Paris, Dec 6: Honda on Friday announced its shock withdrawal from Formula One raising fresh fears over the future of the multi-million dollar sport struggling to keep afloat in the current economic downturn.
Honda Motor president Takeo Fukui made the announcement at an emotional press conference in Tokyo, apologising to fans, staff, drivers and F1 authorities.
"This is a complete withdrawal. The future is a blank sheet," he said. "Five years from now, I think history will show we made the right decision."
The decision shocked the sport which had already seen back-markers, and fellow Japanese team, Super Aguri go the wall earlier this year.
It also sparked new calls for the glamour sport to slash its mind-boggling budgets while the remaining Japanese team, Toyota, hurried out a statement pledging their future to the championship.
"This difficult decision has been made in light of the quickly deteriorating operating environment facing the global auto industry, brought on by the subprime problem in the United States," Fukui added.
Honda Racing CEO Nick Fry, however, said he was hopeful that new owners would be found in time for the team to be on the grid for the start of next season in Australia on March 29.
"In the last 12 hours we've had three serious people come to us and suggest they would like to buy the team, so we're still hoping to be there in Melbourne," Fry told the BBC.
Drivers Jenson Button and Rubens Barrichello were out of contract at the end of the season, but Honda, whose annual F1 budget was believed to be in the region of $400 million, had been expected to retain them both for 2009.
However, Friday's announcement means they are without a team which could spell the end of the road for Barrichello, the most experienced driver in Formula One history having raced in 271 Grand Prix, winning nine.
"It's just as much of a shock for me as it is for everyone else," said 28-year-old Button who claimed Honda's only grand prix win at Hungary in 2006.
"We need to stay positive and as one team because if we are not, no one will be interested in taking it over."
Honda first competed in F1 in 1964 and has since clocked up three Grand Prix wins as a full works team. Its engines have also been behind dozens of victories by stars such as world champions Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost.
The team finished ninth in the constructor's championship this season with 14 points. Barrichello achieved the team's best result with a third-place finish at Silverstone.
F1 is generally feeling the pinch with this year's Australian Grand Prix going $27 million into the red and France axing its race over money worries.
Formula One supremo Bernie Ecclestone, asked whether F1 was in crisis, replied: "Formula One is in no bigger a crisis than any other company throughout the world - the world is in crisis at the moment.
"But the world won't stop, that's for sure."
However, Max Mosley, the head of the sport's ruling body, the FIA, insisted Honda's withdrawal dramatically illustrated the need for changes, including the introduction of a cheaper, standardised engine.
"If the teams don't notice now what's happened, you have to abandon all hope for them," said Mosley who dismissed the Formula One Teams Association (FOTA) efforts to cut costs.
"The moment where we can make really massive reductions is from 2010, but we have to get through 2009 first," Mosley told the respected autosport website.
"We have got to get the costs down not by 10 or 20 per cent, but down to 10 or 20 per cent of what they are now. I would expect a team to be able to run in the 30-40 million pound bracket."
Meanwhile, Toyota, who haven't won a Grand Prix since joining the sport in 2002, insisted that they are fully committed to Formula One.
"Toyota is currently committed to succeeding in Formula One and to reducing our costs," said a statement.
"We are contributing to the FOTA activities which will achieve significant cost reductions whilst maintaining the spirit of the sport."
It is not the first time Honda has quit F1. It withdrew in 1968 to focus on developing compact passenger vehicles.
The Japanese firm returned to the F1 stage as an engine supplier from 1983 until 1992, when race regulation changes and a ban on the use of turbo systems prompted Honda to withdraw again from the competition.
In 2000, Honda made yet another comeback by partnering with BAR, supplying engines and jointly developing the vehicle body. The company took full control of the team from the 2006 season.