At last weekend’s Australian Grand Prix, Hispania Racing’s Narain Kartikeyan and Tonio Liuzzi became the first drivers to not qualify for a Formula 1 Grand Prix for almost a decade. There’s no shame in that; Niki Lauda and Nelson Piquet once failed to qualify for a race, in the days when there were far more teams than places on the grid.
Having failed in its attempt to buy the Toyota cars, the team decided to build its own car very late. It failed to turn a wheel in pre season testing and was still being built when practice began on Friday. Despite turning 11 laps each in qualifying, both drivers failed to make the cut under the new 107% rule and the stewards rightly denied them a place on the grid.
They travel to Malaysia for next weekend’s race, with hopes of making it through to Sunday. But what should we make of this team – which echoes the weekend warriors of the early 1990s, like Andrea Moda and Forti – at a time of unprecedented competence in the rest of the grid? And what of the claims from some, inside and outside the team, that once they fit the correct front wing the car will be faster than Virgin?
I spoke to Hispania’s Geoff Willis on Sunday morning at length. He has been around; was part of Adrian Newey’s team at Williams in the glory days, was in charge at BAR in their heyday and played a role in building Red Bull up to where they are now. He knows what he’s doing, in other words.
Clearly he finds himself now in less than ideal circumstances and is putting a brave face on it, but listening to him talk, you realise that he believes in what he’s doing and that he’s looking forward to shocking a few in the paddock who think Hispania shouldn’t be there.
The construction of the car was outsourced to Italian composites firms which Willis has confidence in. However the front wing failed a crash test and so the car ran in Melbourne with last year’s front wing, which the aero package was not designed for. All being well the revised wing will pass its test in the coming days and Hispania will be able to do some set up work in the four hours of practice in Sepang.
And when it does Willis believes that it will push Virgin to the back of the grid. Already Virgin’s Timo Glock – who looked a haunted man on the Sunday night plane to Kuala Lumpur – has expressed concern that the car is miles off and that a fast Red Bull lap in Q1 could push them out of the race. But to be beaten by a car which has had hardly any running would be very painful indeed for Nick Wirth’s engineers.
The problem at Hispania, clearly, is money. The owner, Jose Carabante, is still learning how F1 works, especially its cash demands. I worked for someone like that at Brabham in the early 1990s, who had underestimated how much an F1 team cost to run. Back then it was £1 million a month. Now it’s a minimum of four times that.
Carabante said on Spanish radio that the team would have €45 million budget this season and promised a “new aerodynamic package” for the Spanish Grand Prix. “It will be enough to be ahead of Lotus and Virgin,” he said. “Last year we were in a worse condition than now and we ended up ahead of Virgin with twice our budget, and behind Lotus due only to one accident.”
Lotus has taken a big step forward on performance and is now closer to Force India on pace, but Virgin is vulnerable and the whole digital design philosophy is coming under question.
“Like last year, we began the development of the car too late due to the budget,” Carabante added. “We were closing [sponsor] agreements that in the end did not come.”
After the deal to buy the assets of the Toyota team fell through, “We set a realistic goal with the budget that we had.”
I’m told that in raising finance to get to that point, Hispania turned to Convers Sport Group, owned by a Lithuanian called Vladimir Antonov, who has been in the background of F1 for a couple of years now. He owns Spyker, is trying to buy Saab and was a sponsor on the Renault car last year, with his Snoras Bank, which appeared on the sidepods. I’ve been told that Antonov has a charge over the team in the event of them not repaying the money, but that has not been confirmed. He is sitting on a significant amount of money – he claims to have $7 billion of assets under management – and may soon have a stake in a great brand in Saab. He seems to be watching and waiting.
Kartikeyan told Reuters at the weekend that he to believes Hispania is set to surprise, “if we get the new front wing. Basically, they don’t want jokers to come in. We respect the 107 percent rule. We are a serious team. When it all gets kicking off, I think we are going to surprise a few people,”
However Liuzzi thinks that qualifying at Sepang is a big ask, “I think things will be different there but, unfortunately, if I was to say at the beginning of the year which track would be worst for the 107% rule I would have said Malaysia because of its characteristics. Even so, I still think we can show improvement compared to Australia and good pace compared to Virgin.”