Friday, May 23, 2008

Wheels within wheels

A while back, I had it in my head to try to write a 'Dick Francis on wheels'-style thriller about organised crime and skulduggery, set in the F1 world. It never came to much, and, revolving as it did around a gang of criminals who took over a race team with the intention of using it as a cover for international drug smuggling (whilst furthering the racing career of the Crime Lord's promising son) , I've since discovered that reality beat me to it anyway. Recent events, though, have left me wondering if fundamentally, I suffered a failure of imagination and I should really have been thinking bigger.

When the Max Mosley 'sex scandal' broke a couple of months ago, I have to admit I couldn't summon up much interest in the matter. Under Max Mosley's leadership, the FIA had recently taken legal action against News Corporation over an article Martin Brundle had penned for the Sunday Times in which he had suggested that the FIA had been less than even-handed in its treatment of Mclaren and Ferrari during last year's spy-affair. My first reaction was to assume that, since the story broke in the Sunday Times more downmarket sister publication, the News of the World, this was just News Corporation's way of reminding the FIA Head of the dangers of messing with Rupert Murdoch. A fight between Mosley and Murdoch. Nothing to lose sleep over.

The question of whether Mosley should resign as a consequence of the revelations about his private life was, equally, not one I could bring myself to get worked up about. I have been of the opinion, for some time now, that Mosley has been at the helm of the FIA for too long, and that it is time for someone with fresh ideas to take over. Other, to my mind, far more damaging recent revelations about Mosley's time as FIA President constitute a far better argument for his resignation if they are true, not least because they relate directly to what he has done in that role. However, since stories about clandestine meetings with QCs and fuel filters don't sell newspapers, they have attracted far less publicity than salacious tittle-tattle about 'Nazi' orgies.

I can't really see why the fact that he has paid for sado-masochistic sexual services in a Chelsea flat is relevant, though. In the UK, neither the buying nor the selling of sexual services is, in itself, illegal at present and there is no suggestion that Mosley committed any crime. Comparisons have been made with disgraced former Governor of New York, Elliot Spitzer, who did resign following revelations of his involvement in a prostitution ring. With all due respect, however, there are significant differences between the two cases. For one thing, Spitzer was an elected politician, and as such, his views on, and involvement in prostitution could legitimately be said to be directly connected with his job. Furthermore, Spitzer had actively campaigned to increase criminal penalties in his home state of New York for men who buy sex. Max Mosley, by contrast, is not the head of one of the world's most important cities, but the head of a motoring organisation. One might, quite reasonably, view the buying of sex as immoral, but in Chelsea, it is not illegal and I'm not sure how paying for sex disqualifies a man from involvement in F1. All else aside, on the basis of conversations I had with an old schoolfriend who worked for a while as a journalist in F1, such a policy would considerably thin out the Grand Prix paddock.

There were, of course, the suggestions that there was an explicitly 'Nazi' theme to what went on in the Chelsea flat. I'm not in a position to know one way or another - I'm afraid that there are some things I won't do in the name of research, and watching Max Mosley sex videos is one of them. Nonetheless, I can't help thinking that this owes more to journalistic hyperbole than anything else. Yes, there was undoubtedly a sado-masochistic element to whatever it was that Mosley was up to, but beyond the fact that the Nazis stole much of their 'aesthetic' from the sado-masochistic scene (yes, it really did happen that way round...) I'm not sure what the claims of a 'Nazi' theme are based on. Chances are, they were thrown into the mix because of Mosley's family history. Max's father was, of course, the odious former leader of the British Union of Fascists, Oswald Mosley. Nonetheless, it seems ironic that Mosley has ended up in trouble over this when former FIA President Jean-Marie Balestre's role as a Waffen SS officer during World War II went largely unremarked.

All this, though, is old news, because it now appears that something bigger is at stake. To be fair, while I was initially convinced this was all nothing more than a private feud between News Corporation and Mosley, others, most notably Mike Lawrence, were more astute. Truth be told, Mosley's legal action against the Sunday Times is no more than a minor irritant to the media behemoth, and it is unlikely that they would have felt the need to spend time and money investigating the private life of Mosley - a man whom, after all, your average News of the World reader probably really couldn't care less about one way or the other (let's face it, the only guy in F1 grid that the average UK tabloid reader is likely to have heard of is Lewis Hamilton.) All of which suggests that whoever was behind the operation to expose Mosley's private life, it probably wasn't the News of the World.

A couple of developments over the last week give hint as to what may lie behind it all. First, there was the news that one of the women paid by Mosley is married to a senior MI5 officer. Then came a letter from Mosley, addressed to the presidents of the national clubs, which appeared to suggest he was the victim of a conspiracy to wrest control of F1 from the FIA. All this suggests that someone with rather more directly at stake than News Corporation was behind the 'outing' of Mosley. The News of the World might have been more than happy to run the story, and in the beginning, when I had assumed the story had simply been sold by one of the women involved, perhaps because she was short of cash and had kids to feed and clothe , that seemed explanation enough. I doubt, however, that they hold sufficient grudge against the FIA president to pay for an expensive and complicated spying operation against the man.

Whatever Joe Saward's alter ego, the Mole, might have you believe, I rather doubt that MI5 are much interested in who runs the FIA. In fact, though it wasn't something which the Intelligence Service were keen to admit to publicly, one rather suspects that it was not so much the fact that their agent's wife was involved in prostitution but the possibility that the agent himself might have been doing some private surveillance work on the side which led to his dismissal. After all, the prostitutes' spy cameras does look like the work of people with espionage experience. It is clearly someone went to considerable lengths to dig the dirt on Mosley, and Mosley himself believes their ultimate objective was to undermine the FIA itself.

So who might? Some initially suggested that someone at Mclaren might be behind it all, but in all honesty that seems unlikely. One doubts that a change of leadership at the FIA would result in the rescinding of their $100m fine and such a conspiracy simply seems to dangerous a thing for Mclaren or Mercedes to become involved in. What would the FIA's attitude towards the Woking squad be if that were to come to light? (That said, it should be noted that Peter White has written some interesting pieces suggesting that Mclaren really might be behind it all).

No. I'm inclined to think that whoever was behind the exposure of Mosley had rather more at stake. I'm reminded of an article which the ever-readable Mark Hughes wrote for Autosport a few months back about a dystopian vision of the future of F1, in which the sport had moved away from its European heartland to showpiece tracks built by third-world dictators, been abandoned by the major manufacturers, and the teams were no more than subsidiaries of the sporting rights holder. The racing itself might have been close, but, in Hughes' nightmarish imagined future, it was fixed in advance by the organisers and drivers who stepped out of line quickly found themselves out of work. It was, in short, a horrible cross between NASCAR and television wrestling.

At the end of the article, Hughes suggested that this scenario had come to pass because the sporting rights holders had, faced with vast unpayable debts to the banks who had lent them the money to buy the series in the first place, made all their decisions with the aim of maximising short-term profits at the expense of the long-term health of the sport. So if various Middle Eastern countries would pay more for a race than classic venues like Monza or Spa, that is where they went. If more money could be made out of the sport if so much wasn't being (in the eyes of the sport's rights holders) 'wasted' on car development, then chase out the manufacturer teams and bring in spec-cars. If the best drivers kept winning regardless, then make quite clear to them that it might be disadvantageous to their career if they were to win too often.

The relevance of Hughes little story to the current furore over Max Mosley is, of course, that the sport really is owned by a large private equity firm, CVC Capital Partners, which has borrowed vast sums in order to purchase the rights to F1 (from Bernie Ecclestone...) and now has to find a way of paying back those debts. F1 undoubtedly generates a lot of money, and a lot of that money is retained by the commercial rights holder of the sport. It was this which led to plans for a breakaway 'manufacturer backed' F1 series a few years back. This in turn led to a deal with the major teams which saw them take a larger share of the sport's revenues, though Formula One Management (and hence parent company CVC) still keep around half of all the income.

Doubtless, FOM would really rather keep still more of the money, but so long as F1 remains an expensive development race between the teams, any move to cut the share of the sport's revenues which goes to the teams would be fiercely resisted and might lead to renewed threats of a breakaway series. Of course, one way round this would be top amend the rules so as to reduce costs for the teams - and hence to some extent at least - their clamour for a greater share of the sport's revenues.

The problem for the rights holder, though, is that they don't have control over the rulebook. Since the end of the FISA/FOCA war of the early 1980s, the sport has been governed by the FIA, while the commercial rights have passed from the old Formula One Constructors Association, through Bernie Ecclestone's Formula One Management, and are now in the hands of private equity firm CVC. In short, the rights holders have, at least in theory, no room to change the rules of the sport so as to increase their return on investment. Something which, all else aside, doubtless makes the sport much harder to sell as a going concern.

Into this, then, are three or four very powerful vested interests who doubtless have a vested interest in the future of the FIA. Firstly, there are the teams themselves. If they feel that Max Mosley wants to take the sport in a different direction from where they themselves want to go, might it suit them (either individually or collectively) to have rid of him? Then there are the sport's commercial rights holders. As I've outlined above, there are plenty of hypothetical reasons why they would wish to exert control over those who write the F1 rulebook. Finally, there is Max's old ally in the FISA/FOCA wars, Bernie Ecclestone himself. Technically, these days, he's an employee of FOM, but there can be little doubt that he remains a powerful figure within F1 in his own right. It is probably a mistake to see him solely as the agent of the sport's owners. What, after all, if he felt like buying back the rights to F1 from them, and perhaps at a rather lesser sum than he sold them for? What would be better than a scandal around the sport's governing body to destabilise the sport and hence, quite possibly, persuade CVC that they would really be better cutting their losses now and concentrating on other ventures?

All of the above is no more than speculation. I don't pretend to know what has ultimately motivated those behind the exposing of Max Mosley's private life. I don't know what their agenda is. I don't know whether the sport's best interests would be served by siding with Mosley, or with those who would have him brought down. What I do know is that it is vital that those charged with deciding on next week's vote of confidence on Mosley, and with any decision on his likely successor, should be privy to all the facts before casting their votes. For anyone who really cares about the sport, it is clear that much more is at stake than one's moral position on Max Mosley's private activities.

Labels: , , , ,

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Old Age And Experience...

How does it stand up against youth and enthusiasm? When old sportsmen retire, it is usually because they have achieved all that they set out to do, or because they know that they are past their best, and never likely to achieve their ambitions. In motorsport, especially at the very top level, the decision is often made by others. F1, in particular, is a harshly competitive world and human nature being what it is, team bosses are often quicker to spot when a driver is no longer as quick as he once was than the driver himself.

I've occasionally found myself wondering, how would Boris Becker or Steffi Graf do if they were to enter a minor tennis tournament? Could Eddie Lawson still win club level motorbike races? Would Gary Linekar be racking up the goals these days if he went up against young players outside of the football league?

As a motorsports fan though, the most intriguing question to me is: How would a retired F1 driver get on in, say a Formula Ford or Formula BMW race? Would the fact that said F1 driver had reached the very top of the tree be enough to ensure that he could see off the vast majority of the drivers in the junior ranks? Or is the gap between the great and the merely good so small that, after a few years away from the sport, he'd be left tooling around at the rear of the pack?

Until now, it's been no more than a matter of speculation. Retired F1 drivers, whose careers were in full flow around the time I first started following the sport in the mid-1980s might be interested in coming together to compete against each other as a number of them did with the now defunct Grand Prix Masters series (echoes perhaps of the seniors tennis and golf tours) and several of them continue to make a good living as endurance racers. None, though, have shown any inclination to try their luck against today's up and coming drivers (at least if one takes with a huge pinch of salt the reports a few years back that Nelson Piquet Sr. was considering driving alongside his son in GP2).

That changed last weekend when former F1 driver and current ITV commentator Martin Brundle stepped behind the wheel of a Formula Palmer-Audi to take on his son Alex, among others around Spa Francorchamps. In his words - "an early 49th Birthday present to myself" though the fact that the time when he could race directly against his son, Alex was fast running out must have been a factor too. The FPA series may not be as intensely competitive as, for instance, the British F3 or Formula Renault series are, but on the other hand, it has in the past served as a training ground for drivers such as Justin Wilson, Giorgio Pantano and multiple World Touring Car champion Andy Priaulx. Whether any of the current front runners, such as Jonathan Moore, series-boss's son Jolyon Palmer and Ivan Lukashevich will follow in their footsteps remains to be seen. There's no doubting, though, that this is rather more of a serious race series for junior drivers than it was a few years back when half the field consisted of cash-rich middle-aged guys indulging their hobby at the weekend.

So how was Brundle going to fare? On the one hand, he was a man who had been a thoroughly competitive F1 driver - not quite from the very top drawer, but more than decently quick. For much of his F1 career, he struggled with uncompetitive cars, such as the Cosworth powered Tyrrell, the truly awful Zakspeed and the unreliable and difficult Brabham Yamaha. When he finally got himself a really competitive car, in the form of the 1992 Benetton Ford, he had the misfortune to find himself paired up with one Michael Schumacher - and that before anyone knew just how good the young German was. A couple of years later, he picked up a drive at Mclaren only to find himself driving alongside a relatively unknown Finnish guy called...Mika Hakkinen. All the same, he showed pretty well against these future F1 champions, so surely against a group of youngsters of whom few, if any, surely, have the same ultimate potential things would not be too difficult? Add to that experience from competing in 11 Grands Prix and numerous Group C sportscar races at Spa and surely he would have things all his own way...

Or perhaps not. On the other hand, here he was up against a group of determined young racers with everything to prove - a man nearing 50 years old, who last raced a car in anger back in 2001, and who hadn't raced a single seater competitively for over 12 years. Unlike the rest of the field, who had extensive experience of the Formula Palmer Audi car, he had done just a bare minimum of testing. He was more than twice the age and probably considerably heavier than most of the rest of the grid. Surely there was a real danger that he would trail embarrassingly around a the back of the field? Brundle himself remarked "a few people said to me 'you're crazy, what are you doing'...

In the end, he neither dominated nor was he humiliated. He beat his son in two of the three races, and finished in the top eight (of a 22 car field) every time. After all that time away, he was still on the pace, and still quicker than most of the field, but no longer able to dominate in the way that one suspects he might have been able to at the very height of his powers. Interestingly, for a man reckoned by Nigel Roebuck to be amongst the most intelligent ever to sit behind the wheel of a racing car, and who might reasonably be expected to take advantage of his greater understanding of getting the most out of the car, he reckoned it was his technique through the slow corners which was losing him time, and not his 'bottle' through Spa's fast stuff.

All in all, quite an interesting result - and I'm glad that Martin Brundle, whom I reckon is about the best 'expert' co-commentator the sport has ever seen (let's hope that reports on Pitpass are wide of the mark and he'll make the jump over to the BBC) provided the answer to our question. Now, wouldn't it be great if Michael Schumacher decided to enliven his retirement with a GP2 race or two...

Labels: , , , ,

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Iconic Cars - The first in an occasional series

Iconic racing cars? For people of my father’s generation, it might be the Lotus 49, The Ford GT40, the Maserati 250F or the Jaguar E-Type. I, on the other hand, am a child of the 1980s, the sort of person for whom the recent film Son of Rambow (if you only ever see one Rambo film, this is the one…) is a full-on nostalgia trip.

Maybe it’s inevitable that everyone looks back on their youth as a golden age. Maybe every motorsports fan is most entranced by the sport as it was when they happened first to become hooked. For me, it is the racing and rally cars of the 1980s which first come to mind when I think of truly iconic machines. I’ve chosen three such cars for what will be a short series of articles. The first of these is something of an eccentric choice. A car that was by no means especially successful, nor even particularly pretty to look at. Ladies and Gentlemen, I present to you, Williams Grand Prix engineering’s very own Group B Rally Car – the Metro 6R4.

On the whole, Formula One teams keep to the business of building Formula One cars. For sure there have been exceptions. McLaren built their F1 Road car, of course, and a whole host of entirely ordinary production cars have had the names "Williams" or "Jordan" bolted on in the hope of shifting a few more units.

Back in the early eighties, however, the very future of the sport was looking decidedly shaky. The FISA/FOCA wars looked like they might result in the F1 series being split into two competing, weaker championships. There was every possibility that the sport wouldn't survive such a damaging split.

At around the same time, the board at Austin Rover were toying around with the idea of restoring their once highly successful competitions department. Back in the 1960s they had had a great deal of success with their lightweight Mini Cooper rally cars. Since then, there had been, to put it kindly, more mixed results with Triumph TRs, Rover SD1s and even an Austin Allegro.

In 1980, Rover's competitions department approached Williams Grand Prix Engineering with the idea of mounting a 3 litre V6 engine (essentially a Rover V8 with two cylinders lopped off) into their recently launched small hatchback, the Austin Metro, to turn it into a potential Rally contender. With the uncertainty hanging over the future of F1 at the time, Patrick Head agreed to take on the task. It may have been difficult to design a rally car at the same time as running an F1 team, but Head had the long term future of Williams as an engineering firm to think about.

A year later, the first prototype was complete. Williams had created for Rover a 220BHP rear engined Metro. Unfortunately, by the time that Rover were ready to commit to a full blown world rally program, this car was woefully inadequate for the job. The Group B era had arrived, and four wheel drive was a prerequisite for success, as well as around double the Horsepower the Metro was producing.

So the concept went back to Williams. They hard-tuned the engine so it was producing a whopping 410BHP, and added the by now obligatory four wheel drive. The car that resulted was a striking beast indeed. In order to accommodate new regulation wide tyres, the car had the most flared wheel arches ever seen on a production car. Spoilers popped out all over the place. It puts the sort of boy-racerish nonsense of Fast & Modified and the Cruise crowd to shame. Certainly, it was one of the most distinctive cars ever to grace the world of rallying.

A question remained though. Could a non-turbo charged car live with the
latest generation of Group B Rally cars? The Metro would be up against stiff competition from Lancias Delta S4, Peugeot's 205T16, Audi's Quattro Evo and Ford's new RS200. There was a chance it might. Turbo lag was a tremendous problem on the early Group B cars, rendering some of them all but undriveable. The Metro might have a much heavier engine, but, so the thinking went, it would be a lot more driveable.

The car made its world rally debut at the RAC Rally in 1985, some half a decade after its' initial conception. The late Tony Pond and Malcolm Wilson were enlisted as drivers. Malcolm Wilson was not to last long before his engine gave out, but Tony Pond was mixing it with the best of them. As the rally progressed there were only the brand new Lancia Delta S4s separating him from a debut win. Received wisdom held that the Lancias wouldn't go the distance anyway. Half the team were booked on an early flight home, and nobody expected the horribly complicated Italian cars to stand up to the rigours of the British forests in winter.

Survive they did, however, and though Tony Pond racked up eleven fastest stage times, he was unable to catch them and record a debut win for the works Metro. Nonetheless, it was a promising debut and it boded well for the works team's first full year in 1986.

Sadly, it was the best result the car would ever record on a world rally. Whether it was because a normally aspirated car, for all the advantages it had in terms of driveability over the Turbo Group B cars, simply didn't have the power, or whether it was that the team didn't have the money to do the job properly is an open question.

A year later, at the final World Rally for Group B cars, the RAC Rally of 1986, the best Metro 6R4 was only eighth. The car was ultimately, in competition terms, something of a failure. Rather than a Rallying legend, it remains something of a curio. Unkind souls might describe it as the ugliest of the Group B cars. It certainly wasn't the most competitive.

Yet the car would go on to prove a success at club level for many years. In the hands of amateur rally drivers, it remains more than the equal of other, much more recent machinery. Like many Group B cars, it also found a home as a rallycross car for many years. The engine, meanwhile, gained a couple of turbochargers and ended up in the back of Jaguar's XJ220 supercar.

A British success story it was not. In fact one might view it as an appropriate symbol of the mess that the British car industry, and Rover in particular was in. Whatever the truth of the matter, it was a truly iconic car, and an intriguing chapter in the tale of one of the most important and successful F1 teams of the last 30 years.

Labels: , , , , , ,

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: , , , , , ,