Saturday, 10 May 2008

Turkish Grand Prix: Qualifying Report

Istanbul specialist Felipe Massa notched up his third successive Turkish Grand Prix pole position with a consummate display for Ferrrai. It wasn't all glory for the Scuderia as McLaren took second and third place on the grid with a strong performance, leaving World Champion Kimi Raikkonen in fourth. The top two teams seemed to be in a class of their own as fifth place man Robert Kubica was over four tenths of adrift of Raikkonen.

The session got underway in cooler than expected conditions with crosswinds potentially causing problems in some of the Istanbul circuit's extremely high speed corners. With the withdrawal of the Super Aguri team the qualifying rules were re-jigged somewhat, meaning that just five cars would be eliminated in the first two sessions. This may at first seem an advantage for the remaining teams, but in reality the Super Aguri's were always virtually guaranteed to be eliminated in the first session anyway. This means that now there is increased potential for someone from the more established teams to drop out in the first session if they make a mistake.

The big losers with the loss of Super Aguri will probably be Force India as they are now going to be odds on favourites to be filling the back row of the grid at every Grand Prix, and so it proved to be here as Sutil and Fisichella were the two slowest cars in the first session. They were joined on the sidelines by Sebastien Bourdais in the Toro Rosso, but also surprisingly by Kazuki Nakajima and Nelson Piquet. Nakajima had looked strong earlier in the weekend so will be extremely disappointed with his performance today. Piquet though was the worst performer in qualifying today.

At the start of the season in Melbourne Piquet had the excuses that he was struggling with a poor handling car, and that he was driving a completely unfamiliar circuit. Now though he has a Renault that is performing very strongly and is driving circuits that he has driven plenty of times before. He is fast running out of excuses and has nowhere to hide after that dismal display.

The stars of the first session were Timo Glock and Sebastian Vettel. Vettel impressed simply by making it to the second session in the Toro Rosso, and Glock impressed with an excellent P4. However, neither driver could replicate the magic in Q2. Glock especially disappointed by somehow ending up last of the 15 remaining runners, behind Vettel even. The guy clearly has pace but needs to build much more consistency into his driving.

They were joined in the drop zone by the two Hondas of Button and Barrichello and the Williams of Rosberg. Honda seem to have struggled a little this weekend after a couple of really promising displays in the last few races. Williams too are struggling a little and are dropping further behind midfield rivals like Renault and Red Bull. They are struggling to live up to their pre-season form.

Coulthard put in an excellent lap in this session to get through to the final shootout for the first time in a while. It had been reported by some that he was under pressure from the team after a couple of poor races. He certainly answered a few of those critics with his performance today. He eventually finished in 10th place on the grid but will be encouraged by this showing. In fact, the whole Red Bull team will be encouraged after Mark Webber put together an excellent lap to take P6 in the sister Red Bull.

In between the two Red Bulls were Fernando Alonso, showing Renault's big improvement in pace, qualifying specialist Jarno Trulli, and Nick Heidfeld in ninth. It was a disappointing performance from birthday boy Heidfeld, and capped a pretty disappointing day for BMW all round. They were expecting to be able to challenge the Ferrari and McLaren drivers for places on the front two rows, but in truth were no where near. After a superb start to the season it seems that maybe the BMWs are struggling to live with the pace of progress at the pointy end of the grid.

There were a couple of points of real interest in the final minutes as the big boys went for the glory. Firstly, Lewis Hamilton looked to be having all sorts of balance problems in the daunting turn 8. He had a massive slide on one hot lap, and did brilliantly to even stay on the track at all. This was on the harder, prime tyre so it was expected that he would make the switch to the softer option tyre for his final run. Lewis surprised everyone however by sticking on the harder compound for his final lap. He apparently felt that the softer tyre was losing performance by the end of the lap and preferred to run with the hard. He drove an excellent lap and put his McLaren 3rd despite still fighting the car all the way through turn 8. His teammate showed what the McLaren could do on the softer tyre though by putting together an excellent lap to get onto the front row of the grid alongside Massa.

Kimi Raikkonen was unable to challenge the McLarens or his teammate after running into trouble on his final lap. There seemed to be a miscalculation from Ferrari in terms of getting Kimi some clean air on track, and he ended up catching Fernando Alonso's Renault in the middle of his hot lap. He undoubtedly lost a tenth or two negotiating his way past the Spaniard and his chance at pole was gone.

With Kimi's traffic problems and Hamilton's unusual decision to go with the harder tyre it is hard to get a good read on the fuel loads of the top four runners, so we will have to wait until tomorrow's first stint to see how things pan out. The McLaren team will see this as a perfect opportunity to hit back at Ferrari with Kovalainen and Hamilton both with the chance to pressure Felipe Massa off the start line. We have seen Massa crumble under that sort of pressure before, but this is the track that he appears to be the most comfortable on so he should have enough in reserve to hold off the silver cars. We shall see...

Qualifying Times

01 F. Massa Ferrari 1:27.617
02 H. Kovalainen McLaren 1:27.808
03 L. Hamilton McLaren 1:27.923
04 K. Räikkönen Ferrari 1:27.936
05 R. Kubica BMW 1:28.390
06 M. Webber Red Bull 1:28.417
07 F. Alonso Renault 1:28.422
08 J. Trulli Toyota 1:28.836
09 N. Heidfeld BMW 1:28.882
10 D. Coulthard Red Bull 1:29.959
11 N. Rosberg Williams 1:27.012
12 R. Barrichello Honda 1:27.219
13 J. Button Honda 1:27.298
14 S. Vettel Scuderia Toro Rosso 1:27.412
15 T. Glock Toyota 1:27.806
16 K. Nakajima Williams 1:27.547
17 N. Piquet jr. Renault 1:27.568
18 S. Bourdais Scuderia Toro Rosso 1:27.568
19 G. Fisichella Force India F1 1:27.807
20 A. Sutil Force India F1 1:28.325
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Friday, 9 May 2008

Turkish Grand Prix: Friday Practice Two

Kimi Raikkonen showed no ill effects of his hampered running this morning by cruising to the top of the time sheets in the second Friday practice session. Things were desperately close at the top of the order this time out with Kimi edging out Hamilton by just 3 hundredths of a second, and Felipe Massa just a fraction behind the top two. The big surprise was that there were two British drivers in the top four, breaking the Ferrari-McLaren dominance.

David Coulthard was the man to raise eyebrows throughout the paddock with a fine lap to take fourth place. It was a remarkable improvement over his seventeenth place from this morning's session. However, the smiling faces were only on one side of the Red Bull Racing pit as Mark Webber binned his car on the exit of turn 6 early in the session, ripping the front end off and bringing out a red flag in the process. He ran a bit wide onto the bumpy run-off area and tried to keep his foot in, but evidently lost traction and the rear end got away from him.

He wasn't the only driver having difficulties with car stability in the high-speed corners, as nearly half the field came very close to dropping it at one point or another. The extra wide run-off areas at the Tilke designed circuit undoubtedly saved a lot of pricey carbon fibre from destruction, and saved lots of extra hours for the mechanics in the pit garages.

Both Renaults nearly lost it in the very first corner of the track, Alonso in particular had a miraculous save early in the session. Hamilton too was seen sawing away frantically at the wheel of his McLaren several times through turns 1 and 2. Rosberg cut across the track at turn 2 also at one point. Jenson Button wisely got out of the throttle and took to the run off area on the exit of the super fast turn 8 as he ran wide and the rear end got loose on him.

BMW's Robert Kubica was also seen bouncing across the track at one point, and it wasn't the greatest day all round for the German team. They are expecting to be right up on the pace of the Ferraris and McLarens this weekend, but have shown no signs of that so far. Nick Heidfeld was overheard on the team radio complaining of a lack of rear stability in the high speed corners. They will have to make a big improvement if they are to be in a position to fight for the top spots in tomorrow's all important qualifying.

Practice Two Times

1. RAIKKONEN Ferrari 1m27.543s
2. HAMILTON McLaren 1m27.579s
3. MASSA Ferrari 1m27.682s
4. COULTHARD Red Bull 1m27.763s
5. KOVALAINEN McLaren 1m27.954s
6. KUBICA BMW 1m28.431s
7. TRULLI Toyota 1m28.619s
8. NAKAJIMA Williams 1m28.664s
9. ALONSO Renault 1m28.681s
10. HEIDFELD BMW 1m28.817s
11. BUTTON Honda 1m28.826s
12. GLOCK Toyota 1m28.849s
13. ROSBERG Williams 1m28.907s
14. FISICHELLA Force India 1m29.008s
15. BARRICHELLO Honda 1m29.024s
16. PIQUET Renault 1m29.212s
17. VETTEL Toro Rosso 1m29.462s
18. BOURDAIS Toro Rosso 1m29.630s
19. WEBBER Red Bull 1m29.633s
20. SUTIL Force India 1m30.832s
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Turkish Grand Prix: Friday Practice One

In Friday's first practice session Ferrari proved that they definitely have the pace at the Istanbul circuit, but question marks remain over their reliability. Felipe Massa finished first on the grid ahead of the McLarens of Kovalainen and Hamilton, but Kimi Raikkonen finished dead last after a gearbox problem meant he couldn't do any serious running. Ferrari are confident that the gearbox will not have to be replaced and that they will not incur any penalty, but it's still not a great start for the WDC leader.

Times throughout the midfield seemed to be a lot more spread out than they have been in the past couple of races. Where at Barcelona a couple of tenths separated the midfield teams, here there is more like a couple of seconds separating them. This is quite a long, high speed circuit, and any weaknesses in straight line speed will be really exposed here.

Renault again looked strong with Fernando Alonso fourth fastest. BMW didn't have the best of sessions with Heidfeld in seventh and Kubica way down the field after suffering from rear suspension trouble. The Hondas looked strong by taking fifth and eighth place. The teams from the Red Bull stable seemed to struggle the most with none of their four cars breaking the 1:30 barrier. They all finished roughly 3 seconds off the pace of Massa's Ferrari.

Practice One Times

01 F. Massa Ferrari 1:27.323 16 laps
02 H. Kovalainen McLaren 1:27.456 17 laps
03 L. Hamilton McLaren 1:27.752 15 laps
04 F. Alonso Renault 1:28.284 16 laps
05 J. Button Honda 1:28.919 12 laps
06 K. Nakajima Williams 1:29.002 19 laps
07 N. Heidfeld BMW 1:29.024 21 laps
08 R. Barrichello Honda 1:29.068 11 laps
09 N. Piquet jr. Renault 1:29.082 23 laps
10 T. Glock Toyota 1:29.103 19 laps
11 J. Trulli Toyota 1:29.329 24 laps
12 R. Kubica BMW 1:29.330 7 laps
13 N. Rosberg Williams 1:29.367 20 laps
14 A. Sutil Force India F1 1:29.756 23 laps
15 G. Fisichella Force India F1 1:29.811 23 laps
16 M. Webber Red Bull 1:30.088 21 laps
17 D. Coulthard Red Bull 1:30.340 13 laps
18 S. Bourdais Scuderia Toro Rosso 1:30.388 19 laps
19 S. Vettel Scuderia Toro Rosso 1:30.426 21 laps
20 K. Räikkönen Ferrari 1:30.732 3 laps
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Turkish Grand Prix: Preview

This weekend sees the fourth running of the Formula One Turkish Grand Prix at the already much-loved Istanbul Park circuit. Ferrari head into the weekend as very much the team to beat, as they top both driver and constructor championship standings. McLaren and BMW though are not too far behind and will both be looking to get in amongst the two Ferrari drivers and cause an upset.

The Istanbul Park circuit is one that has become an instant favourite of most of the drivers due to its many elevation changes, mixture of high and low speed corners, and the now infamous super-fast Turn 8. I seem to recall Jarno Trulli being the only driver on the grid who wasn't really that excited by the track, but when even Kimi Raikkonen is moved to describe the track in glowing terms like "terrific" you know it's a goody. I don't think I've ever heard Kimi use such an expressive word!

I suspect Kimi will be even more enthusiastic about the circuit if he and Ferrari can continue their fine early season form and take another 1-2 finish like last time out in Spain. Kimi will have a fight on his hands though; if not from McLaren and BMW then certainly from Felipe Massa who loves this circuit, and beat Kimi here fair and square last year. McLaren (with a fully fit Heikki Kovalainen) and BMW will be desperate for it not to finish as another Ferrari 1-2 however, as they are already losing vital ground in both championships. They both need to try and claw back that crucial tenth or two that they have been missing in the past couple of races in relation to the Ferrari. We will see what difference any revisions to the aero packages will make on this relatively low downforce, high speed circuit.

Ferrari themselves have made arguably the most significant change in terms of aero by choosing to ditch the 'holey nose' debuted in Barcelona in favour of a more traditional front aero set up. They were still blisteringly quick before Spain anyway, so I don't think any Tifosi need worry about this apparent retrograde step.

Elsewhere it looks to be business as usual in the vicious and closely fought midfield battle. Renault will be looking to consolidate the advantage that they managed to eek out over their rivals in Spain, although I doubt there will be any repeat of Fernando Alonso's headline stealing low-fuelled qualifying performance. There was some wild speculation over the past week that Red Bull stalwart David Coulthard was on the brink of being given the boot after his troubled start to the 2008 season. This appears to have just been some over active imaginations though, as he is here and racing, and shows no signs of being dumped by the team. If he were to be dropped it would be extremely harsh of the team considering everything DC has done to help build the team since its inception in 2005.

This race should see the swan song of the current Toro Rosso chassis before the move to the brand new car that Sebastien Bourdais stuffed into a wall in testing three weeks ago. Honda have announced that Rubens Barrichello will be running a special livery to commemorate his record 257th Grand Prix appearance.

The only other news to report is that, due to the demise of Super Aguri, Saturday's qualifying session has been amended. The first two sessions will see just 5 cars eliminated each instead of 6. This will leave the usual 10 car shoot out for the thrilling final session of qualifying.
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And then there were ten...

The 2008 Formula One season was supposed to mark a new dawn for the sport. As well as the much needed ban on electronic driver aids we would have a new set of aerodynamic regulations that would rob the cars of most of their downforce, thus facilitating better racing. We would also have a full paddock of 12 teams, filling all 24 available grid slots, and a brand spanking new Concorde Agreement clarifying the barbed issue of 'customer cars'. However, the reality appears to have fallen some way short of the dream we were promised. Some of these things have been postponed for a while, some seem destined never to occur. How did this happen? And who (if anyone) is to blame?

The protracted demise of the much-loved Super Aguri team means that for the rest of the 2008 season there will be just 20 cars on the grid. Up until the autumn of last year it had looked certain that there would be a full grid of 24. Super Aguri were continuing to raise eyebrows by punching above their bantam-weight, and David Richards' Prodrive team was coming together with the prospect of using McLaren customer chassis.

Things started to go sour, however, when it appeared that Prodrive weren't going to be able to use customer cars after all. It had been expected that a new Concorde Agreement to begin January 1st 2008 would allow some provision for customer chassis. Max Mosley had long since stated that this was his preference, as he believes privateer teams to be the real heart and soul at the basis of motorsport. The sport's last great remaining privateer Frank Williams, for one, wasn't so keen on the idea. Quite understandably he has been a little miffed that he and his team spend tens of millions of pounds each year or research, testing, development and manufacturing of their own chassis, when another team may simply roll up and buy an off the shelf item from another manufacturer.

Red Bull Racing and Toro Rosso have managed to wriggle through a loophole to get around this issue, and Super Aguri had also been effectively acquiring customer cars from Honda for the past season and a bit. But the uncertainty and grey areas remain, and in that climate it became impossible for David Richards to enter F1. There's no way he or his investors could risk ploughing the vast sums of money required into an F1 team with the prospect that they wouldn't be allowed to enter this year, or possibly even next year. As well as a great team builder, Richards is a shrewd business man who has made his living out of successful racing teams. He is not a billionaire playboy type like Vijay Mallya who is willing to use Force India as his F1 plaything and not a serious business venture. How long until he gets bored or he realises that his chances of success are virtually zero remains to be seen.

At the time of Prodrive securing the nomination from the FIA for the last remaining garaged in the 2008 paddock there were allegedly teams and business men queuing around the block for the chance to hand over their $30 million bond. What chance of them now trying to succeed where Richards and Aguri Suzuki have failed? Very little I would imagine. Until an amended Concorde Agreement is put in place which will allow for customer cars, no team will be looking to simply buy from the likes of McLaren, Toyota or BMW. The only available route would appear to be to buy what remains of the Super Aguri team, which as been put up for sale by the administrators. But it would be an extremely ambitious individual or group that would take on the Super Aguri project given the problems they have had.

The notion of a team starting up from scratch and building a brand new chassis isn't even a vaguely realistic option given the enormous costs involved.

But isn't this the way things always used to be? Are things really any different now? In the 80s and early 90s new Formula 1 teams would come and go with the passing of the tides, often with hilarious consequences. One needs only to search the annals of F1 Rejects to witness some of the many spectacular failures like Andrea Moda or Pacific. Heroic failures like Super Aguri are part and parcel of what F1 is all about surely? The difference now is that the cost of even getting a team to the grid is simply enourmous, let alone the cost of making a team vaguely competitive. Where in the past any adventurous millionaire could cobble together a few bits of carbon fibre and an engine and have a blast at qualifying for an F1 race, now even billionaires like Alex Schnaider of Midland F1 are frightened off by the sheer scale investment needed to do any serious racing.

Whilst Max Moseley and FIA have campaigned furiously for reduced costs and more privateer involvement, the manufacturers' stranglehold on the sport has only grown stronger. One has to go as far back as Juan Pablo Montoya's Brazilian Grand Prix victory for Williams in 2004 for the last time a privateer team won a race. And even that was a one-off in that season. Every race since has been won by a team with big time manufacturer support. Williams have continued to battle on valiantly, but with the exception of a sprinkling of podiums here and there they haven't even come close to seriously worrying the big boys. If a team with the experience, expertise and resources of Williams can't take the fight to the manufacturers, what chance of a small upstart team even scoring points let alone winning races?

The saddest part of all of this is that it seems impossible to imagine how this situation could be overturned in the future. The fact is that Formula 1, like all the world's major sports these days, in not just a sport. It's big, big business. You can throw all the cost-cutting measures at it as you like, but while there are budgets available to be spent, F1 teams will spend every last penny. And nobody has more spending capacity than the big manufacturers. The move to 'greener' KERS technology system in 2009 will sadly only increase the manufacturers' willingness to spend big in the pursuit of F1 glory in an attempt to show off their wonderful new green technologies to the wider car buying market, thus undermining all the FIA's hard work in attempted cost cutting. Any prospective privateer entry would be a fool to think that he/she will be able to have even the faintest hope of mixing it with the big boys in this climate.

There are simply too many sharks in the F1 ocean. There is no room for the little fishies to swim anymore.
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Thursday, 8 May 2008

Giving The FIA a Bad Name...

No, this is not an article about Max Mosley's shenanigans in a London basement. There is a far more serious issue of public image facing the FIA. One that has the capacity to undermine the very foundations of the organisation. This is big news people, prepare to be stunned...

Sebastien Loeb doesn't shave enough.

Absolutely despicable behaviour from the 4 time World Rally Champion and hero to millions. I don't know how he sleeps at night; anyone would think he was free to be able to style his facial hair any way he saw fit?! Thankfully the FIA have been on the case and recommended that the TV companies don't show any lingering close-ups of Loeb for fear of bringing the sport into disrepute, thus saving us precious rally fans from Loeb's hideous visage.

A brief synopsis of this latest farcical story: FIA delegate and head of African motorsport Surinder Thatthi lodged a complaint with the powers that be that Sebastien Loeb was looking far too unkempt when receiving his winner's trophy at WRC Rally Mexico. Morrie Chandler, the head of the FIA's rally division, upheld the complaint and advised the TV companies not to focus heavily on rally winners if they have not taken sufficient care over their appearance. (Apparently neither Thatthi nor Chandler have considered the fact that after several hours in a red-hot cockpit wearing a crash helmet, one's hair may end up looking a little ruffled.)

What made the matter all the more baffling was the language used in an email from Chandler, reprinted in Paris' le Figaro newspaper. "The same thing happens in football and other 'virile' sports. Of course such people are an insult to real men."

So if football and other such pursuits are 'virile' sports, what does that then make rallying? Impotent?! Perhaps that would explain the WRC's drooping viewing figures and dwindling manufacturer interest over the past few years, as fans have seen the sport increasingly neutered and softened since the peak of the Group B days.

Naturally the French press are more than a little put out by this revelation. le Figaro have seen it as an example of double standards from the FIA; ie how can the FIA be sensitive enough to complain about a driver's facial hair while the President of the organisation is up to all manner of extravagant sexual exploits with ladies of the night?

Whilst they may have a valid point, I feel the most important matter arising from this is that this whole exchange of emails occurred some weeks before the Max Mosley sex scandal broke. So who has passed this on to the newspaper now, in the run up to the crucial vote over Mosley's future on June 3rd? Or have the newspaper been sitting on the story, waiting for a perfect time release it to further undermine public confidence in the FIA? Can't help but thinking that, as story after story slowly trickles its way into the press, is there someone behind the scenes pulling the strings, orchestrating the media hatchet job on the FIA? Hmmmm...

Whatever, I think the upshot of this is that as head of Rally affairs for the FIA Mr Chandler should focus more attention on attracting more viewers, manufacturers and sponsors to the floundering World Rally Championship and stop worrying about the appearance of one of the sport's brightest and best stars. Either that or he should just do the honourable thing and resign his position, leave the rallying to the "real men," eh Morrie?

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Tuesday, 6 May 2008

Honda Switch Off Super Aguri's Life Support

The news that F1 fans had been hoping would never come has finally broken: the Super Aguri F1 team have withdrawn from the 2008 World Championship. They will almost certainly not be returning for 2009 or beyond either. Honda have been generously bank-rolling the team for several weeks now, but enough was finally enough and Aguri Suzuki was forced to announce the team's withdrawal this morning. The news that F1 fans had been hoping would never come has finally broken: the Super Aguri F1 team have withdrawn from the 2008 World Championship.

They have effectively been running on life support supplied by Honda for the last few months, but finally Honda have pulled the plug. The writing was on the wall when the potential takeover deal by the DIC funded Magma Group fell through at the last minute. There was a glimmer of hope last week when the German Wiegl Group expressed an interest in funding the team, but that turned out to be yet another false dawn for Aguri Suzuki. The team, who were in debt to Honda to the tune of $100million, were refused entry to the paddock at the Istanbul Autodrome, and they have now decided to call it a day.

It is extremely disappointing news for the F1 world. Firstly, they are one of the most like-able teams around. They have relished their status as plucky underdogs since they entered F1 in the 2006 season, and have thrilled audiences with some great shock performances. For the neutral fan they have been one of the most exciting teams to follow, and they have been most F1 fans' "second team". No fans ever had a bad word to say about the team.

Sadly it wasn't always the case with the rest of the F1 teams as the thorny issue of customer cars (they effectively drove the previous year's Honda) has plagued them for some time. Suzuki himself has stated that the uncertainty over the future of driving customer cars has been one of the reasons they have struggle to find long-term financial backers.

Some have been quick to blame Honda for refusing to offer help to Super Aguri, but that really isn't fair. Honda have done more than what was reasonably to have been expected of them over the last couple of years. They have bailed them out consistently, and have continued to provide them with engines, chassis and technical support despite lack of payment from SA. At the end of the day Honda are running a business, and they can't continue pouring money and resources into a team that is destined not to survive. Sad but true.

So F1 will continue without one of its most popular teams, and without two talented and very well liked drivers in Sato and Davidson. A sad day all round for the sport.

Full statement from Aguri Suzuki...

In order to realise my dream to become an owner of a Formula One Team, I applied for a grid position in the FIA Formula One World Championship in November 2005. Since then, I have participated in the championship for two years and four months as the Super Aguri F1 team, but regretfully I must inform you that the team will be ceasing its racing activities as of today.

The team has competed against the many car manufacturer backed teams and has succeeded in obtaining the first points after only the 22nd race, finishing in ninth place overall in the 2007 Constructors’ Championship.

However, the breach of contract by the promised partner SS United Group Company Limited resulted in the loss of financial backing and immediately put the team into financial difficulties. Also, the change in direction of the environment surrounding the team, in terms of the use of customer chassis, has affected our ability to find partners.

Meanwhile, with the help of Honda, we have somehow managed to keep the team going, but we find it difficult to establish a way to continue the activities in the future within the environment surrounding F1 and as a result, I have concluded to withdraw from the Championship.

I would like to express my deepest thanks to Honda, Bridgestone, the sponsors, all the people who have given us advise during various situations over the past couple of years all the Team Staff who have kept their motivations high and always done their best, Anthony Davidson who has always pushed to the limit despite the very difficult conditions, Takuma Sato who has been with us from the very start and has always fought hard and led the team and lastly our fans from all over the world who have loyally supported the Super Aguri F1 team.
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