Speaking to the team website, Honda's Geoffrey Willis evaluates the current Concept car test programme and predicts real success in 2006.
As Technical Director of the Honda Racing F1 Team, Willis is directly responsible for next year's V8-powered Honda RA106 race car.
Q: How has the pre-Christmas test programme with the V8-powered Concept car been progressing?
Geoffrey Willis: It's gone very well indeed. In fact, it's probably been the best start to pre-season testing that we've ever had. We've had very good reliability and performance and we've been able to get through a lot of work in the first two tests. I believe it's a sign of just how well we're learning year-on-year that we can deal with such a major engine regulation change so smoothly. So it's been a very good start and we're now building up some positive momentum towards getting the new car out in January.
Q: Has it surprised you just how reliable the V8 has been to date as there were concerns regarding the extra vibrations produced when compared to the previous V10?
GW: We have taken this whole change very seriously. On the engine side, Honda had already developed two or three steps of prototype following the initial V8 that we ran at Mugello back in April. Remember, it's not just the fact that we now have a smaller capacity - there are other significant revisions as well: we've lost the variable trumpets; we can only have single injectors and various materials are no longer permitted.
Additionally we anticipated a lot of challenges on the chassis side regarding engine installation, hydraulic systems and gearbox systems. It is clear that the V8 is intrinsically likely to have higher vibrations than the V10 and we reacted accordingly, so perhaps it's not really a surprise that the Concept car has been so reliable. It just shows we've done the work well to achieve what we've managed so far.
Q: From the fans perspective what difference will the introduction of a new breed of V8 engines make? How much slower will the cars be in 2006 when compared to 2005?
GW: They sound quite different in the pit-lane -- if anything the V8s are even noisier; they are uncomfortably loud now! They do sound a little flatter on the straights although during the latest running where we used higher revs, the V8 doesn't sound that different from the V10. Inevitably the cars will be slightly slower in a straight line and they will also hit their terminal speed a little earlier.
Despite having to run at lower drag levels to maintain top speeds, cornering speeds, though, will be very similar to before. The loss of the variable trumpets has made driveability more of a challenge which will give the smoother drivers an advantage.
Q: What lessons have you learnt from 2005 and, engine aside, what will be the big differences between the RA106 and last year's car?
GW: We've got virtually unchanged aerodynamic regulations in 2006, so it does mean that we can- apply everything we've learnt this year - and we've learned a lot following our slow start to the season. We think we understand the way the cars work under these regulations very much better now and the new car is a lot more developed aerodynamically; we've made really huge improvements on that front.
As we've lost quite a lot of power, aerodynamic efficiency is becoming even more critical. We've worked on improving downforce but also achieving a substantial reduction in drag. So the new car will look very clearly different to the 2005 car.
Q: How damaging is it when technical and sporting rules continue to change? Would you prefer more stability?
GW: The big advantage in rule stability is that it reduces the amount you need to spend to be competitive, so it gives the smaller budget teams an opportunity. That, in turn, tends to close the field up and give you closer racing, so rule stability is good for the sport. That said, rule changes do sometimes lead to a bit of a mix-up in the pecking order among the better-financed teams as we saw this year. On balance, though, I like to see more rule stability.
The real difficulty comes when the changes are late and particularly when they're made to the sporting regulations, which can have a large knock-on effect to the technical design. The changes in qualifying and tyre use in 2006 aren't too bad as, due to the uncertainty, I think most teams were forced to take a fairly sensible approach to chassis layout and fuel tank size.
However, had we, for instance, gone back to low-fuel qualifying and refuelling on Sunday before the race, then you would have wanted a significantly larger fuel tank and that rule change would have been too late for us to respond.
Q: Do you believe Formula One should be the pinnacle of automotive technology or should regulations restrict state-of-the-art developments to curb costs?
GW: It's been proven over the last ten years that regulation change simply does not control costs. Costs will only be reduced when teams have less money to spend. What regulation changes have done is to cause us to spend money unnecessarily and probably increase our costs. The financial implications, for instance, of going from the V10 to V8 are simply astronomical and they are unlikely to be fully compensated by any possible reduction in technology in the next few years. It the case that 'you can't put the genie back in the bottle'.
Once we've discovered new technology and realised what benefits can be achieved in terms of car performance, if you then take that technology away you're not going to revert to 15-year-old technology; you're going to have find a new solution within the revised regulations. You see this example in other sports too where they've tried to go back a decade and all that's happened is that those involved spend even more money mimicking the technologies that got banned. So trying to control costs via technical regulations is pretty much doomed to failure.
Q: Rubens Barrichello joins the team on 1 January; what will he bring to Honda and how will you maximise his experience in the build up to the opening Grand Prix in Bahrain?
GW: He's going to bring a very high level of driving ability and a good sense of competition. I'm sure Jenson is looking forward to having a strong driver to act as a benchmark - there'll be a lot of constructive competition between the two of them. Rubens arrives after a long and stable period with a very successful team; he knows what it takes to win.
So he brings a lot of stability plus long-term experience of operating in a winning environment. With Rubens joining Jenson, we have our strongest driver line-up yet. On top of that, we certainly look like we have a very strong Honda engine and I believe we'll have a very strong chassis - so 2006 ought to be one of the best years we've ever had.
Q: You've mentioned Jenson... do you believe we'll see even stronger performances from him now his future is confirmed and that he has a proven winner as his team-mate?
GW: We certainly hope so! You always want to have two drivers where you're not sure which one of them is the quicker and maybe even they themselves aren't sure. In some ways a driver can only really measure himself against his team-mate, so when you bring two drivers of very similar ability I think you're going to get quite a lot of extra drive from each them as they each strive to find that extra tenth of second.
Q: Is a control tyre good for Formula One?
GW: That's a very difficult question. It's clear following the announcement from Michelin that we are very likely to have a single tyre supplier in 2007 and I believe there's a general consensus that we're going to have a single tyre supplier in 2008.
I'm torn in two directions here; firstly Formula One is all about competition at all sorts of levels and so, from that perspective, permitting multiple suppliers is absolutely right. A control tyre, however, is a simple way to control car performance so there's a certain amount of logic from that point of view.
Q: What are you immediate thoughts on Michelin's decision to leave Formula One at the end of 2006?
GW: We've very much enjoyed working with Michelin over these last few years and we're sorry to see them go. F1 will be poorer for the lack of such a technical battle we've seen over the last few years. We are also very confident that they'll do a very good job next year and we'll try to ensure their final season is good one for them and us.
Q: What is your view on the latest qualifying format?
GW: It's a little bit of a mixture designed to achieve a number of different objectives. There was a feeling that we should go back to the old system where you saw real gladiatorial combat for an hour with pole position swapping from car to car in the final few moments of the session.
But equally there was a desire to keep an element of variable fuel strategy which has given us some quite interesting races in recent years. At the moment, we are keeping an open mind on the new format; we like challenges and it could turn out to be quite an exciting hour.
Q: Is more overtaking the key to improving the F1 spectacle and, if so, is the double rear wing solution proposed by the FIA the right way to go?
GW: I'm never really sure quite where all this enthusiasm for overtaking in Formula One comes from. We have a qualifying system where we spend most of the weekend ordering the cars in terms of their performance so we start the race with the fastest at the front and slowest ones at the back.
The logic of that doesn't support any likelihood of overtaking! It's only if qualifying is disrupted that we get overtaking. However, if you assume that we really do want to see overtaking made easier, there are a number of options open to us. Clearly the 2005 aero regulations didn't help here.
We've discussed this CDG wing idea at the last Technical Working Group. The concept has some merit but all agreed that quite a lot of development will be needed to make it work within the context of the 2008 technical regulations package. It's interesting to see new thinking being applied but, personally, I'd be concerned if overtaking became too easy.
Q: You've just returned from Japan... how have things changed at the team since Honda's acquisition of the full shareholding?
GW: You can answer that in two very different ways: not much difference and enormously. We've been working with Honda engineers for many years and there are already a sizable number in Brackley working on a lot of joint design and development projects. That's been building up over the years and I expect it to continue to do so. So, on that front, I don't think we are really going to notice much change.
But in the other sense there's enormous change as we've now got the full resources of Honda committed to the team; you see this in the new wind tunnel that's being built and in the inclusion of the team as part of the extended Honda family. So, in the small dealings we have, it's very much the same but, if we look at it strategically, we see it as quite a big change and one that's going to give us a huge amount of strength and resources towards our championship aspirations."
Q: In previous interviews, your fellow board members at Honda Racing F1 Team have targeted wins in 2006 and a very real championship challenge in 2007. How confident are you that you can deliver the car to meet their ambitions?
GW: We've certainly started preparing for 2006 in exactly the right way with a quick car in testing and a very successful running of the new Honda V8 engine. Next year's car certainly looks pretty good in terms of wind-tunnel numbers and we've still got another four or five weeks before it starts to run.
Winning is clearly very important for us... we really must win races in 2006. We must learn not only to win but to win regularly. I think we're putting everything together in the right way: we've got a very strong driver line-up, another big step on the car and engine as well as a very well integrated team both here in Brackley and in Tochigi over in Japan.
We came away from last week's meetings in Japan with a very good sense of a 'one team' spirit. Of course, it's not going to be easy and everyone is mindful of the challenge ahead but, at the same time, there is certainly an underlying current of confidence and a sense that 2006 will be a good year for us.