Analysis: What really prompted Honda's F1 shake-up

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Formula 1's paddock was caught by surprise on Tuesday morning when Honda announced that it was undergoing a management reshuffle.

Ahead of F1 chief Yasuhisa Arai's enforced retirement, it emerged after a Honda board meeting in Tokyo that, from March 1, his role would be taken by Yusuke Hasegawa – although both would continue working in tandem for a while.

Beyond those two, senior organisational changes are also being made in Tokyo to help strengthen the F1 operation within Honda's giant global structure.

But while a change of personnel, after Honda's difficult 2015, was not necessarily a huge shock, what did cause surprise was the timing of it.

And it was perhaps inevitable, after just a single day of running and rampant speculation about Honda's competitive position, that the two issues became linked.

But, as Arai himself explained in an exclusive interview with Motorsport.com, the real reason for change was set in stone years ago and is far from a reaction to recent events.

Not about horsepower

In fact, Arai's departure is based on an inevitable future event, for Honda's company policy means that Arai must retire when he hits 60 later this year.

"It is not related to engine horsepower nor performance – it is about my age and that I cannot change," he explained. "I was 58, I am 59, and I will be 60. It is a normal organisational change."

He added: "Usually Japanese companies have a retirement age, and Honda's regulation is for that to be 60. I am going to be 60, so I have to give someone my baton. That is basic policy.

"But it was very difficult to make a decision of timing: it is not my job. The company has to make this decision of when, or what timing.

"So our board member meeting and general administration people have been talking about when is the best point? So finally after the race season in 2015, we decided to change the organisation.

"So I asked Hasegawa-san if he we would go on the new role, and I have to move to new role, like company advisor."

Such changes of Honda personnel normally take place on April 1, but because the F1 season is under way at that point it did not make sense for the switch to take place then.

Handover

Arai is not going to simply abandon the F1 project though, and will remain on board after March 1 – including attending races – to help guide Hasegawa.

"It is a very complicated situation in the F1 village, so I want to follow it and I should follow his workload – but behind him," he said.

Fresh focus

Hasegawa is no stranger to F1. He was the Honda F1 team's engineering director in 2008, having come up through the ranks of its racing operation.

It was his experience that singled him out for the role, and ensured he got the nod as Honda lifts efforts to move forward.

"That is why Arai-San asked me to follow him in his job," he said.

Hasegawa will further benefit from being better able to focus on what is needed to be done in the F1 garages, thanks to Honda's decision to appoint Yoshiyuki Matsumoto as supervising director of its F1 operation and help deal with more corporate matters.

"Before we didn't have such a type of job with our board members, so that is one of the commitments of Honda to support to the Honda F1 team, which is good," he explained.

But for now, Hasegawa is very much in the learning phase: and Arai stays to bring him up to speed with the challenges and demands of F1.

"I have just joined the team, so I couldn't evaluate the current position or our ability," he said when asked for his verdict on the state of Honda's F1 project right now.

"But definitely we have improved during this winter off-season. I couldn't be very optimistic, but definitely we can improve on last year."

Not there yet

Honda's situation ahead of the start of the season is a world away from where it was 12 months ago, when it was struggling to get its car running for more than a handful of laps.

But while there are encouraging sign of progress, one thing is clear: the Japanese manufacturer does not have a Mercedes-beater on its hands right now.

"There has been some good and great progress compared with last year," explained Arai. "We only did seven laps in Jerez last year and yesterday, 84 laps, so it is dramatic improvement.

"But it is still not enough. We are looking at Mercedes. They are still far away, we need more effort to improve the performances."

And Arai is also keen to put encouraging noises from Button – about improvements in deployment – in context.

"But last year, it was so bad," he said. "Maybe he compared it to last year, and it is a huge improvement. But I think there is still not enough to catch up on top teams. So we need more."

Honda's basic layout of its 2016 engine – including the revised turbo and compressor size – have now been set, and the next two weeks will be essential for back-to-back testing of new parts and ideas.

And the other big change fans can expect for this year is that there will be no bold predictions of results – after McLaren and Honda got burned by dramatic expectations last year.

Arai added: "So last year I set a big one [target] to encourage our team because it was a very interesting season last year from testing in Abu Dhabi.

"I had to keep our fighting spirit and to encourage our staff, so I set some big ones [targets]. This year we have understood what is necessary to catch up with the top teams, and what the gap is.

"So we don't see any targets any more. We are more realistic."

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About this article
Series Formula 1
Teams McLaren
Article type Analysis
Tags honda