Third in the drivers’ championship just behind the two Ferraris of Rubens Barrichello and Michael Schumacher, his star is in the ascendancy in the motor racing hall of fame.
But despite his dominant position, he has opted out of the third-placed BAR Honda team to choose a BMW for next year, citing the fact that he wants to win. This is a bit strange as Williams BMW is currently in fourth place.
Bearing in mind the last great defection from Honda to BMW, when Rover dramatically switched allegiances, he can only hope his fortunes don’t follow the same trajectory. This type of experience is one that Honda has to battle with every day in the fleet market. Offering the market some of the best quality automotive technology in the world just isn’t enough.
Persuading user-choosers to opt for your badge can actually be the most emotive issue. And with more fleets offering their drivers an open choice, persuading them you have the model for them is a vital battle to win.
Like the BAR Honda team, Honda UK seems to be doing very well, with fleet sales up 27%, as part of a 13% jump in overall sales. Diesel sales account for up to 60% of fleet demand.
For James Daulton, head of corporate sales at Honda, there is more to come, with the range being expanded by the FR-V six-seater, which makes its world debut at the Paris Motor Show this month before it goes on sale in November.
The compact multi-purpose vehicle uses two rows of three-abreast seating to put a fresh slant on family motoring.
It is the first six-seater to feature a V-formation arrangement, with the middle seat in each row sliding back for improved comfort.
Daulton said: ‘Our business case to fleet operators is the excellent quality and holding costs of the products that we offer. For fleets, the proposition we have is to make the residual values good and wholelife costs good.
‘But we also see companies looking at their vehicles wanting to offer more choice, more individuality. Drivers want to be able to make an individual choice and without it being odd. They are following a growing trend in the market of not being a brand slave.’
Core messages of premium residual values and lower than mass market running costs is being brought to bear on Honda’s products.
In terms of sales, the message seems to be getting through at all levels, particularly with the firm’s growing diesel range.
Key models including Jazz, updated Civic, Accord and CR-V have all seen sales increase. This is despite the CR-V not having a diesel engine until later this year and the Jazz only being petrol-powered.
Daulton added: ‘As a brand, we are stronger in retail than in fleet and that will always be the case. There is business that we don’t do, simply because some areas are more profitable than others. Quality cars have been winning. There has also been growth in diesel and migration to SUVs and small MPVs, so certain traditional sectors are shrinking, but there is also movement to better quality products.
‘If you look at the CR-V, it takes 50% of its SUV sector and a key reason for that is because its holding costs are so attractive. It is a quality product.’
There is also a change in buying habits because user-choosers don’t shop like fleet managers. They don’t just look at lower-medium contenders or upper-medium options. Daulton said: ‘A customer might look at a three-door model, an MPV, an SUV and then an upper-medium option.’
But in the race to offer a greater range of products, manufacturers are seeing occasional clashes between the world of the user-chooser and the remains of restrictive fleet choice lists.
Many companies still ban 4x4s for use on business, citing running costs and safety issues. But Daulton said: ‘Some fleets have yet to catch up with new buying patterns. Many modern SUVs are not thirsty or expensive to maintain.
‘Some fleets already recognise that you can allow a wider choice by using effective wholelife cost bandings, together with policies that state the car must reflect the company’s image.
‘The sector is growing because people want something stylish and individual.’ Daulton also fends off attacks that claim manufacturers don’t care about the environment if they produce 4x4s, citing Honda’s commitment to hybrid petrol-electric technology.
Several fleet customers already have Civic IMAs on their fleets, with sales running at about 1,500 a year, although UK tax policies that promote diesel so heavily clearly restrict demand.
Last week, Fleet News revealed that Twynham Housing Association had ordered 28 Civic IMAs because of their low running costs and BIK liability.
Daulton is backed by a 26-strong fleet department, including an eight-member team focused on 100-plus fleet sales. Four look after leasing companies, a specialist deals with police and emergency services and a five-strong team works with sub-100 fleets, which make up half the firm’s business sales.
This is supported by a network of 30 corporate dealers and 20 local specialist dealers.
Between them, they have helped Honda to achieve record sales years for the past three years and are likely to achieve a new high this year, consistently appearing in the top 10 in the sales charts, a position that will be reinforced by the FR-V and CR-V diesel.
Daulton added: ‘Our prime market is user-chooser and in all areas we can offer customers premium residual values with low running costs, which maintains low leasing rates for our customers.’
Adrenaline day winners
NEARLY 50 senior fleet decision-makers put Honda products to the ultimate test during an ‘adrenaline day’ at Thruxton race circuit last week.
Among the tests were a tough slalom course, track racing and skid control. The two first-placed drivers included Jonathan Ellis, account manager of Lloyds TSB autolease, who won a once-in-a-lifetime trip in a Honda stunt plane.
Runners-up Steve Deverill, insurance and transport officer for Basingstoke & Deane Borough Council, and Sandy Gibb, account manager at Lloyds TSB autolease. Both won tickets to join the BAR Honda team at Formula One testing in Silverstone.
Susan Nembhard, account manager at LeasePlan, won a Honda T-shirt and key ring for work on the off-road course.