Super Aguri Part 2: The Fast and the Aguri-ous

One of GPRejects.com’s favourite modern teams, we take an indepth look into the history of Super Aguri and analyse their trials and tribulations through their short history in Formula 1. This second segment looks at the team’s second season, their rise through the ranks and their subsequent fall.

New Super Aguri driver Anthony Davidson in 2002, in one of two appearances for Minardi.

New Super Aguri driver Anthony Davidson in 2002, in one of two appearances for Minardi.

In direct contrast to their preparations for their first season, Super Aguri had the benefit of time to work on their plans for 2007 instead of enduring the chaotic rush to get two cars ready for the first race. Furthermore, the team looked in good shape; Honda’s Japan-based research and development division were able to allocate more time to Super Aguri, who were able to go on a small recruitment drive to bolster their ranks. It was announced in the latter stages of 2006 that Takuma Sato would have the British driver Anthony Davidson partnering him at Super Aguri. Davidson – a former karting adversary of Jenson Button – had been a long-time tester for BAR/Honda and over his career had been linked with a number of race drives within the sport. Despite this, his only race experience in F1 thus far had come in a trio of outings, two covering for Alex Yoong for Minardi in 2002 which both ended in early retirements, and a third in 2005 covering for Takuma Sato at BAR. Davidson would be evidence of the stronger partnership with Honda, and as the new car was unveiled days before the first running in Melbourne their new car – the SA07 – would also draw some heat from within the paddock.

Before the details of the SA07’s conception can be disclosed, it’s important to look at the background rumblings over “customer cars” that had preceded the 2007 season. Customer cars were defined quite simply as a set of designs that were produced by one team and sold to another. Hence, if a team were able to have a parent operation with more resource, they could theoretically purchase their car and run with it, giving them a direct advantage over the teams around them. However, doing so would void a team’s claim to their share of FIA prize money since they would not be legally defined as a “constructor”, thus rendering them ineligible for the “Constructors’ Championship”.

The rearguard of the 2006 field had been Toro Rosso, Midland/Spyker and Super Aguri, and due to their chronic unreliability Williams were just in front of this group in terms of overall championship position. Toro Rosso, the Red Bull B-team, had been able to use a slightly modified Red Bull RB1 in 2006 since the original intellectual property rights of the chassis had belonged to Ford; the car was designed prior to Jaguar selling up to Dietrich Mateschitz’s world-famous drinks operation, and with a rev-limited V10 engine the pedestrian Toro Rosso package would draw no controversy. In 2007, Toro Rosso planned to use the same car as the lead Red Bull team, albeit with a Ferrari engine instead of the parent team’s Renault unit. In order to still be eligible for the Constructors’ Championship, the car was designed by a “third-party” operation named Red Bull Technologies. Predictably, this angered Williams and Spyker who would be at risk of missing out on a greater portion of the FIA prize fund if Toro Rosso offered sterner competition. Instead of joining those protests, Super Aguri pushed ahead with plans to use a modified Honda RA106.

In order to make this deal viable Aguri Suzuki enlisted the services of Paul White, who had been with the team on a contractor basis for a year. White owned a consultancy firm named PJUU Ltd, and through some manoeuvring were able to obtain the intellectual property of the RA106 from Honda. As the designs were now owned by a third party, Super Aguri could license the rights from them and avoid any customer car sanctions levelled by the FIA. After the designs were updated in order to work with the new Bridgestone tyres and with updated aerodynamics, Super Aguri were ready to go racing once again…but not before a little more legal wrangling.

Giedo van der Garde in Super Aguri attire. He would defect to Spyker shortly after, which would involve a later court battle.

Giedo van der Garde in Super Aguri attire. He would defect to Spyker shortly after, which would involve a later court battle.

In addition to their racing duo of Sato and Davidson, Super Aguri had signed Dutchman Giedo van der Garde as their third/reserve driver; van der Garde had solid results in F3 Euro Series, as well as a healthy supply of backing from businessman Marcel Boekhoorn who had a reputation for turning around failing companies in the Netherlands. Boekhoorn would present a significant source of cash, and Super Aguri were looking to exploit it. Then, out of the blue, van der Garde defected to Spyker, despite Super Aguri claiming to have a legally binding contract with the Dutch driver. Boekhoorn had been one of a number of Netherlands-based investors in the Spyker team and presumably wanted to use the outfit to help van der Garde progress through the ranks of F1. Super Aguri submitted a legal challenge, but perhaps anti-climactically the matter was settled in the middle of the season and van der Garde remained with Spyker. This was a precursor to the fate that would befall van der Garde’s future F1 career, and the Dutchman would later become embroiled in an ugly contract war with Sauber in 2015.

The SA07, launched the day before practice in Melbourne. It would be quick on its first outings.

The SA07, launched the day before practice in Melbourne. It would be quick on its first outings.

After the numerous trips to the lawyer’s office over the winter, Super Aguri headed for Melbourne looking to pick up from where they left off in 2006. The team hadn’t had a chance to test the SA07, opting to use the original Honda RA106 in winter testing in order to get their bearings, but Takuma Sato was still able to go 11th fastest in the first free practice session of the season. Usually, first practice isn’t considered a representative view of the order for a given event, so perhaps Sato’s turn of pace could have been overlooked as Raikkonen, Heidfeld and the Toyotas all languished near the bottom of the timesheets whilst Davidson could only manage 18th. To confound the doubters, Davidson and Sato then proceeded to bag 11th and 13th respectively in the second practice session, with Jarno Trulli becoming the meat in the Super Aguri sandwich. In the final practice session on the Saturday morning Davidson coaxed his SA07 to fourth place; the British driver, presumably, had eaten his Weetabix for breakfast.

Having spent the entirety of 2006 mired at the back of the grid, Sato and Davidson were able to escape the first qualifying stage with relative ease for the first time in Super Aguri’s short history. Then, Davidson was able to qualify 11th after beating a number of better-funded outfits in Q2 including Renault rookie Heikki Kovalainen. Sato then proceeded to something unthinkable a year prior; the Japanese driver had managed to make it into the final top-ten shootout! This was partially thanks to Felipe Massa’s Ferrari developing an unspecified mechanical fault; the Brazilian crawled to a halt on-track, and prompted Maranello’s finest to make the first in-season engine change of 2007. Sato couldn’t make any more inroads into the top 10, qualifying a position in front of his team-mate and less than 0.2 seconds behind 9th-placed Ralf Schumacher. Super Aguri were able to achieve this with what was essentially a 2006 car, whilst the full-fat Honda team were struggling hugely with their new RA107. Honda’s novel “earthdreams” livery concept – depicting a map of the Earth – would turn heads, but the car’s inherent lack of pace would turn them back.

Having enjoyed a stellar weekend up until Sunday, the race was comparatively lacklustre for the Super Aguri team; Sato was only able to finish in 12th behind Barrichello’s Honda, whilst Davidson stalled at the lights. Although the Brit got going, he then proceeded to have a scuffle with Spyker’s Adrian Sutil on lap three; the German spun, whilst Davidson had a prompt spell in the air before returning to earth with a bump. Somehow, both cars continued and Sutil collected a number of penalties on his way to 17th, whilst Davidson took 16th despite having to seek medical attention post-race with back pain. Furthermore, Spyker had commenced legal action against Super Aguri, Red Bull and Honda for their part in the customer car saga; this would continue for a number of months.

The next two races in Malaysia and Bahrain were more straight-forward midfield battles; Davidson would be knocked out in Q1 whilst Sato would get to Q2 at Sepang, and vice versa at Sakhir. Race pace was largely the same as it was in Albert Park, although both Super Aguris would suffer from engine failures under the desert sun in Bahrain. Davidson’s failure was late on in the Grand Prix, and thus would be classified 16th for the third consecutive race. Whilst the opening races didn’t entirely represent the progress Super Aguri had made over the winter, it was on the return to Europe where things got incredibly interesting.

Sato crosses the line at Barcelona to score Super Aguri's first point, to the delight of the team.

Sato crosses the line at Barcelona to score Super Aguri’s first point, to the delight of the team.

As has become customary in modern Formula 1, the Circuit de Catalunya was the first of the European races; to try and improve the on-track product, a chicane was added before the final corner. This perhaps took the challenge out of the final turn, but the safety benefits provided a compelling argument for the reconfigured corner’s inclusion. For the first time since the season opener, both cars cleared the first hurdle in qualifying and would line up 13th and 15th. Whilst the race was no classic, a number of teams made dramatic errors in the pits and coupled with a number of high-profile on-track accidents and retirements, it would be important to pick through the field carefully. This is exactly what Takuma Sato did that afternoon.

After a first-lap fracas between Alexander Wurz, Ralf Schumacher and Giancarlo Fisichella, Kimi Raikkonen retired eight laps later with an electrical issue. BMW proceeded to bring the chaos into the pitlane by failing to secure a wheel correctly to Nick Heidfeld’s car during his second stop, whilst Renault had refuelling issues and this forced Fisichella and Heikki Kovalainen to make extra pitstops. With a few other issues plaguing some of the more regular point-scorers, Sato was able to keep his head and ease through the field. His caution paid off, and Sato would claim Super Aguri’s first ever world championship point as he crossed the finish line in 8th place. Cue raptures from the Super Aguri pitwall; after all of their previous travails, the team had a result to underline their hard work. At this stage in the season, Sato’s point would elevate the team above the likes of Toro Rosso, Spyker, and perhaps sweetest of all, Honda.

Things came back to earth with a bump in Monaco. After Super Aguri’s heroics at Barcelona, both drivers were unable to wrestle their cars into Q2; the SA07 simply lacked the grip of the more developed cars on the grid and was clearly disadvantaged in the winding, low-speed streets of Monte Carlo. Perhaps aiming to simply bring both cars home, Sato and Davidson drove tentative races to finish two laps down on winner Fernando Alonso, who would become a much closer adversary in the next Grand Prix.

Honda test driver James Rossiter assumed third driver duties for Super Aguri.

Honda test driver James Rossiter assumed third driver duties for Super Aguri.

The Formula One circus reconvened in North America for the Canadian Grand Prix at Montreal, after a short test at Paul Ricard in France took place. The FIA selected the long-time test venue due to its similarity to the Montreal circuit, and would give the teams a chance to take stock and make the required preparations. Honda test and development driver James Rossiter had undertaken Super Aguri’s running over the two scheduled days, and clearly helped the team gather the data required; although Anthony Davidson beaten to Q2 by Toro Rosso’s Scott Speed by a tenth of a second, Takuma Sato once again left the Honda works team in the shade and outqualified both Barrichello and Button to start 11th.

The Canadian Grand Prix of 2007 will mean different things to different people. Lewis Hamilton will remember this as his first F1 Grand Prix victory, having fended off the advances of Fernando Alonso at the first corner leaving his McLaren team-mate dropping down the field. BMW’s Nick Heidfeld was at his metronomic best, finishing just four-and-a-half seconds behind Hamilton, whilst Alexander Wurz will remember this race as the highlight of his swansong season; having started in a lowly nineteenth, the Williams driver strategically weaved his way to 3rd to take his final F1 podium finish. Further down the grid, an entire team would be a sheer state of euphoria; after a year-and-a-half of trials and tribulations, Super Aguri would endure a gamut of emotions throughout a nail-biting Grand Prix.

As the race had seemingly settled after approximately twenty laps, Adrian Sutil triggered the emergence of the safety car after putting his Spyker into the wall at Turn 4. This proceeded to bunch the field up, and famously led to Robert Kubica’s spectacular barrel-roll on lap 26; after making contact with Jarno Trulli on the run to the hairpin, Kubica ran off track and over a bump which promptly launched his car into wall, past Speed’s stricken Toro Rosso, and into a series of rolls towards the hairpin itself where the BMW eventually came to rest.

Kubica’s crash brought out the safety car once again, and so drivers and teams alike were hurriedly trying to adapt their strategies to accommodate the interrupted nature of the race. Thus, after a series of out-of-sequence pit calls under the safety car, Anthony Davidson was running in 5th position behind Hamilton, Heidfeld, Alonso and Nico Rosberg. Then, Alonso and Rosberg served penalties for previous misdemeanours; running low on fuel, both drivers were forced to pit under the previous safety car when the pitlane itself was closed. Anthony Davidson, in a Super Aguri, was third! After a year of being content to finish races and occasionally outqualify another backmarker, this must have seemed like a dream for Aguri Suzuki and his outfit. Whilst there was still a long way to go, the team must have been looking at several strategy options to keep Davidson in with a chance of a podium.

This is a groundhog, a mammal that Davidson became all too familiar with in the Canadian Grand Prix.

This is a groundhog, a mammal that Davidson became all too familiar with in the Canadian Grand Prix.

Cue disaster. The Super Aguri mechanics, watching the race from their garage in a dream-like trance, would bolt into life for an unscheduled call; Anthony Davidson had pulled into the pits with front wing damage. It later emerged that a groundhog had crossed the track in front of the Super Aguri and with its last breath had caused enough damage to put a potentially famous result out of the window. Yet, all was not lost. By lap 39, Takuma Sato was 7th behind Felipe Massa and Giancarlo Fisichella. This became 6th after Ralf Schumacher stopped, although Sato had to suffer through a painfully long pitstop on lap 50 to get to the end, pushing the Japanese driver down the pack.

It seemed that Canada was not to be, but almost immediately Lady Luck came bearing good fortune for the Super Aguri team. Debris on the circuit ensured that long-time safety car driver Bernd Maylander would certainly earn his wages that afternoon, and he left the pits soon after Sato’s stop. Then, Massa and Fisichella would be black-flagged for leaving the pitlane under a red light earlier in the race. Hope returned to the Super Aguri garage but Sato would have some work to do from 11th, his position as the safety car returned to the pitlane with 17 laps to go. Mark Webber followed the safety car in, thus letting Sato into the top 10. No sooner had the safety car come in, it was out again just over a lap later; fifth-placed Vitantonio Liuzzi dropped his Toro Rosso into the infamous “Wall of Champions”, then compatriot Jarno Trulli ran out of road at turn 2 a mere three laps later. Eight laps left on the clock, and third-placed Rubens Barrichello had to peel into the pits; Sato was in the points again, and he was now hounding Ralf Schumacher every step of the way.

Sato, with dogged determination, hunted down McLaren's Fernando Alonso, passing the Spaniard with three laps to go.

Sato, with dogged determination, hunted down McLaren’s Fernando Alonso, passing the Spaniard with three laps to go.

On lap 65, Takuma Sato picked up the greater traction out of the hairpin and assumed a tow from Schumacher on exit before rounding the Toyota driver for an excellent pass at the chicane before the start-finish straight. Yet, this was a mere dress rehearsal for the final act; in an underfunded team with a car largely from 2006, Sato then caught Fernando Alonso’s McLaren and set about making his intentions clear. His eventual pass, three laps from the end, was a carbon copy of the move on Ralf Schumacher and took 6th from the reigning champion; this would become a famous overtake in the folklore of Formula 1. A famously erratic driver, Sato’s performance at Montreal that afternoon was perfection. Finishing 6th was not just Super Aguri’s best result, but it was a comprehensive swipe at the doubters and detractors. Super Aguri were not just there to make up the numbers, they were there to compete.

As the teams moved south across the border between Canada and the USA to continue their season in Indianapolis, it would become a sad representation of the future of Super Aguri. Having just shown that the team was able to compete with the world’s best teams and drivers, things would only go downhill from there. Perhaps overconfident after his Montreal heroics, Sato’s race at The Brickyard would end on lap 13 after a lazy spin sustained after passing Adrian Sutil’s Spyker. Sato and Davidson would simply drop down the order; despite a legal challenge from the Spyker team who had become worried that Super Aguri were receiving customer parts from the Honda R&D division, it ultimately made little difference to the fortunes of either team. As the lead Honda team upped their development and Toro Rosso dispensed with the volatile Scott Speed and drafted in the highly-rated Sebastian Vettel in his stead, Super Aguri trickled back through the field. Although it was common knowledge that Aguri Suzuki hadn’t managed to secure a great deal of funding for his eponymous team, the second half of the season would involve plenty of financial problems that were dangerous of becoming terminal.

Super Aguri with new Fourleaf backing after SS United failed to pay the team.

Super Aguri with new Fourleaf backing after SS United failed to pay the team.

At the start of 2007, Super Aguri had managed to receive a seemingly significant amount of backing from SS United Oil & Gas Company; the SS United name appeared comprehensively across their new red and white livery, before it disappeared from the car altogether in September. Citing a breach of contract, it later emerged that SS United had paid their first instalment before subsequently withholding future payments. By August Super Aguri were again pursuing legal action, and whilst the team had replaced the vacant spaces on their livery with Four Leaf logos, it became apparent that Honda were footing most of the bill in the last few races. Four Leaf were a Japanese health food and supplement company, and the Super Aguri management were hoping that the new sponsorship deal would invigorate the team and bring a bit of luck to their races.

Adrian Campos (r) and Alejandro Agag (l) were linked to the takeover of Super Aguri in late 2007. It never materialised, but opened the floodgates to further bids for the team.

Adrian Campos (r) and Alejandro Agag (l) were linked to the takeover of Super Aguri in late 2007. It never materialised, but opened the floodgates to further bids for the team.

Unfortunately, the team were still unable to get over the loss of their main sponsor; apart from a few qualifying heroics in which Anthony Davidson was able to get into Q2 on a smattering of occasions, the team were relegated to being bit-players in race trim and eventually had fallen behind Honda in stark contrast to their early-season upsets, although Super Aguri still held the points advantage. Unable to develop and uncertain of the future, rumours of a takeover slowly began to circulate around Super Aguri. Around the time the Four Leaf deal was signed, former F1 racer Adrian Campos and his business partner Alejandro Agag confirmed that they were in talks with Aguri Suzuki about taking on a minority stake in the team. Although this never came to fruition, Campos’ announcement of his intent was not only a sign for the future of his own racing interests, but opened the floodgates for future takeover rumours.

In many ways, Super Aguri’s 2007 was a coda to their 2006; their second season had started magnificently unlike their freshman year, but slowly unravelled having come together just a season before. In China, strong performances from Jenson Button, Sebastian Vettel and Vitantonio Liuzzi saw Honda and Toro Rosso catapult themselves above Super Aguri in the World Constructors’ Championship; the reduction in projected prize money caused by the tumble from 7th to 9th after McLaren’s overall disqualification would be another setback in financial terms. The team couldn’t recover in Brazil, and a year after Sato’s heroics at Interlagos, the Super Aguris could only start above the two Spykers whilst sandwiching rookie Kazuki Nakajima in qualifying. They finished in a middling 12th and 14th to end a year that, whilst promising to begin with, would be remembered for a series of legal and financial battles off-track. Keeping continuity in the driver lineup, 2008 would have to be a consolidation year whilst Aguri Suzuki, technical director Mark Preston and managing director Daniele Audetto aimed to bolster the team’s depleted resources from both a technical and fiscal standpoint. The team looked to have a serious takeover deal on the table to mull over through the winter months, but there was still plenty to discuss to make it a viable option.

Part Three of the Super Aguri trilogy is available here.

Sources: grandprix.com; The Official ITV Sport GP 2007 guide, Bruce Jones, Carlton Publishing; f1technical.net
Images: Reuters; response.jp; formula.hu; f1-fansite.com