Karthikeyan returns to Formula One, HRT woes, Jarno Trulli's ugly turn, The race for the last seats.
Karthikeyan returns to Formula One
Indian Narain Karthikeyan has secured a race seat at the Spanish HRT team, and will return to racing in Formula One after an absence of five years. The 33-year old driver has already participated in Formula One for the Jordan team in 2005, and has been test driver for the Williams team in 2006 and 2007. He has also been active in the A1GP series for A1 Team India, and won the race in China in 2007, and the race in Great Britain at Brands Hatch in 2008. In 2009 he participated in the 24 Hours of Le Mans, for the Kolles team, led by Colin Kolles. Not a surprise, as Kolles and Karthikeyan had worked together before at the Jordan team in 2005, and they will be working together again at HRT this year.
HRT team principal Kolles confirmed the news last week, "It is a great pleasure for us to have signed Karthikeyan as our race driver for 2011." And added, "I have known Narain for a long time and he can revert to the experiences he gained when he was competing for Jordan Grand Prix and being test and reserve driver for Williams F1."
Karthikeyan is of course looking forward to this season, "I'm looking forward to racing for HRT and to working again with Dr Colin Kolles. We have a long standing and excellent working relationship together." Karthikeyan has raced in the NASCAR Truck Series and Superleague Formula in 2010, and is not at all worried about his fitness. "Ramping up my fitness regimen big time. I see plenty of hours in the gym in the near future. Looking forward to it though," he twittered after the HRT announcement.
Karthikeyan's return to Formula One will be welcomed by the organizers of the inaugural Indian Grand Prix in October this year. Karthikeyan on Twitter about the support of his home crowd, "I'm looking forward to the Indian public spurring me on with their blessings and good wishes. I've worked really hard 2 come back 2 F1 & it will be a dream come true 2 race in front of the home crowd in the Indian GP in October."
Karthikeyan is backed by the Indian Tata Group, the largest private corporate group in India which has its headquarters in Mumbai. The multinational company has interests in chemicals, steel, automobiles, information technology, communication, power, tea and hospitality The sponsorship is said to be worth about $8 million, and Karthikeyan has joined the list of pay-drivers in Formula One. Kolles about the phenomenon of pay-drivers, "What is Sauber doing with Mr [Sergio] Perez? Williams with Mr [Pastor] Maldonado? Do you think we are running on air? The money has to come from somewhere."
Although Karthikeyan is confident about his future with HRT, there are a few things that should worry him. This week it has emerged HRT is no longer a member of the Formula One Teams Association (FOTA). HRT severed the ties with the FOTA last December, according to HRT because the FOTA favors the bigger teams. A spokesman of the team, "I am able to confirm we [HRT] have left FOTA in December. Hispania Racing wish FOTA the best in the future. But it made no sense for a small team as we are, because of the politics." The FOTA, however, has quite an other explanation for the sudden HRT departure. FOTA's general secretary Simone Perillo told Reuters HRT had simply not paid the annual fee of 100,000 Euro. "I can confirm that Hispania Racing F1 Team did not fulfill their 2010 FOTA membership fee obligations," she said
Although HRT recently announced they are building a new monococque designed by Geoff Willis after their deal with Toyota fell through, statements made by Karthikeyan in the Indian media suggest HRT will race with an upgraded version of the 2010 by Dallara built chassis. "They [HRT] will participate with an upgraded version of their 2010 chassis," Karthikeyan was quoted saying. Kolles stated last Friday: "We are now in the process of building the new car. The monococques are about ready, the gearbox and engine and hydraulics are there and the aero package is being released." Thus it appears HRT will race with an upgraded 2010 Dallara chassis, a Cosworth engine, and the Williams gearbox and hydraulics.
The Indian Deccan Chronicle reported Karun Chandhok is tangled in a legal battle with HRT for breaching his contract in 2010. The newspaper quoted Kolles saying, "When he signed an agreement with us for the 2010 season, Karun made a lot of promises on paper. But, he failed to fulfill his obligations. We waited for some time, but we didn't have any other choice than suspending him at the German GP." Apparently Chandhok only paid 2 of the 8 million Euro he had promised, and Kolles even claims that in fact had halted the progress and development work of the 2010 car. "We were planning to do certain upgrades on the car, but [as a result] everything got disturbed," said Kolles.
HRT is still talking with Sakon Yamamoto, Pedro de la Rosa and Christian Klien for the second race seat, but Bruno Senna is permanently ousted from the Spanish team. "A lot of drivers are showing interest for a vacant seat. We are going to pick the best out of them. Our target for the season is to establish Hispania as the best newcomers," Kolles said. He was adamant about the decision Senna won't drive for HRT this year, "I can definitely say that Mr Bruno Senna is not going to race for HRT. 100 per cent not." And that's what it is, one man's dream can be another man's nightmare, which leads to the next topic.
Jarno Trulli's ugly turn
Lotus driver and Grand Prix Drivers' Association (GPDA) chairman Jarno Trulli has slammed the recent developments in Formula One, especially the pay-drivers are not good for the sport according to Trulli. "In the last couple of years, F1 has taken an ugly turn. Contracts are worth less and less. The only thing that interests is the big money brought by various 'little' drivers. Only four teams can guarantee excellent drivers. As for the rest, the level is extremely poor," the 36-year old Italian told La Gazetta dello Sport. Trulli debuted in Formula One in 1997, and has since then driven for Minardi, Prost, Jordan, Renault, Toyota and Team Lotus, and is together with Michael Schumacher and Rubens Barrichello one of the most experienced drivers on the grid.
Drivers like Nico Hulkenberg, Nick Heidfeld, Pedro de la Rosa and Vitantonio Liuizi are facing huge problems finding a race seat this season. Trulli reckons money is the culprit, "Money is playing too big a role and the lower series like Formula 3 are too expensive. I couldn't repeat my own career these days." Due to the economic recession, the large manufactures like BMW, Honda and Toyota have left, and have opened the door for small private teams, who have barely enough financial resources to survive.
"Only four teams can guarantee excellent drivers. As for the rest, the level is extremely poor. When I started there was a lot of quality because many constructors aimed at having winning drivers. Nowadays many teams' budgets are made of the money brought by the drivers," Trulli said about the current situation. And added, "Formula One has gone back 20 years: many small teams and a few constructors."
Although it wasn't very nice of Trulli to judge the level of some of his fellow competitors as 'extremely poor', there is an element of truth in what he said, the above story about HRT illustrates the current situation. Team Lotus led by Malaysian Tony Fernandes is in good financial shape, and by hiring experienced drivers, they hope to continue their way to the top. But if Team Lotus would lose their financial support, they also would have to hire pay-drivers.
"Lotus is the most serious team among the newest entries. But in the event of financial troubles they too, would need to find money. Serious as it is, our organization is small, the marketing department isn't what you'd find in a top team and it's hard to keep going," Trulli said about the Lotus team. Another factor that plays an important role, is the fact the FIA still hasn't materialized much of their plans regarding the Resources Restriction Agreement (RRA), while the budgets of the small teams vary from $30 to $50 million, teams like Red Bull, Ferrari and McLaren can still spend more than $300 million each year.
The race for the last seats
There are only three vacant seats left in Formula One, one at HRT, and two at Force India who also haven't announced their drivers line-up for 2011. As said, money will play an important role. Adrian Sutil and Liuzzi have performed excellent in the Force India car last season, and theoretically speaking, they have two experienced drivers at hand, but team owner Vijay Mallya is still very reluctant to make a final decision. But on the other hand, with only three seats remaining, Mallya is in a good position, drivers who want to join his team, might be tempted to spend a lot more money than usual, the good old law of supply and demand is at work here.
Liuzzi is adamant he has a contract for 2011, but as Trulli said, contracts are worth less and less. "Force India hasn't informed me about any change and for me only the words of the team count. I'm pretty calm, because I have a very clear deal with the team for the 2011 season and if they should decide to take other routes, they know what they are facing," the Italian said about the current stand off." He also rejected rumors Force India would help him to get a race seat at HRT, or even a place in the German DTM touring car series. "I wasn't offered anything, as I said I haven't spoken to Force India about anything like that," he commented.
The latest rumors are that Sutil and Paul di Resta will be the first and second driver for the Indian team, while Hulkenberg would be given a testing role. Di Resta, who won the DTM title last year, could be exchanged for Liuzzi, who would then take over di Resta's DTM cockpit. But, as they always do, both managers of Sutil and Hulkenberg have denied the rumors, and have said they will not make any announcement before the news is confirmed by Force India.
Join us again next week for another episode of "Formula One: On and off track"
See also: Formula One - On and Off track week 1