From 2004 to 2008, Formula 1 consisted mainly of the same 10 teams, plus the 2006 addition of Honda’s b-team Super Aguri. These teams, despite swapping owners, names, drivers, and staff, didn’t actually change all that much. Many of the same faces remained on the paddock, and many of the same factories remained in near-constant operation. That is, right up until the 5th race into 2008. As the media circus descended upon the Istanbul Park circuit, there was a noticeable hole in pit lane once occupied by Aguri Suzuki’s organization. That set in motion a two-year mass exodus of quite a few notable names and brands, with Toyota, BMW, and Honda all electing to leave formula one. Honda’s outfit became Brawn for 2009, and then Mercedes for 2010 onwards; BMW’s team reverted to it’s original Sauber branding and operation; and Toyota simply vanished, with their remaining assets later purchased by Serbian businessman Zoran Stefanovic. At that point, there were only 9 teams and 3 engines due to contest the 2010 season. Compare that to the start of the 2008 season, with 11 teams and 6 engine manufacturers, and it’s easy to understand why F1 supremo Bernie Ecclestone issued a call for new blood for the new season, aiming for 13 teams’ participation.
The next season was to mark the beginning of “new f1”, as many had put it, with in-race refuelling being re-banned, as one of several measures intending to cut costs. So-called ‘green’ technology was to feature more heavily than before, and more emphasis was to be placed on reliability and stability, and what better way to show it than to invite several new teams at rather short notice?
From an initial list of 15, Formula One Management selected bids from four organizations to participate in grand prix racing’s highest level: USF1, Campos Meta, Manor Grand Prix, and 1Malaysia Lotus Racing.
Before the season began, already there were changes to be made. Manor was renamed Virgin Racing, to reflect a buyout by Virgin Group and their head Richard Branson. Campos Meta was purchased by Spanish businessman Jose Ramon Carabante, and rebranded to Hispania Racing. 1Malaysia Lotus Racing, operated by Air Asia and Tune Group head Tony Fernandes, remained under the same ownership, but simplified their operating name to Lotus Racing.
USF1, the planned American outfit with headquarters in Charlotte, NC, never made it to the grid. Between design delays, budget issue, an sponsorship shortages, among many issues, the team requested deferred entry, either later that summer or the following season. The answer from FOM was a resounding no, leading to an almost immediate folding of the American team.
The Sakhir Circuit, in Manama, Bahrain, played host to the first round of the 2010 season. Despite USF1’s departure, the other three – Hispania, Lotus, and Virgin – all made it to the first race of the season, despite problems in testing and a whole mess of off-the-track issues. In practice, as in testing, only Lotus managed to run a relatively stable session. Virgin had issues with Luca di Grassi’s car, and Hispania were busy completing initial construction of both cars. But hey, that’s why they give you three practice sessions, and by Saturday’s qualifying, all 6 cars from the freshmen class had at least completed a few dozen laps.
In qualifying, few expected the three new teams to advance beyond the first round, but at the same time, no one was really sure just how far off the pace they would be. Virgin and Lotus, having had a chance to run some testing, were relatively close to each other, but were still around 3 seconds slower than the slowest established team, Toro Rosso. Hispania was another story.
The fastest lap from the first qualifying session was a 1:54.6, from Ferrari’s Fernando Alonso. Toro Rosso’s Jaime Alguersuari was the slowest of the returning teams, with a best time of 1:57. Two seconds separating first and eighteenth is fairly close. But then we get to the newbies. Both Virgins and Loti were within a second of each other, right around the two-minute mark. Bruno Senna, the faster of the two Hispania drivers, only managed a 2:03. His teammate, Karun Chandhok, was nearly two seconds slower, only managing a time of 2:04.9. To put that in perspective, polesitter Sebastian Vettel, with a lap time of 1:54.1, was a whopping 10.8 seconds quicker than the slowest car. He could hypothetically lap Chandhok in less than eleven laps. In a 49 lap race. There existed a very real possibility of Vettel lapping Chandhok on track four times.
Instead, Chandhok spun out of the race less than two laps in. The culprit: one of the curbs on corner exit that, due to his limited practice time, he was unaware of. 5 new cars remained.
On lap 3, Virgin’s di Grassi’s hydraulics failed, as they had many times in testing, which swiftly sidelined him as well. 4 new cars remained.
Several laps later, issues befell the other Virgin car in the hands of Timo Glock. His gearbox decided it wasn’t very happy with it’s current situation, and the best way of rectifying this was to give 3rd and 5th gear the boot. 3 new cars remained.
The next lap, Bruno Senna, in the remaining Hispania, suffered an engine failure after airbox issues led to overheating. 2 new cars remained.
Both Lotus Racing entries managed to make it to the halfway point, the only new team to do so, and both cars continued to run, relatively incident free.
Hydraulic issues sidelined the Lotus of Jarno Trulli just a few laps from the finish, leaving his teammate Heikki Kovalained the only remaining new car.
Heikki finished 15th, last among running cars, and two laps down. But hey, at least he finished.
The results indicated what many had thought all weekend: Virgin was just as quick as Lotus, but nowhere near as reliable, Hispania Racing was woefully slow, and none of the new teams looked to have any chance at a points-paying top 10 position.
Onward to Australia for round 2.