Under a fanfare of flash bulbs, smoke, and rousing music, the Honda F1 team launched their 2008 specification car, a 'new' model developed from the ground up. Sporting a tamer livery from last season, the attractive white blue and green scheme is seen as an evolution in Honda's 'Earth Dreams' programme. The launch at the Brackley based team head-quarters, was a first for Honda, with management, drivers and team personnel heading to the cold winter climate of the UK for the event, a far cry from previous launches across the Continent and Far East.
Addressing a media scrum and a select group of Honda partners, CEO Nick Fry reflected on an unmemorable 2007 for the Honda team, "Obviously 2007 was a year that failed to meet any of our expectations; as a result of that there has been significant changes in the team over the last six months. It's really a programme I would call accelerated evolution, what we've tried to do is address the issues and bring experience to the team".
With a tough season behind them, Fry explained the fundamental changes to the Honda team, that he hopes will propel the F1 outfit into regular point scoring positions in 2008. "Firstly the whole design philosophy of the car is completely different; it's different in every respect and by the time we get to Melbourne, every component of the car will be different."
"Secondly, there is a big change in personnel" elaborates Fry. "We've tried to bring a lot of experience to the team in all the major disciplines. The aero-dynamic team is under completely different leadership; the design engineering of the car has been significantly re-enforced and the race engineering aswell, all under the leadership of the hugely experienced and very successful Ross Brawn".
Ross Brawn, whose career at Ferrari ended in 2007 under a cloud over the technical secrets debacle, now takes the helm as Honda's team principal, and was keen to highlight the fundamental differences in the RA108.
"The primary difficulty with last year's car is that it produced a lot of downforce, but in a very aggressive way, the car was very sensitive to pitch and roll so it made it extremely difficult for drivers to use those levels of downforce," he explained. "So the focus for this car is to make sure it produces the aerodynamic downforce in a much more friendly way. We've also slimmed down the chassis and changed the layout of the car to give it a lot more potential, particularly with aerodynamic development for the future.
"It's going to be a very intense season of development for us, [we have] a lot of new ideas and we want the car to be able to accept a wide range of changes through the season. The car you see here is very much a base spec that was established in October and November, and you'll see over the next few months before we get to Melbourne there'll be some quite dramatic changes in the car; new engine cover, new floor, new wings, new barge-boards, so this is very much a starting spec and a good programme to build on," continued Brawn.
Whilst the Honda RA108's will still be piloted by Rubens Barrichello and Jenson Button. Alex Wurz has made a u-turn on his retirement plans and joins the team for the 2008 season as the test/reserve driver.
"After I said there was too much race driving in my career, I was basically [attracted] by the spirit of Honda, their racing history, together with the constellation of many good clever people coming here," Wurz said.
Having completed a recent shakedown test in Valencia, Button and Barrichello were keen to share their thoughts on the new 'base' model. "It's always a great pleasure to drive the car," responds the petite Brazilian "I've only completed thirty laps, it felt well and felt balanced, there were parts missing, so it was just a shakedown, next week is the one when everything starts to come".
Despite a difficult season for one of the UK's top Formula One drivers, Jenson Button was buoyant in his hopes for 2008 and the Honda RA108. "2007, as everyone knows, was a very tough year for us, but in a way I think it was a good year; it made us realise that a few things need to change as we were going in the wrong direction and we've had the chance to put them right, so I'm looking forward to 2008, not just 2008 but the future with Honda.
"For me the most important thing is the improvement throughout the season, it's all very well starting with a reasonably competitive car, but it's improving that is the key and for us to improve race by race compared to our competitors is all we need to do, which is what we are aiming for," added the Brit.
With traction control eliminated from Formula 1 this season, Button addressed the change and the affect it will have on racing.
"I think it's going to add a little bit of excitement to the racing," he offered. "For some it's going to take a little bit longer than others, but by the time we get to the first race, we are all experienced, we can all put up without having traction control as we've driven it before in other categories. It does mean you have to work a lot harder with engine management and the driveability of the engine, so we are working very hard on that and we've already improved a lot; for everyone on the grid there's a long way to go with helping the driveability because it's not easy trying to plant this much power onto the circuit."
With the subject of traction control broached by Button, team-mate Barrichello was eager to add about the fundamental enjoyment that comes from driving without such an aid. "It's so much fun to drive it [RA108] without traction control, even on the wet. Some people think it's going to be a little more dangerous, but I think we have the proper tyres, it's more fun and we have more command of the car."
Looking to the future, Honda are certainly not resting on their laurels and continue to develop new and young talent for the future. Joining the team for a second consecutive year, former British F3 champion Mike Conway continues with the Honda Young Driver Programme and is joined by Luca Fillipi a former team-mate from Super Nova International in the GP2.
"I've really enjoyed working with the team so far," Conway said. "I want to build on that and progress forward. I tried the new car last week at Valencia, and it was great to get the opportunity, so I'm looking forward to the future."
Having put one of their toughest seasons behind them, the Honda F1 team are looking to the future, almost starting from a blank sheet. With the introduction of Brawn to the team, and a complete redevelopment of their car, Honda are planning ahead to become a potential protagonist of the F1 championship; whilst this year may not yield a step up to the level of Ferrari and McClaren, the British based team believe they have the infrastructure in place to become a force to be reckoned with over the next few seasons.