Hispania: Let’s be honest

July 20, 2010

The worries many had at the beginning of the year about Formula 1’s new teams are slowly subsiding, for two of the teams at least. Lotus are going from strength to strength, proving formidable from a business and PR perspective and – though development has now switched to next year’s car – occasionally challenging the back of the midfield in qualifying.

Virgin’s start has been altogether tougher, infamously beginning the season with a fuel tank too small to go a full race distance, but with that issue resolved (albeit crudely), and a successful aero package introduced at Silverstone, there are signs the outfit is past the worst of its growing pains.

And then there’s Hispania. Consistently filling the back row of the grid, the Spanish outfit are a clear last place among 2010’s contenders. It’s not just the team’s abysmal performance which goes against them. Fundamental flaws in several key aspects of the team place its future in serious doubt.

Across the HRT’s sidepods, where most teams would have sponsors’ logos generating revenue, is an ominously blank expanse filled only by the names of their drivers.

If HRT are going to compete in F1 next year, they need to attract sponsorship, and there are major sticking points to them doing that. Firstly there are the initials, which practically invite jokes at the team’s expense; and second, the appalling livery, which gives the drivers the appearance of piloting an unpainted Airfix model. The car’s performance does little to remedy that.

Most importantly, though, the team is a PR disaster. This didn’t need to be the case. While neither of Hispania’s drivers are going to set the world alight with their performances, each is a potential PR goldmine. Few names carry as much weight in Formula 1 as Senna, which in itself is a boost to the team’s image, aided by the fact that Bruno appears to be a thoroughly likeable chap. Chandhok burst onto the Formula 1 scene memorably with his unprecedented baptism of fire in Bahrain, and his charm, honesty and sense of humour have made him an immediate hit with the fans.

Evidencing the inverse Midas touch which is becoming the team’s hallmark, Hispania took their two well liked drivers and publicly shafted them. First, Senna lost his drive in Silverstone to Yamamoto. Hispania announced the change of drivers with no elaboration, saying a press release would follow to explain the switch. It never came.

The likely explanation was that Yamamoto could bring money to a team in dire financial straits, but suggestion that Senna missed the race as punishment for inadvertently sending a critical email to team principal Colin Kolles did little to shake the feeling the team was in chaos. Hispania never responded to either claim.

Then, the news came that Chandhok would lose his seat for the German Grand Prix. The reaction to Senna’s usurpation was muted, but Chandhok has more popular support than the Brazilian, and there was a considerable outcry when it was announced that he’d been ousted.

Hispania have now claimed that, with four drivers on the payroll, their policy is to rotate the drivers between the two available cars to give them all a chance. If that’s the case, why hasn’t that been happening since the beginning of the season? And why is it only Yamamoto, rather than the more talented Klien, being rotated in? The explanation doesn’t hold water, and – even if it did – it would be a case of too little, too late from the Spanish team, whose handling of the situation has been a lesson in how not to conduct PR.

And then there’s the car. Contracted from Dallara, the car was so poor at the beginning of the season that it was outperformed by GP2 cars. (Bafflingly, this means Dallara produced a worse car under Formula 1 regulations than they did under the more restrictive GP2 formula.) Then key figures in the team publicly criticised the quality of the car, and the relationship with Dallara ended messily. Hispania have been left shackled to a car they don’t understand – after all, they didn’t design it – to develop for the rest of the season.

And that’s just 2010. Next season, with the Dallara relationship in tatters, Hispania will have to design their own car, or else commission another chassis builder to design one for them. In each case, the team would be back to the drawing board, while main rivals Lotus and Virgin can be expected to return in 2011 with vastly improved cars. Depending on the outcome of the ongoing selection process for 2011’s 13th team, Hispania could be racing next season in a class of one.

So, no sponsorship, no car and a public image in tatters leaves HRT’s chance of remaining in Formula 1 next season looking increasingly slim. Perhaps, though, making it to 2011 isn’t their intention. Consider this: USF1, who were in much the same position as HRT six months ago, recently received a fine of 309,000 euros and a ban from future participation in Formula 1 for their failure to make it to the grid, despite the American outfit having gone into liquidation.

Rather than tilting at windmills by punishing a non-existent team, the FIA sent out a strong message to the three teams who did make it to the 2010 grid: if you embarrass us, we will take legal action against you. If so, Hispania have more to lose by withdrawing now – which would incur the wrath of the FIA – than by limping to the end of the season. The costs of continuing to operate the team can be recouped through the use of pay-drivers, and jilting Senna and Chandhok will have few repercussions if the team disappears after Abu Dhabi. It might be the search for Formula 1’s 13th team which is making the headlines, but whoever gains the spot could well be 13th in name alone.

Edit: Typically, after months in which no mention was made by Hispania of next year’s car, within five minutes of publishing this post Adam Cooper broke the story that HRT were on the verge of signing a deal to make use of Toyota’s car and facilities from the Japanese company’s defunct Formula 1 programme. The silence over next year’s car, it seems, was a result of uncertainty over whether funds existed to finance the deal, in which case Yamamoto’s appearances at Britain and Germany can be seen as last gasp fundraising efforts to secure the Toyota contract.

I still believe that, if Hispania want a genuine future in Formula 1, it’ll take more than a year-old car to secure it. Not to mention that the TF110 was designed, more than any car in 2010, around its double diffuser, which will be banned in 2011. With that in mind, it’ll be interesting to see how the car performs next season, but it’ll take more than a car capable of running in the midfield to secure the team a future in the sport.

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