Sidepodcast - All for F1 and F1 for all

107 Per Cent
Ryan Gault

Ryan is one of those people who follow every sport going, from football to speedway and golf to ice hockey. He has followed Formula 1 for as long as he can remember, which just so happens to be the 2001 US Grand Prix, Mika Häkkinen's last ever win. Since then he has followed the tribulations of the greatest Swiss team since he heard about Grasshoppers Zürich, Sauber. Currently studying Journalism at the University of Huddersfield, while also attempting to write about TV and Eurovision.

HRT y los Español - Moving house and losing a race - the trials and tribulations of HRT


La Caja Mágica in Madrid
Credit: Hispania Racing Team

A few months ago, HRT moved into La Caja Mágica in Madrid. And whilst it wasn’t widespread news, nor enthralling enough for anyone to really care, it signified a key moment in the evolution of the first ever Spanish Formula One team.

No longer would the staff be forced to travel to Valencia and Munich to help the progress of their cars. For once, HRT has a permanent base in the heart of their homeland, the furthering of ties between the team and Spain.

King of Spain

“We needed a Spanish Formula One team in Spain and now we have it,” Carlos Gracia, President of the Spanish Motorsport Federation, declared after his second visit to the factory. It’s unsurprising he sees the importance of HRT in Formula One, and its necessary importance in growing the sport in Spain. For years, Spain has relied on Fernando Alonso to grow the profile of the four-wheeled sport in a two-wheel loving country. His success in 2005 and 2006 was a critical factor in the rise of attendances at the Spanish Grand Prix held in Barcelona. Over 140,000 people went to the race in 2007.

But the popularity of Formula 1 is linked in a perfect correlation to Alonso’s success. After his trials and tribulations in Renault between 2008 and 2009, attendances fell and fell. Only 78,000 turned up to watch the 2011 Spanish Grand Prix, with only a slight rise reported for 2012. Granted, this fall is also linked to the Eurozine crisis, with Spain the latest country to enter recession. A simple ticket, €120, is hardly worth justifying when many can’t afford it.

Still, Alonso remains integral for those 78,000 who turn up, many bearing the flag of Alonso’s home town of Oviedo, or the Spanish national flag. You do wonder how many would turn up if Alonso didn’t race. It’s hard to forget the streams of fans who left the first race around Valencia in 2008 after his first lap retirement. Fernando Alonso is Spain’s one man stand against motorcycling.

Patriot games

HRT are at least not afraid to show their colours and be proud of it. Luis Pérez-Sala, the team principal, is Catalan. He himself is one of the few Spaniards to have ever competed in a Formula One race, a total of 32 with the perennial backmarkers Minardi. He even scored a point in the 1989 British Grand Prix (and if we exclude that US Grand Prix, the only time both Minardi’s have ever got into the points). But while his appointment hasn’t seen a massive turn in fortunes, they have continued to further their Spanish identity. And he’s a lot more likeable than Colin Kolles. Added to that, they have Spanish drivers in Pedro de la Rosa and Dani Clos in their ranks, they are making sure the first Spanish team, is a Spanish team.

Technical director Toni Cuquerella and Luis Pérez-Sala on the pitwall in Valencia
Technical director Toni Cuquerella and Luis Pérez-Sala on the pitwall in ValenciaCredit: Hispania Racing Team

Their move to La Caja Mágica furthers this effort. But it’s a hard ask to get the country behind the team. As much as HRT try, they simply can’t and won’t attract the same sort of popularity unless they move off the back of the grid, which is hard to see happening anytime soon. They lack the charm and charisma that former backmarkers seemed to have.

Minardi and Super Aguri, for example, had a cult status despite rarely challenging anyone and ending up with drivers who simply weren’t up to the job most of the time (Yoong, Kiesa, Ide to name but a few. But we shouldn’t forget starting the careers of Alonso and Webber). It rings of HRT a lot, but their troubles and easiness to dislike has put them at a severe disadvantage. Does anyone go to a race just to see HRT? I can’t even see that being a possibility in Spain. They’re just a team everyone likes to point and laugh at, an easy target.

Attention seeking

On top of all that, they face the added difficulty of the popularity of motorcycling - a sport much loved in Spain, just behind football. There are six Spaniards in MotoGP, and in the two junior categories there are Spaniards everywhere you look; a fact no doubt highlighted by the inclusion of four Spanish races in Jerez, Barcelona, Valencia and Aragón (where De la Rosa played an important part in designing the layout).

Attendances are higher than in Formula One as well - 84,000 watched the 2011 Catalan Grand Prix held on the same Barcelona circuit which saw 78,000 turn up for Formula One. 124,000 turned up to Jerez in 2011, a clear sign of its popularity, in which a country has four races, they can still attract such numbers shows how much it is loved.

The economic situation will further hinder Spain, Formula One and HRT from next year. Barcelona and Valencia are expected to alternate, in the same way Hockenheim and Nürburgring do for the German Grand Prix. Luis Pérez-Sala is unsurprisingly unhappy.

As a Spanish team, Barcelona and Valencia are our two most important races in the championship. We have a lot of supporters here and a lot of sponsors as well.

- Luis Pérez-Sala

HRT’s continuing attempts to get a foothold of popularity in Spain will be more difficult with the reduction of a race, but ultimately it is a fair decision from a sporting perspective. Attendances for both races have been struggling, Spain simply can't afford to host two F1 events anymore which is detrimental to HRT, who lose out on valuable promotion and sponsorship opportunities in their home country, and spend more and more of the limited money they have to travel the ever increasing miles to each race.

El futuro es brillante

Pedro and Narain in Spain
Credit: Hispania Racing Team

Short term pain will remain for HRT, they’ve stagnated in their progress for three years now, but for once they have a permanent base and a hopeful future to be had in La Caja Mágica. It will take time and effort to progress, but at least some stability has been ensured.

They don’t yet have the drivers to match the ambition, both are short term options in hope of much needed cash. HRT lack sponsors and ultimately lack money, a higher profile in Spain is ultimately required to progress. And that isn’t something that comes when languishing at the back. A never ending cycle that won’t help HRT in Spain.

It is still a start though, and like Pedro de la Rosa mentions in the press release, “We’re on the right path to consolidate ourselves and gain confidence and competitiveness.” La Caja Mágica may not be newsworthy, but for HRT, it’s a place where they can get themselves together and grow up as a team, in the heartland of their own country.