MARCH 6, 2008

Magma and Super Aguri

There are indications that the London-based Magma Group, headed by former Ford and Maserati executive Martin Leach, may be the bidder to save the Super Aguri F1 team.

Leach started out wanting to be a racing driver, racing karts as a teenager and moved on to Formula Ford 2000 before ending his career because of problems with rheumatoid arthritis. Leach turned to an engineering career at the Ford Motor Company, becoming head of product development at Mazda and then the chief executive of Ford Europe. In that role he was closely involved with providing the Jordan F1 team with official Ford-branded engines in 2003 and 2004, supporting Ford's push at the time with Jaguar Racing.

Leach then departed Ford and was hired by Fiat boss Giuseppe Morchio to be head of both Ferrari/Maserati. Ferrari chairman Luca Montezemolo opposed the move and won a power struggle with Morchio, which resulted in Jean Todt being put in charge of the whole Ferrari company and Leach heading Maserati until it was moved under Alfa Romeo control in 2005. Leach then set up the Magma Group, an automotive consultancy group. This led to him being appointed to the board of Russia's GAZ International, an automotive company based in Nizhny Novgorod. Controlled by aluminium tycoon Oleg Deripaska, a close ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin, GAZ acquired LDV, formerly known as Leyland DAF Vans, and bought the Chrysler Sebring/Dodge Stratus production line from Chrysler's Sterling Heights assembly plant and announced that it will produce a car called the GAZ Siber and vans under the Maxus brand.

Magma then acquired Menard Engineering Limited, the rebranded TWR Group, which included the automotive design facility in Woking and the former Arrows F1 headquarters at Leafield, where Super Aguri is based. This operation was rebranded as UltraMotive, but maintained the same staff as it had had under Menard's ownership. The company's strategy was to help car companies from around the world develop new products, aiming specifically for ambitious new companies in the emerging markets of Eastern Europe and Asia. One of its first projects was the Siber. There are plans for annual production of up to 65,000 Sibers by 2010 but has further capacity on the same production line for other models which are currently under development. GAZ has 70 dealerships across Russia and in other eastern European markets.

It remains to be seen whether the Magma deal will go ahead, but there is no doubt that Leach has access to the kind of money needed to run an F1 operation, is a great believer in the sport and has a good reason to want to be involved.

For the moment it seems that Aguri Suzuki will remain as the team principal and the team will continue its relationship with Honda. F1 teams have to be manufacturers of their own chassis by the start of 2010 and there has been a suggestion that Super Aguri (perhaps with another name) could end up running different engines in the future. It is expected that the team will remain with Takuma Sato and Anthony Davidson in 2008 and that the team will run the 2008 Honda chassis later in the year.

It is worth noting that Leach and Honda F1's Nick Fry were colleagues in the Ford Motor Company.