HVM Racing boss Keith Wiggins remains on the scene and is actively pursuing consultancy and design opportunities within motorsport.
“The days of making team ownership at the top levels of motorsport into a successful business – and I mean true operational business – are over for all but the few teams aligned with manufacturers.”
So a typically blunt Keith Wiggins tells Motorsport.com. The man who made Pacific Racing one of the most revered junior formula teams of the 1980s and ’90s is still keen to pursue his love of racing, despite developing a sideline in the building construction industry. But he’s also developed the smarts – by his own admission, late in his career – to avoid making losses and pursuing fruitless opportunities.
“I’ve never lost my love of the sport, and hopefully never will,” Wiggins continues, “and there are a couple of things I’d still like to do in racing, whether it’s consultancy or managing – you know, helping to develop and produce funded projects.
“But nah, I’m not going to do my own thing any more as far as team ownership’s concerned. And I think you’ll see the other so-called privateers in the top ranks of the sport will keep disappearing. They’re always going to be struggling to overcome the financial challenges of motorsport today. Sooner or later it hits them that without big-league backing, the numbers don’t make sense.”
Wiggins’ Pacific team won Formula Ford 1600 championships with Harald Huysman and Bertrand Gachot, Formula Ford 2000 titles with Gachot and JJ Lehto, the prestigious British Formula 3 championship with Lehto, and the 1991 Formula 3000 series [effectively what’s now called GP2] with Christian Fittipaldi. There was almost a second F3000 title with David Coulthard in ’93, in a title battle that came down to the last race.
Then, following a two-year attempt at Formula 1 in the mid-’90s, Wiggins joined Lola as president for four years to help the marque extract itself from a financial crisis, brought on by its own pie-in-the-sky attempts to join the F1 grid. That done, Wiggins moved across the Atlantic to join the Bettenhausen Group to run its CART Indy car team following Tony Bettenhausen Jr.’s death in a plane crash.
In the new guise of HVM Racing – Herdez Viva Mexico – the Indianapolis-based squad scored several wins and more than 30 podium finishes through the final eight seasons of CART/Champ Car. In fact, as late as 2007 with Robert Doornbos at the wheel, Minardi-HVM was a championship contender…until Sebastien Bourdais and Newman/Haas Racing went on a late-season winning spree.
HVM gained much publicity from running the irrepressible Simona De Silvestro in IndyCar from 2010 to ’12, but suffered dreadfully with the ball-and-chain Lotus engine in the last of those seasons. That would prove HVM’s final year as an individual IndyCar entity. Its final entry was for E.J. Viso’s car at Andretti-HVM in 2013, but since then, he’s been notable by his absence in the IndyCar pit lane.
“I admit, doing that deal with Michael [Andretti] at Andretti Autosport gave me a fresh perspective,” Wiggins recalls. “It was very nice in some regards, knowing that when accidents occurred, it wasn’t me footing the bill. I didn’t have that constant worry about financial implications, although old habits die hard, and I did continue to look for sponsors with them.
“But I didn’t get myself completely integrated in that project,” he adds, “because the ultimate plan was that I’d be in charge of Andretti’s rumored sports car team if that ever got off the ground.”
It didn’t, however, and so over the past two seasons Wiggins has investigated the whole gamut of racing, and has become particularly interested in the Global Rallycross Championship and Formula E. However, a potential GRC deal threatened to bring on flashbacks to HVM’s final few seasons of Indy car racing.
“Yeah, we were in talks with a manufacturer [about GRC],” he says, “and I was very interested in the design and manufacture of the car. I was planning to work with Tom Brown [long-time HVM engineer], Bruce Ashmore [famed Indy car designer for first Lola, then Reynard] and some great design guys in the UK. To me, it looked like a chance to return to the days when we designed, and built our own products, looking for the advantage, that edge.
“But then I got the impression the project was being done on the cheap. Turns out they wanted to find drivers who’d bring some of the budget, and their deadline also became unrealistic. And so we walked away. There’s no way you want to get involved with a famous brand and then do a sub-standard job because of the marketing department imposing restrictions like that.”
Shedding the past
In line with Wiggins’ new direction of using his team’s expertise to carry out other people’s projects rather than create something out of nothing, a couple of weeks ago there was a total clear-out of the HVM shop, with cars and equipment going up for auction. Keith admits he was not at all sentimental about the process.
“There was no point in keeping all that clutter,” he says, “and honestly, the memories I had looking through that stuff are… mixed, let’s say. I understand that principle of short-term pain for long-term gain, but when it’s just permanent pain for not much gain, the novelty wears off.
“This can’t be a hobby, done on a wing and a prayer: it’s got to be a sensible business proposition with commercial partners benefiting and where you can control your own direction to get results, or there’s no point. When I first came to America, I loved the CART series and all it offered, even after F1. But once the [U.S. open-wheel] merger happened, it was never the same.
“It just took me a few years to recognize and acknowledge that, so I probably hurt my reputation due to lack of money in the final few seasons. You know, it takes a while to beat the drug. So I’m taking a different approach after about 15 years of being a team owner in Europe, and about 15 years as a team owner here. We had decent success along the way, things I’m proud of, definitely. But at my age [Wiggins turns 58 next year], I realize it’s time to do something different.”
Wiggins has always been capable of observing auto racing with a healthy but amused skepticism but remains very enthusiastic about any ways in which racing can expand beyond its traditional roots.
To that end, he now embraces categories of the sport that have blossomed as a result of (a) an evolution in spectator taste – the aforementioned rallycross, for example – and (b) manufacturers once more wanting relevance from racing, rather than merely brand promotion.
I’d want to be in a branch of the sport where I feel we could make a difference, where we could use our skills
“The number of OEMs who just want exposure for their brand is dwindling,” he observes, “so I see hybrid and EV forms of racing as a necessary way for the sport to develop.
“I’ve been interested in Formula E ever since it was in its early concept stages and I’ve had several discussions about getting involved in some capacity. HVM Racing is still an entity and we now have a company called Prototyped Technologies. I’d want to be in a branch of the sport where I feel we could make a difference, where we could use our skills.
“We’ve moved into new offices and we still have design and CFD capacity and engineering capability, too. And so I’m keeping an eye open for design and consultancy projects in whatever capacity is required and in any type of racing. We’ve currently got some military projects going, but no question about it, racing is something I still want to do.”
And given Wiggins’ capacity to find new business, that seems a realistic ambition. In fact, the only unrealistic thing Wiggins ever did in racing was attempt to make money as a team owner in IndyCar. HVM Racing, following the open-wheel merger, wasn’t a vanity project as such, but it was one that involved a certain amount of denial and a large amount of financial outlay.
When Wiggins re-emerges – and he vows it is a case of when, not if – you can be sure it will be for reasons that make sound business sense.