Honda's future in MotoGP has been an almost constant subject of debate since the announcement that the Japanese motoring giant was withdrawing from Formula One on December 5th this year. The situation was only made worse by American Honda's decision to withdraw from the AMA Superbike championship next year, announced exactly a week later. And now, it looks like there could be three "Black Fridays" in a row for Honda's involvement in racing.
For this Friday, December 19th, Honda CEO Takeo Fukui is due to deliver his end-of-year speech, and if reports from the Spanish press are to be believed, there is a real possibility that Fukui will announce the withdrawal of Honda from MotoGP. Both AS.com and Motociclismo.es have picked up a story by the weekly magazine Solo Moto, which quotes a spokesman from HRC as saying that "all of our projects are currently under consideration."
The problem, as you most likely guessed, is due to the global economic crisis. Honda's margins are under severe pressure, with sales slowing worldwide, a fact confirmed by a drop of nearly 27% in new car registrations in Western Europe. And as profits fall, Honda is coming under extreme pressure from investors to cut costs. Investors reacted positively to both Honda's F1 pullout, as well as their withdrawal from the AMA, despite the vast difference in budgets for the two activities, and Solo Moto believes that MotoGP is their next target.
Honda's MotoGP program does have a number of things stacked in its favor, however. Firstly, the MotoGP program costs about one tenth of the approximately $500 million Honda is believed to have spent on Formula One every year. Secondly, and more importantly, most of the tab for Honda's MotoGP budget is picked up by Repsol, the sponsor for the factory squad fielding Dani Pedrosa and Andrea Dovizioso. So pulling out of MotoGP would not produce much of an actual saving.
Worryingly, there are precedents in Honda's history. In February 1968, Mike Hailwood and Ralph Bryans flew to Japan to meet Michihiko Aika, then head of Honda's motorcycle racing department, expecting to test the new machinery for the upcoming season. But instead of testing, they found themselves being told that Honda had decided to withdraw from motorcycle racing, with no prior warning. It would take Honda another 15 years to win another Grand Prix Championship.
If Honda did pull out of MotoGP, it would have a devastating effect on the series. Honda currently provides 6 of the 19 bikes on the grid, and with FIM rules requiring a minimum of 15 entries for a world championship series, the prospects of the 2009 MotoGP season being run as a cup, with no world title at stake, do not bode well. The best case scenario - is it could be called such - would be that only the factory team would be disbanded, with Honda continuing to provide a bike to the satellite teams. This would leave two of MotoGP's brightest talents, Dani Pedrosa and Andrea Dovizioso out in the cold, and mean that the Honda RC212V would be unlikely to receive any further development for the rest of the season, making it an uncompetitive proposition.
Despite the fact that Solo Moto is a highly-respected publication, with what AS.com describes as "a direct line" into HRC, there is still no certainty as to what will happen. Honda UK has already announced that they will continue their support for the British Superbike series next year, and Motorcycle News is running an interview with LCR Honda's Lucio Cecchinello, in which the Italian states that he does not believe that Honda will pull out of MotoGP. But this has been a turbulent and troubled period, for all of motorsports, with both Suzuki and Subaru pulling out of the World Rally Championship. Right now, you'd have to say anything is possible, and only Takeo Fukui knows for sure. And he'll be telling us about it on Friday.