From the early 1990s Honda pursued high-profile success in the premier international motor-racing series, supplying engines to established teams in The Formula One World Championship with some success. But the mighty Japanese car maker eventually decided to ditch partnership deals and go solo, forming the British-based Honda team that performed well in 2006, though two disappointing seasons followed.
No matter, for 2009 promised to be a good year. Honda lured a giant of the sport in 2008, appointing Ross Brawn as team principal. The canny Englishman had enjoyed spectacular success with Benetton and Ferrari, and abandoned the lackluster 2008 Honda car to its lowly fate and threw the team’s efforts into developing a competitive car for 2009. But disaster struck.
Despite Brawn’s forceful assertion that the new car was a winner, Honda panicked and abandoned Formula One as global recession bit, writing off a billion-pound-plus investment that never quite delivered the glory, headlines and valuable exposure the company so desperately craved. To avoid losing face, Honda offered a trifling parting gift of S100 million that enabled Ross Brawn to effect a management buyout, secure an engine deal with Mercedes-Benz and enter the 2009 FI World Championship with the renamed Brawn GP team.
The rest is history. Brawn driver Jenson Button won the inaugural Grand Prix in Australia and went on to win five more, hotly pursued by team-mate Rubens Barichello. The Constructors Championship was finally clinched in Brazil, along with Button’s Drivers Championship. The reaction in Honda’s Tokyo HQ can only be imagined. The ultimate prize pursued at vast expense for a decade and more should have been Honda’s for the taking, but the company simply tossed it away – along with international publicity worth hundreds of millions. It was surely one of the worst business blunders of all time.
Toll: None. Fortunately, hara kiri is no longer mandatory in Japan in the event of humiliating failure, so the knives didn’t actually come out at Honda.
You should know: Honda’s marketing people may have missed the biggest showboat in history but shrewd entrepreneur Sir Richard Branson swiftly boarded with a cut-price sponsorship deal that put the Virgin name on fledgling Brawn cars, thus reaping the most handsome of dividends – securing brand exposure worth an estimated £40 million for a fraction of that sum.