What's going on at Hispania?


Mat Coch writes

Hispania Racing Team has not enjoyed an especially happy introduction to Formula One. They've been rooted to the back of the grid throughout their debut season, and faced enduring and constant speculation over their financial survival.

The team faced a difficult task simply making the grid, but having reached the top of that uphill battle one can't help but feel they could come tumbling back down at any point.

In May the team announced it had terminated its relationship with chassis makers Dallara, the firm who designed its 2010 challenger. While the press releases drone on about the relationship achieving more than they could have ever hoped, there was no coverage surrounding the fact that Hispania Racing doesn't have a technical department to develop a car themselves. So where is the 2011 car coming from?

Progress for a new team is key to its survival, a point both Virgin Racing and Lotus Racing have grasped. Lotus have been bringing in new partners, improving their technical situation with the ultimate aim of progressing towards the front of the field. Virgin too have been quietly, but solidly, working away with Nick Wirth refining their unique CAD/CFD approach.

Hispania have been linked with Toyota, though there is nothing concrete. In July Jose Ramon Carabante, one of the teams owners, was reportedly close to a deal with the Japanese company - whose 2009 car has been the Pirelli tyre testing workhorse - while a fully fledged 2010 spec car sits under a tarpaulin in Cologne. Since then a deafening silence has emanated from HRT, no further details have been announced.

When quizzed in Singapore Colin Kolles was less than convincing when asked about the team's future plans. His blunt, abrupt, and unthoughtful response failed to address the question. One of the journalists in the room suggested he might deny the rumours, which Kolles failed to do with any real conviction. All he announced was the team's intentions to maintain its current relationship with Cosworth, and that the team would have a new car with a different rear end. For a team looking to deflect speculation and attract new backers one would be forgiven for expecting a more positive response from the team boss.

The team is equally confusing on the driver side. In Singapore HRT fielded their fourth different driver pairing of the year as Christian Klien joined the team. While officially it was for a single race, one can't help feel that given their track record to date the team might happily allow him to continue racing as long as the Austrian is happy to pay for it.

Senna and Chandhok are both believed to have fronted up with funds to support the team. All looked well until in Silverstone where Senna was watching from pit wall. The slow payment from sponsors is understood to have meant Senna was dumped in favour of Sakon Yamamoto, whose sponsors were more forthcoming.

Indeed so forthcoming were Yamamoto's backers, it's believed they contributed $5million to the team, securing the Japanese driver a seat alongside Senna from Hockenheim. That deal too turned sour, it's alleged, Yamamoto's absence in Singapore due to food poisoning perhaps a result of the sour taste left in his mouth by the ordeal.

If Hispania were serious Christian Klien would have remained in the car for Suzuka, perhaps alongside Yamamoto. The Japanese driver has Formula One experience, he's a marketable commodity in his homeland and is no less competitive than Senna or Chandhok. Klien meanwhile seems the most competitive of the bunch, trumping Senna by more than a second during qualifying at Singapore on a circuit, and in a car, he'd never driven. It was a tremendous statement from the Austrian, who openly admits his future in Formula One is far from secure, and to beat Senna by such a considerable margin was a feat unlikely to have been missed by others in the paddock. While all this was happening Karun Chandhok, with no active role to play for the team, sat with his chin on his hands watching qualifying from the hospitality suite.

Corporate and technical direction are of paramount importance in Formula One, and share significant synergies. Without money the team cannot develop, and without development teams cannot expect to make progress.

Hispania doesn't appear to have a corporate brand or image. Staff appear to wear jeans and whichever shoes they pick up in the morning, with a grey t-shirt that looks like it's faded in the wash. Lotus and Virgin, by contrast, have both branded and positioned themselves well, crisp corporate uniforms giving the impression of one singular entity. HRT's is not an endearing image to a potential sponsor, especially when they're stood alongside Lotus with their crisp white shirts, green trousers, and shoes to match. Lotus looks like a team, Hispania look like a bunch of enthusiasts who've lucked onto the sports biggest stage.

The hospitality suite in Singapore used outdoor furniture common to all hospitality suite buildings up and down the pit lane. While inside other teams had fitted their areas out with plasma screens and reasonable furniture, Hispania didn't. Their hospitality area gave the striking impression they'd dragged the outdoor furniture inside, giving a very good impression of a university students dormitory.

The team needs investment, clearly, as well as a strong personality capable of leading the team. Colin Kolles doesn't appear to be that man, his coarse dealings with the press not endearing the man to the journalists. Without positive press it's difficult to imagine sponsors lining up to sign with a team rooted to the back of the grid, with no sign of moving forward any time soon.

The level the team currently operates to is notably lower than even their fellow newcomers, and seems unsustainable to the casual observer. There is no room for pretenders in Formula One, and that seems to be what HRT are doing - playing at being a real racing team.

What is the future of Hispania Racing Team, who are apparently broke, obviously slow, and drifting like a rudderless ship in the ocean that is Formula One? Perhaps fresh investment and ownership is the best way forward for a team that would otherwise appear to be living on borrowed time.

Whatever the case may be, it seems the team needs to sort out some relatively fundamental issues relating to technical, financial and personnel if it is to have any hope of survival. If not Hispania Racing Team is almost certain to join Simtek, Forti, Larrousse, Lola, and countless hopefuls, who were never able to overcome the not insignificant task of extricating themselves from the back of the grid before the creditors close in.

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Published: 18/10/2010
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