TOKYO // Honda pulled out of Formula One today, dealing a major blow to the sport and ending a dream for Japan's number two car maker. Amid slumping car sales triggered by the global economic crisis Honda were no longer willing to bankroll the Formula One team and its estimated annual budget of US$500 million (Dh1.8 billion). The Formula One supremo Bernie Ecclestone said several parties had already shown interest in buying the team. "I think it's OK. I think there's a number of people out there that have shown a lot of interest," Mr Ecclestone told Sky News. The Honda chief executive Takeo Fukui told a news conference a return to the sport could take time and added that there were no plans to continue as an engine supplier.
"This difficult decision has been made in light of the quickly deteriorating operating environment facing the global auto industry," Mr Fukui said. "Honda must protect its core business activities and secure the long term as widespread uncertainties in the economics around the globe continue to mount. "We will enter into consultation with associates of Honda Racing F1 and its engine supplier Honda Racing Development regarding the future of the two companies. This will include offering the team for sale."
Mr Fukui, who earlier this year said he would "spend a trillion yen" if he could to make Honda a Formula One winner, added: "But at this stage we have no plans to return to F1. We have no plans to supply engines to other teams. We do not want to be half in and half out of the sport." Honda would have little time to find a buyer with the 2009 season starting in Australia on March 29. With Formula One's powerbrokers desperately seeking cost-cutting measures to ensure its survival, Honda's departure will have serious implications for the glamour sport.
It also leaves the British driver Jenson Button without a team for 2009, although some have yet to confirm their line-ups. The Brazilian Bruno Senna, the 25-year-old nephew of the late triple world champion Ayrton, had also been tipped to take the place of his compatriot Rubens Barrichello at Honda next season. Honda's exit will leave the multi-billion sport, dominated by car makers, facing a depleted grid of just 18 cars if no buyer can be found in the extremely tight time-frame available. Formula One's governing body vowed to ensure the sport was financially sustainable after Honda announced they were withdrawing from the championship. "The announcement of Honda's intended withdrawal from Formula One has confirmed the International Automobile Federation's (FIA) long-standing concern that the cost of competing in the world championship is unsustainable," the FIA said in a statement. "In the FIA's view, the global economic downturn has only exacerbated an already critical situation. "As the guardians of the sport, the FIA is committed to working with the commercial rights holder and the remaining members of FOTA (the Formula One Teams' Association) to ensure that Formula One becomes financially sustainable."
Honda's decision could also prompt fears that other major manufacturers, with their factory production suspended and thousands of staff laid off, could follow Honda's example. Honda and Toyota have been the big spenders in Formula One in recent years. Ross Brawn, the former Ferrari technical director who won multiple championships with Michael Schumacher, was hired to run the Honda team at the end of last year. Despite its huge resources, Honda had a dismal 2008 season and was pinning its hopes on next year's new rules levelling the playing field.
Button, a winner for Honda in Hungary in 2006, scored just three points while Barrichello took 11. The team finished ninth overall. The last team to leave Formula One was the Honda-backed Super Aguri, the tail-enders who folded for financial reasons in April. *Reuters