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Super Aguri and the Shadow of the Past

One thing about F1 can always be guaranteed: the off season will be enlivened by some controversy or other. This time it’s the Great Customer Car Row and we have been entertained by Gerhard Burger’s determined assertion that Toro Rosso owns the intellectual property rights to their car for 2007; the fact that Red Bull also owns those rights to a car that looks identical is neither here nor there, apparently.

Riccardo

Riccardo Patrese in the 1978 Arrows A1

But the ’tis/’tisn’t scenario can wear pretty thin after a while and, right on cue, Nick Fry arrives on stage to enliven the show with his denial that the new Super Aguri is really last year’s Honda. Ummm, yeah, okay Nick, so when are we going to see it?

There is a delightful thread running through Super Aguri’s part in the performance, however. Remember that last year SA were running an aging Arrows chassis – to which they had bought the intellectual property rights, quite correctly. And this brings echoes of history to my mind, shades from Arrows’ past when, just like SA, it was a new arrival on the F1 scene.

The year was 1978 and Arrows turned up for the races with a car that seemed suspiciously similar to the Shadow team’s entry. This might have been coincidence except that the Arrows designers were refugees from a big bust-up in the Shadow camp the year before. Shadow cried foul and took the matter to court, eventually being vindicated by a verdict that decreed that Arrows could no longer run their copycat car.

By that time, Arrows had designed a new car and so was able to continue racing; but it seems ironic that the distant inheritors of an Arrows product should be embroiled in so similar a kerfuffle. Are we talking some sort of F1 version of “the curse of the pharoahs” here?

Now that I have raised this specter from the past, I would like to mention something that puzzled me then and might have implications for the coming season. The driver of that first Arrows car, the A1, was a young Italian named Riccardo Patrese and he would have set an amazing record if the Cosworth engine had been a little more reliable. He was on course to win Arrows’ first race when the engine expired, thereby preventing what would have been a phenomenal debut for the new team.

For the rest of its brief career, the car remained very competitive, Patrese showing up amongst the leaders in almost every race. But the Shadow cars were nowhere, continuing the slide that was to end in their demise a few years later. One of their drivers was Clay Regazzoni who was no slouch and should have been able to give the inexperienced Patrese more than a run for his money – yet he finished the season in 16th spot, Riccardo in 12th.

My question is this: given that the Shadow and the Arrows were almost identical and that both used the Cosworth DFV, why was the Arrows so much the better car? Presumably the disruption suffered by Shadow when half their team defected may have crippled their ability to fight, but it still seems strange that a new team, also hampered by impending lawsuits, could defeat them so comprehensively.

It is all water under the bridge now and we might never know all the political and legal manouvering that went on at the time. Who cares now, anyway? I have one final thought, however.

We are told that history repeats itself; if that is true, is it possible that Super Aguri could prove quicker than the new Honda in the coming season? Highly unlikely, I know, but it would be deliciously ironic, you must admit…

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