There is a popular saying in motorsport that reads “the quickest way to become a millionaire in Formula One is to start off as a billionaire.” Aguri Suzuki would undoubtedly agree as his team are the latest to succumb to the extraordinary costs of Grand Prix racing. Super Aguri withdrew from the Formula One World Championship last week citing “financial difficulties” as the main reason for closing down.
Super Aguri was built from the remains of the Arrows F1 team, which was interestingly the last outfit to disappear from the grid mid-season. Both teams used the same factory, and an updated version of the car raced by Heinz-Harald Frentzen and Enrique Bernoldi in 2002 became the SA05 chassis four years later.
It isn’t a good omen for the next organisation that takes ownership of the Leafield facility.
Although Super Aguri and Arrows Grand Prix departed Formula One due to lack of funding, their stories are very different.
Super Aguri never really got off the ground since they were always supposed to be Honda’s B Team in the new customer car era. When the FIA decided that chassis sharing was not going to happen as originally planned, Honda’s interest in the Aguri project waned. The Japanese manufacturer had effectively been hoping to create a four car team and had no intention of funding two separate entities. This left Super Aguri in a precarious situation when their main sponsor defaulted on payments, and when no replacement was found the team simply ran out of cash.
Arrows Grand Prix had far more potential. The team had been around for decades and in 1997 Tom Walkinshaw took control with some big ideas. His takeover resulted in massive changes and gave Arrows a chance of Grand Prix success. He moved the team into his own impressive factory at Leafield and signed reigning World Champion Damon Hill as the number one driver. Walkinshaw also arranged a promising engine deal with Yamaha and secured a collection of Brazilian sponsors thanks to Pedro Diniz.
Damon Hill almost won the Hungarian Grand Prix for Arrows in 1997 and their future was looking alright.
However, over the next five years the team started to fade away. There were glimpses of hope thanks to the sterling efforts of Pedro De La Rosa, but Arrows gradually lost sponsors and went bankrupt in 2002. Some have suggested that Tom Walkinshaw mismanaged the business, especially since a number of drivers had contractual disputes with him. A High Court Judge certainly thought so when he declared during a case against Arrows that “Mr Walkinshaw left me with the clear impression of a man who was in over his head. He appeared to lack the clarity of thought necessary to follow a clear policy. He obviously had a high opinion of his own business abilities but my impression was different.”
With that sort of condemnation it seems life for Arrows was always going to be difficult.
The team’s second coming in the guise of Super Aguri was no more successful.
It could have been a lot worse though. Both squads had better luck than another organisation that tried to break into F1 ten years ago.
Lola entered Formula One as a manufacturer in 1997 but only competed at one Grand Prix weekend during which they failed to qualify for the actual race. It was one of the most spectacular failures in F1 history.
It was a shameful episode for the British company who have enjoyed plenty of success in many different forms of motorsport. Lola have built thousands of cars since 1958 and have taken more championship victories than any other racing manufacturer in the world.
Lola has a long history in Formula One and has designed cars for a number of different teams, including Honda. In 1997 they decided to enter the sport under their own name for the very first time.
The initial signs were very encouraging.
Lola recruited a company called Melling Consultancy Design (MCD) to construct a V10 engine exclusively for the new team. This was the same company that built winning Le Mans engines for Jaguar, and had previously been planning to build a massive V12 F1 engine with General Motors.
Lola also obtained the cheap driving services of Vincenzo Sospiri and Ricardo Rosset, both of whom had been title rivals in the 1995 Formula 3000 championship.
Most importantly, the team secured title sponsorship from financial giant MasterCard. Everything seemed to be going perfectly.
Lola had actually planned to enter Formula One in 1998 but MasterCard couldn’t wait that long declared they would have to start a year early instead. This was never going to work. The team’s preparation was extremely rushed and they never got to complete any meaningful testing before the 1997 season began. Lola only started designing their car at the same time other teams were launching theirs.
Development was so rushed that the T97/30 chassis never even saw a windtunnel. The MCD engine was not going to be ready a year ahead of schedule, so Lola had to buy underpowered customer V8 engines from Cosworth to fill the gap.
It was clear from the very first practice sessions in Melbourne that Lola was not ready for Grand Prix racing.
Sospiri and Rosset never lapped within ten seconds of the leaders and during the Saturday morning session, one of them was a whopping 16 seconds slower than Jacques Villeneuve. That’s 21 seconds off the current lap record, and only 13 quicker than a modern V8 touring car!
Lola never had a chance of making the grid. Their drivers tried in vain to wrangle any sort of speed out of the car but were too slow for the 107% cutoff time.
It later emerged that Ricardo Rosset was not the best driver available. In 1998 the 107% qualifying rule was dubbed the “Rosset Rule” after the Brazilian’s repeated failure to make the grid. Although Sospiri was quicker in the Lola, it is safe to suggest that both drivers were out of their depth.
However, there wasn’t much they could do with the awful machinery at their disposal. Cosworth’s V8 engine was the weakest unit in the field and the team combined that with an awful car. It was a total dog. The aerodynamics generated massive drag in a straight line but produced little downforce in the corners. The car lacked balance and it actually got slower as the weekend progressed. The team had effectively built an Indycar to F1 specifications and paid the ultimate price for their lack of testing. Funnily enough, Lola would have been quicker in Melbourne had they used their Formula 3000 car.
The nightmare came to an end two weeks later in Brazil.
In only a few months of operation the Lola F1 Team had racked up a substantial debt. This was partly due to the unusual sponsorship arrangement with MasterCard. The idea was that MasterCard customers would sign up to a ‘Lola F1 Club’ giving them exclusive access to things like merchandise and memorabilia. Those who paid the highest club membership rate could even have dinner with the drivers. Income generated by the club would then pay for the F1 sponsorship, but this meant that Lola would have to fund the team until MasterCard’s money started arriving. Many banks attached to MasterCard were not interested in the scheme (some of which already had other sponsorship arrangements in F1) and there was a delay in launching the service. This combined with heavier than expected costs meant Lola ran out of money before the second race of the year. They arrived at Interlagos but packed up before the first practice session even got underway.
When the Lola F1 team disappeared from the grid the parent company went into receivership. It was a disaster for the motorsport industry as many racing series depended on Lola chassis, but luckily a buyer was found and Lola Cars survived the storm. Not surprisingly the manufacturer has steered clear of Formula One ever since.
A similar buyer will likely be found for the remnants of Super Aguri. It is a great opportunity for someone interested in running a Formula One team to get involved in the World Championship.
If the remains of Super Aguri do get sold on, hopefully the new owners don’t sign a sponsorship deal that forces them into the sport a year ahead of schedule.
Otherwise they will fail to break the curse of Leafield.