Ten years have passed since the addition of three new outfits to the Formula One grid in 2010. Of course, these teams are such a crucial piece of modern reject history that in the community the term “new teams” still first causes images of the 2010 debutants to spring to mind, even though Haas have entered the sport since and carry the honour of being the newest constructor (new names in the sport who were born from active entities, like Racing Point, Alfa Romeo Racing and AlphaTauri notwithstanding) and ambitious entrepreneurs are looking to gain entry into the sport with the 2022 regulations on the horizon.
Unfortunately, as we know, the tale of the 2010 additions would be an unsuccessful one, as one by one the missing budget cap, which was both the basis for the selection of the entries and then used by them to plan their budgets, took their toll. This significant difference in funding prevented them from catching up to the established outfits of the sport, which in turn closed off access to prize money and major sponsorship deals to pad their limited financial reserves, leading to an inevitable downward spiral and their quick demise. We are however by now all familiar with the causes of the failure of HRT, Lotus/Caterham and Virgin/Marussia, especially as the ten-year anniversary inspired other motorsport websites to write articles on this subject. Therefore, going over these things again would be a waste of everyone’s valuable time.
Instead, let us instead do what sports media (especially American sports media) loves to do more than anything else: rating and ranking things. Out of Hispania, Virgin/Marussia and Lotus/Caterham, which of these three performed the most admirably? Now, the first instinct says to go with the team that survived the longest: even though competing as three different constructors, the Banbury-based Manor squad managed to outlive Hispania by four and Lotus/Caterham by two seasons; no doubt helped by being the only one of the three teams to ever experience the joy of scoring F1 world championship points in the legendary 2014 Monaco Grand Prix at the hands of the late Jules Bianchi as well as the 2016 Austrian Grand Prix at the hands of Pascal Wehrlein.
However, the author instead proposes that the best 2010 team was indeed the most short-lived outfit: the HRT F1 Team. Avoiding stale metaphors about the stars that shine the brightest burning out the quickest (especially since those metaphors are probably more suited to the likes of BMW Sauber and Hesketh Racing), the reasoning is simple: they made the most of their funding and their personnel in the short time they had in the sport and therefore were the most likely to have a chance at becoming a midfield contender had they ever possessed the sufficient funds to advance their operation or F1 had shifted sufficiently to allow a team of their finances to compete. Obviously, such a claim is both controversial and in need of proof.
One thing we should keep in mind when telling the story of HRT F1 Team: at no point in their history had they had an owner that could even remotely compare to the financial might of Sir Richard Branson or Tony Fernandes. José Ramón Carabante was struggling to fund the entry in 2010 and had his assets frozen by a Madrid arbitration court over a payment dispute with Trinitario Casanova in excess of €23m. Finding information about Thesan Capital proved quite difficult, only articles regarding their ownership of HRT and a Linkedin page appearing alongside closed offices in Madrid appearing, which speaks volumes about their financial abilities. The fact that the team competed for three full seasons is nothing short of a miracle and once more proof of Colin Kolles’ ability to work miracles with the most ascetic budgets, albeit occasionally through help from others and his own unorthodox methods: Christian Danner revealed in an interview with German newspaper Bild that he agreed to carry some minor parts for the F111 in his luggage when Colin Kolles, who carried a significantly larger number of parts in his own luggage, was in danger of not getting on the plane to Melbourne because said parts caused his luggage to be overweight.
According to various sources, the team operated with a budget of between €25 and 34 million in 2011 and employed 60 people at that time, at least ten million less than Virgin: a team that had its owner openly comment about how “money [wa]sn’t everything” and that it had the lowest budget in F1. Despite this, HRT managed to field an operation that generally only found itself in ill repute when a front runner struggling to lap or overtake them complained, usually only to limited sympathy from the F1 fandom. Sebastian Vettel’s mishaps with Narain Karthikeyan in 2012 are the most prominent example, earning the Indian a description as “Gurke” (cucumber).
Only in the final weeks of its existence the team failed in terms of professionalism, when spare parts had to be used well beyond their intended life-span, resulting in both concerning incidents like Pedro de la Rosa’s seat breaking apart shortly before the end of the first United States Grand Prix at Austin and more dangerous incidents like the Spaniard’s retirement in the Indian Grand Prix and Narain Karthikeyan’s terrifying accident involving Nico Rosberg in Abu Dhabi.
These late mishaps should not distract from the feedback the team’s drivers gave in the media: Karthikeyan praised the professionalism of the team’s management in an early 2012 interview. De La Rosa did the same and the genuinity of his faith in the outfit was evidenced by him signing a two-year contract at the age of 40, even if the second year of that contract never came to be. Ricciardo praised the team as well and noted that balance-wise, the HRT F111 was not a worse car than the Toro Rosso of that season – only the lack of downforce being the key difference. Vitantonio Liuzzi noted the good development work by the team and Christian Klien called the team an “attractive place to work” in an interview ahead of the Brazilian Grand Prix in 2010.
Obviously, he who pays the piper calls the tune. It is obvious that the praise was partly motivated by these drivers not wishing to displease their employer and risk their seats. However, drivers in frustrating situations generally struggle to keep their feelings bottled up over an entire season, as the various interviews with Timo Glock on German TV from 2010 to 2012 as well as Robert Kubica’s inane conspiracy theories from the 2019 season can very much demonstrate. Karun Chandhok stating the obvious in an interview in May 2010 – the F110 needing a new and improved aero package – and Bruno Senna’s critique because his practice time was cut in order to give Christian Klien time to test and possibly improve the car can hardly be counted as such, especially given as Senna’s loss of seat time was partly related to his sponsors failing to hold up their end of the bargain. The otherwise abiding praise of HRT does speak volumes.
However, as many employees from the dot com bubble companies can confirm, just because you like to work somewhere does not mean that the company produces a quality product. In Formula One, a “quality product” is a fast and reliable car. Here are the best times in qualifying by each of the 2010 outfits from 2010 to 2012 compared to the pole position lap time.
Note: 2011 Monaco Grand Prix not included, as neither HRT set a time. Rain-affected qualifyings compare to best Q1 time instead
Of course, the first thing that will catch the eye is the severe drop at the start of each season. This drop is logically the product of HRT’s severe budget issues, which left the team looking up the order at the start of the season and unable to invest much in pre-season testing. At first, this may appear like a point against the team, but the consistent and noticeable improvements every season point towards a very strong, if severely underfunded operation. Especially in late 2011 and mid-2012, HRT often threatened or even outperformed Virgin/Marussia. During those periods it was often the case that it was Timo Glock’s driving talent that actually ensured HRT placed behind the best-placed Virgin. This also applies to the significant lead Lotus enjoyed in 2011, as Heikki Kovalainen had arguably the best season of his Formula One career. Only in 2012 did the team then known as Caterham truly put major distance between themselves and the other “new teams”. Even that advantage, however, was lessened by HRT until the very last stage of the season when the team’s financial doom was sealed.
Another topic worth noting is reliability: despite the financial woes and the team having most of its parts developed by third-party contractors, HRT F1 Team had a retirement quota of just 29%. To put these numbers into context: in comparison, during its time as Virgin, the Dinnington-based team had a retirement rate of 33.9%. It was only in 2012, after the rebrand to Marussia, that they outperformed HRT in the reliability department. Of course by that time, the car performance of these two were on par, losing their slight advantage they had whilst having a less reliable car.
The obvious counterargument is Lotus/Caterham’s superiority in both reliability (a retirement rate of 20.9% for Caterham, even including the 2014 season, where the team suffered severe economic issues, similar to those of HRT, and ran unreliable Renault turbos) and performance (peak performance was 2% closer to pole time than Virgin/Marussia’s or HRT’s). However, with the previously explained significantly superior budget of 1Malaysia, these arguments are countered by the fact that such superiority should be a given. If we are being honest, the team should have been significantly further ahead of HRT given their relative funds (more than three times the size of HRT’s budget and on par with the spending of Toro Rosso and Force India in the 2011 season). The fact that they could never completely shed HRT and actually approach the midfield speaks ill of their performance and arguably disqualifies them from being seen as the best of the 2010 teams.
Given their good reputation with drivers, both veteran and youngster, their total performance in relation to the more than modest financial means and in comparison to their better-funded peers in the Class of 2010, it is the author’s strong belief that of all the teams that were permitted entry into the premier class of motorsport at the start of the previous decade, HRT was the best of them. Perhaps, had they found a buyer at the end of 2012 or if the mysterious entity known as “Scorpion Racing” had funded the outfit a couple of months earlier, the team could very well have outlived its competition and, although this is very optimistic conjecture, operate today and duel with Williams at the back of the grid.
Certainly Hispania’s staff, if they did not find work elsewhere in the series, would deserve to compete in F1. Their efforts against all odds were both worthwhile and admirable and the technical leadership by both Colin Kolles and Tony Cuquerella helped the passionate staff to achieve things that, according to the financial reality of the times, should never have been possible. As Keith Collantine put it aptly in his review of the team’s 2012, HRT’s bankruptcy was a “small but significant loss for F1”, once showcasing the bitter reality that in F1, unlike in other sports, ingenuity is insufficient to survive, let alone thrive. Even though it was the first of the “new teams” to go, as far as the author is concerned, it was the best of them. Perhaps the metaphor of the star that shines the brightest that the author rejected in the opening paragraphs was apt after all.
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