Super Aguri Part 3: Judge, Aguri and Executioner

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 final segment looks at the team’s last season, their legacy and life after F1.

A year previously, Super Aguri had started 2007 with renewed optimism after an excellent end to the final Grand Prix of 2006, and with a reworked, successful Honda chassis would enjoy a thrilling start to the season. 2008 would be the antithesis of those heady days.

In the previous chapter, Super Aguri were able to embarrass their “parent” team Honda. Under the technical stewardship of Shuhei Nakamoto, Honda had completely dropped the ball with their design of the RA107. In a candid interview with Murray Walker in 2016, Jenson Button commented:

“We went in a direction with the car and it was completely the wrong direction, and you can see that by the design […], it was completely different to everything else and it just didn’t work.”

Unlike the SA07, which was based on the RA106 which had claimed a race win and podiums, the SA08 would be a reworked RA107, a car that could only score points on three occasions in 2007. Unless the severely understaffed Super Aguri engineering department could unlock something magical from the chassis, the writing would be on the wall before the season could even kick off. Due to the financial issues constraining the team after the non-payments from SS United, the workforce would become even further reduced; the team had to lay off approximately twenty staff members. The key staff would remain; Daniele Audetto and Mark Preston were still key figures, whilst Takuma Sato and Anthony Davidson fully deserved their places; both had done a fine job in 2007, and although the team was linked with GP2 Series hotshot Luca Filippi, Aguri Suzuki elected to stick rather than twist. James Rossiter, having done a few tests in 2007 for Super Aguri, would become the formally nominated reserve.

Anthony Davidson in pre-season testing, with the Super Aguri SA08, an updated Honda RA107.

Anthony Davidson in pre-season testing, with the Super Aguri SA08, an updated Honda RA107.

The customer cars row had also been settled after a number of appeals (largely from the Spyker team, which had now become Force India over the winter), and it was decided that any customer outfits were obliged to become a constructor in their own right in time for the 2010 season. Whilst this would be no problem for Toro Rosso due to their healthy finances, it left Super Aguri in a very critical situation indeed; in the next year-and-a-half, they would have to get the money together in order to design and build their own cars, assuming they made it that far in the first place. With no extra funds, Aguri Suzuki would have his work cut out coaxing the Leafield-based outfit as far as the end of 2008.

In order to ensure his team’s finances would be secure, Suzuki would need to either find a sponsor to replace the void left by SS United, or sell a chunk of his team to someone flush with cash. Despite the Honda backing, there were few Japanese businesses looking to support Super Aguri, presumably seeing little value in a small UK-based team with a customer package. Hence, the most lucrative option appeared to be to broker a sale of the team. Over the 2008 pre-season, Super Aguri would be linked with a number of wealthy individuals and businesses looking to add a Formula 1 team to their portfolio.

As discussed in the previous chapter, Adrian Campos and Alejandro Agag held talks to purchase the team, but ultimately their overtures came to nothing. Whilst Indian billionaire Lakshmi Mittal was also mentioned as a prospective buyer (and had recently purchased Queens Park Rangers F.C. with Agag, Bernie Ecclestone and Flavio Briatore) this was ultimately yet another tall story in the notoriously unreliable Formula 1 rumour mill. Another billionaire was later linked with the Super Aguri keys; this was American retail magnate John Menard, the man behind the Menards chain of home improvement stores. Menard already had ties with Super Aguri; he was the leaseholder of their Leafield base, and the team were paying him a heavy premium in order to manufacture parts in his facilities. However, Menard eventually passed up the opportunity of taking on a Formula 1 team.

Martin Leach (centre) in talks with Aguri Suzuki (l) and Mark Preston (r). Leach's Magma Group had an agreement to purchase Super Aguri.

Martin Leach (centre) in talks with Aguri Suzuki (l) and Mark Preston (r). Leach’s Magma Group had an agreement to purchase Super Aguri.

In March, prior to the season’s commencement in Melbourne, a serious bidder for Super Aguri had finally emerged. The Magma Group, led by former Maserati head Martin Leach, had disclosed that they had been in talks with Aguri Suzuki and his business partner Fumio Akita and that a takeover deal was on the horizon. Magma, an automotive consultancy, also had their product development arm UltraMotive based at Leafield. Leach had a number of investors lined up to buy into the team, and having worked with Nick Fry at the Ford Motor Company he would presumably receive the Honda team’s seal of approval. Then, a few days after Magma’s intent to buy the team was reported, they and Super Aguri announced that a deal had been agreed in principle. Honda would continue to provide technical support and engines. After the doomsayers’ chorus at the start of 2008, things were starting to look up for the Super Aguri team.

Sato at Melbourne in 2008. He would retire from the race with transmission problems.

Sato at Melbourne in 2008. He would retire from the race with transmission problems.

The upcoming race at Melbourne was almost an afterthought, considering the amount of boardroom action over the winter months; it was a rush to get a pair of cars ready for the first race of the season, and getting to Australia was a minor miracle for the team. To nobody’s surprise, Super Aguri were not at all quick with their SA08, and could only sandwich Nelson Piquet Jr at the bottom of the timesheets as the rookie Brazilian struggled to get the most out of his Renault and qualified a lowly 21st.

Although Sato would retire midway through the action-packed Australian Grand Prix with a gearbox failure, Davidson’s race would last no longer than the first lap. The Force India of Giancarlo Fisichella was sent airborne and collected Sebastian Vettel, whilst Davidson became tangled in amongst the carnage with Jenson Button and Mark Webber; all five would retire from the grand prix as a result. This was an unwelcome state of affairs, as Super Aguri had struggled for spare parts during their winter test program, and having to replace various bits and pieces would cut into their already short supply.

Qualifying would be a similar story in Sepang, as Adrian Sutil this time qualified between Sato and Davidson at the rear of the field. Both Super Aguris were able to finish the notoriously difficult grand prix in Malaysia to the relief of the team, albeit in 15th and 16th (crucially, Williams’ Kazuki Nakajima was the final man on-track). Bahrain would have the two SA08s occupying the final row of the grid, although both cars again managed to finish the grand prix above the last couple of classified drivers as Sutil and David Coulthard would get caught in collisions, putting paid to any chances of a good result for them that afternoon.

Sato at Bahrain. At this point, the team were simply trying to keep afloat.

Sato at Bahrain. At this point, the team were simply trying to keep afloat.

The races, admittedly, have played out as a secondary plot in this part of the story about Super Aguri, and for good reason. The team had been living a hand-to-mouth existence over the past few months having never recovered from the loss of SS United; whilst the team had sponsorship deals with Japanese companies Autobacs and Samantha Thavasa, these were very small deals and it became clear that Honda were once again footing most of the bill. The team were waiting on the completion of the Magma takeover, but on the team’s return from the flyaway races it became apparent that Martin Leach and his company were not going to be able to purchase Super Aguri at all.

Across the world, the global financial crisis of 2007-08 was biting hard, and in times of relative austerity even the richest of businessmen were feeling the pinch. Magma’s investors were involved with Dubai International Capital, and were offering a large sum of money for Liverpool FC at the time; it seemed that being able to invest in Super Aguri was be a stretch too far and DIC were unable to justify bailing out a Formula 1 team with limited marketing potential. Magma were still in talks with the Dubai-based investors, hoping to secure the $100m required to buy the team, but the loss of an immediate investment was a huge blow to the team. Many journalists involved in Formula 1 were predicting that Super Aguri wouldn’t survive after the upcoming Spanish Grand Prix. The team would still race in Barcelona, having scrimped and saved enough to send the cars and personnel out to the Circuit de Catalunya, but any further participation in F1 would be wholly dependent on finding an investor in time for the Turkish Grand Prix.

Super Aguri in their final race at Barcelona. The car featured significantly less red than before, unlike their balance sheets.

Super Aguri in their final race at Barcelona. The car featured significantly less red than before, unlike their balance sheets.

Both Super Aguris qualified on the final row once again in Spain, to no real surprise; in the race, Davidson pulled into the pits on lap nine with overheating issues and was wheeled back into the garage. Although Sato finished, the Japanese driver was out on his own with little to do and completed the race a lap down on winner Kimi Raikkonen. The race was of little consequence, but Aguri Suzuki had a final possible buyer lined up to pick up the pieces, named Franz-Josef Weigl.

A successful German automotive parts businessman, Weigl had managed to conclude a deal with the Super Aguri management to take over the majority shareholding in the team, but didn’t appear to have the overall financial backing in order to run the team in the long term future; the Weigl deal would be nothing more than a stay of execution. It was not just Super Aguri involved in talks, but Honda too; Super Aguri were approximately $100m in debt to Honda and so the Japanese automotive giant had to agree a debt payment plan with prospective investors to recoup their losses. Whilst Aguri Suzuki and his partners were presumably happy for Weigl to take on the team to subsequently find further investment, Honda were not.

Honda, despite their unwavering support, wished to cut the umbilical cord to Super Aguri; fronting most of the cost for two teams was not good for business, and with the financial crisis would later toy with the idea of leaving Formula 1 altogether. Having Weigl take over the Super Aguri team would simply extend the time that Honda would be without their money, since no debt payment was forthcoming until Super Aguri were on firmer terrain. Furthermore, would Honda have to bail out the team again if Weigl didn’t have enough money to keep the team going?

Honda Racing CEO Nick Fry. Fry pulled all Honda support from Super Aguri, cutting their losses rather than waiting for debts to be repaid.

Honda Racing CEO Nick Fry. Fry pulled all Honda support from Super Aguri, cutting their losses rather than waiting for debts to be repaid.

Unsurprisingly, with the uncertainty over finance Honda declined the Weigl deal. Super Aguri had no more potential investors forthcoming, yet somehow were able to get their trucks to Istanbul ready for the Turkish Grand Prix. They wouldn’t be allowed into the circuit; Nick Fry had informed Bernie Ecclestone that Super Aguri would not be racing due to the collapse of all prospective investments in the team. Super Aguri had to turn around and trudge home, one final time.

Aguri Suzuki announced that Super Aguri would cease operations immediately, and in his post-mortem of the team’s demise stated:

“The breach of contract by the promised partner SS United Oil & Gas Company resulted in the loss of financial backing and immediately put the team into financial difficulties. Also, the change in direction of the environment surrounding the team, in terms of the use of customer chassis, has affected our ability to find partners.”

Super Aguri were very much a throwback to the small teams of the nineties; although exceedingly popular, especially in Japan, the team could only attract small sponsors and this stymied any real progress. To their credit, Honda had been bankrolling the team to the bitter end, but it was ultimately an unsustainable situation for either organisation. Super Aguri needed backing and resources in order to design and build their own car if they were to continue in the sport, and Honda needed to focus wholly on their own underperforming operation. Due to the economic collapse around the world, Honda later announced that they would be withdrawing from Formula 1 at the end of 2008. Even if Super Aguri had survived the season, their future would be questionable without the prospect of Honda’s support. Although another engine deal would be obtainable, another close partnership with a manufacturer would not.

Epilogue

Super Aguri would be placed in administration after the team’s demise, under the leadership of administrators PKF Limited who had previously presided over the administration of both the former Prost and Arrows teams. However, due to the complications over the Concorde Agreement and whether Super Aguri had voided their entry by not participating in the Turkish Grand Prix, there were no forthcoming bidders. Creditors voted to move the company to the liquidation stage, and so on the 7th July, 2008, the liquidators were called and the remaining assets for sale.

Although Super Aguri would never reach the stratospheric heights of championship battles in Formula 1 during their stay, they would indirectly become a presence in the championship battle of the following season. The other outfits on the grid slowly assimilated the former Super Aguri staff, and thus knowledge of any technical projects that had been undertaken within the Leafield Technical Centre, into their own operations. When Brawn GP – borne from the ashes of the Honda team – emerged in 2009 with their BGP001 car, it had come bearing a highly controversial “double-diffuser”.

The Brawn BGP001. According to reports, ofrmer Super Aguri engineers contributed greatly to the success of the car.

The Brawn BGP001. According to reports, former Super Aguri engineers contributed greatly to the success of the car.

The 2009 technical regulations had stripped away a large number of aerodynamic devices that had become prevalent in the recent specification of F1 car, and in doing so removed a lot of the downforce that a car could produce. Brawn, as well as Williams and Toyota, had arrived at the pre-season tests with their double-diffuser, which was later attributed to the cross-pollination of ideas from the former Super Aguri engineers.

After Super Aguri closed its doors, their former drivers – due to their reasonable success in the motorsport world – had reasonably secure futures. Anthony Davidson, perhaps predictably, returned to Honda to assume his old testing position; he also continued in the role after the Brawn buyout, before making a successful move to the World Endurance Championship. Takuma Sato also looked to remain in F1, having been considered by Toro Rosso to replace Sebastien Bourdais, who had disappointed in the sport after his four consecutive ChampCar titles. Bourdais retained his seat, and Sato later turned to Indycar to continue his racing career.

Conor Daly driving for Hilmer Motorsport's  GP2 team in 2013. Hilmer had purchased the former Super Aguri assets to run the team.

Conor Daly driving for Hilmer Motorsport’s GP2 team in 2013. Hilmer had purchased the former Super Aguri assets to run the team.

What of their assets? Following the liquidation process, they were purchased by composite design company Formtech GmbH with the intention of improving the firm’s presence in international motorsport. In 2009, Formtech would be behind an audacious bid to join the Formula 1 circus as an entrant; owner Franz Hilmer had purchased the rights to the Brabham name and submitted an entry for the 2010 tender process, to the disappointment of Sir Jack Brabham and his family. With plenty of perfectly serviceable race equipment and several former Super Aguri employees working for the composites department, “Brabham” seemed like one of the better equipped candidates to join the grid. However, Hilmer and his plans were ultimately scuppered; the German would unsuccessful in his plans to enter Formula 1, later forming a team to join GP2 under the “Hilmer Motorsport” moniker.

After his F1 venture had ended, Aguri Suzuki returned to Japan to continue running ARTA in the Japanese GT series with success, before later announcing his intentions in 2013 to join the brand new Formula E series with the “Super Aguri Formula E Team”. His announcement included a concept livery bearing a likeness to his former SA06 F1 car. The team would also recruit some familiar faces; Mark Preston would be the Team Principal, whilst former Super Aguri designer Peter McCool would be technical director. After rumours of a partnership with Alejandro Agag during his F1 foray, Aguri Suzuki would finally be working with the Spanish businessman in some capacity; this time, Agag being the CEO of promoters Formula E Holdings.

Takuma Sato reunited briefly with Aguri Suzuki to drive the Amlin Aguri Formula E car at Beijing in 2014.

Takuma Sato reunited briefly with Aguri Suzuki to drive the Amlin Aguri Formula E car at Beijing in 2014.

Super Aguri Formula E later dropped their plans for a “classic” red/white livery, as a title sponsorship deal would be forthcoming with insurance giants Amlin; Amlin Aguri would run with a striking metallic blue livery, and signed former Indycar racer Katherine Legge to partner DTM driver and former Red Bull protégé António Félix da Costa. However, the team would have to find a replacement for Da Costa in Beijing, as the Portuguese driver was racing in DTM that weekend. Covering Da Costa would be none other than Takuma Sato, reuniting with Suzuki, Preston and McCool after six years apart.

Felix da Costa (l), Duran (c) and Aguri Suzuki (r) in 2015.

Felix da Costa (l), Duran (c) and Aguri Suzuki (r) in 2015.

Sato’s race in Beijing lasted a short while before succumbing to mechanical issues, before handing back over to Da Costa for the next eight races; Da Costa took Aguri’s first Formula E victory at Buenos Aires after a spate of suspension failures put leaders Sebastien Buemi and Lucas di Grassi out of the race. At the last round of the 2014-15 season, Da Costa would miss the double-header in Battersea Park due to DTM commitments again, and so another Super Aguri alumnus would provide cover; Sakon Yamamoto would join Salvador Duran at the team for the final pair of races; Duran previously having replaced Legge after two races. Yamamoto would also suffer reliability issues in London, with a recurring battery issue that would ensure that the Japanese driver could do nothing but retire in both races..

Team Aguri's Gulf-sponsored 2015-16 car. The team remained with the Season 1 powertrain.

Team Aguri’s Gulf-sponsored 2015-16 car. The team remained with the Season 1 powertrain.

After Amlin defected to the Andretti team, Suzuki’s charges would be known simply as “Team Aguri” for the 2015-16 championship. Aguri retained Da Costa for a second season, and Nathanael Berthon would partner him after Duran joined the Trulli GP team. Trulli GP withdrew from the championship after two rounds; their Motomatica powertrain had a plethora of technical issues, and the team was unable to run at either Beijing or Putrajaya. Duran left the team after Beijing and later rejoined Aguri as Berthon had failed to adapt to the series in his three races with Aguri, and was a way off of Da Costa’s overall performance. Whilst Team Aguri continue racing in Formula E, securing Gulf sponsorship partway through their second season, Aguri Suzuki announced that he was to leave at the end of the 2015-16 season after Chinese Media Capital announced their intentions to purchase the team. This move brought Aguri’s time as a team owner in single-seater racing to an end once again, for the time being at least.

Sources: grandprix.com; F1 Racing Magazine, Haymarket; Magma Group.

Images: xpb.cc, response.jp, Team Aguri, LAT, GP2 Press, Jose Mª Izquierdo Galiot.