Race Weekend Central

Only Yesterday: The First Drive To Survive

In 2008, the global economy collapsed.

The domino effects were felt all throughout racing. In NASCAR, for instance, multiple teams merged and others shut down due to the sudden lack of sponsorship. American Open Wheel racing was forced to remerge into IndyCar in order to stay alive.

Even the glamorous world of Formula One dramatically felt the impact. BMW, which had bought into the Williams team just a year earlier, suddenly had cold feet and pulled out of F1. Honda followed, leaving a shell behind for Braun Racing to shockingly win the 2009 constructor’s championship and provided a base for Mercedes to return to Grand Prix racing the next year.

Following the 2009 season, Toyota completely dropped out of F1. Their decision, which meant just 18 cars on the 2010 provisional grid, led to the FIA and FOM to approve three new teams for that season.

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All three teams joined F1 with the expectation that they would be operating under a cost cap. However, at the 11th hour, the bigger teams vetoed the cap and it was not put into effect. The result was that all three teams would be woefully underfunded compared to the rest of the field.

The full story of all three teams will be told over two Only Yesterday columns, with this column covering two of the three new teams and the last coming later on this year. USF1 and its failures was such another kettle of fish that they may well be covered in the future. For now, though, the tale of Virgin Racing, Hispania Racing and Lotus F1 begins here.

Hispania, which henceforth shall be known as HRT, is the punchline to almost every single joke about this era. They raced three seasons before folding following 2012.

Their first car, the F110, received no mid-season upgrades after the original owners of the entry were unable to pay Dallara or engine supplier Cosworth. The car completely missed preseason testing and ran its first official laps when Bruno Senna drove three installation laps in Q1. The team’s other driver, Karun Chandhok, was unable to participate entirely on Friday as his car wasn’t ready yet.

Maybe the craziest part of that first weekend is that it was the most successful first weekend in the team’s history, as it would outright DNQ the opening weekends in 2011 and 2012 due to falling below the 107% rule. Even still, the only reason they made the race in 2010 was because the rule wasn’t in use at the time. Senna qualified the car 1.7 seconds ahead of his teammate but was still 23rd on the grid, eight seconds off the polesitter.

In three seasons, HRT had a best finish of 13th. The only two notable moments in their entire history, outside of being very slow and DNQing both cars twice, was that time champion Sebastian Vettel called Narain Karthikeyan a cucumber and giving Daniel Ricciardo his first drive in F1.

Of all of the drivers who competed for the new 2010 entries throughout their entire lifetimes, Ricciardo was one of only three who won a Grand Prix at some point in their careers. Ricciardo joined the team midway through the 2011 season in a deal the team made with Red Bull, allowing the Aussie to get some valuable seat time in a completely non-competitive car ahead of his stint at Toro Rosso the next year.

Really, the only incredible thing that HRT was able to accomplish was at least beating Virgin in 2010 and 2011 for 11th in constructor’s points. After finishing 12th and last in 2012, the team went up for sale. No buyers were found, and the field shrank to 11 teams.

In 2010 and 2011, it was no question that the best of the back-markers was none other than Lotus Racing, or in 2011, Lotus Team.

In 2010, Heikki Kovalanien was able to drag the T127 to on occasion challenge the midfield, finishing as high as 12th once. The car was less reliable in general than its two rivals, but that didn’t matter much because with no points being scored by any of them, only best finishes mattered.

Here’s the fun part of this team though. Lotus, the car company, had nothing to actually do with the team itself. In reality, the team’s owner bought a license to use the Lotus name from Lotus’ parent company.

Lotus the car brand started legal warfare in late 2010 to get the F1 team to change their name but couldn’t get them to. So the Lotus brand bought 25% of the Renault team and formed Lotus Renault GP, leading to two Lotus-branded teams with Renault power units on the grid in 2011.

Although Lotus Team was the Great Value version of the two Lotus teams, it was still handily faster than the other two expansion teams. This time, Jarno Trulli stepped up and gave the team their best performance of the season with a 13th-place effort (which happened twice). Lotus Team was more reliable than in 2010, but didn’t really have their speed until the back half of the season when Kovalanien was able to fire away a string of 14th-places.

2012 was more of the same for the newly-rebranded Caterham F1 Team. They only had three DNFs the entire season, and the highlight of the year was when Vitaly Petrov finished 11th in the season finale at Brazil. It was the first time any of these teams seriously contended for points in a race, albeit it coming in such a high-attrition race that Marussia (the rebranded Virgin team) finished 12th with Charles Pic at the wheel.

Marussia finishing 13th in the 2013 Malaysian Grand Prix doomed Caterham to finish 11th and last in constructor’s that season. The team took a step back after looking to potentially start challenging in the midfield.

2014 turned out to be the end of the line for the team. An all-new driver lineup of future Indianapolis 500 winner Marcus Ericsson and future WEC champion Kamui Kobayashi was able to produce still more solid but unspectacular results. Still, Caterham had more speed than Marussia, with Marussia only being more reliable.

The team’s outlook changed very suddenly at Monaco. Ericsson finished 11th, a season-high for the team. But a Marussia finished ninth, scoring the lone points of any of the three teams in their entire histories. This was effectively the end of the season for Caterham, as they were very unlikely to match that result.

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Back then, Formula One Management would only distribute results prize money to the top-10 teams in the championship. Because of this, Caterham was sold off a couple of months following Monaco to a number of unnamed investors, and said investors didn’t have the funding for the team to actually operate.

Late in the season, Caterham skipped the United States and Brazilian Grand Prix entirely, due to a lack of funding. The team turned to the most 2014 way to get the last possible pennies out of its fanbase: it set up a crowdfunding effort.

The Kickstarter was successful enough to get the team back on the grid for the final race of the year at Abu Dhabi. Kobayashi retired early from the race, and Will Stevens finished 17th in place of Ericsson.

Both Caterham and Marussia entered administration following the season, but Marussia was able to get out of it at the 11th hour with enough funding to compete in 2015. Caterham F1, after a five-year tenure in which they at times flirted with midfield contention, was no more.

Why did Caterham die and Marussia survive? At the end of the day, the big reason was those Monaco points. That ensured the team got the prize money it needed to survive, while dooming Caterham to die.

You may be wondering who got those Monaco points. Who was the hero of Marussia? It was actually a bright-eyed Frenchman, the grandson of a 24 Hours of Le Mans winner, the brightest star of the Ferrari driver academy at the time.

The hero of Marussia was a driver who seemed destined to some day bring a championship back home to Italy and the Scuderia, for all of Ferrari’s tifosi. Driver No. 17 was none other than the godfather of Charles Leclerc, Jules Bianchi.

About the author

michaelfinley010

Michael has watched NASCAR for 20 years and regularly covered the sport from 2013-2021, and also formerly covered the SRX series from 2021-2023. He now covers the FIA Formula 1 World Championship, the NASCAR Xfinity Series, and road course events in the NASCAR Cup Series.

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