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Joining the Club – Super Aguri

Against all expectations, Super Aguri survived their first year rather well, developing an ancient Arrows chassis into something like a modern GP car and finishing the last race of 2006 in tenth place. This season they have a development of last year’s Honda, a car that won in Hungary, and have taken a leap forward in performance as a result.

Davidson

Anthony Davidson in the Super Aguri SA07

The big question is: can they maintain the pace of development and consolidate their position in the midfield? Although they are currently embarrassing their parent team, Honda, I feel that sooner or later the car will reach the limit of possible tweaks and adjustments and will begin to slip towards the back of the grid again. This is not to suggest that there is anything wrong with the team (indeed, they have done wonders so far); they are working with last year’s product, that’s all.

Super Aguri provide us with a glimpse of the customer teams that are likely in the future, much more so than Toro Rosso which is more like a B team to Red Bull. They are enthusiastic, dedicated and ecstatic over each small success that comes their way. And they have shown that it is not absolutely necessary to have the latest equipment to compete in F1. They might never win races but points are not completely out of the question.

The team’s choice of drivers is not bad, too. Takuma Sato is no slouch and, on occasions can be very fast indeed. And Anthony Davidson is talented and quick. Although he has taken time to get into his stride, he out-qualified Sato in Bahrain and may be about to show us how good he really is.

Treated as something of a joke last year, Super Aguri have earned their spurs and it is hard not to wish them well. If nothing else, they reflect the overwhelming enthusiasm of the Japanese for motor racing, F1 in particular.

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Surprises in Testing

With little else to focus on, the spotlight moves to Bahrain and the first day’s testing for the nine teams that made the trip. Ferrari are fastest and Massa quicker than Raikkonen, confirming both the team’s position as pre-season favorites and the increasing expectation that the Brazilian will beat the Finn. But what’s this – Button next up? Have Honda been “doing a Red Bull” to impress some visiting dignitary?

Apparently not, for there in fifth spot lurks Barrichello. It must be that Honda are making progress with the new car and we are beginning to see its true potential. With McLaren and BMW still right up there, we could be in for a real dogfight of a season – a fine way to celebrate Michael Schumacher’s retirement.

Super Aguri

Davidson and Super Aguri

Renault and Red Bull must be worried, however. They may claim that the times mean nothing because they’re still learning the characteristics of the cars and getting them set up right, but the same is true for the other teams. With everyone getting to grips with their new cars, they are all going to go faster, leaving the Renault-powered teams that much more to do.

Perhaps the most interesting thing is the speed of Davidson in the interim Super Aguri. I begin to wonder if this team’s real talent is in taking old machinery and making it more competitive than it ever was in its heyday. And, if that is true, they might get the Honda 2006 chassis to perform wonders – reason indeed for Spyker and Williams to be concerned. In fact, if SA can continue to beat Renault and Red Bull, there might be a long line of legal writs awaiting the Japanese team at the Australian GP.

It is to be hoped that the threatened litigation fizzles out when it comes to practice in Melbourne, however. Lawsuits do nothing for the image of the sport and only make lawyers richer. Given the lateness of the launch of the SA and Toro Rosso cars for 2007 and their lack of testing therefore, it is unlikely that they will do better than make up the tail end of the grid – in which case, it hardly seems worth anyone making a fuss over the legality of their cars.

Never mind the hype and speculation – let the races begin!

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The New Brits

Anthony Davidson has been talking about his career and hopes for the future. His contract with Super Aguri is his first season-long chance in F1 competition and he wants to make the best of it. Five years as a test driver is a long apprenticeship.

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Anthony Davidson

As might be expected, Davidson thinks that customer cars will be good for the sport, especially as they will mean that new and smaller teams will not be sentenced to an extended period of being back markers, coming in two or three laps down on the rest of the field. Using chassis that have already been through extensive development, such teams could realistically expect to be competitive in a very short time and the spectacle for the fans would be better as a result.

This is all relevant to the looming row over Super Aguri’s intention to use a development of the Honda 2006 car this season, of course. Things are quiet for the fledgling Japanese team at the moment but are bound to heat up if Toro Rosso lose their battle to run a variation of the Red Bull RB3 in 2007. Gerhard Berger seems confident of winning that one so there may be a good chance that SA will get their way too.

Naturally, Davidson wants SA to succeed in their plan as it will give him a good car in which to make his mark in F1. He deserves such a chance in view of his long wait and previous brief debut in a Minardi. Customer cars are coming, like it or not, in 2008 so I think no harm will be done by allowing them this year. It wouldn’t be the first time that rule changes have been instituted ahead of their projected time – we already have a standardized tire formula even though it was not due to happen until next year.

I think the teams protesting about SA’s and TR’s cars are over-reacting anyway. Neither team will suddenly shoot to the front of the field as a result of using good chassis; it will take time for them to get used to the cars and tune them in for optimum running. And even Adrian Newey has been trying to deflate some of the hype surrounding his RB3, pointing out that it is unrealistic to expect it to be a world beater right from the start.

Let the second teams have a decent chance, say I, and then we’ll get some really competitive races. And we might even get to see how good Davidson is.

Another Brit whose stock is increasing is Gary Paffett. If Prodrive are to be a sort of B team for McLaren/Mercedes next year, they will need drivers. Gary’s position as a McLaren test driver puts him in pole position as one of Prodrive’s line-up. Ideally, they would want an experienced driver as number one (David Coulthard maybe?) and Gary could slot in as the young hotshoe. On his past record, he would be ideal for the task.

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Testing in Jerez

Just as I waver in my prediction of Button for champion in 2007, the Honda team get it all together in testing at Jerez, with Barrichello fastest and test driver James Rossiter very close behind him. Clearly the team have got the measure of the Bridgestone tires and that bodes well for the coming season.

Rubens

Rubens Barrichello in testing with a black Honda

Autosport magazine has a full list of the times from the final day and they make interesting reading, even though they should be taken with the usual pinch of salt. These are not next years cars, after all, and each team is trying out different things, not necessarily competing for the quickest time.

But they are racing teams and I refuse to believe that they can ignore the times completely. Competition is in their blood.

Mark Webber and David Coulthard must be a little disappointed to be down in 12th and 14th places, even though they are still running the RB2 with Ferrari engines. How they must long for the introduction of Adrian Newey’s RB3. Scott Speed must be looking forward to the new Toro Rosso as well, especially as there are suspicions that it will be an RB3 too, albeit with a Ferrari rather than a Renault engine. And that’s if the other teams do not manage to put a halt on Toro Rosso’s plans – the protests against their using what amounts to a customer car are beginning to gather.

Lewis Hamilton was third fastest although de la Rosa wasn’t far behind him this time. The young Brit looks as convincing in testing as did Robert Kubica and Sebastian Vettel.

Toyota and Renault make quiet and confident progress, going fast enough yet without setting the world alight. Steady is the word that springs to mind and that is just what is needed at this stage. The Ferrari times can be ignored – they had a bad day, that’s all.

Note the speed of Anthony Davidson in the Super Aguri, however; he was only half a second slower than Barrichello. That’s not bad considering that Aguri were the bottom team of 2006. I guess it shows one of two things: either Aguri are really getting it together and could be looking at the mid-field next season, or testing times don’t matter at all!

Away from the track, the World Motor Sport Council have issued their take on the changes to come in F1 according to Max Mosley and Burkhard Goeschel. Essentially they agree completely and have added a few tweaks of their own. For instance, for the first time “standardized aerodynamics” has been mentioned. Couple this with the intent that any new technology introduced will be for sale to everyone, and you have a standardized formula. Lola are good at that – why not just get them to make all the cars for the teams?

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