HRT is currently for sale, and the general impression in Formula One is that buyers are not exactly queuing up. Considering that the team’s history consists of three thoroughly uncompetitive seasons, that is perhaps not so surprising. But the sale of the team does present an interesting opportunity to the existing big teams.
Each of the 12 current Formula One teams operates independently. That is, each team designs, builds and races its own chassis. Engines are sourced from one of four suppliers: Renault, Ferrari, Mercedes-Benz or Cosworth. There are some technical partnerships between the teams, notable examples being Caterham’s use of Red Bull’s gearbox and McLaren’s technical partnership with Marussia. But in general, the the teams exist in isolation.
There is one exception to the pattern of separation between Formula One teams. And that is the relationship between Red Bull Racing and Scuderia Toro Rosso. Both teams are owned by energy drink giant Red Bull, and until regulations made it illegal from 2010 the two teams ran essentially the same chassis. Toro Rosso is, for all intents and purposes, the junior Red Bull team, and is used to develop drivers. It famously produced currently triple World Champion Sebastian Vettel, who drove for Toro Rosso during 2007 and 2008 before moving to Red Bull Racing in 2009.
Red Bull’s ownership of two teams has some particular benefits. From a marketing perspective, it provides an advertising platform twice the size of any other in Formula One – instead of having two cars in Red Bull colours, there are four. For driver development, it is the perfect solution. In-season testing in Formula One is virtually forbidden for reasons of cost saving. Other teams run test and development drivers during Friday morning practice on Grand Prix weekends. Red Bull runs their development drivers in full race seats at Toro Rosso, which gives the drivers infinitely better experience than any other team can offer. From a strategic perspective, one sixth of the grid is racing for Red Bull, which is crucial on the track – a Red Bull Racing driver in the fight for the World Championship can count on having an easy time passing a Toro Rosso.
Having a junior team works very well for Red Bull. So why not for other teams? Fairly obviously, it is a question of finance. Red Bull are prepared to pump money into two teams, and it is paying off. They are winning the Drivers’ and Constructors’ Championships consistently, and have a ready supply of capable drivers waiting in the wings. Perhaps the other teams with big budgets should look at a similar idea. The teams in such a position are Ferrari, McLaren, and possibly Mercedes.
Taking over HRT would have some significant advantages over starting a new team or running a separate development program outside of Formula One. The team already exists. It has a base in Madrid and a race team with three years of experience. In Pedro de la Rosa and Narain Karthikeyan, HRT has two capable race drivers. All that is required is funding and the right technical personnel to help the team progress. And, to be frank, HRT’s performance cannot get worse. For three seasons, HRT cars have been at the back of the field. The only available direction is forward.
Red Bull saw the value in HRT in 2011, when there was a need to give Daniel Ricciardo a taste of racing at the highest level. Red Bull paid for Ricciard to drive for HRT in 11 races of the 2011 season before offering him a full-time driver for Toro Rosso in 2012.
This is a golden opportunity for one of the big teams in Formula One to create an increased presence in the sport. A junior team equipped for driver development has already shown value for Red Bull. It is time for one of the other major players in Formula One to follow suit.