Just before the weekend Hispania Racing Team (HRT) confirmed that Australian Daniel Ricciardo will race for the team starting at Silverstone, in place of Narain Kartikeyan. HRT is around four seconds a lap off the pace in qualifying this season, an improvement of a second and a half over last season.
In Canada Tonio Liuzzi qualified a tenth of a second faster than Timo Glock, but in Valencia the gap was a second and in Barcelona it was half a second.
The 22 year old Red Bull sponsored driver has been doing the Toro Rosso Friday testing duties, bit it is clear that Red Bull driver mentor Dr Helmut Marko wanted to accelerate the programme with Ricciardo. It always looked tricky to find a way into the Toro Rosso race set up and when Jaime Alguersuari out in back to back career best results in the last two races, another route was needed.
Marko is close to Buemi, having backed him since childhood while Alguersuari’s father is a man of significant money and influence. I will be very interested to dig into this situation and see whether he had some hand behind the scenes in brokering for the Spanish owned HRT team to take Ricciardo. I suspect not, but you never know.
Ricciardo doesn’t seem to have had much to do with the process, only finding out shortly before the announcement that this was his next career move. He is going to continue with his season of World Series by Renault in parallel, which is a real tester for him.
Certainly to go by what HRT owner Jose Ramon Carabante said, he is hoping there could be more to come in terms of helping Red Bull develop drivers. They already have Toro Rosso for that, of course.
“This agreement is a reward for all the hard work Hispania Racing has shown since we started in Formula One last year,” Carabante said. “We’re proud that the Formula One world champion team has trusted us in their effort of developing their drivers. Let’s hope that this is just the start of a fruitful relationship.”
Hispania is undergoing some change at the moment. The team has been acquired by Thesan Capital, a Spanish investment firm, which has taken on Carabante’s stake. There have been suggestions that Dr Colin Kolles may be moving on from his role as team leader.
Carabante appeared to be one of those F1 team owners who underestimated the cost involved in taking the team on. HRT has the smallest budget of all the F1 teams.
So the question is, is Ricciardo making a terrible mistake in jumping at the first F1 race seat that comes his way?
Will this opportunity be a good thing for the Australian, or will it create a bad impression to see a young driver who’s tipped for the top being lapped three times as the HRTs were in Valencia, setting a fastest lap some six seconds slower than the race winning Red Bull car. Silverstone always shows up a bad car and although he knows it well from his British F3 winning season, he will be looking in his mirrors as much as at the track ahead.
On the upside Ricciardo will get some F1 race experience and will have a good benchmark against Tonio Liuzzi, whom some F1 observers rate pretty highly. At Force India he was not as strong as Adrian Sutil, who is now struggling to beat Paul di Resta.
Not every promising young driver can start in a race winning car, as Lewis Hamilton did, for example in 2007. Fernando Alonso started in a Minardi in 2001, doing a full season in the back of the grid team. He started dead last at Silverstone that year, qualifying over four seconds off the pole time. In the race he was lapped three times. But he always says that year was a great learning year out of the spotlight. I remember many occasions that year being impressed with the speed the Minardi was being driven with and he certainly did enough to earn his move through the ranks with Renault. Flavio Briatore was steering that process, as Marko is with Ricciardo.
In this respect it was similar to Ayrton Senna’s first F1 season with Toleman in 1984.
So it can work out, but it’s crucial to do what both Senna and Alonso did in their apprentice season and stand out in a poor car. We will quickly see what Ricciardo is made of and he will have 10 races (it is thought Karthikeyan will race in India) to make his mark before Marko makes a decision on the next step for him.