Takuma Sato recalls Super Aguri's rapid rise: 'Unbelievable!'

F1

15 years after the little Super Aguri squad made its debut, Takuma Sato reflects on a shoestring team that performed miracles

Takuma Sato (Super Aguri-Honda) during practice for the 2007 Italian Grand Prix in Monza. Photo: Grand Prix Photo

From no team in 2006 to points in 2007 – Sato can still barely believe Super Aguri's rise

Grand Prix Photo

As Takuma Sato rounded Turn 3 in his Super Aguri SA07 during the 2007 Spanish Grand Prix, something unusual happened – he began to cry.

But this wasn’t at the end of the race. It was six laps from the finish. So thoroughly were the tears flowing, the Japanese driver was temporarily blinded, almost costing him and his team a historic World Championship point. How the Sato kept it on the road, he doesn’t know.

His and Super Aguri’s journey up to this moment had been meteoric – and then some. This short but packed timeline involved Sato turning up on his first day to a factory that had almost no staff, scouring the world for a lost F1 chassis and his team-mate being taken out of a podium position by a wild groundhog.

Recounting the tale for the first time to Motor Sport, he said: “The story is just unbelievable.”

Their journey began when one Jenson Button suffered a change of heart on a move from BAR (soon to become Honda) to Williams for 2006, buying himself out of his contract with the latter.

“Of course, at the time the idea only existed on paper…”

“The truth is, I don’t know what happened,” Sato says. “It was supposed to be Rubens [Barrichello] and I at Honda for 2006. Jenson then decided not to go…or he came back.”

The shakedown resulted in no room at the Honda Inn for the Japanese driver. But things soon change quickly in grand prix racing.

Such was the public outcry in Japan at ‘Taku’s’ ejection, Honda bigwigs felt moved to create a new team for Japan’s leading race driver in late 2005.

“I then heard they were considering making a new team. I met a few of the executives, they told me it was happening, and that was it!

“Of course, at the time the idea only existed on paper…”

Former F1 driver Aguri Suzuki was to be team principal and had secured a loan to put down the $65m deposit required for an F1 entry.

Sato and Honda now had their new ‘team’, they just needed the cars, factory and people to run it.

BARCELONA, SPAIN - FEBRUARY 21: Takuma Sato of Japan and team Super Aguri F1 in action during Formula One testing at the Circuit De Catalunya, on February 21 2006 in Barcelona Spain (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)

Sato tests the Arrows A23 reborn as the SA05

Mark Thompson/Getty Images

Arrows’ old Leafield base was secured, but despite it being early days, the sparsity of the fledgling operation took Sato by surprise.

“There was only six people working there when I arrived!” he remembers, laughing. “A few key members and no mechanics – but we had a plan.”

That plan, as is often the case with newborn grand prix projects, involved an intimidating race against the clock, combined with a worldwide scour for car parts.

“We had to make it happen within 90 days – that was when [opening round of the season] Bahrain was,” Sato says. “That was a huge challenge.”

It wasn’t just the Arrows factory that Super Aguri acquired. The team found themselves in possession of the archaic A23 campaigned by the former F1 team for four races in 2002.

“The team bought the Arrows from an airport duty free – that was my race car!”

Unfortunately though, they didn’t quite have all the bits to make up a full set of two cars, and thus started a global search for the missing components.

“There was a few A23 monocoques available in UK and Europe,” Sato remembers. “So the team started gathering components, but there was still not enough.

“We found out there was an Arrows used as a show-car in a Melbourne airport duty free display area.

“The team bought it and shipped it to the UK – and that was my race car!”

Now Super Aguri had two A23s, all that was required the personnel to make it go.

“Every single week people were coming on board – I think we had 30 mechanics not long after the beginning,” remembers Sato.

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“Then through December and January it was getting bigger and bigger. I think we reached 60-something people, with everybody working flat out. At Honda we had had 600.”

The Super Aguri SA05 was ready just in time for a shakedown before the season started, but Sato could scarcely believe it.

“When I actually saw the first Super Aguri in the assembly area at Leafield, it was just a pure white car,” he says. “To make something, really from zero, and get it to Bahrain in 90 days – the boys just made it happen. They did an outstanding job.”

Needless to say, using a four-year-old F1 car – which had built on a budget in the first place – wasn’t without its technical hiccups.

“We used the current 2006 Honda engine of course, but then we had to also use the gearbox that was something from pre-2002,” Sato says.

“So the position of the input shaft was very different – the Honda engine was so low.

“It wasn’t possible to change this due to the cost, so we had to raise the engine by about one inch to match the gearbox’s infrastructure.

“You could see through the other side of the car underneath the engine!”

As Sato explains, the A23 really was pushing the limits, but perhaps not in a way a grand prix team might want.

“Of course in F1 you want to have a low centre of gravity, you try to make the car lighter, try to get everything on it as down low as you can – you need every millimetre,” he says.

“Then we had an engine that was an inch higher than it was supposed to be! As you can imagine, the car just made it past 2006 FIA regulations.”

Things didn’t get any easier once they fired up the car and got it running though.

“We didn’t even have power steering at that point at the shakedown! After driving the BAR in 2004 and 2005, which was so technologically advanced, it was a bit shocking! But we were just happy everything was working.”

AUTO - F1 2006 - BAHRAIN GP - SAKHIR 12/03/2006 - PHOTO: FRANCOIS FLAMAND / DPPI TAKUMA SATO (JPN) / SUPER AGURI HONDA SA05 - ACTION BRAKE

Debut race in Bahrain ’06 – first objective? Finish!

FRANCOIS FLAMAND / DPPI

However, once the team lined up on the Bahrain grid, the scale of their task in even keeping up with the field became clear.

The almost ancient Arrows showed its age as Sato qualified 6sec(!) behind pole-setting Michael Schumacher, with Super Aguri team-mate Yuji Ide even further off – a whopping 9sec back.

“We were lapped after 10 laps!” laughs Sato. “But the main target was just to collect as much data as possible and finish the race.”

As the A23 creaked its way round Sakhir, even that was looking like a tall order.

“We had no spare parts, no [spare] front wing, nothing! Everything had to go to Melbourne and the race after as the first three races that year were flyaways.

“On the second stint, one of the alarms [on the steering wheel] started going off like a Christmas tree light, saying I had a puncture,” he says.

“I didn’t feel anything, but since we had no spare parts, I had to come into the pits to make sure everything’s fine.

“It turned out we didn’t even have a tyre pressure sensor – there was no way the car could’ve known!”

“I brought the car in and my race engineer Gerry Hughes came to look at my steering wheel, and then just said to me ‘Go, go, go!’

“It turned out we didn’t even have a tyre pressure sensor – there was no way the car could’ve known I had a puncture!”

Sato ended up finishing the first three races, which in his words, was a “miracle”.

Super Aguri ended up having a year of remarkably solid progress – at least on Sato’s side of the garage.

Hapless team-mate Ide endured what is often sighted in F1-lore as having the worst grand prix career of all time. After being at least 7sec off pole in every qualifying session (11sec in Melbourne), he then capped it off by biffing Christijan Albers into a barrel-roll at Imola.

The FIA swiftly removed his superlicence, and Franck Montagny then Sakon Yamamoto replaced him for the rest of the season.

Despite being written off by many, Sato and Super Aguri were looking to get into the top half of the table by the end of the season. They managed it at the 2006-closer Interlagos, as its lead man came home 10th.

“We were genuinely competing in top 10, fighting with Toro Rosso – it was fantastic,” Sato says. “To go from the bottom to the top 10 in the space of a season is pretty incredible. All the guys were tremendous.”

Progress continued on into 2007. The team adopted Honda’s race-winning 2006 car – the RA106 – and reworked it into the SA07.

The entry was unsuccessfully protested by Williams and Spyker on the grounds that teams weren’t allowed to use a car manufactured by another F1 team, then it failed an FIA crash test.

The car was only ‘unveiled’ two days before the 2007 season got underway, cue many writing them off, but then…

Sato qualified 10th, the very first time Super Aguri featured in Q3, with new stablemate Anthony Davidson one place back in 11th. Where were the A-team drivers of Button and Barrichello? 14th and 17th. Super Aguri truly were shaking things up.

The steady trajectory continued until Spanish GP, where Sato and co truly got their reward.

Towards the end of the race, Super Aguri’s samurai was hunting down the Renault of Giancarlo Fisichella, who they suspected needed to pit again. ‘Fisi’ held the last points-paying position in eighth and was 20sec up the road

The Japanese was told to put the hammer down whilst Renault advised Fisi that only fuel was being taken on at his final stop in a bid to keep the Super Aguri at bay.

“We knew we had to push like hell – all the way on the last stint,” Sato says. “Qualifying lap after qualifying lap.

“I could see Fisi coming out of the pits, then into Turn One I overtook him!”

“I could see Fisi coming out of the pits, then into Turn One I overtook him!”

Super Aguri were in the points. A team barely a year old was dicing it out with – and winning against – the reigning world champion F1 team. It was all a bit much for ‘Taku’, and nearly derailed the charge.

“That was emotional. There were tears coming from eyes in Turn 2. Then we have Turn 3, the long right hand corner. The tears coming from my right eye started to go to my left.

“I almost lost my visibility, but that’s how happy I was!”

Sato managed to keep a lid on the waterworks for the next six laps and crossed the line to take a scarcely believable point for the young team.

Japanese Super Aguri Formula One driver Takuma Sato celebrates in Parc Fermé finishing in eight position driving his Super Aguri SA07 at the 2007 Spanish Grand Prix at the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya on the 13 May 2007 (Photo by Darren Heath/Getty Images)

Sato scores Super Aguri’s first point – cue delirium

Darren Heath/Getty Images

“I saw the boys almost falling off the pitwall because they were so overjoyed! What a moment. Then what happened in Canada, that was just unreal…”

Two races later came Super Aguri’s finest moment. This historic Montreal performance was down to an inspired pit-call and a remarkable run of racing incidents.

Sato was flying in 5th with 20 laps to go, lapping faster than even that year’s eventual champion Kimi Räikkönen. There was a hitch though – he hadn’t used both mandatory compounds, and a pit stop would drop him way down.

Super Aguri needed divine intervention – and a bit of luck. It first came in the form of Spyker’s Albers.

The Dutchman charitably missed the chicane on lap 50 and tore his front wing off, strewing debris across the track.

The safety car came out, and Sato immediately dived in the pits, seizing the opportunity to buy a stop.

The only problem was, he didn’t have time to tell his pit crew about the unplanned tyre change.

“There was a little panic!” remembers Sato. “However, I think we only lost a few seconds, and I got the hard tyre I wanted.”

He came out in 12th, but wasted no time in making up ground.

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First out the running were Felipe Massa and Fisichella, who were handily shown black flags for a pitlane infringement and disqualified immediately from the race – two down for Sato.

Things really got going under the green flag as Sato’s improvised pit strategy started to pay off big time – as well as a few other things.

Two cars immediately pitted, before Vitantonio Liuzzi dumped his Toro Rosso into the ‘Wall of Champions’, Jarno Trulli crashed under the resulting next SC. Sato was suddenly back in the points again – but he wanted more.

Others started ahead began to struggle as the tyre-killing Circuit de Gilles Villeneuve did its worst, events playing straight into Japanese hands.

“That was key, of course,” says Sato. “The degradation was massive that day.”

Toyota’s Ralf Schumacher couldn’t hold off a charging Sato, who swept through on the outside after a daredevil drag to the final chicane, seeing who would brake later. Two laps later he did the very same to Super Aguri’s biggest scalp yet – McLaren’s Fernando Alonso.

“The little Super Aguri team overtaking the world champion driving a McLaren, that was just amazing,” he says. “I know there was a difference in tyre compound, but that’s not the point.

“The point is we had worked so hard, and grabbed the chance when we had it. It was beautiful.”

The just reward was 3 points for Sato and Super Aguri, an astounding effort from an 18-month-old team.

It could’ve been even better. Earlier in the race, team-mate Anthony Davidson was running (pre-pitstop) in the podium places by lap 30 – until he hit a local groundhog haring across the track.

“I lucked in through strategy and fortune, until this little groundhog thought he’d restore justice.” Davidson recalled in an interview with Road and Track. “That’s the day when I think: ‘Why me?!’

Groundhog or no, that was to be as good as it ever got for Super Aguri. No more points that season were followed by administration early on 2008 after the recession.

Super Aguri shone brightly for a brief period, but after performing near-miracles on and off the track, the dream was over.

Takuma Sato, Super Aguri-Honda SA07, Grand Prix of Canada, Circuit Gilles Villeneuve, 10 June 2007. (Photo by Paul-Henri Cahier/Getty Images)

Sato celebrates Super Aguri’s greatest day in Montreal

Paul-Henri Cahier/Getty Images

“Some of the sponsorship didn’t happen,” says Sato ruefully. “Basically the funds never arrived, and we went bankrupt.

“I can’t imagine how Aguri-san felt. It was very sad, especially for the boys, who from day one worked flat-out. Other than Christmas holidays, I don’t think they had a day off!

“They dedicated themselves so personally and did everything for us. When we told them we were withdrawing it was awful.”

It could’ve all been so different. Super Aguri had big plans for ‘09.

“Ben [Wood], our leading aerodynamicist, he’s the guy who developed the Brawn diffuser,” says Sato.

“If the economy hadn’t dropped off and we’d survived, we would have had a similar relationship to Red Bull/Toro Rosso in 2009 – basically running a very similar sister-car to the world championship-winning Brawn team.

“You can understand how myself and people at Honda might have been frustrated with the situation, but it’s all history.”

Yet another case of what have been in motorsport. The withdrawal meant the end of the road for Sato in F1 too, as a potential Toro Rosso drive in 2009 then a seat a new entrant Lola in 2010 came to nothing.

“To see some of the familiar faces from the team still working in F1, that makes me really happy.”

Still, grand prix racing’s loss was IndyCar’s gain. Two Indianapolis 500 victories later, and Takuma Sato is in hallowed motor racing company. The Japanese driver is now entering his 13th season in America, driving for Dale Coyne Racing.

It’s clear Sato felt like the remarkable little Super Aguri squad was ‘his’ team to some extent, fondly recalling a small band of diehard enthusiasts who would do anything to go racing.

“I still love all the guys who were so committed and sacrificed a lot – their hard work was just amazing,” he says.

“I’ve never told this story to any journalist, but still fans want to talk to me about Super Aguri to this day.

“To see some of the familiar faces from the team still working in F1, that makes me really happy.”