Ross Brawn has insisted that he remains 'optimistic' about the future of Honda's beleaguered Formula 1 team and the parent company in Japan is adamant that seeing out the 2009 season is 'not impossible' - but esteemed former three-time world champion Sir Jackie Stewart is not so sure.

With just over a month now until the cars take to the starting grid for the curtain-raising Australian Grand Prix in Melbourne, there has still been no announcement about what is to happen to the Brackley-based operation and its 750 employees, even if news is expected imminently [see separate story - click here].

RBS sporting ambassador Stewart, however, suggests the considerable media hype surrounding a potential management buy-out and other outside interest has 'all come to nothing' as the sport battles against a global credit crunch in which everybody is increasingly tightening their belts.

"The damage was done when Honda announced in December that they were pulling out," the Scot explained in an interview with The Herald. "Although there has been a slim hope that they might survive, my feeling is that it's all come to nothing.

"I know Richard Branson is interested in grands prix and he attended a few races last year, but although he has achieved a lot in his life, he also tends to get publicity in other cases where there isn't much substance to the stories.

"As for Bernie [Ecclestone - F1 commercial rights-holder] taking a share in a management buy-out, that would be a clear conflict of interest, because he would then have to become a member of FOTA (Formula One Teams' Association) - and you can't have somebody running the sport and having a stake in one of the competitors, so I think we can rule that out.

"Basically, the problem lies in the lack of money around sport; I am not just talking about F1, but also football, golf, tennis, the rest, because nobody is safe in the midst of the recession.

"The motor industry is in one of the most perilous positions, because if people aren't buying cars, then it filters through every other branch of the business. Most motoring teams are having to cut their cloth and cling onto existing contracts, in the knowledge that it simply isn't the right time to be persuading new sponsors to come on-board."

Despite outgoing Honda CEO Takeo Fukui having conceded that of all the bidders to have come forward to purchase the squad so far, 'none of them are serious' [see separate story - click here] - and the belief now that Richard Branson and Virgin's recent re-emergence into the frame was little more than an extravagant publicity stunt by the billionaire British entrepreneur - an official for the Japanese manufacturer has argued that the team's survival is 'not impossible'.

Brawn appears to share that optimism, even if he may now be going it alone in his buy-out, without business partner and Honda F1 CEO Nick Fry. German magazine Auto Motor und Sport hints that the latter could be replaced by Prodrive chief David Richards - himself an interested party early on in the bidding process - and adds that the 2009 car has been successfully modified to accommodate a Mercedes-Benz engine, with the first payment to the German car-maker having already been made.

"There is still good reason to be optimistic," Brawn asserted. "We only need the green light and then we can go to the final test sessions of the pre-season."

The Englishman had claimed just prior to Honda's announcement last December that it was pulling the plug on its manufacturer involvement in the top flight - a legacy of falling car sales precipitated by the current economic downturn, and poor on-track return for its considerable, reputed ?147 million investment in 2008 - that he believed the team would be capable of running inside the top three in 2009.

However, with a stinted development programme amidst all the uncertainty, and no testing under its belt since November - and none at all with the new machine - the squad will undoubtedly face an uphill struggle if it does make the grid Down Under.

According to the BBC, Honda intends to join the group test in Spain next week, following an earlier shakedown, possibly at Silverstone. A senior team source explained that the current situation is one akin to 'being in the final stages of buying a house, when the contracts are agreed and signed and it's with the lawyers'.

The source revealed that Brawn had told employees that 'everything's positive - it's all going ahead', adding: "We're carrying on as if we're going to Melbourne."

"There's no way we'd go to any test without an engine deal," the source underlined. "If we're going to Jerez, it means it's a done deal."



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