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 segment looks at the birth of the Super Aguri team and their action-packed first F1 season.
The V10 era was no more. In 2006, Formula 1 made the step to replace the 3.0-litre V10s with 2.4-litre V8 engines to reduce the reliance on top speed as part of Max Mosley’s ideas to reshape the sport. Qualifying was overhauled once again too; the one-lap qualifying setup was removed after a short spell with the much-maligned aggregate system, and the current (as of 2016, after the “musical chairs” format was promptly discarded after Bahrain) knockout system made its debut.
However, the sport was also ringing the changes with regards to teams. BMW bought out the Sauber team, ending its association with Williams, whilst Honda had completed its purchase of BAR. At the back of the grid, the rearguard duo of Jordan and Minardi were both bought out and their long-standing identities were changed. Jordan – the operation famed for its indulgence in underdog status and yellow paint – had fallen on hard times by the mid 2000s, and at the end of 2004 were sold to Canadian-Russian steel magnate Alex Shnaider. Whilst the team continued into 2005 under the Jordan guise, the team became Midland F1 in 2006 and sported a clean gunmetal grey, red and white livery. Shnaider lost interest all too quickly, and sold up midway through 2006 to the Spyker automotive concern. Minardi, however, would receive more stable backing through Dietrich Mateschitz’s Red Bull company, and would act as a feeder team to the already established Red Bull Racing team, formerly the Ford-owned Jaguar concern. Then, late in 2005, it emerged that a new team would join the Formula 1 grid.
In order to increase worldwide exposure, the number of manufacturer teams in Formula 1 had grown extensively by the mid ’00s, and that number grew as Honda had completed the aforementioned buyout of British American Racing at the end of 2005. Whilst Jenson Button would remain at the team, Honda elected to partner their lead driver with former Ferrari charge Rubens Barrichello, who had just completed his sixth season as Michael Schumacher’s reluctant rear gunner. On the face of it, this left Takuma Sato without a seat after the Japanese driver had endured a tricky second season with the team, managing a solitary point. Yet behind the scenes, Honda were assessing ways to keep their former junior driver in F1; Sato’s popularity in Japan was still marketable and furthermore, Honda saw the advantage of supporting a B-team within the sport. If Honda were to supply a new team with technical backing, ostensibly Sato would be able to drop straight in to the new team.
Enter Aguri Suzuki. Having enjoyed something of a journeyman career in Formula 1 (the highlight being a 3rd place at Suzuka for Larrousse in 1990), Suzuki had spent recent years running his ARTA team in the Japanese GT classes, winning the GT300 championship in 2002 with Morio Nitta and Shinichi Takagi’s efforts in the team’s Toyota MR-S. After negotiations with Honda to provide support to his own team, Suzuki submitted an entry to join the F1 circus a little over two weeks before the FIA’s November 15th deadline. Although he failed to submit the $48m entry bond in time, Suzuki eventually managed to scrape the money required together and received the all clear to join the fray. Super Aguri F1 was born. Despite the comical, cartoonish name, Aguri had put together a very competent core of personnel. Former Arrows and McLaren engineer Mark Preston would assume the role of technical director, whilst the managing director would be Daniele Audetto, a man who’d been on the F1 scene in various roles since 1976.
Since Super Aguri lodged their application so late in the day, the car was almost an afterthought and there was no time to design and build a car from scratch. The FIA had blocked the team’s overtures to use the 2005 BARs, although curiously they had fewer qualms in later seasons amidst controversy over customer cars. However, it just so happened that there were some cars up for sale; former Minardi owner Paul Stoddart had no further use for a set of Arrows A23s, which he had purchased to assess its merits over his own Minardi cars. It didn’t matter that the cars would be four years old; the A23 chassis would work just fine as a base for the team to quickly make the required alterations for their SA05 cars, before introducing their 2006-spec car later in the season. It was almost a fitting acquisition, as Super Aguri had decided to settle in the former Arrows facility at Leafield, and a large portion of the staff had been with Arrows before their financially-driven closure at the end of 2002.
As was Honda’s intention in their support of the new team, Takuma Sato would join as the lead driver. Despite a reputation for being wild and aggressive on-track, Sato also had a beaming smile and had legions of support from his home country. He also had a lot of experience, owing to his time as test driver at BAR before joining Jordan to race in 2002, where he sustained a number of well-publicised shunts. Despite an excellent 5th place at his home race at Suzuka, Sato returned to test at BAR at the end of the season. He would get another chance to race, as Jacques Villeneuve was relieved of his duties at the end of 2003 having been comprehensively beaten by new team-mate Jenson Button. “Taku” scored once again at Japan to round off the year prior to taking the drive full-time. Sato’s signing was a straight-forward process, but finding the right driver for the second seat seemed like a far more laborious process.
Initially, it seemed that long-serving BAR test driver Anthony Davidson would have a chance at adding to his brace of outings for Minardi in 2002, but Aguri was adamant that he would promote Japanese talent in both cars. His final selection was certainly a left-field choice; whilst Jordan had done some running with Sakon Yamamoto in 2005 – making him seem like an obvious choice for the team – Suzuki instead settled for the services of Formula Nippon front-runner Yuji Ide. The news of Ide’s signing was met by a chorus of “who?” in mainstream media, such was the obscurity of the new addition to the grid.
So, who was this man of mystery? On the face of it, he seemed like a reasonable choice; Ide was runner up to Satoshi Motoyama in the 2005 Formula Nippon championship, and was 3rd behind future endurance legend Andre Lotterer and JGTC dabbler Richard Lyons in 2004. Although a number of F1 drivers have emerged from the top level of Japanese single-seaters, most had experience in European racing competitions beforehand. This is the point at which his signing seemed perhaps a little less conventional, as Ide had spent his entire racing career in Japan save for a solitary season in French Formula 3. He would also begin his debut season in Formula 1 at the ripe old age of 31. The learning curve would be huge, and the challenge was magnified by the situation in which Ide found himself; in a UK-based team with predominantly English-speaking staff Ide had been unable to grasp the language, causing some friction between he and his engineers.
Amazingly, Super Aguri made it to the preseason tests at Barcelona with both SA05 cars; in the first week of testing, the car amounted to nothing more than the original A23 with a white livery, a few Bridgestone stickers and a Honda-adorned rear wing, but the team returned for the second week with completely revised aerodynamics; the sidepods had been sculpted to improve airflow towards the rear of the car, whilst the nosecone had been fitted with a more pronounced “droop”. The old twin-keel suspension mounts were retained, despite the design having fallen out of favour some years prior by the majority in favour of a zero-keel design. The car had also received a lick of red and black paint, which were traditional Japanese racing colours. Despite limited running over the two tests (Ide, for example, managed only 44 laps in total), Super Aguri were heading to the season-opener in Bahrain after just four months of preparation.
To nobody’s surprise, both SA05s finished bottom of the timesheets at Sakhir in the new knock-out qualifying format; both Sato and Ide were unable to progress through to the second part of qualifying. Sato was some three seconds off of 16th-placed Vitantonio Liuzzi in Q1, whilst Ide was another 2.8 seconds slower than his team-mate. Only Kimi Raikkonen was able to keep both Super Aguris off the back row, as the McLaren driver suffered a spectacular suspension failure during his timed lap and was unable to continue. It was something of an extended test session for the Super Aguri team, and Sato was able to finish the race, albeit four laps down on winner Fernando Alonso. Ide meanwhile suffered an engine failure on lap 36, and so was unable to get the running he desperately needed to acclimatise to the rigours of Formula 1. It was a similar story at the next race in Malaysia; although both cars started remarkably high up the grid due to a spate of engine-change penalties, Sato was three laps down in last and Ide retired with a throttle problem.
Super Aguri recorded their first double-finish at Melbourne; for the first time since the circuit opened in 1996, Albert Park was not holding the season opener as the city of Melbourne was committed to hosting the Commonwealth Games in March. In the absence of engine penalties in the latter half of the field, both SA05s occupied the final row for the first time, Ide clocking in a time almost four seconds slower than Sato and a lap down on his team-mate in the race. Sato was only two laps down on Alonso this time, albeit aided by the frequent appearances of the safety car in an eventful Australian Grand Prix. It was the weekend Super Aguri needed, although a reprimand for Sato for ignoring blue flags was the only real blot on the team’s copybook.
After a whirlwind few months in which the Super Aguri team had formed, prepared their cars and participated in three races, the three-week break between racing in Australia and the first leg in Europe provided the team some much needed respite, although more work was needed to close the gap to fellow frequent Q1 stragglers Midland and Toro Rosso. Although the SA05 had a new front wing at Albert Park (cascade wings were integrated into the front wing endplates to improve the front-end downforce output), the team geared up for the next race at Imola with another development, a crisp new livery; swooping red flashes were now added to the sidepods and engine cover. It was just as well, since one of the cars in particular would garner plenty of publicity in the next race.
The two rows at the back of the grid at Imola were occupied by the two Midlands, then the two Super Aguris; Tiago Monteiro was 19th, Christijan Albers 20th, Sato 21st and Ide 22nd. Sato would make it past Albers at the start, leaving him at the behest of Ide behind him. Then, at the Villeneuve chicane, Ide clumsily clattered into the side of Albers and pitched the Dutchman into a series of barrel-rolls which ended with the car upside down, wooden plank on show. Ide, perhaps amazingly, seemed to escape with just a slightly broken front wing and was able to pit for a replacement after the safety car had been called to the circuit. Yet, it emerged that his left-front suspension had sustained damage, calling his race to an end on lap 23. Super Aguri would manage a double-DNF which was in stark contrast to their previous weekend; Sato later pulled over at Rivazza with an unspecified problem. Although Ide managed to escape the stewards’ office with just a slap on the wrist, the FIA would take a far dimmer view of the overall proceedings at Imola.
At this juncture, it might be considered that perhaps the criticism of Ide levelled thus far is a little harsh; his experience of Formula 1 had been minimal at this point, and he’d been drafted in at a late stage in his career with minimal testing. Yet, there are multiple examples of drivers with much less experience who have managed to be successful in the top tier of international racing. In contrast, Ide had done little to prove that he wasn’t completely out of his depth. Imola seemed to be one step too far, and the FIA decided that action had to be taken on whether the Japanese driver was too much of a menace to the other drivers on the grid.
The FIA would make a definitive assessment on Ide’s further participation after the European Grand Prix at Nürburgring, but recommended that in the meantime Super Aguri should bench Ide in favour of former Renault test driver Franck Montagny; the Frenchman had plenty of testing experience and was regarded as having strong feedback; he helped to develop the Dallara GP2/05 for the GP2 Series as part of his Renault duties. Montagny almost immediately matched Sato for pace in the practice sessions, and whilst he had issues on his qualifying lap causing him to not set a representative time, Montagny proved he was a far more adept driver than the man he replaced. The team sustained another double-DNF, as both cars disappeared from the circuit with hydraulics issues.
Then on the 9th May, the FIA made their decision. They decided to revoke the superlicense of Ide, deciding he was an unsuitable driver for the sport. Perhaps they were right, since Ide spent an alarming amount of time either off the road or facing the wrong way, and the collision with Albers only served to add to the FIA’s qualms about his ability. Ide returned to Japan to restart his Formula Nippon career, tail between legs, with Dandelion Racing.
For the time being, Montagny would continue in the #23 car despite rumours of Hiroki Yoshimoto dropping his GP2 program to restore an all-Japanese lineup. Unfortunately for Franck, his long-awaited chance to prove his worth counted for nothing; Super Aguri suffered a number of retirements – largely mechanical, although Sato was responsible for a couple of wayward spells. At this stage, long-term fixes were not particularly forthcoming as the technical team had their complete focus on getting the new SA06 ready for its eventual debut in Germany. To improve their development, Aguri Suzuki made the decision to take on a paying driver to bolster the team’s coffers, at the expense of the popular Montagny. Fittingly, this meant that he would make his final race appearance at his home grand prix at Magny-Cours, and in doing so outqualified Sato to finish the race in 16th and last.
For all intents and purposes, Germany would be Super Aguri’s “proper” start to the season. The team had their SA06 ready, which was a further update of the SA05; it presented a large overhaul of the old car’s aerodynamics, new aluminium-cased gearbox, and the rear suspension was now more equipped to deal with the demands of the 2006-spec Bridgestone tyres. Furthermore, the car again had a fresh, new livery with a red tribal pattern enrobing the car in addition to a brand new driver. After Montagny returned to his third-driver role with the team, Super Aguri had now enlisted the services of Sakon Yamamoto. Yamamoto, as mentioned previously, was originally touted as a candidate for the #23 car; he’d driven for Jordan in free practice at the 2005 Japanese Grand Prix and so had contemporary Formula 1 experience. He also had a broader range of European experience than original occupant Yuji Ide, having driven in the British, German and European Formula 3 categories, albeit with little success. The latter two words could arguably be used to describe Sakon’s F1 career too.
If Montagny was on the pace of Sato and Ide was miles away, Yamamoto was somewhere in between; whilst he was not one of the worst drivers to ever make it to the top level of single-seater racing, he did little to show that he was F1 material. Yamamoto’s first weekend at Hockenheim was a particularly inauspicious beginning to his career, qualifying over three seconds down on Sato before switching to the spare car for the race. He needn’t have bothered, as he retired on lap 1 with mechanical trouble. Afterwards, things started to get a little better; Yamamoto started to reduce the qualifying deficit to Sato, outqualifying his team-mate at Turkey before ruining his hopes of a first finish with a spin. Yamamoto’s first finish came at China – albeit four laps down – having been plagued by a few reliability issues as well as inexperience.
The F1 season was drawing to a close in the flyaway rounds, and after a trying year the Super Aguri team would end on a high note. Up to this point, there has been little mention of Takuma Sato thus far in this article, and that’s largely for a good reason. Whilst the #23 car was occupied by drivers with a great range of styles and abilities, as well as some famous excursions, Sato had a reasonably quiet year…at least, in his own terms. There were plenty of instances where Sato threw his car off the road, but these were largely limited to practice sessions. He crashed rather lazily in Canada late on in the race too where he dropped it into turn four, but by-and-large Sato was able to provide the team with some solid performances and vital racing experience, both important to a team so young.
Once the new car had arrived Sato was regularly challenging the Midlands (or Spykers, as they became known in the final few races) and in doing so gave the biggest indication thus far of Super Aguri’s progress at Suzuka, their home race. Firstly, Sato was able to outqualify Tiago Monteiro. Next, the home favourite drove a mature race to finish a mere one lap down on the leaders, remaining ahead of Monteiro’s Spyker. Whilst not a particularly big accomplishment for perhaps the established teams, if it was an accomplishment at all, it represented the huge leaps that Super Aguri had made over the season; the team were accustomed to finishing multiple laps down on the rest of the field, and managing to remain on the same lap as a McLaren, a Williams, a Red Bull and a parent Honda car would be a huge boost. The final race at Brazil would be even better.
Whilst the crowd at Interlagos would be able to celebrate the victory of a home driver for the first time since 1993 after a fantastic drive from Felipe Massa, the Super Aguri personnel at Leafield would presumably have challenged the Brazilian faithful for noise. Despite a run-of-the-mill qualifying session in which both cars were able to avoid the last spot on the grid since Monteiro failed to set a time, it was in the race where everything came together. Temperatures in Sao Paulo were rising throughout the weekend, and the Bridgestone-shod runners would benefit from this more than their Michelin-running counterparts. Whilst most of the focus was on whether the retiring Michael Schumacher could turn a miracle to snatch a final world title against the odds, onlookers were surprised to see a white-and-red Super Aguri fighting it out within the midfield pack. It was no fluke; Sato was using the hotter conditions to perfection and in the process was beating the better-funded, faster operations of Red Bull and Toro Rosso, as well as the Spyker duo. A 10th position would be Sato’s reward and Super Aguri’s best finish in Formula 1, surely an excellent way to sign out of 2006.
Part Two 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