Thursday, 4 December 2008


Well, I wasn't expecting that. We (five MPs and one peer) spent several hours on Monday looking round the Honda F1 racing site, listening to presentations on the future of the company, having lunch with Honda F1 bosses, Nick Fry and the legendary Ross Brawn... Either they didn't know anything at that stage, or they should all now be looking for new careers in Hollywood.

It's a real shame, not just because of the impact on the sport, and because they were all obviously so passionate about F1, but on the economic front too. Honda F1 employs nearly 700 people at its site in Brackley, Northants, and another 300 or so in Japan. More importantly, it's at the cutting edge of R&D on so many fronts. The big advantage of F1 is that it works to such short timescales, constantly innovating and seeking to improve performance. There's no place in F1 for complacency, or playing it safe; the best car this season would be at the back of the grid in 2009 if no improvements were made.

And if something goes wrong, the team has only a matter of days to sort it out - starting on the Monday after a Grand Prix they identify the problem, identify the solution, design and test the new part, and are back testing the revised car by Friday. The guy who took us on a tour of the site had years of experience in the aircraft industry (which obviously works on very similar aerodynamic principles) and said it was hugely frustrating to spend years working on new ideas, only to have the company decide not to commission a new aircraft after all. In F1 that doesn't happen.

The other thing that impressed me about the visit was the extent to which the company shared its experience and knowledge with other sectors, especially aerospace and defence. The head of engineering guy (Gary) was a part-time lecturer, and regularly advises other companies on what they can learn from F1. Some of it is to do with technology, but also things like team organisation. For example, if you can imagine the discipline required in a pit crew, where they all have to act in synchronicity, as fast and smoothly as possible; they've been sharing those skills with surgical teams, even down to how they lay out tools and medical equipment so that they know where to find things without even looking. (Something I thought might be quite useful to learn regarding just where in my handbag I've put my phone, my keys, my Commons pass...)

I asked why they, and the other teams stretching in an arc from McLaren in Surrey up to around Silverstone, were based in the UK. I was told it was partly historical, but primarily because of the skills base here. Of a workforce of 690+, they have 60 Ph.Ds. Some of them might be working on race strategy, some on design.... there seemed to be a lot of intense young men staring at computers without moving or blinking, no doubt thinking very deep thoughts. You wouldn't think of someone with a maths degree/ Ph.D. going into the F1 business, but that's what they do. But we also met mechanics - lads who'd been obssessed with racing since they were boys, who'd managed to secure a plum job with an F1 team, putting together Jenson Button's race car. (Which was due to leave for testing in Spain yesterday or today!)

I asked whether there was any likelihood of them moving out of the UK, and whether not having a British Grand Prix would make a difference. The answer was categorically no; they need to be where the skills are. We also discussed proposed changes to next season's rules, and the impact of adopting a standard engine from 2010, and whether they were going to hire Bruno Senna (nephew of... They were very tight-lipped on that front.)

As for those who criticise F1's environmental credentials, well, yes. I know Honda's attempts to compensate for this through its Earthdream initiative hasn't convinced everyone, although at least they're giving money to good causes and there seemed to be a real focus on trying to reduce their environmental footprint, e.g. in recycling and re-using all the waste carbon fibre that goes into making the chassis. (On a very minor note, there were green bins around the site marked 'Recyling' and red marked 'Landfill' - would at least make people think twice before chucking things into the red bin, wouldn't it?)

Besides - which 'sport' has the greatest environmental footprint? This one.


Anonymous said...

That said, if they were thinking of moving out of the Uk, they probably would be quiet about it, and between you and me, as a PhD Engineer facing 45% income tax rates, if Honda said "We are sick of paying business rates here so how do you fancy working in a Tax-free lowcrime environment such as Dubai?" it wouldn't be a tough decision. The international mobility of the skilled labour that literally, feeds you, is something you should seriously contemplate.

Anonymous said...

Alternatively I could actually look at the news!

Old Holborn said...

As Max Mosley said this morning on Radio 4, employing 700 people to get two cars to drive around a race track 18 times a year is a stupid thing to do.

Kerry said...

And if you read my post, you'll know that there's a lot more to F1 than that!

timbone said...

Sorry Kerry, I couldn't resist it, a quote from an article from The Publican about Honda F1 and their problems -

And there’s the solution to the world’s global financial meltdown: the tobacco companies have millions to spend on advertising, their financial power could simply help give the economy a boost, it would get all forms of sporting industries out of trouble, and repealing the smoking ban would get Britain’s hospitality industry moving once again.