Saturday
Oct242009

Honda sends out a clear message: It's just not that into racing anymore.

Peter M. De Lorenzo is a national columnist who founded Autoextremist.com, a highly-regarded website devoted to news, commentary and analysis of the auto industry. He is considered to be one of the most influential voices commenting on the business today.Honda CEO Takanobu Ito said last week that the decision to quit Formula One at the end of last year was essential for the company’s long-term survival. “[I have] no regrets,” he told the assembled media last week. “After our withdrawal, we’ve seen our team (Brawn GP) doing extremely well. The reason why I say this is because of all the efforts we put into the team prior to our withdrawal that led to this result,” Ito said.

Ito said the decision to quit F1 was made by his predecessor, Takeo Fukui, but that he agreed with it. “Just a year ago, Mr. Fakui made the decision to withdraw from Formula One racing and I think it was the correct decision,” Ito continued.

The company, according to Ito, will now devote all of its engineering talent and resources to coming up with advanced environmental solutions for its future production cars, a noble goal I might add, but certainly not the way the “old” Honda would have gone about its business. After all, this was the company that pioneered developing its young engineers through its racing programs, and then after seasoning them in some of the most fiercely competitive arenas in racing, would unleash them on developing future production cars. And it worked exceptionally well, with other car companies readily copying the Honda method as well.

But this is a different era now, as Ito explained, and his engineers will find plenty of challenges in trying to creatively execute its modern and environmentally efficient production cars of the future.

Wait a minute, is this the Honda Motor Company we’re talking about? The same company that went to the ends of the earth to prove its competitive mettle? The same company that lived for racing in all of its forms, from motorcycles to cars? The same company that would come up with brilliant solutions as a matter of course in its pursuit of victory?

No, it clearly isn’t. The combination of the global economic crisis and the fact that the Japanese government isn’t having nearly the success that it once enjoyed in its manipulation of the yen has decimated the Japanese manufacturers, more so Toyota than Honda, but you get the picture. And now Honda is going about justifying its existence in this new global economic order we’re living in by pulling back on the reins and turning inward for its technical inspiration.

And I have a huge problem with that rationale, because what Mr. Ito is describing suggests to me that Honda has actually turned away from the path of innovation and technical prowess, and that he actually believes that the challenges presented by the white-hot heat of competition can easily be duplicated in some sterile laboratory and that - not to worry - Honda will be just as successful in its business as ever.

We’ll see about that, because without racing - and without the attitude, talent and sheer will to win required to succeed in the sport - at what point does Honda cease being “Honda?” At what point does Honda - operating in Mr. Ito’s safe, “cocoon” mode - become that dreaded “me too” haven of mediocrity and horror of horrors, just another car company?

Let’s hope that Mr. Ito’s attitude about racing is indeed just a temporary phase for Honda, because if not, let’s just say that the forecast for the future direction - and success - of the company is mixed, at best.

« LM24 or Daytona24: the true test of endurance? | Main | One of the all-time greats. »