F1: Super Aguri F1 Team – What Went Wrong

Takuma Sato exits the Super Aguri pit box during the 2007 British Grand Prix. © Sutton Images

The fifth instalment of the What Went Wrong series takes a look at the short tenure of the Super Aguri F1 Team.

Following their breakthrough season in 2004, which saw them finish second in the Constructors’ Championship behind Scuderia Ferrari, BAR Honda’s 2005 campaign was an absolute disaster.

Jenson Button and Takuma Sato were both disqualified from the San Marino Grand Prix after their cars were found to be overweight. Consequently, BAR were banned by the FIA for the following races in Spain and Monaco.

BAR lost valuable ground and didn’t score points until the tenth race of the season as a result. They eventually finished the season sixth in the Constructors’ Championship with 38 points.

Takuma Sato – pictured during the 2005 British Grand Prix – endured a difficult 2005 campaign with BAR Honda. © Kevin Smith

Of those 38 points, 37 were scored by Button, who managed podium finishes at Hockenheim and Spa-Francorchamps respectively.

In contrast Sato only managed one point, courtesy of an eighth-place finish in Hungary.

The Japanese driver struggled all season and having taken full control of the team’s ownership for 2006, Honda opted to drop him in favour of Rubens Barrichello.

A New Dawn on the Horizon

Back home in Japan, motorsport fans were upset with the decision. Given how popular he was, this led to a public outcry for Takuma Sato to remain in Formula One.

On 31 October 2005, Honda created a ‘B-Team’ – Super Aguri F1 Team. The team would receive technical backing and hired Sato as the number one driver.

Former Grand Prix driver Aguri Suzuki was installed as the Team Principal and had previous experience in running a team.

Super Formula: Champions that Raced in Formula One

In the Japanese GT Championship (now Super GT), Suzuki ran the Autobacs Racing Team Aguri (ARTA) entry which won the GT300 title in 2002. He also briefly expanded into DTM, as well as Formula Nippon (Super Formula).

In 2005, Suzuki also joined forces with former CART driver Adrian Fernandez to form the Super Aguri Fernandez Racing in IndyCar.

Super Aguri were given approval by the FIA to enter the 2006 Formula One Championship. This was despite missing the deadline to pay the $48 Million entry fee, and protests from the newly formed Midland F1 Team.

Former Arrows and McLaren engineer Mark Preston was hired as the team’s Technical Director. Elsewhere, Daniele Audetto – a figure in the F1 paddock since the 1970’s – assumed the role of Managing Director.

Taking Inspiration from the Past

Takuma Sato pictured in a Honda-branded Arrows A23 at the Circuit de Catalunya in 2006. The car went under major modifications to meet the FIA regulations ahead of Super Aguri’s debut Grand Prix in Bahrain. © Jordi Domènech Montané.

Before the official tests in Barcelona though, there was a problem.

As the team had left it late to submit their application to the FIA, Super Aguri didn’t have enough time to build a brand-new car.

Originally, the team were going to take a page out of Toro Rosso’s book and use an updated version of the BAR 007, but this was rejected by the FIA.

Thankfully for them, former Minardi team owner Paul Stoddart was selling some of his old assets. This included a pair of Arrows A23’s from 2002 Formula One Season that he used to compare against the car produced by Minardi at the time.

Stoddart sold them to Super Aguri, who used the A23 as a base to make some quick adjustments for their first car, the SA05. They would then debut their 2006-spec car later that year.

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The Super Aguri SA05 also used a Honda RA608E 2.4 Litre V8 engine and produced 718bhp @ 19,500 rpm. Furthermore, ENEOS, Castrol and Bridgestone joined the team as technical partners.

In a coincidental twist, Super Aguri were also based at the Leafield facility which Arrows used before they went bankrupt in mid-2002, with many of their employees having previously worked for the British team.

Super Aguri’s Japanese Lineup

Anthony Davidson testing for Super Aguri at Jerez, before the start of the 2006 Formula One Season. © James North

As the team’s official launch came closer, talks of who would partner Takuma Sato developed.

The obvious choice would’ve been to give BAR’s test driver Anthony Davidson a shot. Davidson had briefly raced for Minardi in 2002, whilst Alex Yoong took some time off to improve his qualifying performance.

Nonetheless, Aguri Suzuki had stated his intent of fielding an all-Japanese line-up. Sakon Yamamoto was in contention for the seat after tests with the then-Jordan team.

At the launch in Tokyo in March 2006, Super Aguri announced the signing of 31-year-old Yuji Ide. Ide had finished as the runner-up of the 2005 Formula Nippon Championship, but was an unknown entity in the world of Formula 1.

2006 – A Difficult Beginning

Super Aguri driver Yuji Ide shares a word with team principal Aguri Suzuki before the 2006 San Marino Grand Prix. Image sourced from motorsport-total.com

In pre-season testing, the team didn’t get much mileage due to reliability issues and was echoed qualifying for the first race in Bahrain.

Takuma Sato was three seconds off the pace of Toro Rosso’s Vitantonio Liuzzi in the Q1 session, with Ide a further 2.8 seconds off his team-mate.

Their race pace wasn’t much better, as Sato finished 18th in the race four laps behind the Renault of race winner, Fernando Alonso. This trend continued in the early stages of the season.

As the teams arrived at Imola for round four of the season, it had become apparent that Ide didn’t seem cut out for Formula 1.

Reports at the time stated that there was friction in the team between himself and the engineers, as Ide spoken little English.

To add more perspective to the circumstances surrounding the Japanese driver, had the 107% rule been enforced, Ide would’ve failed to qualify in Bahrain and Australia respectively.

Come race day, things didn’t improve for him.

At the start of the race, Yuji Ide was in last place and looking for a way past the Midland-Toyota of Christijan Albers.

As the pair approached the Variante Villeneuve chicane, Ide lunged down the inside, but the gap wasn’t big enough for both cars.

Consequently, the two touched and caused Albers’ Midland to launch into the air and barrel-roll across the gravel trap.

Although Albers didn’t receive any injuries from the accident, the Dutchman was unimpressed:

“The problem is the Super Aguri’s are missing some speed,” the Dutchman explained.

“We too [at Midland] are missing some speed against the other ones, but [they] try to make everything good in the first lap and you see what is happening.”

“It’s a real shame. But we really have to work on our starts now to be sure that we stay in front, because they are just breaking us down and taking too much risk.”

Ide gets Banned

Franck Montagny aboard the Super Aguri SA05 during the 2006 French Grand Prix. © Honda Motor Co. Ltd.

Before the next round at the Nürburgring, the FIA had seen enough and stripped Yuji Ide of his Super Licence. The team’s reserve driver Franck Montagany was hired to replace Ide.

Although the Frenchman closed the gap to Sato in qualifying, the team’s results on track failed to improve due to reliability issues.

At the end of July, Super Aguri introduced their 2006 spec car, the SA06, for the German Grand Prix at Hockenheim.

Designed by Mark Preston, the new car featured revised aerodynamics and rear suspension, as well as a new aluminium gearbox.

Furthermore, the car sported a new livery with a red tribal design to represent the team’s Japanese links.

The Super Aguri SA06 of Sakon Yamamoto goes wheel-to-wheel with Spyker-MF1 driver Tiago Monteiro. Image sourced from Pinterest.

The team made another driver change, as Sakon Yamamoto replaced Franck Montagany for the remainder of the season.

The introduction of the new car allowed them to challenge fellow backmarkers Midland. Sato would go on to claim the team’s best result of tenth at the season finale in Brazil.

However, Super Aguri finished bottom of the 2006 Constructors’ Standings and it was apparent that the money were strapped for cash.

The team’s abbreviated accounts for the year demonstrated this, as they were operating at a loss of just under £4.5 Million.

Rebuilding Existing Foundations

Ahead of the 2007 campaign, Super Aguri announced that the SS United Oil & Gas Company would be their title sponsor. BP also joined as their new fuel supplier, with Anthony Davidson finally given a chance alongside Takuma Sato.

Giedo van der Garde was also unveiled as their third driver, only to depart for Spyker before the start of the new season. He was replaced by Sakon Yamamoto, who would go on to join the Dutch outfit in place of Christijan Albers.

Their new SA07 was headed by Mark Preston, with additional input from Chief Designer Peter McCool and Head of Aerodynamics Ben Wood.

The chassis was based off the RA106 used by Honda the previous year and used the brand new RA087-E V8 engine which produced 724bhp @ 18.500 rpm. Unsurprisingly, the design resulted in protests from Spyker and Williams about the legality of the car.

One of the main talking points of the protest centred around the intellectual properties of the RA106 and whether they were owned by Super Aguri. It later transpired that they did, as Honda had sold the rights to a company called PJUU Inc.

The consultancy firm was owned by Paul White, who had previously worked for the Japanese manufacturer as a contractor. Subsequently, PJUU Inc. was used as a legal loophole to overcome the dilemma at hand.

Therefore, White sold on the rights to Super Aguri, who made amendments in accordance with the 2007 sporting regulations.

Every Underdog has its Day

Australia saw the team make immediate improvements, with both drivers making it into Q2. Just two months later, Super Aguri scored their first points in F1 thanks to Takuma Sato’s eighth place in the Spanish Grand Prix.

However, it wasn’t until the Canadian Grand Prix where Super Aguri’s most memorable moments occurred.

The race is remembered for Lewis Hamilton’s maiden Grand Prix win and Robert Kubica’s horrific. It also witnessed Sato fight through the pack during the latter stages.

This produced a memorable overtake around the outside of McLaren’s Fernando Alonso at the chicane to finish sixth.

On the other hand, Super Aguri could’ve scored even more points in Montreal. Anthony Davidson ran as high as third, but struck a groundhog crossing the track at the final chicane.

This immediately damaged his front wing as a result and forced the Briton into the pits. Unfortunately for him, the pit crew were unaware of this until Davidson stop in the pit box.

Consequently, Davidson lost valuable time and finished two seconds adrift of eighth-placed Ralf Schumacher in 11th. Furthermore, ITV commentators also mentioned that a slow pit stop prevented Sato from ended up as high as fourth place.

Super Aguri suffer Money Woes

Despite his ability to produce a brave face, Aguri Suzuki would soon discover how harsh Formula 1 could been. Image sourced from Wikipedia Commons.

For the majority of the season, Super Aguri managed to outperformed Honda.

With two rounds remaining, they were on course to finish seventh in the Constructors’ Championship. However, a healthy points haul for Jenson Button and both Toro Rosso’s in China dropped them to ninth.

This was still a great achievement given the circumstances the team were under. SS United had failed to pay the money they’d promised and disappeared before the end of the season.

In their place was the Japanese food company Four Leaf. Additionally, Honda agreed to cover any outstanding costs that Super Aguri couldn’t pay themselves.

Around the same time, former Minardi driver Adrian Campos and Alejandro Agag were seeking a stake in the team. However, discussions broke down before any significant progress was made.

At the turn of the new year, Super Aguri’s future was doubted again after delaying the launch of the SA08. The team also postponed running in the pre-season tests in Barcelona.

Then, a last minute takeover deal was struck with the automotive industry consultancy and innovation group Magma.

Despite links with GP2 driver Luca Filippi, Takuma Sato and Anthony Davidson were retained for 2008.

“I am pleased to announce our new partner and drivers finally at this late stage,” Aguri Suzuki said.

“I am looking forward to a successful and long lasting collaboration with Magma Group.”

The Beginning of the End

Super Aguri mechanics transport their car into the paddock ahead of the 2008 Bahrain Grand Prix. © AFP

In the first three races of the year, Super Aguri achieved little success on the track. Then in the build up to the Spanish Grand Prix, their situation worsened.

The Magma Group failed to complete their takeover of Super Aguri. This occurred after their financial backers, Dubai International Capital, had doubts over the restructuring of the team.

Concerns were raised surrounding the 2010 sporting regulations banning customer cars for other teams. Even with the forthcoming changes, Honda stated that they still intended to support Super Aguri.

Upon arrival in Barcelona, Aguri Suzuki conceded that the team might not be able to race. Before free practice, a crisis meeting with Honda was held and the team recieved the go-ahead to compete.

Conversely, Suzuki was informed by Honda that they’d be expected to pay for suppliers once financial backing was secured. Unsurprisingly, Sato and Davidson spent the weekend off the pace and near the back of grid.

The 2008 Spanish Grand Prix would be the final race for Anthony Davidson and Super Aguri. Image sourced from mbl.is

That weekend, Davidson opened up about Super Aguri’s situation:

“It’s been a really difficult time, from the end of last year through to the start of this year,” Davidson said.

“I’m kind of learning to cope with that because it is difficult, really difficult, it’s a battle, a fight.”

Davidson added: “You can tell yourself you are ready, but without testing here and with limited parts at the start of the year and all that stuff, it really does take a lot out of you.”

“There are a lot of drivers up and down the grid, with much more experience than myself, who would have crumbled by this point.”

Weigl Group Attempt to Save Super Aguri

The Weigl Group attempted to rescue Super Aguri at the eleventh hour. Image sourced from demorgen.be

After the race, Super Aguri entered talks with the Bavarian automotive industry company Weigl Group. This emerged after their owner, Franz Joel Weigl, was spotted on the start grid in Barcelona.

It was reported that Mr. Weigl proposed to invest around £6.5 Million ($8.2M) into the team. Moreover, Aguri Suzuki believed this was enough to get them to the end of the 2008 season.

The Weigl Group had previously worked with Midland F1 in 2006 on the design and construction of their gearbox. With a deal being negotiated, Super Aguri travelled to Turkey for the next round of the championship.

But then, the team were denied entry into the paddock.

Allegedly, Honda Racing CEO Nick Fry informed the race organisers that the team would not be taking part.

Speaking via his official website, Takuma Sato spoke of his shock after hearing the news:

“I heard that FOM was told that we are not racing so they won’t let the trucks in. I don’t understand why they have been told this when no decision has been made yet.”

Shortly after, the Super Aguri F1 Team had no choice, but to withdraw from Formula One.

“Regretfully I must inform you that the team will be ceasing racing activities,” Aguri Suzuki stated.

“The loss of financial backing put the team into financial difficulties.”

“With the help of Honda, we somehow managed to keep the team going, but we find it difficult to establish a way to continue the activities in the future so I have concluded to withdraw.”

“I have been very happy that I was able to achieve a miracle and become a team owner.”

Honda Pull the Plug

Then-Honda Racing CEO Nick Fry argued that weren’t any viable takeover bids for Super Aguri on offer. Image sourced from Telegraph Sport.

It was also alleged that the Magma Group pulled out of the takeover deal, due to Fry not accepting their three-year debt plan.

Super Aguri were in deep trouble, with estimated debts of $100 Million (£51M). Wary of this, Fry instead wanted them to pay at once or he’d pull the plug to minimise Honda’s losses.

In contrast, Fry denied any responsibility in the team’s collapse:

“I think that…is completely unrealistic,” Fry said at the time.

“The reality is that when you looking at entering Grand Prix racing, you have to look at the medium and long-term, as well as the short-term.”

“I think Mr. Mateschitz (Red Bull owner) has been quoted as saying that when you buy a team, that is when your problems really start.”

Fry added: “The reality is for Aguri [Suzuki], we were looking for a serious long-term partner and that takes very substantial resources. The one that we hoped would come to fruition was the Magma/DIC deal, but unfortunately that didn’t.”

On May 7, 2008, Super Aguri officially entered administration and it’s assets were purchased by Franz Hilmer.

Hilmer then unsuccessfully applied to form a team for the 2010 Formula One season under the Brabham name. A couple of years later, Hilmer successful entered the GP2 Series in 2013.

The Aftermath of Super Aguri

The spirit of the team lived on, as it was revealed that some of the Super Aguri engineers joined Honda. In 2009, the majority of them were retained by Brawn GP for 2009.

According to Will Buxton, they helped produce the double-diffuser used on the championship-winning BGP001 chassis.

Aguri Suzuki would also form Team Aguri alongside Team Principal Mark Preston in the FIA Formula E Championship.

After two season, Suzuki sold the team and returned to Japan to focus on his ARTA outfit.

Preston remained with the new Techeetah team and would win the 2017-18 Drivers’ title with Jean-Eric Vergne.

As for the drivers, Anthony Davidson turned his attention to sports car racing. With Toyota,  he went on to win the 2014 FIA World Endurance Championship.

Davidson also spent time as a test driver for Mercedes, as well as a pundit for Sky Sports F1.

Meanwhile, Takuma Sato moved stateside to race in IndyCar and to date, has four race wins to his name. This included a famous victory in the 2017 Indianapolis 500 for Andretti Autosport.