Thursday, May 08, 2008

The End Of The Road

In the end, it was no surprise when the announcement was made that Super Aguri F1 are no more. It had been clear for some months that the team existed only thanks to the willingness of the Honda Motor Company to provide a line of credit to Aguri Suzuki's men, and that the Japanese manufacturer were becoming disillusioned with the idea of running two F1 teams. When Honda made clear they would not provide the financial support needed to keep the team afloat, their demise was inevitable. And so Super Aguri join a long list of teams - Arrows, Prost, Lola, Forti, Simtek, Pacific, and Lotus, who have fallen victim to the financial realities of F1. It would be easy to write off the disappearance of Super Aguri as largely irrelevant. They were, in their last days especially, tail end stragglers who had no realistic expectation of doing anything more than making up the numbers.

Me? I'll miss them. For one thing, they provided drives for two exciting, if not perhaps truly first-rate drivers in Takuma Sato and Anthony Davidson. More than that, though, they appeared to be a very down-to-earth squad of real racers - made up of people determined to do the best with what they could, and not simply there to cruise around at the back. As an F1 fan, though, what was most interesting about the Super Aguri story was what it told us about what is, and is not, important in determining the overall competitiveness of an F1 team.

When the team first emerged, rather hurriedly, at the beginning of the 2006 season, as part of a Honda PR-effort to find employment for Japanese driver Takuma Sato, whom they had recently fired from the works team, they seemed like a disaster waiting to happen. The news that they would be running a modified 2002 Arrows chassis, hastily adapted to take the 2.4 litre Honda V8 engine (it had been built around a 3.0 litre V10 Cosworth block) and further modified to bring it into line with 2006 aerodynamic regulations and crash-test rules did little to inspire confidence. What hope did a new team have running a modified 3 year old chassis which, even at the time it had been built, rarely made it out of the bottom third of the grid? I, for one, wondered if we had another disaster of Andrea Moda or Life Racing Engines proportions on our hands.

At the opening race, in Bahrain, Takuma Sato was six seconds away from Michael Schumacher's pole time. It was hardly encouraging, but given they were using an almost untested and hastily constructed car, built around a 3 year old monocoque, it could have been a lot worse. Sato was around 1.5s off the pace of Tiago Monteiro's Midland-Toyota, which was not much worse than Minardi had been doing the year before. Sato's team mate, Yuji Ide, it quickly became apparent, had no business being in F1, and was a further 3 seconds back. He did not last long, and was dropped in favour of Toyota tester Franck Montagny who himself was eventually moved aside for Sakon Yamamoto.

Faced with such an apparently impossibly task, it would have been easy for the new team to sink into a mire, and slip further and further back as the season went on. It quickly became clear, though, that the team were determined to do what they could with the tools they had to hand. The team produced several updates to the basic Arrows package through the year, and by the time of the season-closing Brazilian Grand Prix, they had come a long way from the inauspicious debut at Bahrain. They may still have made up the back row at Interlagos, but this time Takuma Sato and team mate Sakon Yamamoto were both within 3 seconds of Felipe Massa's pole time - a dramatic leap from the 6+ seconds the team were giving away at the beginning of the season. Aided by the fact that Bridgestone had very much the better tyres in race conditions, Sato ended up finishing ahead of both Toro Rossos, both Midlands and a Red Bull on race day, too.

One statistic which proves particularly telling is that Sato's qualifying lap in 2006 was just 0.3s
slower than Montoya's pole lap in 2002. That, despite the fact that in 2002, the cars had larger wings, 3 litre V10 engines and, to be blunt, Montoya's Williams was a good deal quicker than the Arrows driven by Verstappen and Frentzen. What this demonstrates, firstly, is that the Super Aguri team did a very good job of adapting and improving the basic Arrows design. More than that, though, it shows just how important factors other than the basic chassis design are in determining the performance of an F1 car. In particular, 2006 was the zenith of the very hard-fought tyre war between Bridgestone and Michelin (before the FIA called time on that by insisting on a single tyre supplier and control rubber for 2007). The Honda V8 and the gearbox, which the team also appropriated from the works team, were undoubtedly very well-engineered pieces of kit, but one can't help feeling that tyre development alone was probably responsible for as much as 2-3 seconds performance improvement a lap between 2002 and 2006.

The other thing that Super Aguri's performance in 2006 demonstrated is something which would already be apparent to anyone who has followed serious one-make formulae (like GP2, Champ Car, IRL) is that the basic chassis itself is only one factor among many in determining the outright competitiveness of a team. BCN Competicion and ART both work with the same basic Dallara-Renault chassis in GP2 and yet there is a very noticeable performance difference between the two teams which cannot be entirely accounted for by the relative merits of their drivers. Comparing, for instance, Dale Coyne Racing and Newman Haas in last year's Champ Car series leads one towards the same conclusion. Knowing how to engineer a car, how to dial it in to each track, can be every bit as important as having an outright quick car in the first place. To my mind, what the Super Aguri squad demonstrated in 2006, was that they got the very most out of a very basic (in F1 terms) underlying design. Enough to occasionally frighten teams with vastly greater resources and much more modern cars.

2007 was meant to be very different for the tiny Anglo-Japanese team. The team took advantage of the FIA's warming towards the concept of 'customer' chassis in F1 to run Honda's race-winning 2006 chassis, complete with minor aerodynamic updates and other modifications required to get it through the more stringent crash-test requirements. And so we were left with the question: Could the team who worked small wonders with an ancient Arrows in 2006 really frighten the big boys with access to a much more modern design and a serious driver line up?

In the end, the answer was inconclusive. The modified 2006 Honda was enough to ensure that the Super Aguri team no longer routinely propped up the rear of the grid. At the first race in Australia, both Sato and Davidson made it through into the second round of the knock-out qualifying system (something Super Aguri never threatened to do in 2006) and through the first half of the season, the team regularly ran in the midfield. In doing so, they more often that not outpaced the works Honda team, and conclusively demonstrated that sometimes, a team can take a step backwards in absolute, rather than merely relative, terms. Undoubtedly the highlight of the team's brief existence, though, was the Canadian Grand Prix of 2007, where Takuma Sato overtook reigning World Champion Fernando Alonso's Mclaren on the track going into the final chicane to snatch 5th place. OK, so he was only within striking range of Alonso because of a safety car, and he was only quicker because he was on the better tyre compound, and Alonso was nursing damage to his car from an earlier trip across the dirt. But still, a Super Aguri passing a Mclaren in a straight fight for a points position! Who would have predicted that when the team made its shambolic debut at Bahrain just 15 months before?

In retrospect, though, the nails were already being hammered into Aguri's coffin as the 2007 season went on. The team's new title sponsor, SS Oil and Gas, reneged on their deal and left
the team having to go to Honda for a bail-out, which is unlikely to have helped relations between the satellite team and the parent company. Cynics have suggested that the Honda team bosses were far from happy that a small team using their old car were outpacing the works squad (until a late season run of form for Jenson Button, Super Aguri led Honda in the constructors championship) and that perversely, their very competitiveness harmed their long-term future.

Myself, I rather doubt that explanation. I expect that Honda were simply relieved that something with a Honda engine and Honda stickers on the side, was running in the points from time to time. No, the real reason for Honda's change of heart about the support they were providing to Super Aguri was the FIA's volte-face over the legality of customer cars. It became quite clear that, in the long term, Super Aguri would have to develop their own chassis to remain in the sport. For as long as Honda had open the option of running two teams with the same chassis, the Super Aguri team was a sensible investment. Having access to four cars and the testing-mileage allowance for 2 teams instead of one could buy significant advantage. A similar logic lay behind Red Bull's decision to buy out Minardi and create Scuderia Toro Rosso, and the Prodrive/Mclaren link up that never happened.

When the FIA decided that it was not in the long-term interest of the sport to open up the possibility of customer F1 teams, with no car design or manufacturing facilities of their own (or, if you prefer, when the FIA were cornered by the smaller independent teams like Williams and Force India) these satellite teams no longer made sense. And so it is that Prodrive's F1 effort ended up stillborn, Toro Rosso is for sale, and Super Aguri have, this week, reached the end of the road.

Labels: , , , , , ,


Post a Comment

<< Home