Earlier this month encouraging news was emerging from HRT and its potential partners. In short succession two announcements were made. HRT and Williams announced a gearbox technology partnership. Then days later Pascal Vasselon of Toyota Motorsport GMBH commented “I cannot say much yet, but we continue to discuss with Hispania, I think we will be able to make an announcement a little later”. The team also announced Juan Villalonga as a new backer, with Bernie Ecclestones blessing. These events culminated with the team successfully ended the season in eleventh place in WCC, ahead of Virgin Racing. Things looked good for the team.
However today Toyota Motorsport announced that “all cooperation with Hispania Racing F1 Team (HRT) has been terminated and will not resume”. This deal was believed to be for the rights to use the Toyota TF110 design, modified to the 2011 rules. Although other rumours suggested that HRT were to buy the entire Toyota Motorsport operation, this was believed to wide of the mark. A Toyota chassis mated to the Cosworth engine and Williams gearbox\hydraulics would have been a competitive package. However the announcement means two things, firstly the line in the statement from Toyota that HRT had not met “contractual payment obligations” suggests budget was the source of the issue. With Villalonga now backing the team, this may have been down to a cash flow issue in the transition between the limited 2010 budget and the presumably secured backing for 2011. With ties severed to both the 2010 partner, Dallara and their potential 2011 partner, Toyota Motorsport. It seems HRT are now left with no technical partner for the chassis and with little time to find and establish a relationship with another chassis builder. Moreover, there’s now just over three months until testing resumes and four months until Round1 of the 2011 F1 World Championship. Precious little time to get a chassis programme underway. Their competitors will already have firm design plans and have started the build on their monocoques and crash structures.
So what options to HRT have to remain in F1 in 2011?
Over the past two years there have been entries available to the F1 championship, as a result there has been a corresponding increase in companies with recent F1 design programmes. These programmes could be restarted if funding could be secured. As most of these businesses failed to gain an entry due to lack of funding, rather any lack in technical prowess. Its most likely one of these companies HRT will look to, if they are to build a new car with a new partner.
As a team putting a bid in for both the 2010 and 2011 season they are the ideal partner. Their design team headed by the experienced Sergio Rinland have maintained their F1 programme despite the disappointment in not getting a place on the grid for 2011. Epsilon have in recent years designed, built and campaigned a LMP car. Making their recent background similar to Wirth Research, who were the technical partner on the Acura programme. Equally their Spanish background matches the nominally Spanish HRT team. I’m not sure if Epsilon were only looking for an independent entry, one would imagine that if a deal were to be done between HRT\Epsilon it would have been done by now.
Being a volume racing car manufacture Lola have all the in-house facilities and knowledge to produce an F1 chassis. One of the teams to present a proposal for the 2009 season, they lost out to Lotus, Virgin, HRT and USF1. They had got as far as a complete wind tunnel model, lead by their own staff and external consultants experienced within F1. The chassis appeared to be well progressed, considering the early stage it was cancelled. Although the programme was cancelled before the 2009 season, the car was designed to those regulations, which now closely match those of the 2011 rules.
Having been formed from the Super Aguri team and consisting of many ex-Arrows F1
Staff, Formtech are almost a ready-to-go F1 operation. They own the IP for both the original Arrows based SA01, but also the Honda based SA02 & SA03. Having started a design programme for the 2009 season, the team folded in 2008. However the programme provided input into the dominant Brawn BGP001 and many of its designers have gone on to other F1 teams with some success. Of course to be legal and competitive Formtech will either have to design a new car or modify the Aguri designs. But they did just such a process at short notice with the far more outdated Arrows back in 2006. Formtech were approached to partner prospective entrants to the 2009 season, so they are a realistic potential partner.
Despite never getting off the ground, the USF1 programme did produce designs for a car conforming to 2010 rules and with a Cosworth engine. Its not clear who owns this design data, but there remains a body of knowledge and resources within America to develop an F1 car. Of course the problems within the team did lead to questionable design work and the car was incomplete, both physically and in design terms. This is perhaps a long shot in seeking a partner within the timescales available.
Another of the teams with a long held desire to be in F1. This long term plan has lead to the teams well equipped factory maintaining an F1 programme over a number of years. As with Wirth, Epsilon and Lola the team operate an LMP project, which is close enough in aero and chassis terms to be representative of an F1 design. However like Epsilon, Dome may not be seeking to partner with another team in order to get into F1. Just as importantly they would need to ramp up their design work to get an F1 chassis designed and built within the time available.
Already providing Virgin with their chassis and gearbox case, Wirth are independent in a similar way (legally) as Red Bull Technology which provided both Red Bull Racing and Toro Rosso with their design IP. Wirth were rumoured to be providing Villeneuve with a year old Virgin chassis, but most likely Virgin have a clause in their contract with Wirth not to supply another team in F1.
Perhaps on shakier legal ground would be Williams aiding the team with an old chassis or even independently designing a chassis. Williams do take on external design work such as the Metro 6R4 rally car, the current F2 car or BMW’s LMP programme. Their supply of gearboxes and existing knowledge of the Cosworth engine would certainly speed up any programme. Its unlikely Williams would risk rushing through a programme, simply to keep HRT on the grid.
The team remain up for sale and the price although diminished from a few years, is still a significant investment. An acquisition of STR for its design IP and assets would be a quick solution for HRT. But perhaps unwanted from Bernie Ecclestones point of view, as the grid would be another team short for 2011.
Go it alone
This really leaves HRT with the only option of designing a new chassis or redesigning their current chassis. With Geoff Willis as Technical director, its possible the team could achieve this. Either with contracted-in staff or a design bureau such as Lotus used, the knowledge can easily be bought in. Equally with the huge network of sub contractors supplying F1, the manufacturing could be farmed out to 3rd parties. The approach would depend on whether HRT own the design IP of the Dallara chassis. If they do own it, then modifying the chassis would be the quickest route to a race ready car. Albeit a car with compromises and resultantly suffering on pace.
Main rules changes for 2011 are, Pirelli tyres, fixed weight distribution (45F/55R), no double diffuser. Then there’s the option of KERS and an adjustable rear wing. Presuming the optional wing and KERS wouldn’t be taken up, this leaves the team the task of redesigning; the suspension, the mechanical layout for weight distribution and of course an aero programme. The suspension redesign would be at least in part aided by Williams providing the gearbox casing which will fix the rear geometry.
Designing from scratch at this stage would probably mean a very late build and many compromises in design. Simply to get a very quick monocoque, design in order to get the drawings signed off for manufacture and crash testing. This would be quite a serious undertaking, but would underline HRTs commitment to F1.
Everything boils down to how serious the team are to remain in the sport, which is largely dependant on how much money HRT have to invest in 2011. At this stage its hard to see the team getting anything other than lightly a redesigned chassis ready for the Bahrain GP next year.