tyre run is always very important, because you know that if you screw up on that one lap you're not going to look very good. So there's always pressure, and this is part of where some drivers get it wrong I think, that if you treat it any differently and you push extra hard, or if you put pressure on yourself, you're never going to be any good at it. If that is the fastest the car can go, and that is the fastest you can go in it, it should just come really easily."
DC: Is it a situation where the team will let you go out on really low fuel loads and new tyres so that you can set that lap?
Davidson: "In Bahrain they let me have a go on low fuel; I went out there and got traffic! So it just happens; you've got to go out there with a level head and not get excited about it. That's the difference now; you know where the car is going to be fast. If you take the fuel out you know the car is going to be much better under braking, much better traction, and you know that you're not really going to find that much extra speed in the high speed corners, so if you know where it can give you the extra speed, and you use it to your advantage, whereas before at Minardi if we took the fuel out it was 'ooh, why is it doing this?' - it was all new to me, because I'd never, ever done a low fuel run before, so that's part of the learning curve as well."
DC: With the possible exception of Toyota's Ricardo Zonta, you are the only one of the third drivers who is getting to the top of the timesheets and sometimes beating your own race drivers. To get these sorts of times you've got to run fairly light, on new tyres, and on the right new tyres. And since a large part of your programme is to find the right tyres for the race, it doesn't really seem to add anything to your programme by setting these really quick laps
Davidson: "I'm mega happy with my times at the end of the day, and I'm really happy with my performance, and I know why; no one else knows. So if people want to make something of it, read into it whatever they like or think I was light, then I don't care what they think – I know what I did, and I know that I'm happy with what I did.
"We never take the fuel out - apart from Bahrain where we did - and BAR's pretty sensible like that. The thing is, when you're involved in it, inside the team, you know whether you've done a good or bad job. The only two tests where I've really struggled so far have been Melbourne and Imola, and apart from that I've been really, really pleased with my performance. Barcelona was amazing - to be two tenths away from Jenson, or not even that, and I know what set up we were on; I know they were pretty similar, and I know here [at the Nurburgring] they were pretty similar.
"It wasn't to my advantage to do a long run, do a long tyre evaluation; it's just my job, you know? The other difference is we've got other third drivers out there who are paying to be there, so of course if they want to drop the fuel out or go for a time then fair enough, go and do it, but I'm out there doing the job, and to me it's not a big part of it, doing the times."
So how good Davidson? Can his times really be compared to those of his racing teammates? Honda Racing's vice president Otmar Szafnauer is convinced the Briton is as good as he looks.
"He is that good; he's a very good driver," Szafnauer says. "But sometimes he may go out on fresh tyres in one session where the other drivers don't, and sometimes that's difficult to assess without being in the garage and looking and knowing. You have to look at every session and say why was he quicker here; was it talent, was it because he went out on fresh tyres or on a low fuel run, that kind of thing.
"Sometimes his programme is marginally different, just because he has different objectives. His main objective is to do tyre testing, learn the differences between tyres for long runs, short runs and qualifying type runs to help the other two drivers make good decisions. Predominantly the cars are the same; Anthony wouldn't get a different engine or wing package or aero package. The only difference is sometimes his programme may be a little bit different from the other two drivers.
"But predominantly his talent is such that he is at the level; if you have a test driver who isn't quite at the level, the data you acquire isn't worth as much, so you need somebody who is at the level of the other drivers so that they can make good choices with the feedback they get. And Anthony is at that level."
DC: What about the relationship between him and the other drivers?
Szafnauer: "Yeah, that's the other thing; we have a very good driver combination, the three of them. Anthony and Jenson have known each other since they were kids because they were competing against each other in those smaller formulas, and in British F3 he was Taku's teammate, so they know him very well. So for that reason the drivers respect Anthony for his talents, and also trust him with his feedback, and they have very good communication because of it. You probably couldn't have put a better package together from that regard; the drivers knowing each other, respecting each other, and having a good relationship and communication."
One of the problems with a season where one team dominates all others is to work out how they've done it; the fans want to know, the other teams want to know, and it begins a process of examination that continues until the others catch up to the front runners.
One of the possible aspects is tyres. Last year, Michelin seemed to have gained the upper hand in the tyre war, prompting BAR to jump ship after the final race in Suzuka in an attempt to profit from the advantage, but with Ferrari on Bridgestone winning all but one race so far this season, it is unclear which rubber now has the upper hand. Still, BAR clearly made the biggest leap in performance since last year, and it's not illogical to attribute it to their change of tyres.
"It's always a bit of everything; you don't find that much speed with it being just one thing, or even a majority of one thing," Davidson responds. "Obviously I know all the steps, what they were; basically we improved the chassis a lot, Honda improved the engine, we're learning the tyres and we're now getting near to the best of out them; it's just everything that comes along, every little bit of the package really makes a difference. And there's all the testing we've done, all the aero, all the brake work, all the engine work, tyre work; everything we do has just been step by step, just bringing it all together, and that's what we've done this year.
DC: Let me put it another way, then. Had BAR stayed with Bridgestone, do you think you would have made such a big advance?
Davidson: "I think so, yeah; don't forget that in Suzuka last year we were already up there, so it was just a natural progression to step it up, and that's what we did. We knew all the aspects that we had to modify on the car, and we did that. We never got a true back to back comparison; we never ran the new car on Bridgestones, so that's one thing we'll never, ever know."
DC: I have heard from various sources that when you ran the first test on Michelins there was around 1.2 second per lap improvement just from putting on the new tyres
Davidson: "Well it was a different car then too, so no; it's unfair to say that. And also that was last year, and now we're going three seconds faster than we did in Mugello before we went to the race in Suzuka. Three seconds! There's not one thing that you could change on a car that would give you three seconds, so that shows how much the rate of development has moved. Look at Jaguar; they outqualified us in Melbourne, and we're on the same tyres; it's never one thing, it's never, ever just one thing."
Another advantage Davidson has over last year is that he is now out on the track with all of the race drivers every other Friday, and he has the perfect view to see the differences in approach they all make to their job. Rather than pounding around a track in the south of France by himself, he can now learn the styles of the different drivers first hand; it's an education he will need if he races next year, and he is getting it earlier than he otherwise would have, had he joined a team as a race driver first.
DC: I was wondering who really impresses you out there. Braking points, ability and so on, and not necessarily from your team. Who has impressed you, and who has disappointed you?
Davidson: "It's funny; some drivers you see - and I can't really think of any example right now - but it's funny how some drivers take a long time to build up to it, and that's something that's quite interesting to me. You can see the ones where it comes naturally and the ones who have to work at it, sit down and talk to the engineers, look at the data and things like that, and work on it more and more; you can see the guys who do that. And that's always quite interesting; it doesn't necessarily mean it's a good or bad thing, it's just different; they get there in the end, and it's just a weird thing to see.
"You can see that Michael's got amazing natural ability; he just goes out there and bang, first lap, unbelievable. It's just incredible. And you can see other drivers that fight it and work at it more, you can see that on the circuit, and it's quite amazing to watch. Somewhere like Monaco especially, you look at what the car's doing, the attitude of it, and you can really see the guys who are fully lit, fully pushing it, and the guys who are building up to it. It's good to watch."
DC: Do you measure your braking points compared to, say, Michael or someone like that?
Davidson: "Yeah; in Monaco he came out in front of me and I'd already done a few laps and I was braking later than him; it was just incredible to think who you're just following around the streets of Monaco. It was pretty cool, yeah."
DC: So you could kick his arse then, obviously!
Davidson: "Well no; he then got into the swing of things and just pulled away!"
Few drivers have had a career come to them as seemingly easily as Jenson Button. Starting his karting career in 1988, he won the British Cadet Championship at the age of ten before going on to win effectively every British karting championship there was to win. A move into the European championships continued his long run of victories: he won the Senior ICA Italian Championship against drivers with far more experience, was the youngest ever runner up in the Formula A World Championship (and was denied a title through a broken chain in the final) and the youngest winner of the European Super A Championship.
In 1998 Button moved into cars, starting as he meant to go on by winning the British Formula Ford Championship along with the Formula Ford Festival at Brands Hatch. He was the only realistic choice for the McLaren Autosport BRDC Young Driver Award, and moved into Formula Three the following year, winning two races and claiming third (and highest placed rookie) in the championship. He was also second (and again highest placed rookie) at the Macau Grand Prix.
Button's first taste of Formula One came at the wheel of a McLaren, part of the prize for winning the BRDC award, which led to a test with the Prost team. Within ten laps he had outpaced Prost driver Jean Alesi. With talk of a Prost drive in the offing Frank Williams offered Button a test, with a potential test driver position being considered; this turning into a shoot out for a race drive against Bruno Junqueira when Alessandro Zanardi's departure from the team was announced, and the young Briton subsequently claimed the seat.
Button's debut year in Formula One, in 2000 and at the age of twenty, was not without incident but impressed enough that, when Williams honoured a previous arrangement to bring Juan Pablo Montoya into the sport, he was snapped up by Benetton / Renault. The team was on a low ebb, and he struggled against teammate Giancarlo Fisichella's noted pace before coming to terms with new teammate Jarno Trulli in 2002.
This performance was enough to earn Button a seat with BAR the following year alongside World Champion Jacques Villeneuve. The combination of speed and experience clicked; Button beat the Canadian on-track to claim the de facto team leader position, a position which was solidified with Villeneuve's forced retirement from the sport at the end of the year.
DC: It's been really noticeable at the end of last year and then in winter testing that the team seemed to take another step up; is there something you can put your finger on as to why?
Jenson Button: "It's the team, you know, there were some very good people here before and then Geoff Willis arrived, David's obviously here, two new drivers and a lot of other people behind the scenes who have really moved the team forward. The reasons for it are we've not just worked in certain areas, and we've worked on everything; the engine is a lot lighter than last year, it's more reliable which is important, the car is also lighter, it has a lower centre of gravity, and you can move the weight around and you can really feel the differences.
"I think a lot of it comes from experience in Formula One, and now BAR is in its sixth year and has a lot of experience, there are a lot of good people onboard, but from last year to this year it was very difficult to have a car that was going to fight for the World Championship because it's too big a leap to make. But I think the step forward that we've made is quite impressive for a lot of teams."
DC: The team was fifth in the Championship, but it really only happened in the last round; before that there were a number of teams around the same position. You went into winter testing with this, ran the hybrid car and then the new car, but what is it that's improved?
JB: "It's everything; it's not huge steps, it's a lot of little steps along the way. The interim car was a step forward, and then this (the new car) is again, but there are a lot of new parts coming along that are very important I think. You know, it's great turning up to the first race with a good car, but you really do need to keep building on that. If you look at our car at the start of the year it's very simple compared to some cars out there, and there is a lot more room for improvement, which is good."
DC: You say it's simple, but in what way?
JB: "If you look at the car it's very simple compared to the other cars; they've got bits everywhere aerodynamically and we're just a lot more simple, and I think it's a good way of working; there's a lot of room to build the car."
DC: The saying goes that a clean car, a good looking car, is a fast car, but is it just as simple as that?
JB: "It's very difficult really; if you look at the Williams car it's not the prettiest car out there but it's pretty quick. So it's difficult really but if it's got good lines, normally there's more to it than that, but it's a step in the right direction."
DC: How good a car is it for this year's competition compared to your Williams for 2000?
JB: "A lot quicker."
DC: Obviously cars improve over the years, but you are currently at x amount competitively for this year, and I wondered how that compares to the competitive level of your Williams for that year.
JB: "For the first race I think it's probably quite similar, but I think that was a great result for us and we've built on that already since then. I think it is probably quite similar to a few of the races in 2000; consistency was our great failure in 2000."
DC: Why was that?
JB: "I don't know; for me it was because it was my first year in Formula One, and personally I'm a lot different to how I was in 2000 and gained a lot of experience since then."
DC: In winter testing you know where you are with the car, but you don't necessarily know where the others are; how did you measure yourselves against them at the time?
JB: "We still don't know where we are, we still don't know going into the first race exactly where we stood. We knew we had taken a step forward with the car, because it was a completely different feeling from driving the car last year, but we still didn't know where we were, especially against Ferrari, and against Renault and Williams. We didn't know how much fuel they were running in testing. So it was really exciting to see where we are in qualifying at the first race, in Australia. We were really happy to be fourth, and also I think we had similar fuel in as the other top guys because we all stopped around the same lap, so it was good. And after that we were a little shocked at how much we fell away in the race."
DC: Yes; it looked like you were having some tyre problems at the back.
JB: "I don't know how but we damaged the front wing, and that… you don't just lose grip at the front, you lose grip at the back. And that wouldn't have helped, and also it was our first time on the tyres for a race distance, so we did struggle a bit, but I think we've got a lot of good information from that and we know the reasons for it, which is great, and we shouldn't have those issues again."
DC: So you are on top of these problems now?
JB: "Yeah, 100%, which is great. It's nice to know where the problem was."
DC: So where do you think BAR is going to go from here?
JB: "I think that we need to be closer to the top teams, and we can be; we can be a lot closer to Williams, but we need to keep building on that and I think we can. We need to keep building on our pace, and 100% throughout the season; we can't start thinking 'okay, the car's pretty good' and that's it; we have to keep working on it because that's exactly what the top teams do, and it's where they gained pace last year because they kept working at it. So hopefully by the end of the season our aim is to be fourth as a team, and hopefully we'll be closer to the top three teams than a lot of people think."
DC: You said before you didn't know where you were against Ferrari, but you probably don't measure yourselves against them at the moment.
JB: "No, they're on a different tyre, which makes a difference, and I think here (in Malaysia) they're not going to be anywhere near as quick as in Melbourne, because also last year in Melbourne they were awesome. I think it's going to be a lot closer here."
DC: So who do you use as a benchmark then?
JB: "It's more Williams and Renault; Renault I think are very consistent, awesomely consistent; they've done a very good job on that side of things. If you look at Williams they seem to be quick in qualifying and in the race they're relatively quick, but the Renaults in qualifying are all right and very quick in the races. So it's just two very different cars it seems, and that makes it very interesting for us. That's the main people we judge ourselves against."
DC: What about McLaren? They are noticeably absent in your list.
JB: "At the moment no, but I'm sure they'll improve; they have to. They have the experience, they have the people, they have two great drivers and there's no real reason why they're not on the pace; I don't really know why they're not. I'm sure they'd improve."
DC: From testing is it quite a surprise where they are?
JB: "No not really, because I didn't really think they were anywhere in testing either."
DC: Why not?
JB: "Because they weren't! (laughs) They broke some lap records but they would have been on low fuel; you don't break lap records unless you're on low fuel; it's impossible."
DC: You mentioned Renault, and you and Renault seem to be the teams to upset the apple cart this year. Why is that? Is it a generational change, or something else?
JB: "Yeah I think it always seems to happen in Formula One; if you're a top team in the end you will get there. If you look at the history of Formula One the top teams have always … it just seems to happen in periods. For example, Williams will get to number one and be there for a number of years, and then Renault will come along and knock them off the top, Williams will come back again; it always seems to be the same way.
"I think it's pretty normal; Renault have a lot of great people working there, they've gained a lot of experience throughout the years, and I think they've got a better engine now. So it's normal I think, but it's quite interesting because Renault and Williams are the two teams that I drove for before, and they're the two teams that we look at really to try and be on their pace."
DC: What do you want to get out of this year?
JB: "I wouldn't look at the Championship, I'd rather look at races, short term goals, and I want to be on the podium more than one time this year. And it's not just being on the podium, I want to be challenging at the front; I don't want to be on the podium through luck, or I finish third and be thirty seconds behind the leader. I want to have some close fights, and if that happens then I think I'll be happy this year."
There is a story about the career path of Takuma Sato that says he needs two years to succeed in a series; the first year will consist of a lot of crashes as he goes over the limit of his car to find it, and the second year he will take the lessons learnt and dominate. This is unlikely to happen in Formula One, but considering his undoubted speed the other drivers have good reason to look over their shoulders. Sato has always had a keen interest in cycling, and as a youth he dreamt of success on two wheels. His first taste of karting changed that, and he scraped together the money to buy his first kart. In 1997 he was the karting champion in Honda's Suzuka Racing School Scholarship and was handed the prize of a fully paid season in the Japanese Formula Three Championship. He chose not to accept it, turning his attention instead towards Europe.
In 1998 Sato contested in the Formula Vauxhall Junior series, moving up during the year to Formula Opel with Diamond Racing. He split the following year between the Opel series and, later, the Scholarship Class in British Formula Three, running competitively in both series. He also took his first win in Macau that year, in the support race.
For 2000 Sato moved up to the A Class of Formula Three with Carlin Motorsports, claiming five wins and third in the championship in a wild learning season. Formula One teams took note, and he had his first tests with Jordan and BAR that year before signing as test driver for the latter at the behest of engine supplier Honda.
Sato demolished the competition the following year, taking twelve of a possible thirteen wins along the way to his F3 title, the highest number of wins ever in the series. He also grabbed wins at the Marlboro Masters in Zandvoort and both races at the Macau Grand Prix. Honda seemed to finally have what they were looking for after so long; a Japanese driver who could make it to the top flight on pure ability rather than financial support.
Jordan snapped him up for a race drive in 2002, and it was a dramatic season. Sato seemed unable to come to terms with teammate Giancarlo Fisichella's speed, and had a number of off-track adventures in pursuit of his quick colleague. Sato refined his approach over the season before claiming his first points finish at the season closer in Japan with a fine fifth place, and then returned to BAR for the following year.
Sato spent 2003 as the team's third driver, working closely on development with the BAR and Honda engineers, developing the car and looking for improvements. His hard work was rewarded with a race drive for 2004, with an early appearance at the end of the year in Japan, replacing Jacques Villeneuve who didn't show up. Sato proved his worth by claiming a hard won sixth place.
DC: You were the test driver last year and have been involved in the team's programme for some time; what do you think has been most noticeable about their improvement over this time?
Takuma Sato: "I think there is continuous work. BAR Honda has a structure since David Richards came, and he made it a new structure for the team and built it up. Basically the last year was the first year that they planned it and did an action as a first year, and I think they did it quite well. Technically Honda's commitment has improved every year, and instead of them developing themselves like BAR and Honda (separately) and choosing what is the best, with the restriction of time and energy it is better to have the one (together). So Honda and BAR have come together and developed the one thing, and it's a lot better I think."
DC: There has been a noticeable improvement in that; in previous years Honda and BAR seemed fairly far apart, and it has certainly improved last year and this year. How has that come about?
TS: "I think from BAR's point of view as a very newish team they didn't have a historical way to do it; so it's more being open minded and prepared to try new things. And Honda's got a very successful past, although it was ten, fifteen years ago, and as a third generation Honda's return to Formula One was not only as an engine manufacturer but also trying to develop the car as well, and that's very different. And obviously BAR and Honda has the same philosophy to do some new type of work in Formula One. I think it does take a little bit of time, and that was it over the last two years."
DC: How much of an improvement have you seen in the team since you joined them?
TS: "It's quite significant actually, because in the last year I have been involved in development programme, so I can see how significant the development has been, and that was a fantastic experience for me. But also for me I only did my first year in Jordan, and that was a great season but we didn't have a great test time because they hardly ever did any testing after the first few races. So to be honest I don't know; I've never been to a different team to test, but I think all I can say is obviously the BAR Honda development work is continuously working; that's quite a strong point. This year, as I said, instead of the two development programmes we do one, and that's quite significant."
DC: Jordan ran a Honda engine during your time there; what is the most significant difference between the two teams while you've been there?
TS: "Circumstances are quite, quite different really; as Jordan is a very little private team. Basically Eddie Jordan gave me a great opportunity to drive a Formula One car, and he chose me as a Grand Prix driver and we had a really great season, but basically Honda wasn't involved in the chassis development on the Jordan at that time, and with BAR they do, so it's very different basis. And now Honda is only with one team, so they can try anything they want, and that makes a huge difference on testing and development leads."
DC: How much of an impact do you think you've had on the development of this year's car?
TS: "I think that's one thing it is better to ask Geoff, because he is the man who knows this, but I could say to you that I had a big involvement in the development of the gearbox on last year's car, with internal gears, changings and everything, based on Honda's development programme in a package with engine development. Honda developed this package, and I was involved in it, and every time I tested it, it was better and better.
"Unfortunately we couldn't use that stuff on last year's car; it was all ready to go on the last race, but we couldn't because it didn't have enough testing. And then obviously having a new car with that gearbox on it I'm very pleased, because you can see how it developed, and now I'm using it on the racing stuff and that was quite big. Also I think Honda is looking into the suspension geometry as well, and that's quite handy because changing from Bridgestone to Michelin we had to redesign the suspension, which means a lot of time in the races, which I think helps."
DC: You did a lot of testing in winter; when you were doing that how did you compare yourselves with the other teams, which is very difficult to do, and how do you compare yourselves to them now that you've raced?
TS: "Well the team is obviously looking at the other teams to see what they are doing, but you never know the true answer. Obviously from a driver's point of view you just concentrate on your development programme, not looking at the other side, only looking at the front with the engineers at the programme you make and how you achieve that programme. So I didn't really see the others."
DC: So where do you see yourself this year? What are your aims?
TS: "Basically my ambition is the same as the team's ambition; challenging the top teams and finishing in the top four of the Constructors' Championship. But to be able to do that basically you need a podium finish and constantly score the points, and that's what my goal is; just get a podium throughout the season at some stage, and of course the earlier the better. If I could do it, that would be very good, and obviously I've never been on the podium (in Formula One) so it would be very nice to have that!"
The days of entrepreneurial management in Formula One are over. In the past men like Ken Tyrrell and Walter Wolf, self made men who succeeded in the outside world and who had a passion for motor racing, were able to come to the sport and succeed with a combination of street cunning and money, but those days are gone for good. For a recent example of this truism you need look no further than the ignominious decline of the formerly talismanic Jordan team, led by their charismatic ring leader Eddie Jordan through good times and, latterly, bad. Jordan was always seen as a fun place to be, the rock and roll team that thought it could succeed by turning up and out-promoting the rest of the teams rather than looking at the processes of the successful and emulating them.
Craig Pollock, though less exuberant, took the path less traveled in Jordan's wake. Armed with a full contact book and a self belief verging on the inhuman, Pollock created British American Racing out of a lot of dreams and a pile of cash from a tobacco company. That achievement in itself was extraordinary, but it is one thing to build a team, quite another to make it succeed.
Statements to the world press that the new team would be competing for victories were defied by results which were so poor that BAR finished behind even Minardi, the perennial back markers, in their first year. A deal that brought Honda back into Formula One the following year was the only notable achievement, and it wasn't enough; the team had no solid plan to push up the grid, and when you add this to infighting among the top executives it wasn't hard to see the dream ending as a nightmare.
By 2001 the rot had well and truly set in at BAR, and the board (in the form of principal shareholders British American Tobacco - BAT) determined to do something about it. Pollock was summarily dismissed as soon as they found a replacement.
The road to last week's podium in Malaysia started when David Richards signed on the dotted line in late 2001. His appointment at the team was necessary and prudent, and his work with new Technical Director Geoff Willis has revolutionised the team's approach to racing. The two men, along with team drivers Jenson Button and Takuma Sato, have brought a sense of belief to a team in which it was sorely lacking.
Richards' love of motorsport started as a child watching the British Rally Championship, and he moved into the sport as early as possible as a co-driver. Moving through the ranks Richards ultimately co-drove, with Ari Vatanen, a Ford to the World Rally Championship (WRC) title in 1981, at which time he quit the sport and formed David Richards Autosport, later renamed Prodrive. The team raced various cars across the Middle East and European rallying circuits, eventually joining the WRC running a BMW M3. Prodrive was the first privateer team to win a round of the championship, at Corsica in 1987.
The team was also competing in the British Touring Car Championship, and won the title (also with an M3) in 1988. The following year a legendary partnership was formed when Subaru approached Prodrive to run their rallying programme. The results speak for themselves: under Richards' control Subaru won the British Rally Championship in 1991, 1992 and 1993, the WRC Drivers' Championship (with Colin McRae, and sponsored by BAT brand 555) in 1995 and the WRC Manufacturers' Championship in 1995, 1996 and 1997.
At the end of 1997 Richards was given the role of chief executive and team principal for the Benetton Formula One team, remaining chairman of Prodrive but delegating responsibility back into his company for the rally programme. Benetton had a successful history in the sport but was flailing, and Richards was seen as the perfect man to turn the team around from the downhill slide that characterized the stewardship of Rocco Benetton.
He started the turnaround, and after a slow start the team managed to limp home in fifth place, but after failing to convince the Benetton family of the need to sell shares in the team to Ford in return for the manufacturer's support Richards left at the end of 1998. Richards returned to Prodrive, and a deal to sell 49% of his company to a venture capitalist firm made him a wealthy man.
In 2000 Richards bought the commercial rights to the WRC from Bernie Ecclestone and set about trying to improve the public awareness of the sport before being offered the job of chief executive at BAR at the end of 2001. Once again he delegated responsibilities in-house at Prodrive before concentrating on the task of rebuilding a Formula One team in his own image.
DC: I guess the place to start is winter testing and the design process of the new car...
David Richards: "Well, really, you've got to go back two and a half years to get to where we are now, because everyone seems to think these things happen by snapping your fingers or that you suddenly pull a white rabbit out of a hat, but these things really happen methodically over time, having a plan and then slowly implementing it. And that's what we've done; we've set about the overall structure of the team two and a bit years ago. You can't build a great car unless you've got the infrastructure right the way throughout the organization. No matter how great a designer Geoff (Willis) is, without the manufacturing processes in place, without the right design support in place, without the quality control procedures in place, nothing happens. All those things had to be put in there."
DC: In a way I guess it's BAR's version of Russia's Five Year Plan.
DR: "It is a little bit, yes."
DC: So how do you implement these things? You obviously had your eyes open when you accepted the position, so what did you look at to resolve the inherent problems?
DR: "We looked at every last thing, and just went through it. To be perfectly honest there were good facilities, and a lot of people, but no structure. Something that's taken us two and a half years to do can't be explained in two minutes. You can't just identify one area either. I think there was a lack of structure about the way things were done; there was a lack of knowledge about what the true standards were."
DC: So there was clearly a lack of management expertise and structure, a lack of ability to delegate efficiently and with purpose?
DR: "There was very little of that."
DC: Why was that?
DR: "There was no one there with the skill set to put it together; that was the problem."
DC: Obviously Geoff coming into the team was a massive boost in that respect, but what else would you say improved the position of the team in a substantial way?
DR: "You'd better ask Geoff that, because whatever car he designed, whatever ideas he had, if it wasn't possible to implement them throughout the organisation then it wouldn't happen. As I say, if he didn't have the right design support and the right people in there, if the manufacturing processes weren't there, and if the quality control wasn't there then none of those things would have happened anyway. And the budget controls, the financial controls; the team was over budget every single year by miles. We met our budget last year, we hit our budget this year and for two years now in a row, and been spot on. And all those disciplines are required to be put in place, and they just didn't exist. That was our job; that was Nick Fry's and my job."
DC: So Geoff just came in and identified what he needed, and told you to sort it out?
DC: In winter testing Jenson did a very quick lap on fumes in Valencia, but then in Barcelona he was second fastest on consistent laps, which is a real achievement. So what has changed to allow this?
DR: "Well, everything's changed, from the engine to the aerodynamics to the suspension; every last detail of the car has changed. It's an evolutionary process; this is no great revolution. Ferrari; how long did it take Jean Todt to get them into the position they're in? He was actually winning successfully after about five years, and it was just methodical going about it. What you do is just keep going around the organisation looking at the weakest links, trying to plug the gaps and improve every single aspect, and the culmination of that is the evolutionary process around the car, and it improves the quality, improves every aspect of it."
DC: There was a period not so long ago where the teams went through an employment boom, and kept pulling more and more people into the team - is that process still ongoing?
DR: "There's a certain element of that, but the reality is that how you use your people and how you use your resources is as important as how big your resources are. When I came to BAR the first thing they told me was we haven't got enough budget, we haven't got enough people, and we haven't got enough resources. So I cancelled the programme for the second windtunnel, I reduced the staff by 20%, and cut the budget back by 10%. It's about how you use resources; it's about proper management of an organisation. You know, no matter how talented the drivers are, no matter how talented the design team are, if you haven't got the proper management there, proper leadership there, you won't achieve anything."
DC: Is the team at the size that you think it should be?
DR: "It's about right. I think our target is just to be more and more efficient, and we're driving down costs at all times at the moment; we've got a very big purge on in our purchasing side, and we've got all processes on the manufacturing side, and we're looking forward to another very big step forward on efficiency at the moment I think."
DC: On the manufacturing side, how do you look at the difference between in-house and bought-in manufacture?
DR: "You do it on a pay back; you do a cost analysis on it and decide whether it's better to buy a piece of machinery and make it yourself or whether to outsource it, and look at quality controls, secure the reliability of suppliers and so on."
DC: Formula One is a very different industry than most other manufacturing industries - you can certainly buy in product, but the time element is more of a key than in most other industries - does that lead you to factor more towards in-house?
DR: "It depends how efficient you are really at purchasing; we've got a team on purchasing at the moment, and when I came on we had 1,700 suppliers which is just ludicrous; we'll be down to 500 suppliers by year end, and each one of them will be quality monitored, each one of them will have to pass rigourous quality controls with us of course, and if they don't then we'd chop them off our list straight away. And with internal sources we look at machinery purchasing and that sort of thing, we look at the pay back on all that."
DC: The tabloid question: there is a noticeable improvement in team morale around here nowadays; it's been improving for a while, and was very noticeable late last year and certainly this year. How much of that is attributable to Jacques no longer being involved with the team?
DR: "Well again I don't think you can pin it down on one individual; I think it's more part of the team building its self esteem, building its confidence, and feeling that they are making progress. I think that when teams feel they are making progress they bond together better, and they have a sort of better ambience around the team as well. So I think that's been progressively happening over a period of time, and a lot of it you haven't seen; below the surface if you like."
DC: What is it that's been driving this improvement in team morale? Is it just the improvement in results?
DR: "Well it's that, but you know this is so complex. To give you a clue, all the middle management has been doing total management training for the last eighteen months; we've put them all through management training. There had been no management training before in the organisation, and we're giving the people the skills to do their job effectively, giving them the responsibility, delegating appropriately to them. And there are all these processes all the time; we have quite a large HR operation in the company now, and they are managing that programme now.
We have a team building exercise going on in a month's time with the entire organisation inside the factory, making sure every single person inside the company is aware of their responsibilities and making sure they are aware of the objectives and goals of the organisation this year as well. You ask anyone in the team and they know what our objectives and goals are for the year; it's indelible in everyone's mind."
DC: So what are they?
DR: "They are internal goals."
DC: But as an overall team, what do you see as the goals for the year?
DR: "This year we must take another step forward, and finish in the top four of the championship this year. This means that we have to be in a position to score regular podium positions, and we've got to improve the reliability that we had last year."
DC: Podiums can come from strange races; you could have rain, or crashes, or whatever; but leaving those aside how many podium finishes are you targeting?
DR: "Well you can't leave those aside; you've got to say out of eighteen races in the year do you think we'll be on the podium. I would expect us to be on the podium for a third of the races."
Craig Pollock made three notable deals in his period at the top with BAR. First, and most controversially, he brought Jacques Villeneuve into the team. From a public relations point of view it was shrewd, although controversy rages to this day about the integrity of a team principal appointing a driver he personally manages. The second beneficial deal was to steer Honda's return to the sport in which they had so notably succeeded during the eighties and early nineties, although Pollock was unable to reap the rewards of this deal during his stewardship. The third, and some might say most successful, deal was to appoint Geoff Willis as technical director at BAR shortly before his removal as team principal. Willis, a graduate of Cambridge University in mechanical engineering as well as a doctor of hydrodynamic engineering, has a good grounding in fluid dynamics from his time on the design team of the British America's Cup challenge from 1987 to 1990.
During this period he became heavily involved in the emerging black art known as Computational Fluid Dynamics (CFD), a process that was to revolutionise aerodynamic design in Formula One. Willis joined the Leyton House team, the first CFD engineer in the sport, before moving to Williams, moving up the ranks of the design team to work along side Adrian Newey and Patrick Head.
In 1997 Willis was appointed to the position of Chief Aerodynamicist following the departure of Newey to McLaren, and he worked with Chief Designer Gavin Fisher on the team's car design until Willis was offered the role of Technical Director at BAR. He joined the team at the start of 2002 and started the process of rebuilding the technical team."
DC: There has been a clear improvement in the team towards the end of last year, over winter testing and this year, although obviously the process goes back a lot further. Where would you put the start of that process?
Geoff Willis: "Well it was fortunate and coincidental that David Richards started here just before I did; he started at the beginning of the year I think, and I started in early March; and so almost everything had changed. The whole management structure of the team had changed, the technical structure of the team changed, and he really kind of took everything apart and put everything back together again in the first few months.
So the big change was the things we did in March, April and May 2002; then we slowly built up the design team and all the rest of the operational team, manufacturing, sorting a number of processes out, management of how we do things internally, fixed some of the problems we had with the 2002 car and mainly focused on the 2003 car, got a whole load of engineering quality level up and put ourselves in a position where we could focus on a proper, high technology, front end of the grid car for 2004.
DC: What did you identify as the major problems coming into the role?
GW: "The management structure, how the team was run technically, was not very efficient. There was lots of confusion over roles, responsibility and authority; it wasn't clear what people were supposed to be doing on the key things that needed to be done. And so we targeted a number of different areas in the quality of manufacturing and design, and really improved the whole quality of design I think; that was the biggest thing we did.
"And we got to a point where our safety, testing and process controls were so much stronger that every car was the same, so if we had a problem it could be fixed quickly and addressed quickly; there were systems to control faults and problems and a proper structure for the 2003 car. High quality design, things were made well, everything passed all the FIA tests first time, we test everything accurately, and life everything, control it, and have a safe, reliable car that doesn't break often."
DC: I'm assuming there were two major areas; the budgetary and the technical; and while the budgetary issues may have been out of your control, the technical issues...
GW: "Not really, in the sense that I'm probably responsible for slightly over half of the budget; maybe more than that goes on the technical side. It was a matter of getting everything under control really, having a proper plan, having a proper measurement of your progress against the plan whether it is technical or budgetary. And just putting all this proper structures together is not rocket science, it's just doing it professionally, doing it properly."
DC: And it's a slow process.
GW: "It is. We had quite a large change made to the technical staff of the team, and that took quite a while to get the right people and build the right structure. We had a few goes at it; our first go at it wasn't perfect, and we had a few steps evolving how the structure works and how the different areas work, where the responsibilities were, and once you get it to start to work you can look at where the problems are and fix those, and have the next step."
DC: I say it was a long process, and you came fifth last year but really before the last race it was so close between a number of teams...
GW: "We certainly let ourselves down with reliability problems a lot last year, and they were all remarkably trivial but still stopped the car; some sensor failures, a connector failure, the brake balance pipe - never seen the problem before and then suddenly saw a rash of them - and a couple of wiring problems that caused fires. And when you went through it you found that we didn't really have the processes right all throughout the factory.
"And also there were far too many changes coming from Honda; Honda were pushing very hard, and there was almost a new engine spec at every race, and we just weren't able to do our testing and racing in sync, so we were always sort of testing new things at races, which is not the right thing to do. So it was all just about trying almost too hard, more than the team could do."
DC: It seemed in the past that there was almost two teams, that there was BAR and there was Honda, but the two sides seem a lot closer now.
GW: "It is a lot closer. I think the first step is to get mutual respect, both on a technical and a business side, and I think it took some while to pull the Honda engineers and the BAR engineers together and to realise that, yes, they have strong areas and they have weak areas, that there are some things that we can get good advice from Honda and some areas where they can benefit from our experience.
"It's a gradual process, but I think you're right in saying that you don't really see much to start with; when you're laying all the foundations down it looks like you don't see much construction at all; you can't see anything above the ground, but you spend a good eighteen months doing it and then suddenly you start to see that now the car has components that are of a much, much higher quality than before. We have a very neat car and good gains in the windtunnel; and this is all because the foundations were put together properly."
DC: Honda have suggested for some time that they want to be involved not only in the engine development side but also in the car development; Sato suggested that they are becoming involved in the suspension geometry and other areas.
GW: "Well certainly Honda are very keen to get involved in the chassis side, not just the engine side, and they've got about thirty engineers in Japan and about twenty five engineers in BAR, and what we've done is sort of put them in the design groups at BAR. Most of them are all reasonably new to Formula One, but they're all automotive and analysis engineers, FE (Finite Element Analysis) engineers, aerodynamicists, so we're building up our strengths with quite a big extra percentage of engineers to help.
"I think all the car manufacturers are very interested in seeing what they can get from their car engineering side, but the problem is that Formula One has pretty little to do with road cars; the technology is all aerospace, and is almost not automotive at all; so I think it takes a little time for engineers from the automotive world to work out where they can add, and what we've been trying to do is make sure we're using the extra resources in a properly structured, programmed way."
DC: In a way then it seems that it's not so much that Honda is assisting the chassis programme, but rather that you are letting them come in and showing them how to go about it.
GW: "Yes, but really their engineers are actually involved in our teams that do the designs. The overall concept and layout of the car is 100% BAR, but we discuss what we're doing with Honda; we discuss the engine installation, we discuss gearbox concepts.
"Honda have gone away with a BAR gearbox concept a while ago and refined the design, and now Honda have both designed and manufactured the gearbox internals; the gearbox main case, the carbon concept main case, is 100% BAR but the internals are a sort of BAR Honda concept, Honda designed, Honda manufactured, so there's a way that you can get a good crossover from the technologies that Honda have and the experience and expertise that BAR have.
"Similarly Honda have been running a windtunnel programme for some time on Formula One cars, and we've pulled some of their aerodynamicists on to our own windtunnel programme, and they've been working on some concept rear wings that you'll see later in the year which are Honda concepts and again refined by the team.
"So it's sort of feeding ideas, feeding resources in; obviously Honda's a big company and has huge resources and a lot of people who can all service specific problems, and so as we develop the car we start to look at smaller problems in greater detail, and we can pull in the resources of Honda."
DC: So this is just the process that the relationship is going to go through, going forward?
GW: "I think so. We're a company of 425 people, and we're trying to compete against companies with another hundred people on top of that, so we've just got to use the extra resource."
DC: There was a process a little while ago of bringing more and more engineers into the top teams, and just throwing live bodies at a problem. Is that process still ongoing, or have the teams arrived at about their natural levels?
GW: "It's a difficult question, because the bigger your design groups get, your Research & Development groups get, the more effort you have to put into managing them. So you get quite a large amount of your time taken up with just managing people, and it's quite a technically tricky process managing big projects with lots of engineers. And I think if you don't have your management structures correct then if you just add more resource eventually your specific efficiency keeps dropping; you may have doubled your resource but you've got scarcely ten percent more results from doing it.
"There is a specific amount in, say, windtunnel testing where the more testing, the more parts you put through the windtunnel, the faster your progress is. But you get to this law of diminishing returns and at some point you have to say no, we need to be clever and work hard, but we need to be much more efficient. So we've been focusing very much at how we can be more efficient in engineering design."
DC: How do you manage engineering design? Engineers have a tendency to focus in on their one specific task without perhaps looking at the bigger picture of where their area fits in...
GW: "Well we have a hierarchy reporting to myself and the assistant technical director and the chief engineers, who are responsible for the technical leadership of their divisions or projects, project and planning and manufacturing, so that in mechanical and transmission, in electrical, in race engineering, in aerodynamics, in composites you've got these different groups. We have regular meetings at least once a week, sometimes twice a week between all the chief engineers, and we're the group that steers the car design and responds to problems and directions throughout the year.
"So we certainly believe in very strong management, and that's what we've been putting a lot effort into; getting management training for our engineers, because a lot of people think it's a bit creative, and I can't plan creativity, I don't know when I'm going to make the car half a second faster. Well, if you don't have a plan you just use up resource without any results. So we've been quite strong in putting a lot more detailed plans together, the car is designed to plan, manufactured to plan, it's operated to plan, and we are getting more and more structured in the way we operate."
DC: I suspect that a lot of this has come from your background at Williams, where they presumably have been operating in this fashion for some time.
GW: "I don't how Williams is operating now, but I'd say that BAR is a lot more structured than how Williams is. Obviously the team hasn't been operating together for anywhere near as long as Williams has, and Williams has a lot people who have, and I mean this in a good way, covered each other's backs for twenty years.
"And by that I mean that you know that when you are designing a new car you're not going to forget anything because everybody knows each other's strengths and weaknesses, so you remember that the guy who has to remember where the water bleeds goes is going to remember to do it; it's easy to drop these things off (smiles).
"But in terms of pure technical skill I have no worries that we at BAR can compete easily, certainly with my old team, in terms of composites and mechanical design, aerodynamic design; I believe we're very strong. It's just that we're learning, we're going up step by step, and this is year three of a five year plan. At the moment we're on plan, but it's going to be a tough year; as you can see there are five very tough teams at the moment, with us in there, and we want to kick at least one of them out of the way."
DC: Looking at the improvement at BAR is similar to looking at an iceberg; most of the work has been below the surface, and we're now starting to see something pop up above. What do you think has been behind this recent, noticeable improvement?
GW: "Specifically technically with this year's car we've made some fairly substantial weight savings, particularly at the back of the car; carbon composite gearbox, new light weight internals, new engine, light weight suspension, rear and back structural, the centre of gravity is very much lower than last year, and a lighter smaller engine with the same sort of power as end of last year. And we made a big step in aerodynamics, both in absolute downforce figures and also the characteristics, where the car is strong in a variety of ride heights and attitudes. So that's what has made the car a lot stronger."
DC: It's a remarkably clean looking car, which presumably was intended.
GW: "It is; it's a sort of ... I don't know if there is a BAR style yet, but we're trying to make everything as simply, neatly and cleanly as possible. Unfortunately with the form of Formula One aerodynamics at the moment you do tend to see a profusion of sort of widgets on the cars; we've kept away from them at the moment while we had some problems in recent years with inconsistent repeats in the tunnel and the track.
"So we decided to simplify the car, and get into a position where we really understand the car, so that it exactly ties in with what we see in the windtunnel, and then you get a lot more confidence in your windtunnel programme. And then you find that when you gain two percent in the tunnel you can make the part and just bolt it on, give it a quick test to make sure it doesn't give any problems to other parts of the car, and then that becomes the race spec."
DC: Can you actually find two percent these days?
GW: "Yep; we've got another two or three percent coming on the car shortly. It's relentless; we have to find any air, somewhere between six and eight percent. Six percent keeps you roughly equal with the rest of the pitlane, and eight percent gives you a little step forward. I certainly think Ferrari have found eight percent or so."
DC: How do you think they've found that?
GW: "Little bit difficult; we're having a careful stare at it because it's not obvious where it's happened. I think they've made a big aerodynamic improvement, and now we have to understand what they've done and do the same ourselves."
DC: Does the simplicity of the car lend itself to being a stable base to then work on for the various requirements of the different races?
GW: "Well it's simple in shape, but it's quite sophisticated underneath. As I say we've got, particularly in mechanical and composites systems, some very neat engineering there, so I think it's just a smooth, simple shape aerodynamically. There are some quite subtle bits on there now, some very small details on there that are making some differences.
"And obviously we've changed the tyres recently, and that's got a new unknown in our tunnel programme because the tyres are a different shape and a different weight, and they need a different set up on the car, so we're learning quite a lot anyway. I think we'll be in a position to make some reasonably big changes this year."
DC: How long will it take the team to adapt to the tyres?
GW: "It will probably take us most of the season; I think we're up to about 85% of the way, and we had quite a steep learning curve and worked very well with the Michelin engineers. I think we've got a lot of the way there but, for instance, this is our first race weekend in high temperatures, and it's a struggle a little bit. Finally it all came together - after the first run in qualifying we weren't very happy with the car, made some changes, and I think we've learnt a lot about the car and how to run in these conditions, and when we've done a full season we'll feel completely up to speed."
DC: But unfortunately the season will be over and you won't be able to use it...
GW: "We'll have a new car; we're already starting to work on next season's car."
DC: I'll see if you toe the party line; what do you see as your expectations for the year?
GW: "Well certainly I want to be racing the top teams. It's a little difficult to know who they are at the moment; obviously Ferrari. I think it'll take a few races to settle in. I would have guessed the top teams were Ferrari, Renault, Williams, ourselves probably pushing ahead a little of McLaren. I didn't really expect Jaguar to be that strong, but I think an important thing to do in the first few races is to work out your strengths and weaknesses, and who your competitors are."
DC: David Richards said he wanted to be on the podium for a third of the races; is that realistic?
GW: "I think it's going to be tough to get on the podium that often, because there are probably ten cars at any given race that have got a reasonable chance of getting on the podium; maybe six at any given race and ten that can sometimes get there; and that's going to make it very tough, no doubt about it. If you're saying at Melbourne Ferrari was the strongest car, then there were five people trying to get into that third place, and not a big difference between them, so two Williamses and ourselves finished within twelve seconds of each other after 58 laps."
DC: It's tough because looking at winter testing you've made a quantifiable improvement, but everyone seems to have improved substantially this year.
GW: "They have done. I think certainly fourth is what we want to be aiming for, and we want to be close to the top three, and I think if you end up fifth in the Championship and one point behind fourth, which is one point behind third or something then it's a different flavour. We certainly don't want to be a distant fifth as we'd be disappointed with that, and we don't want to be a distant fourth either."
DC: I guess if the competition is close then a close fifth is almost across the line.
GW: "I think we can do better than that; certainly we're targeting better than that. And we have a few car developments coming at the next race, some aero developments coming up for Imola, another engine for Imola; so there's lots coming for this year."
Back then things were different. In the early days at Honda vehicle testing was carried out on public roads, just as it was by the various automobile and motorcycle manufacturers around the world, and while this worked well for the mass produced vehicles of the day they needed more for the racing motorcycles the company was starting to produce. With the announcement in 1956 that Honda was going to enter the world-renowned 1958 Isle of Man TT motorcycle races the company decided that they needed a better way of testing the bikes, and as such took out a lease on a some Ministry of Construction land near Yamato which became the Arakawa Test Course. The lease was to run until 1979.
In 1972, with seven years remaining on the lease, Honda started the process of finding and developing an alternative site for testing, which had become an integral part of vehicle development for their production vehicles as well as their racing counterparts. A suitable site was found in the Tochigi prefecture and a two year construction process created the Tochigi Proving Centre, which opened in April 1979.
The centre has variations of almost every type of road imaginable, and the centrepiece of the site is the four kilometre, four lane oval course built for extreme testing of performance and racing vehicles. Two long flat straights are joined by two banked turns which reach an angle of forty two degrees, far steeper than any race track and at an incline of such magnitude that it is impossible to walk upright across the banking.
Jenson Button, driver for the BAR Honda Formula One team, was given a NSX-R for the day to drive around the track after the Japanese Grand Prix last year, and this is the story of that day.
Jenson Button: "Well first of all I drove the car at Motegi (a road track and oval course also owned by Honda) – I drove it around the circuit, which is great fun because you could really feel the handling of the car and everything, and it was the first time I'd really drove around a circuit where I thought it handles really well. Then we went to Tochigi and I drove the Type R, the really sporty one, it's a lightweight sort of racing version, and in a straight line I thought 'yeah this is great, this is good' and then I got to the banking and I thought 'oh my God' – I thought I was going to fall off, because I'd never been on a banking before!
"And as soon as the car turned on its side it's such a rush it was unbelievable – it was the biggest rush I've ever had, more than a Formula One car, more than anything – because the banking is I think 42 degrees or something. And it was such an amazing feeling being at that angle at full speed, because we were doing I think 170 mph, and the barrier on the outside must be about ten inches away or something! So it was an amazing feeling, feeling every bump in the car, and whoever I had as a passenger in the car couldn't stop laughing! I couldn't either! It was just an amazing feeling being at that speed on such a banking and being so close to the wall – it was great."
How did you hit it – did you go flat?
Button: "No you can't really, because if you go flat there's a bump on the way in and because it's that to that (Button moves his hand from flat to very steep) – you'd hit the oval and the rear would have just snapped. You just have a slight lift on the way in – you turn in, slight lift, back on the power again – and the average speed must have been about 155 mph or something. Around there, in a road car, it's not too bad.
"And we were trying to get as high as possible, as close to the barrier as possible, but the thing is, because it's so quick, the barrier's just flying by and it's really, really difficult to see. It's only about that high (Button holds his hands about 12 inches apart) – I don't know why it's even there, because it's not going to do anything!"
So what's to stop you going over?
Button: "Well, me! But I've heard that if you take your hands off the steering wheel at 100 mph round there, 160 km/h, it'll just go around the corner – it won't fly off, it won't go down, it'll just stick to the road and go around the corner because of the angle of the banking. So yeah, I tried it at that speed, at a hundred, and I just went like that (Button mimes releasing the wheel for a nanosecond and laughs) and went 'I think it works' – you know, I like driving with my hands on the wheel, really!
"And at 155mph the car is great around there – you'd think in a road car it'd be bouncing around, but it was really smooth – it was great. And the thing is, when the banking is at that angle everything goes really heavy because you're being pushed into the road, which is something different from Formula One altogether, and the steering's really heavy because the car's being pushed into the ground so much you've got a lot of downforce on the tyres. It's amazing how different the car can feel from the straight to the banking."
So what do you see? When you're in a Formula One car on a flat road you see ground around you…
Button: "Well, except for the wheels – you've got the wheels in the way in a F1 car. But you can't see so much because it's such a steep banking the car's into the floor, and you can just about see around the banking – all you can see is about forty metres in front of you because the banking's so steep, and at such an angle, you can't see around. You're trying to look (Button crouches right down in his seat and looks up), you try to get down to look where you're going but you can't see anything, and that's what makes it even more scary. And then you really get a sense of the speed.
"It's all tarmac – you just get tarmac. Sixth gear, and you just stick it. It sticks to the road – you've just got to hope that nothing, that there are no bumps in the road or anything, and you just hold the steering wheel as lightly as possible. On the exit you get a little bit of oversteer as the banking comes right down, or it feels like oversteer because of the change in the gradient, so you slightly change the angle of the steering wheel, but apart from that you don't really do so much."
Have you ever seen that movie 'Grand Prix', the old one from the sixties? You know there's that bit with the banking – is it anything like that?
Button: "I don't know really. You need to go to Tochigi and check it out – it's just awesome – it's such a steep banking. It's steeper than any NASCAR race, I think, so even NASCARs don't race around anything that steep. So it's an experience – I don't think there's anything steeper."
What about the banking at Indy?
Button: "Nowhere near, nowhere near – it's like nothing, it's like a flat circuit in comparison – it's that difference, seriously."
Apparently you got out of the car and asked if your lap time was the record
Button: "Yeah, but I didn't know that a Formula One car had been around there, though! But it was great – I took Ken Hashimoto (Honda's head of chassis technology development) out on the circuit because he designed the NSX along with Ayrton Senna, and that was a great feeling - going around this oval in a car that was designed by Ayrton Senna and Hashimoto-san, who was sitting alongside me.
"When he first got in the car I thought I'll just take it easy but you could tell he wanted to go quicker, so I did – the second lap was flat out, and it was great – he wasn't able to talk, he just sat there smiling all the way around!"
The story goes that he once took a Williams out of the Honda musem and drove it on the Tochigi circuit, setting the circuit's lap record that day…
Button: "Yeah, he's the one who did the record - just a bit of an advantage driving an F1 car! Yeah, about eleven seconds quicker than me or something. I don't think many cars will beat it.
"On the last laps some birds got on the circuit, which was a bit scary - there were a couple of birds flying around, so they decided to call it a day because it could have been a bit dangerous. But it was such a rush – it was great."
What would a Formula One car be like on the banking?
Button: "It would awesome – I think that the amount of G-force you would pull would be out of this world compared to anything we're used to, because we're used to lateral G, which is very different to what you get there. It would be a big experience, and it would be like Eau Rouge, except for ten or fifteen seconds, so I think it'd be pretty tough!"
Any chance of taking one out there when you go back to Japan this year?
Button: "Cor, that'd be dangerous! But that'd be great, if you go straight from Suzuka to there, drive it around. I can't see why not!"
Is there ever a little bit of fear when you go flat out on the banking like that?
Button: "Yeah, a little bit, but that turns into excitement and adrenalin really, I think. If you didn't have fear you wouldn't have that adrenalin sort of feeling. It's like singers when they go on stage - they're nervous, but the adrenalin's pumping and they love it. I think if you haven't got any fear then life can be pretty boring."
Is it the adrenalin that makes you go that little bit faster?
Button: "Push that little bit more if you want a little bit more – yeah definitely. You know, in an F1 car it's quite different because you can't just push to the limit all the time, because it can actually be slower, but sometimes you do and you just want to give it everything. And it's a great feeling, feeling the car on the edge – 'on the edge of out of control' as they say in 'Days of Thunder'…"
I can't believe you just quoted that movie!
Button (doing his best Tom Cruise impersonation): "'Loose is fast – fast is on the edge of out of control!' Why? It's a fantastic film! That's the best car film ever! Apart from the Italian Job. No, it's great – it's better than anything. The new films – they're crap! But that's a fantastic film."
Do you think anyone could ever make a good car film now?
Button: "No, not really. Especially not Hollywood – they definitely couldn't. An actually racing car movie, it can't be done by Hollywood, because Hollywood's full of cheese, so it couldn't be done."
But so is Formula One...
Button: "Yeah, but it's not the same; it's a different brand of cheese."
Jacques Villeneuve is surprised to hear he is the longest running Honda driver after Ayrton Senna. "Really?" the 1997 World Champion says. "I didn't know that. What – Prost didn't stay that long?" The statistics show that Ayrton Senna leads the Honda drivers' table with 93 Grand Prix starts, followed by Villeneuve with 63 starts and Gerhard Berger with 48. Four times World Champion Alain Prost is ninth, with only 32 starts for Honda.
Yet Villeneuve has a point: most people would associate Prost with Honda before they would associate the Canadian with the Japanese carmaker. Perhaps because Prost won 11 of those 32 races for Honda, while Villeneuve – driving with Honda since they re-entered Formula One in 2000 – has merely two podiums to show for in double the race starts.
"Well," Villeneuve says, reflecting on the notion of being second only to Senna, "that's something at least."
There doesn't seem like Villeneuve has much to celebrate these days. He remains one of the greatest star attractions in a sport that seems to fill up with cloned drivers; but Villeneuve is having a season to forget, full of frustration and regret - perhaps his worst since he made his debut in Formula One by placing his 1996 Williams on pole position in Melbourne.
The reasons for Villeneuve's lackluster season are varied; mainly, he has suffered reliability problems in too many races, and this has been compounded by his own performances on and off the track. There were too many public feuds between himself and team boss David Richards, as well as a lengthy exchange of insults with new teammate Jenson Button. Coupled with the second highest salary on the grid – a topic for much criticism even within his team - Villeneuve now finds himself in the unenviable position of having no contract for 2004 and with no options left to pursue.
So when you finally get a chance to sit down with Villeneuve for a private interview, the inevitable question is: what is he going to do next year?
"No idea," he says, shrugging. "No idea at all."
Q: The notion in the media is that you are resigned to leave Formula One…
Villeneuve: "Oh, no, that's not my plan. Right now there's no contract, there's nothing, that's all – but my plan is not to leave."
Q: But what happens if you don't sign a contract? What is your Plan B, so to speak?
Villeneuve: "Well, I want to continue racing, but I don't want to go through another year like this year. If we work something out with BAR then it would only be because everybody has decided to work closely together, so all that happened last winter and at the beginning of the season - which felt like two separate camps fighting - that wouldn't happen anymore. It would make life a lot easier, and I would be happy with that. Unless that happens, then there won't be any contract. But right now everybody seems to be positive and we all seem to want to work together, so there shouldn't be any problems."
Q: There doesn't seem to be a lot of other options outside of BAR – most of the other teams have firmed up their driver line up. Are you still looking at other teams?
Villeneuve: "No, there's no other option for the 2004 season - every team I think is blocked for next year - it's the year after that when everything opens up."
Inevitably, then, Villeneuve just needs to make it through the next season, and it won't be before next weekend at the earliest that he will find out if BAR want to retain his services for 2004 or not. If he leaves, it would be a bitter ending to what initially promised to be Villeneuve's Dream Team – with his manager Craig Pollock and his loyal race engineer Jock Clear working with him, for him.
And, it would be sad if Villeneuve's last season in Formula One was to be the season he's enduring in 2003.
"No," he says, smiling wryly, "it hasn't been a great season at all. There's been a lot of frustration this year."
Q: You've had a lot of mechanical problems, but how do you actually rate your own driving this year? Is it hard to know?
Villeneuve: "Well I'm happy with my driving; it's just I didn't have enough laps to really show it – too many times the car broke down on lap seven or whatever of a race, and I think the perception is a lot more negative than the reality. The perception is that I've been slower than Jenson in qualifying, when out of all the races it's seven to five in my favour in qualifying.
"So the perception is totally wrong, and I've always been running with the same or more fuel load, but that's also something that cannot be seen because people look at a piece of paper and that's it, and the reality doesn't matter. So the perception is not helping, and I'm at a point where the good things won't be perceived, only if something bad happens that's what people will notice, so that makes it a little bit difficult."
Q: I must say I'm surprised; I never thought you'd be the type of person who would care about perceptions
Villeneuve smiles again; this interview will have a lot of wry smiles, it seems. "Well," he responds, "when it means you're getting a contract or you're out - then yes, you start caring."
But 2003 isn't the first frustrating season Villeneuve has had to endure in Formula One, and in BAR in particular. When he left Williams at the end of 1998 to join the newly formed BAR – built on the ashes of Tyrrell by his manager Pollock, with the financial backing of British American Tobacco – there were many promises of podiums and even a daring suggestion of a win on the debut race of the team. The reality was a year so terrible, so marred with mechanical breakdowns, that the team ended eleventh and last in the Constructors' Championship. Yes, even behind Minardi.
Yet 2003, Villeneuve says, is harder to endure than the 1999 season.
"1999 was a frustration," he explains, "but at the same time there was a contract for the year after, and there were no problems with the team from the beginning. Now with the team everything seems to be right, but there have been moments in the winter and all that and last year where it didn't seem that a faction - a part of the team - was behind me, and that made it worse. Also, in 1999, when things went bad - it was bad for all of us together. So it was frustrating, but we could all take it together. So that was okay. But this year it felt like things have gone wrong and you know I've been carrying most of it, so that makes it more difficult."
Q: Did it also help knowing that 1999 was a learning year for pretty much everyone in the team?
Villeneuve: "1999 was a slap in the face – but that's fine, you know, it's like cold water in the morning, that fine."
Q: Was it really worse than you expected?
Villeneuve: "Oh, yes. You know, everyone thought that we'd be fighting for podiums… so yeah, that was just a slap in the face. But okay, fine, we've just got to get back in the room and work it out then that's fine. This year, though, has been more like a survival battle, which is never nice."
Q: It sounds like it's a personal survival battle, rather than for the whole team – you separate yourself …
Villeneuve: "Well that's how it felt this year, and that's why it was more difficult, and it's a shame because it's not with the engineers or the mechanics I work with – we've always been a really tight group and there's no problem there. But whatever happens with me, the team will go on, so it has separated somehow and that has made it more difficult."
Q: There's something I can't figure out. If 99 was a slap in the face, then why did you stay in BAR after that?
Villeneuve: "Well I had a contract for the following year, but more importantly – Honda joined and they asked me to stay. They told me to stay at the end of 2000."
Q: So what about now? Do Honda want you to stay?
Villeneuve smirks. "Well they've been a lot less vocal this time than they were at the end of 2000!"
Villeneuve's relationship with Honda may not be as close-knit as the one Ayrton Senna formed with the engine manufacturer – the Brazilian World Champion was treated like a son by the Honda executives of the day – but there is no other current driver Honda trust as much as Villeneuve's. The engineers say his technical input is superb, and he seems to have gelled in well with the Japanese staff that settled in England.
"Well, here at the track with the engineers it works really well," Villeneuve explains. "It takes a while to build relationships, and the first couple of years there was a tendency to change engineers every six months so it was impossible to build a relationship, but in the last year it's calmed down a little bit so it made everything easier – the relationship is good now."
Q: But how do you build a relationship with a major motor manufacturer such as Honda?
Villeneuve: "You just work – it's nothing that is forced. Unless you have to work with someone then no you're not inviting them to sit down and have coffee, you're working with them and that's when it builds, when the trust starts building up, and without it you can't work.
Q: I guess most of that would be in the testing periods, away from the races?
Villeneuve: "Testing, but racing is where there's more tension, so that's where anything you build will be stronger; the pressure just brings everybody together."
Q: Well I know for a fact that Honda rate you very highly as far as technical input goes…
Villeneuve: "Oh, really?"
Q: Or so they say… But I am curious what makes a driver good at technical input. What would make you good at it?
Villeneuve: "Talking about a car, setting up a car - what direction should be taken for development - and the same thing for the engine. It's never something that is clear cut – it's always a little bit of a feel, and sometimes you're not even sure if you felt it, or you kind of think you did and then you have to evolve on that, and then you have to start thinking on it, and to make it real.
"And so you have to trust your judgment, and it's very easy… you always know what they want you to say, you can see it in their face, and it's very difficult after half an hour of discussions for you to understand if you're saying what they want you to say or if you really believe what should be good for the car and engine and so on. And then you have to prove it's right as well, and that's why it takes time, and the respect seems to be there now."
Q: When you say you feel it, how does that manifest itself? You're going down a straight and maybe the engine's lagging a little bit, or…
Villeneuve: "Engine is more than power - it's weight, it's how the car reacts with the engine, it's how you can drive it, where the power comes; when it comes; the drivability, and all that. And - mostly now with traction control and all the driver aids - it's become much more difficult to understand what the engine is doing. So the feel work you do has become more important. And often the new development direction you will take is just an idea - it's not something that's been tested, it's more a matter of instinct.
"Going quicker around the lap is not just having more horsepower; sometimes it can be an engine that has a little bit less horsepower but is lighter, or is easier to drive, and so on. And that's what is difficult for an engine manufacturer to understand, because all they understand is the engine. And it takes a while, but right now the relationship has been going on long enough that we can actually kind of involve every aspect of the race car together.
"But, it doesn't happen in five laps, because you always try to work around problems by changing set ups on the car, by changing anything you can actually change, because once you have an engine you can't change it - you can't just take the hood off and do a few tweaks and now suddenly it's lighter or the characteristics are different.
"So it takes a while, and once you've been on the limit and doing laps - thousands of laps! - and changing set ups and all that, you just wrack your brain to find out how you could gain one tenth of a second, and that's when you start working on that side a lot more."
Q: Do you feel you have an impact on the engine that they'll manufacture later?
Villeneuve: "Yeah – the engine we have now has already been influenced by what we've done since the beginning of the season, by what I thought was needed - not enough to my taste of course, but everybody's like that!
"But yes, it has been influenced, and it's been going in what I think is the right direction, so I'm very happy."
Looking at Villeneuve, a flair of mischief lighting up in his eyes as he talks about engines and cars and going faster and faster, it's hard not to recall the famous picture of a toddler Jacques in a Mickey Mouse sweatshirt, sitting in dad's car. The eyes are Gilles; so are the stubbornness and the individualism.
But Jacques, more the Gilles, has made a name for himself as an eccentric, anti PR driver who says what he wants when he wants it. He is a character, alright, which perhaps suggests that Villeneuve junior is simply in Formula One at the wrong time, that he'd have been more suitable for the Formula One of the late seventies – alongside characters like James Hunt Niki Lauda?
"No, because everybody was like that!" he laughs aloud.
"Oh, I don't know," he adds later. "I don't think I would have survived the seventies because I like taking risks, and back then you paid a much higher price for the risks you took, so I'm not sure actually I would have lived through them."
Q: But do you like Formula One now?
"I like driving," he says, without giving it a thought. "But that's all."
Sixty year old Shoichi Tanaka has been with Honda for his entire adult life. After 37 years with the company, the affable Japanese is a perfect ambassador for the car maker in a sport that requires a passion for racing and technology, and an understanding of business and media. With experience as Honda's commercial director in Brazil, sales manager in Europe, president of Honda France, head of Products division for the Japanese market, and vice president of Honda North America, Tanaka-San took his appointment as president of Honda Racing - and head of their third generation in Formula One - with the required grain of salt and feet firmly on the ground. Two hundred and fifty Grands Prix for any motor company is a lot. Fact is, Honda is now fourth with the number of Grand Prix starts - behind Ferrari, Ford and Renault. Not a bad company to keep. Yet Honda is probably the most low-keyed manufacturer in Formula One today.
With auto makers like Renault, BMW and Mercedes advancing themselves to the centre-stage of the sport's arena, Honda remains quietly on the edge, concentrating on what they call the Third Generation Project - first there was generation one, their entry to the sport in the late 1960s as a constructor. Then there was the second generation - their return to the sport in the 1980s to become one of the most successful engine suppliers of the era. And now there's the third generation - best described as a hybrid of both previous ones. Honda is back as an engine supplier, but the company is also involved in chassis development through its relationship with BAR.
Tanaka-San fits perfectly as the project's leader, because he knows every aspect of Honda so well. More importantly, he knows why they're in Formula One - and he knows what they need to do to achieve their goal (and why it eludes them): to become, once again, Grand Prix winners.
Q: Congratulations on your 250th Grand Prix, it's quite a milestone for you
Tanaka: "Well, I don't know how many races we have that we didn't win among those 250 Grands Prix! But when did we win last? 1992? We can only be proud of how many wins, not how many races we've participated in. Nonetheless, this is a demonstration that Honda is committed to motorsport. I think there are only a few manufacturers who have participated in 250 races, so we are proud of that."
Q: It's interesting that you mention your commitment. It's now fashionable to talk about the involvement of auto makers in the sport - and one of the point that the FIA brings up is the fact that the manufacturers are fickle - they come and go. So how do we know that you're here to stay?
Tanaka: "Sometimes I feel uncomfortable to hear (FIA president) Max Mosley say - or even give the impression - that car manufacturers are not too reliable in motorsport because they come and go. Well, without the car manufacturers - without the engine manufacturers - how can Formula One be exciting? Yes, of course the car makers - who are run by public companies - can come and go; F1 activity is not the whole operation. But when one goes another comes in. The car manufacturers came and went but they were always there. The members changed, but there were always manufacturers.
"We are one of the few car manufacturers that were present most of the time, in the 1980s. Which car manufacturer was devoted like Honda in the 1980s? There are many now, but back then we were one of the few. So it's correct that some will go and some will stay, but in general the car manufacturers will always be here."
Q: Why is Honda not a shareholder in the GPWC? They did invite you to join
Tanaka: "Well, the original initiative for a breakaway series was taken by ACEA (The Association of European Car makers), and we are not a member of ACEA. So originally we weren't a part of it. It's true that once the GPWC was formed they invited us to join as shareholders, but we have not made our decision on this yet. The intention of ACEA/GPWC is to have a fair distribution of the income from the sport - and at the same time improve the transparency of the operation. The accountability and transparency of this sport is important to the auto makers' shareholders. We support those intentions.
"However, my understanding of the situation is that both parties - the car makers and the Formula One Management - are coming very closer to achieve these objectives. I think Bernie Ecclestone realises that the distribution can be modified and the transparency could improved. So whether these objectives are achieved by Ecclestone's company or by the GPWC - we don't care."
Q: So you support the objectives, you just don't care how they are obtained?
Tanaka: "That's correct, yes."
Q: So are you part of the negotiations with Ecclestone? Are you involved in it?
Tanaka: "No. We are constantly kept informed of the situation but we are not part of the negotiations."
Q: You said you haven't made a decision about the GPWC. What happens if they do not reach an agreement with Ecclestone and there is a new series, will you join it?
Tanaka: "I do not believe there will be a new series. I believe there will be a compromised agreement. (Mercedes-Benz chairman) Jurgen Hubbert is saying it will be done by October this year, but I cannot judge how close they are to signing it. The schedule continues to be extended - but I believe it will be signed by the end of this year."
Q: Why is it, then, that you're not actively involved in the negotiations?
Tanaka: "It may sound egoistic, but we're in Formula One for the technical challenge only. In fact, the reason why we dropped the idea of forming our own team four years ago is because we are not interested at all in the political aspect of Formula One. That has always been our stance. We have a partner, BAR, and David Richards presents our ideas in such political scenes, so I always communicate our ideas to him and he represents us in the public. It's enough for us at the moment. We want to concentrate as much as possible on the technical challenge."
Q: It's interesting, considering nowadays there is a shift towards having a team as one unit - like Ferrari, Toyota, Renault, Jaguar. Yet you made a decision to go against this trend and not form your own team. Was it only because of politics?
Tanaka: "The main reason was that we wanted to concentrate on technical matters. We wanted to be involved in chassis technology - which we didn't do in the past - so in order to be involved in chassis development we thought that we need to own the team. So we went ahead with that kind of plan to begin with. But, finally we had a compromising scenario of BAR coming and offering us a joint chassis development.
"So we thought, OK, without owning the team and having to go to the meetings and signing the Concorde Agreement and having to go to all those social activities of black tie parties - which are not among our objectives - we can get involved in what we wanted on the technological side, but not be involved in the aspects that don't interest us. We thought that would be a good framework."
Q: The downside to that is that BAR will take the credit for any success that will come your way. If Ferrari or Toyota have a good result, the credit goes directly to their name. With you, BAR gets the credit - not the Honda name
Tanaka: "We don't see this as a very big downside, really. We don't very much care if image-wise BAR or Honda get the credit. Many people know that Honda is deeply involved in the performance of BAR. But I think the actual downside that I can point at, after more than three years' experience, is that, after all, it's not one team. Decisions on personnel, management, what technology to apply in the next race and so on - is not coming out of one team.
"We spend sometimes a lot of effort and energy to communicate and to come to agreement... it is, frankly speaking, the downside compared to one manufacturer's team."
Q: Since you mention management, BAR in particular - since you joined them in 2000 - have had many management and technical staff changes. Craig Pollock was replaced, Adrian Reynard...
Tanaka, laughing: "Yes, yes... you don't have to remind me, I have been witness to all that! But that is the risk and the price we have to pay in working with the (then) youngest team on the grid. That is the price we have to pay."
Q: Do you feel that the team is heading towards stability, though? Do you see a better harmony in how you two work together?
Tanaka: "Well, our chassis technology was of course premature. We did not have many Honda engineers who were experts in making a Formula One chassis. And with over three years' experience, I think we have come very well of being able to contribute and understand each other on how to make an F1 chassis, and so on. So this time has helped us to produce the results of making a better car together. So, yes, I think this technology integration is going to bear fruit in the near future."
Q: How much involvement do you have in the running of BAR, though? Do you, for example, have a say in the team as far as which drivers they hire?
Tanaka: "We are constantly talking together; our contractual relationship stipulates that they consult with us over the drivers' issue. So it's not a one-sided decision. But the final decision is with the team, even if we are well consulted."
Q: Jacques Villeneuve mentioned that in 2000 Honda asked him to stay. He then said that right now Honda are not very vocal... The impression is that you perhaps don't want him to stay?
Tanaka: "Jacques was negotiating whether to renew the contract with BAR in 2000, and I remember that we were consulted, and we wanted Jacques to stay. It is true. Although, again, the decision was with the team. Craig Pollock concluded with him for three years and for such and such money - in that were not involved."
Q: Are you now consulted with regards to Jacques?
Tanaka: "Yes, we are."
Q: And? Do you want him to stay?
Tanaka: "Well, this is a very delicate situation, because we understand the team is negotiating with other drivers as well as with Jacques. And so it would be wrong for the drivers and the team to hear our opinion on the matter in an interview like this."
Q: OK, separately from the current situation, can you tell me how important is it for Honda to have a Japanese driver?
Tanaka: "It is important. To have a Japanese driver, it will be very good. I don't know how much you know about American baseball, but we have major league Japanese baseball players now, and so major league baseball is becoming very popular in Japan. Likewise in soccer: we have guys who are going out of Japan and into first class teams in Europe, and the level of enthusiasm for soccer in Japan is going up.
"In motorsport, we had some Japanese drivers in the past and at that time they were pretty popular but performance wise these drivers weren't so great. So what we really need is a first class Formula One driver to animate the interest for F1 in Japan. So it is important.
"But, we always take the stance of performance first. If a Japanese driver makes his way by himself to be a top F1 driver, we will be extremely happy. But we do not recommend to BAR to select a driver only by nationality."
Q: You are also partners to Bridgestone, another Japanese company. How much is that a factor in your selection of tyre manufacturers? Would that stop you from switching to Michelin?
Tanaka: "Actually, we do not regard Michelin as a French tyre and Bridgestone as a Japanese tyre. We never think of the nationality of the tyre companies. For example, we work very closely on the road cars with both Bridgestone and Michelin, very evenly. I cannot say now off hand what percentage of our road cars application is Michelin and what is Bridgestone, but I think we are a big customer for Michelin as well. So there is no nationality issue."
Q: The reason I ask is because BAR are rumoured to be looking at switching to Michelin next year...
Tanaka: "Again, the tyre choice is up to the team. Although with the joint chassis development contract we are involved in the discussions, the final decision is up to the team."
Q: You mentioned that Honda is in Formula One only for the technical challenge. Some of the other car makes are here also - or even more so - for marketing purposes. Being in F1 sells cars. For example Toyota, their decision to come into the sport was primarily for marketing reasons. Is it not the case for Honda?
Tanaka: "Unfortunately, we are considered very weak in that kind of activities - linking the motorsports activities to the marketing, effectively. We are sometimes criticised for the poor performance in that respect. When our engines were dominant in the 1980s in F1, I don't remember how much we advertised that!"
Q: So you concentrate on the technical challenge, and yet you are unable to repeat the success you had in the 1980s. What has changed between these two periods to explain your lack of success now compared to then?
Tanaka: "The competitors are different. Competitors now are mostly the car manufacturers - the '100,000 employees' league. In the 1980s, we were one of the very few companies in that scale. Back then it was maybe us against Renault. Now it's Mercedes, BMW, Ford..."
Q: So Formula One is tougher today?
Tanaka: "yes, and we recognise that. In fact, it is more challenging than we thought when we entered in year 2000. Things have turned out more difficult than we thought, so our schedule to reach our target is changing."
Q: So what do you think Honda and BAR have to do to step up to the level of race winners?
Tanaka: "More integration - more understanding in the level of technology and more integration of management. The best engine cannot make the best team and the best chassis cannot make the best team. So more integration of race management, tyres, chassis, engines, drivers. The integration is the key factor, and we are working hard on that now; we have not changed our target of threatening the top teams next year."
Q: Is there more pressure on you to succeed, now that Toyota is in F1?
Tanaka: "Frankly speaking, the Japanese fans and the Japanese dealers are the only ones who talk about the competition between Toyota and Honda - it's a very closed automobile market there. But in Europe and other countries no, not in particular. For us, as a team, all the teams ahead of us are competitors and we will never be satisfied to only be faster than Toyota."
Q: I am thinking about the Honda headquarters, actually. What happens if by the end of the year Toyota passes you in the Constructors' Championship? What will the reaction be in Japan, in the headquarters?
Tanaka bursts out laughing. "Oh, headquarters are already very much pissed off about our position!"
Sidebar: Takeo Kiuchi - Drivers Then and Now
Honda's F1 Project Leader Takeo Kiuchi is another long term Honda employee - but he also stands out as one of the few Honda engineers to have been involved in the second generation project as well as the current one. More so, he is best known in the paddock as Alain Prost's race engineer in 1988, and Ayrton Senna's engineer from 1989 to 1992. He is best positioned to compare between the drivers of then, and the drivers of now.
"The drivers back then were famous - not only Alain Prost and Ayrton Senna - but also Nelson Piquet and Nigel Mansell, for example. But more to the point, these drivers could make a difference to the car; they could make a major set-up, they could comment, for example, on first corner understeer, second corner oversteer, and they could make an entire setup. Now that is the job of the engineer.
"Ayrton, for example, would come back from driving a few laps and say 'change the left side rubber 2 millimetre and change the suspension', or 'the tyre pressure by 5 kilo or something' – he, and others back then, knew what to do and how every change affects the car. Essentially today, just Michael Schumacher can do this; the other drivers are there just to drive quickly.
"Compared to ten years ago, Formula One is very systematic – the driver is just here for driving – making the setup of the car is the engineer's job. That is the primary reason for the difference between then and now. The second reason is that everything is now controlled by computers, with traction control and everything – the driver is just sitting there! The driver's jobs now are very few."