White Walker - 2006 Super Aguri SA05 Honda
The long trek back to relevance.
The 2006 season was one of many changes in the world of Formula One. On a technical level, the glorious 3.0 V10 finally met its end due to concerns over escalating power levels and potentially dangerous speeds, being replaced by a smaller 2.4L V8 formula.
Tire changes were once again allowed since the 2005 ban had served its purpose by sidelining the dominant Ferrari team, and the seven-speed sequential became the only homologated gearbox configuration.
The illustrious duo of Michael Schumacher and Rubens Barrichello was broken up at Ferrari, BMW took a controlling stake in Sauber, Minardi was bought out by Red Bull to become Toro Rosso, McLaren lost its famous black and silver West sponsorship, and the Midland Group finally abandoned the Jordan name to establish their own brand name. Another familiar name returning to the grid was Honda.
The deadly RA302 ended Honda's original run in F1.
The Japanese manufacturer had seen action in the sport in the early 1960s to some success, winning the 1965 Mexican Grand Prix with American Richie Ginther, but was forced to leave under dire circumstances. Soichiro Honda's wish to see an air-cooled Grand Prix racer ended in tragedy, as the unique all-magnesium RA302 crashed and caught fire at the 1968 French Grand Prix.
The unstoppable fire claimed the life of popular driver Jo Schlesser, thrusting the team into a very negative light, especially after John Surtees' staunch refusal to drive the car. Honda didn't dare to consider running their own team until over thirty years later.
Jos Verstappen testing the Honda RA099.
After a series of skunk works RC-F1 prototypes designed by enthusiastic Honda engineers in their spare time, the company finally got serious in late 1998. With ex-Benetton driver Jos Verstappen and well-regarded former Hesketh, Wolf, Ferrari, Sauber and Tyrrell designer Harvey Postlethwaite at the center, a new fully-fledged works effort was being realized around the RA099 development car.
Despite promising early test results, Honda again abandoned the project under a veil of darkness, as Postlethwaite succumbed to a heart attack while supervising a test at Circuit de Catalunya. As there was still no official approval from the higher-ups, the directionless team was dissolved, and Honda returned to a role as an engine supplier for 2000.
The Honda RA806E 2.4 V8.
British American Racing eventually became its de facto works team, and Honda steadily increased its share in the team from 2000 to 2005. For 2006, BAR was finally bought out completely, and Honda moved to contest its first season as a factory team in 38 years with BAR holdover Jenson Button, and Ferrari-transfer Rubens Barrichello.
However, there was a problem right away. While with Jordan and BAR, Honda had championed its protege Takuma Sato, landing him seats in both teams in exchange for their engines. Due to his wild and uncompromising style, Sato was a popular figure in Japan. Unwilling to let him wither away in a colorless third driver or test driver role, Honda's management hatched a plan to give Sato a seat.
Takuma Sato was the main reason behind the creation of Super Aguri.
Talks about the creation of a new "B-team" began in February of 2005, but plans weren't finalized until September. With the first Grand Prix of 2006 only seven months away, the pressure was on to construct a genuine Formula One team in record time.
The figurehead of the project was former Formula One driver Aguri Suzuki, who had raced for Larrousse, Zakspeed, Footwork, Jordan and Ligier from 1988 to 1995. Suzuki's main claim to fame was a surprise third place at the 1990 Japanese Grand Prix, becoming the highest placed Japanese driver in the process.
A stunned Aguri Suzuki beside race winner Nelson Piquet and second-placed Roberto Moreno, Suzuka 1990.
Twenty-six years on, he would become the namesake of his very own F1 team. However, there was still very little team to speak of. Luckily, just like Red Bull Racing, Super Aguri was able to profit from the demise of Minardi.
In 2001, Australian airline magnate Paul Stoddart had bought the perennial backmarker team, hoping to finally turn it into a winning outfit. The following year, Stoddart thought he'd found a way. Arrows had gone bankrupt before the end of the season, leaving its A23 chassis up for grabs.
The final Arrows would become the first Super Aguri.
The car was tested against Minardi's PS03, and found to be a potentially more competitive package. Even though he went to the lengths of renaming the car Minardi PS04, Paul Stoddart decided against using the largely unchanged chassis, as he felt unsure about running what was essentially a borrowed design.
Regardless, Stoddart had kept three unmodified A23's in his possession, cars which Super Aguri was eager to get their hands on. Along with the three cars, Super Aguri took over the former Arrows factory in Leafield, United Kingdom. Despite production taking place in Britain, a formal headquarters was set up not far from Honda's in Tokyo, keeping ties close.
Takuma Sato testing the SA05.
Like Stoddart before, Super Aguri elected to run the A23 with as little in the way of modifications as possible. Due to budget and most importantly time constraints, the entire front end of the Arrows was retained, with principal redesign work focusing on adapting the rear end.
Since the V10 had just been banned, Super Aguri had to account for the smaller dimensions of the new 720 horsepower Honda RA806E V8. To this end, the monocoque was re-engineered to match up to the V8's bolt pattern, and the rear suspension setup was modified accordingly. However, the gearbox itself remained unchanged from the Arrows.
Aerodynamically the car had to be updated to 2006 standards, which included a package introduced in 2005 to reduce the effect of dirty air and promote overtaking. The package consisted of a raised nosecone and front wing, a rear wing which had been brought forward, a lower, more shallow diffuser and shorter bodywork ahead of the rear wheels. Along with these changes, the clean lines of the A23 were broken by numerous winglets, flaps and chimneys.
The raised front wing drew attention to the one signature feature easily identifying the car as an Arrows A23, as it revealed a twin keel front suspension setup designed by Sergio Rinland. The concept had actually originated with Harvey Postlethwaite and the Honda RA099 back in 1999, but Rinland was the first to bring it to the track with 2001's Sauber C20.
The Arrows A23's twin keel suspension layout was carried over unchanged.
As a opposed to the traditional large single keel, the twin keel approach gave much better airflow to the floor of the car due to a much slimmer overall profile. The trade-off was an increased degree of complexity in the suspension design, corresponding higher weight and limitations in terms of varying suspension geometry for different setups.
Front suspension was by way of dual wishbones and pushrod operated torsion bars and dampers, while the rear end was sprung by more conventional coil springs. Overall, the car neatly adhered to the 600 kg (1322 lbs) minimum weight limit.
Though Takuma Sato was locked in early on, Super Aguri was still in need of a second driver. Looking to field an all-Japanese team, Aguri Suzuki turned to Yuji Ide. Suzuki had known Ide for a long time, as both were active in domestic motorsport at around the same time.
Ide's main claim to fame was a title win in the Honda-backed Formula Dream Championship in 1999, and a second place in the 2005 Formula Nippon (now Super Formula) season. At 31 years of age however, Ide was one of the oldest rookies in Formula One history, casting some doubt over his ability to get to grips with Grand Prix racing. By contrast, Takuma Sato was 29, but had already seen four years of competition.
Yuji Ide with Aguri Suzuki.
With the pieces slowly coming together, Super Aguri F1 filed an application to start the 2006 Formula One season on November 1st, two weeks before expiration of the FIA's deadline for new teams. However, the governing body did not mention the team in its official entry list. The application had not been approved.
The FIA cited Super Aguri's failure to produce the $48 million entry bond as the reason their application had been denied, but the Japanese squad wasn't defeated yet. Because they had missed the deadline for the standard entry procedure, their only option was to lobby the other ten teams to unanimously agree to approve their application.
MF1 Racing blocked Super Aguri's entry at first.
Nine out of ten teams agreed without much of a fuss, as Super Aguri wasn't really considered a threat by anyone. With the exception of another new backmarker-elect: MF1 Racing. The British-based, Russian license-holding spawn of Jordan Grand Prix feared another team would impact their ability to gather TV-revenue.
However, Midland eventually relented, and Super Aguri was finally granted entry less than two months before the start of the season on 26 January 2006. With all the political, logistical and commercial issues finally handled, the team could focus on what they were created to do: race.
For the first time since 1996, the season kicked off at a venue other than Australia's Albert Park. Instead, the third running of the Bahrain Grand Prix at Sakhir was given the honor of being 2006's first race.
The FIA debuted a new qualifying system at the venue, with a new one hour session divided into three "knock out" rounds spaced with five minute breaks. Q1 lasted 15 minutes and determined grid positions 16 to 22, while Q2 locked down 11 to 15 in another 15 minute session. After this, Q3 would give the top 10 a final 20 minute shootout. This system is still in use today.
Takuma Sato at Bahrain, 2006.
The Super Aguri drivers didn't get a lot of time to familiarize themselves with the new format, as they were both knocked out immediately in Q1. Unsurprisingly, the more experienced Sato outshone his teammate, but both Super Aguris placed right at the back of the field in 20th and 21st. Kimi Raikkonen's spectacular suspension failure was the only thing keeping Ide from 22nd place.
Takuma Sato's 1:37.411 was some 5.980 seconds off Fernando Alonso's pole time and 1.511 seconds slower than the next slowest car, Tiago Monteiro's MF1 Toyota. Tellingly though, Yuji Ide was dramatically slower. A 1:40.270 showed in painfully blunt numbers how much catching up he had to do. His predicament was made worse by the fact he spoke very little English, making communicating with his engineers very difficult.
The cars predictably ran at the back on race day, before Yuji Ide's engine expired on lap 35. Helped by further mechanical woes for BMW Sauber's Jacques Villeneuve, Renault's Giancarlo Fisichella and Midland's Christijan Albers, Takuma Sato climbed up to 18th in the standings. However, this was still dead last, and he would finish four laps down on race winner Fernando Alonso.
Sato and Ide duking it out, Sepang 2006.
The second round of the season took place at Malaysia's Sepang International Circuit. In qualifying, Yuji Ide closed the gap to Takuma Sato. Ide qualified 1.709 seconds off, decreasing the gap by around 1.2 seconds from Bahrain. However, 21st and 22nd were all they could do.
In a play by play repeat of Sakhir, Yuji Ide retired early on with a throttle linkage failure on lap 33. Meanwhile, Takuma Sato took advantage of crashes and failures throughout the field to finish 14th and last, three laps down on winner Giancarlo Fisichella.
Yuji Ide taking a trip across the grass, Albert Park 2006.
Australia was finally visited for the third race of 2006. Albert Park's streets weren't very kind to Super Aguri however, as both cars once again set the two slowest times in Q1. Takuma Sato was some five seconds off the pace of the fastest cars that session, while Yuji Ide was four seconds slower than he was after finally completing a lap without spinning the car.
For the first time in the team's history, both cars managed to cross the finish line under their own power. The rate of attrition had once again been high, allowing Sato and Ide to finish 12th and 13th, three laps down and four laps down respectively.
Yuji Ide was under pressure following his disappointing performances.
With two retirements and a distant last-place finish a full lap down on his teammate under his belt, Yuji Ide was starting to feel the pressure. Media speculation hinted at his seat potentially being given to his compatriot Sakon Yamamoto, a one-time test driver for Jordan during the 2005 Japanese Grand Prix weekend.
Ide was given a last chance instead, with Super Aguri managing director Daniele Audetto stating he had full team support for the test weekend at Catalunya and the following Grand Prix at Imola, but afterwards his position within the team would be re-evaluated.
Starting from the back with another hefty 1.673 second gap to Sato, Yuji Ide made sure his upcoming evaluation meeting was shortened drastically at turn five of San Marino's Autodromo Enzo e Dino Ferrari.
As Midland's Christijan Albers dropped back due to a terrible start, Ide saw a chance to prove his worth by dive bombing the Dutchman on the opening lap. Albers never saw the Super Aguri coming. Ide torpedoed the side of the M16, and pitched it into a violent roll through the gravel trap.
Yuji Ide signing his letter of resignation, Imola 2006.
Ide continued after a quick pit stop to replace his front wing, but the incident lead to suspension failure on lap 23. Takuma Sato meanwhile lasted until lap 44, before he too retired following an off.
Though Albers was otherwise unhurt after camping out upside down in the gravel trap, Yuji Ide's reckless move proved to be the final straw. He received an official reprimand from the stewards present at the race, and the FIA advised him to reconsider his driving style in future races.
However, Ide wouldn't get the chance to improve, as Super Aguri promptly demoted him to third driver. This saw him swap seats with 28-year old 2003 World Series by Nissan Champion Franck Montagny, who had previously filled test and third driver duties for Renault and Jordan during 2004 and 2005. The Frenchman would make his F1 debut at the Nurburgring for the European Grand Prix.
Franck Montagny was handed the second seat after the Ide incident.
Though Montagny had shown promise by posting faster times than both regulars Narain Karthikeyan and Tiago Monteiro during his stint at Jordan, his promotion was only ever a temporary solution.
Super Aguri management made it clear they were still looking for a different replacement for Ide, who was to return eventually after gaining more experience. However, upon advice from the FIA, Super Aguri moved to demote Ide even further to test driver, allowing him to rack up more miles in a controlled environment, far away from Dutchmen in badly starting Midlands.
Takuma Sato, Nurburgring 2006.
Franck Montagny had trouble adapting to his new role as well, qualifying dead last with a gap of 11.266 seconds to Sato. Both SA05s once again worked their way up from the back of the grid as competitors dropped out, but the fun was spoiled by a hydraulics failure for Montagny 29 laps in. Takuma Sato followed 15 laps later with a similar issue, resulting in a double DNF for the team.
Three days after the race, the hammer finally came down for Yuji Ide. Super Aguri confirmed the FIA had reviewed his performances over the four Grands Prix he had contested, and had come to the conclusion he was unfit to race in F1. His Super License was subsequently revoked, blocking him from participation in official Formula One-sanctioned events for the rest of the season.
Franck Montagny racing Tiago Monteiro, Circuit de Catalunya 2006.
The Super Aguri squad avoided starting from the last two places in Spain, as Red Bull's David Coulthard had failed to set a time. Takuma Sato again started ahead of Frank Montagny, with a gap of 1.843 seconds between the two.
Montagny impressed by gaining three places at the start, but was forced to hit the showers early once again after a driveshaft failure on lap 10. His teammate made it to the finish, but was yet again 17th and last, three laps down.
Start of the Monaco Grand Prix, Montagny chased by Monteiro and the Ferraris of Felipe Massa and Michael Schumacher.
The streets of Monaco would set the stage for the smallest gap between Super Aguri drivers yet. Just .226 of a second separated Sato and Montagny, with the Japanese driver still ending up ahead. Once again they were spared the embarrassment of starting from the final two grid positions.
Felipe Massa had damaged his Ferrari beyond repair in Q1 before setting a time, and Michael Schumacher had been excluded from the time tables for intentionally stopping his car on track in an effort to deny his bitter rival Fernando Alonso a quick lap.
Unsurprisingly, the Super Aguris were way off the pace on the tight street track. Reliability was also still a major problem, as Sato retired with electrical faults on lap 46. His teammate held on however, trundling around at the back.
He eventually crossed the line 16th and three laps down, being the last classified car still running on track, as Jarno Trulli's broken-down Toyota was classified as 17th due to completing over 90% of the racing distance.
Super Aguri brought up the rear once more at Silverstone.
Montagny proved to have caught up to Sato at Silverstone, qualifying just .158 of a second behind his Japanese teammate. With Jarno Trulli's Toyota unable to set a time, the Super Aguris once again avoided starting from 21st and 22nd. The pair would keep their formation tight on race day, finishing 17th and 18th, three laps down on Fernando Alonso.
Takuma Sato rounding the hairpin ahead of the clashing MF1 cars.
The SA05s shadowed each other again on the semi-permanent circuit on Ile Notre Dame, Montreal. Just .064 of a second separated Takuma Sato from Franck Montagny, but the gap from Sato to 20th-placed Christijan Albers was still 1.948 seconds. Neither Super Aguri would physically make it to the finish. Montagny's engine let go on lap 21, while Sato was classified as 15th and last despite a heavy crash six laps before the end.
Exactly a year after the highly controversial tire debacle, the world famous Indianapolis Motor Speedway played host to the tenth round of the 2006 Formula One season. For Super Aguri, the venue would be the site of something of a miracle.
For the first time, a Super Aguri would qualify in the top 20 under its own power. Takuma Sato showed himself to be perfectly at home on the legendary course, and clocked a time good enough for 18th on the grid. This put him ahead of Nico Rosberg's Williams, Jarno Trulli's Toyota and Vitantonio Liuzzi's Toro Rosso.
Franck Montagny was caught behind the spinning Red Bull of Christian Klien, Indianapolis 2006.
However, there wouldn't be much to celebrate on race day. Shortly after the start, Franck Montagny found himself caught in the crossfire as Mark Webber and Christian Klien tangled in turn one. Klien spun right into the Frenchman's path, causing race-ending damage. Takuma Sato was similarly unlucky, crashing out on lap 6.
Sakon Yamamoto tried out the SA05 at Magny Cours.
The French Grand Prix at Magny Cours was to be the last for the haphazardly modified Arrows chassis, but development of an in-house designed successor had been painfully slow. The brief period of chaos following Ide's demotion had distracted the team to the point where the new car was cancelled altogether.
Instead, the SA05 would undergo an extensive update, finally addressing the quirky design features of the A23's still untouched suspension setup. With the new car came new driving talent, as Sakon Yamamoto joined Super Aguri as third driver.
Yamamoto running the SA05 in practice, Magny Cours 2006.
In this capacity Yamamoto was allowed to gain some experience before moving on to the full race seat, which Franck Montagny would keep warm for one more race. The Frenchman finally managed to out-qualify his teammate, slotting into 21st place with a .208 advantage over Sato.
The car's final race went as well as any other, as Takuma Sato found himself back in the pits within minutes as his transmission gave up the ghost almost immediately. Montagny managed to hold on however, nursing his car to 16th and last, 3 laps down on Michael Schumacher's victorious Ferrari.
Eleven races into the season, the SA05 was retired in favor of the re-engineered SA06 from the German Grand Prix forward. At the same time, Sakon Yamamoto swapped seats with Franck Montagny to restore Aguri Suzuki's dream of an all-Japanese F1 effort.
Super Aguri hoped to at last close the gap to Midland and Toro Rosso in terms of pace. This would finally make them able to challenge for higher grid positions in qualifying, and would allow them to make up places on race day on their own merit instead of relying on competitors retiring. With seven races left to go, the reanimated Arrows' long zombie walk wasn't over just yet.