Super Aguri, the little team that not only could but did, tossed in the towel Tuesday, ceasing to operate as a Formula One entrant after two seasons and four races in thus, their third season. They won fans and impressed colleagues less for point...
Super Aguri, the little team that not only could but did, tossed in the towel Tuesday, ceasing to operate as a Formula One entrant after two seasons and four races in thus, their third season. They won fans and impressed colleagues less for point production -- they scored no podiums -- than tenacity and enthusiasm. They scored four points to finish ninth among 11 teams in 2007, the season affected by an industrial espionage scandal that stripped points from would-be constructors titlist McLaren Mercedes. Drivers Takuma Sato and Anthony Davidson had not scored points in 2008.
The team announced its "withdrawal from the 2008 FIA Formula One World Championship" in a statement in which team founder Aguri Suzuki called starting the team the realization of a dream. The dream crumbled when major backer SS United Oil & Gas Co., a Hong Kong-based oil trading concern coupled to a Thai investment company, defaulted on sponsorship payments.
Compounding Super Aguri's funding problem was a U-turn by the sports' governors on use of customer cars. Super Aguri did not construct its cars, using instead cast-offs from first the defunct Arrows team, from whose Leafield, England, base they operated, then major supporter Honda, which supplied engines and technical support throughout. A pending rule that all F1 teams must construct their cars for the 2010 season made Suzuki's scramble for financial backing all the more difficult; construction costs multiply funding demands four- or five-fold. The constructor requirement earlier felled an effort by David Richards' Prodrive to put a team on the F1 grid. Now instead of a desired dozen entrants, Formula One has 10.
"The team has competed against the many car manufacturer-backed teams and has succeeded in obtaining the first points after only the 22nd race finishing in ninth place overall in the 2007 constructors' championship," Suzuki said. "However, 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.
"Meanwhile, with the help of Honda, we have somehow managed to keep the team going, but we find it difficult to establish a way to continue the activities in the future within the environment surrounding F1 and as a result, I have concluded to withdraw from the championship."
Suzuki thought a team-saving deal had been arranged with Dubai investment through Magma Group, a United Kingdom group of former carmaker executives, but the deal fell through a month ago. Suzuki then thought he had 11th-hour funding from the Weigl Group, a German consortium supplying engineering and technology to automotive and machine tool industries. Honda's Board of Directors needed to approve that deal but in meetings on Tuesday, May 6, they did not.
A statement from Honda read: "Honda has continued to support the team as much as possible. But Aguri Suzuki has come to Honda and expressed his decision to withdraw from Formula One as he is not capable of establishing a foundation for independent operation of the team. The Super Aguri F1 Team's withdrawal is indeed very disappointing for us, but we understand that it was inevitable unless the team could find a way to stand alone by itself in the future."
Suzuki thanked Honda, tire supplier Bridgestone, sponsors, team staff, advisers and fans for their support. At a news conference in Tokyo, he particularly credited drivers Sato, around whom the team was formed after Honda cut the Japanese driver in 2005, and Englishman Davidson, who followed Yuji Ide, Franck Montagny and Sakon Yamamoto to the seat and campaigned the 2007 season.
"The drivers have been fantastic," Suzuki said. "When we started, the cars wouldn't even go in a straight line, but Takuma never once complained. The drivers have always been so positive."
Super Aguri, always in trouble for funding, including in November 2005 with the initial, $48 million bond required of new F1 teams, generated a loyal fan following. They were as popular -- or more so -- than Honda among Japanese fans. At times the private team put on better shows than its factory big brothers. Super Aguri's high point might have been Canada 2007, when Sato put a famous pass on defending world champion driver Fernando Alonso to finish sixth, and Davidson collided with a small mammal initially thought by English television commentators to have been a larger mammal.
"It's very unlucky to be in this position at this time of year," an unemployed Davidson told BBC Radio 5Live. "It was pretty unexpected for everyone to lose this team so early on in the year. I'm sure the team will be missed. For small teams in Formula One, it's a blow to see them disappear."
Sato gave an interview Monday in which he was optimistic of continuing. He said he already looked forward to the Japanese Grand Prix, 2009, when the race returns from the Mount Fuji circuit to Suzuka.
"The thought of not being there is too impossible to think about," Sato said. "I just want a competitive package so I can challenge to the ultimate performance in front of the thousands of fantastic and loyal fans in Japan and around the world."
Super Aguri comes to a sad end. Team trucks were refused entry to Istanbul Park paddock for this weekend's Turkish Grand Prix on the order of Honda F1's team principal, Nick Fry. And Suzuki's effort to save his team was sniped at by Fry, who openly doubted Suzuki's ability to put-together an 11th-hour deal.
"Our position is that Honda have given Super Aguri every available bit of support over and above what was anticipated," Fry had said. "We tried to help as much as possible, and Honda never intended to fund two F1 teams. We've gone way beyond what was ever originally anticipated. Now Aguri has got to find some money."
Honda reportedly wanted rapid repayment of $100 million owed by Super Aguri. Weigl wanted a three-year repayment plan. Honda's outlay to Super Aguri has been made as the factory team foundered. Honda F1 outscored Super Aguri by only two points last season.
Suzuki reacted to Fry in today's press conference, "I don't understand how suddenly Nick Fry needs to be commenting on everything," he said. "Honda were our backers and he's not the CEO of Honda. I have no interest in Nick Fry whatsoever and have no idea what he was talking about."
Suzuki, Japan's most successful F1 racer, said his efforts this spring have left him spent and possibly disinterested in an F1 future.
"I'm exhausted," he told reporters. "I definitely need a break. (Formula One) is a piranha club, and I kind of feel that I don't want to stick my fingers back in."