Sunday 11 March 2012

F1 2012 Season Preview: HRT - Struggling on

Without wishing to sound patronising, the fact that HRT are still going probably ranks as their best achievement. In their short existence as an F1 team they've been widely derided, have often given the outward impression of stumbling from one crisis to the next, and usually concerned more immediately with surviving than making progress up the order. But they continue to struggle on, against the odds somewhat, into their third season in the sport. And, relatively speaking, as 2012 starts the future in some ways looks a bit more promising for them now than at any point before.

Credit: Gil Abrantes / CC
As Campos Meta, the team entered the sport for the 2010 season, at the time assuming a strict and swingeing budget cap to be in place for all teams. Perhaps it was naive to think that would hold, but whatever the case throughout the team's life money and sponsors have been extremely hard to come by (and worse, F1 is a business that makes it even harder for new teams by keeping television-rights income among the established members of the top 10 teams). The money factor made itself felt before even their first race, financial problems resulting in majority shareholder José Ramón Carabante taking over control of the team from Adrián Campos, with Colin Kolles parachuted in to replace Campos as team principal and the team rebranded as HRT.

For the next two years HRT's cars have spent most of the time off the back of the pack, and although they've avoided placing last in the constructors' championship in both seasons (by finishing ahead of Virgin/Marussia in both 2010 and 2011) that owes something to the slightly strange and distortive countback system in establishing the order. And at the start of both seasons they've made all cringe by still being in the process of building their cars as the practice sessions were underway for the opening round.

Last year was a continuation of 2010 for HRT, in more ways than one in that, due to budget contraints, the F111 was something of a rehash of the Dallara chassis they'd used in 2010. Sponsors' logos remained absent largely and the continuing struggle to make their numbers add up resulted in Thesan Capital, a Madrid-based investment company, acquiring the team in July.

That bankers were taking over the running of an F1 team caused a foreboding shudder among many of those who had the team's best interests at heart, especially as Thesan outwardly gave a strong impression that they don't know what they don't know. But nevertheless they allowed the purse strings to be loosened a little after acquiring the outfit, which allowed in turn a modest development programme.

For most of HRT's life their hand to mouth existence has rather precluded devising longer term strategies. But the newly-installed Thesan also announced their intention to mould more of an explicit 'Spanish national team' identity for HRT, including a lock, stock and barrel settling of the team in Spain (HRT's various operations had been scattered across Europe). The original plan to locate in Valencia in the dock area where the street circuit is didn't come off, and now, having set up a temporary base in Valencia, they are to establish a permanent base in the Caja Mágica complex in Madrid. Even if Thesan's ultimate strategy could well be to build the thing up in order to sell them on, they nevertheless seem keen to get the operation moving in the right direction.

Not everyone is happy with this plan though. Kolles split from the team due to his not agreeing with the HQ move, taking his German-based technical operation with him. He was replaced by Luis Pérez-Sala as team principal. Kolles isn't necessarily everyone's cup of tea but his contribution in keeping HRT's head above water for two years cannot be underestimated. This all compounded the experienced and skilled Geoff Willis, who was technical director, leaving the team before the 2011 season end, not convinced about the financial commitment to the 2012 car.

There's also the fact that Spain is a long way from F1's 'silicon valley' in the south east of England, which makes attracting staff, finding sub contractors and the like a lot more difficult for HRT than for most of the grid. Also, there doesn't seem to be a lot of disposable money to invest in F1 in Spain at the moment, and what there is you'd think would gravitate primarily towards Fernando Alonso.

Still, their having a plan and a coherent identity is a good place for them to start. Sala, while not having Kolles's wiles, is an experienced figure in the motor sports business. And, compared with some of the claims of the prophets of doom over the winter, things for HRT in preparation for 2012 have gone fairly well. Rumours swirled that, between the Kolles split and the abortive Valencia move, HRT wouldn't even have a car built for 2012. Well, they do have a car, and for the first time in the team's existence they've been able to run a shakedown of it prior to the first race (although failed crash tests meant the 2012 car couldn't take part in pre-season testing). And Narain Karthikeyan says the F112's a definite step up from last year's machine.

And while they're not likely to be a Spanish Ferrari any time soon, if HRT were able to develop into a Spanish Minardi, surely an achievable aim in the short-to-medium term, then that would be no bad thing for the sport.

Credit: Morio / CC
Pedro de la Rosa - Car #22
There was an assumption over the winter that HRT's drivers for 2012 would either be Spanish or bringers of money to the team. In the event, they've got one of each; but at the same time both selections were a bit of a surprise.

I make this comeback number six in Spaniard Pedro de la Rosa's F1 career, which stretches back all the way to 1999. In recent years he's spent most of his time as McLaren's test driver. This, allied the fact that his last permanent race drive, at Sauber in 2010, was rather underwhelming, meant that few saw yet another return to a race seat coming.

But, thinking about it, you can see where HRT are coming from. As mentioned, they are minded to re-model themselves as a Spanish national team, and de la Rosa is not only safe (ensuring finishing money, track time and avoiding paying for write-offs), he will feed back well technically, and he's also well-connected within the Spanish motorsport industry. Further, he brings with him vast knowledge of how McLaren operates, and this is knowledge that HRT can only benefit from.

De la Rosa won't be setting any spectacular lap times this year, but if he can fulfill some of the roles outlined above then it will be mission accomplished.

Credit: Morio / CC
Narain Karthikeyan - Car #23
Narain Karthikeyan is another unlikely comeback. He turned out for HRT in the first part of 2011, only to be dropped partway through the season to clear space for the up-and-coming Daniel Ricciardo, after being generally the more tardy of the two HRT pilots. Despite being brought back later in the year for one weekend only, for his home event in India, most thought that would be that for him.

But back he is. It can't be denied that the money Karthikeyan brings, with HRT still not overly troubled by sponsors' logos, played a part in his signing, but Karthikeyan has always been a handy driver with a good level of natural talent and car control. He was also test driver for Williams for two years, which presumably he wouldn't have been if he couldn't cut it.

Further, his appeal may be similar to that of de la Rosa: last year at HRT while he didn't do anything spectacular on the stopwatch he showed an ability to stay out of trouble and not stick the thing in the fence. Achieving similar again will be very important to the team this year.

And his run in India last year impressed the team: he outqualified and outraced the much-vaunted Ricciardo, finishing the race upwards of 30 seconds ahead of him.

As with de la Rosa, a season of safe driving and bringing the thing home will be what the HRT team are looking for from Karthikeyan in 2012.

No comments:

Post a Comment