Back in February this writer was compelled to write a piece on why signing Tonio Liuzzi was Hispania’s best move to date. That’s largely proven to be true: the journeyman Italian has done a solid job for the Spanish squad, destroying team-mate Narain Karthikeyan and out-qualifying Jerome d’Ambrosio’s Virgin in three of the last four races. He’s been a definite step up from their 2010 driver roster.
But I didn’t expect to be writing another piece, less than five months down the line, on yet another smart driver move from the perennially troubled team. Yet here I am, about to explain why snapping up Red Bull protégée Daniel Ricciardo is a good move for both Hispania and the up-and-coming Aussie. Formula One: it never ceases to surprise.
When Ricciardo takes to the grid for Hispania at Silverstone he will be the team’s seventh driver in just 27 races, which roughly equates to one pilot for every four grand prix they’ve contested. No one stimulates the driver market like these guys.
But whilst previous entrants to the HRT hall of fame have been so-so junior drivers, ageing racers whose careers are on the way down or Sakon Yamamoto (the man deserves a category all of his own) Ricciardo is a different proposition altogether: he is, if you believe Red Bull’s Helmut Marko, the best prospect the Austrian company’s driver development programme has produced since one Sebastian Vettel. Whatever happened to him, by the way?
And that leads to the blindingly obvious reason that this move benefits Hispania: they are replacing a slow driver with a fast one. It’s what you might call a no-brainer.
I don’t think you’d find too many people outside his native India leaping to the defence of Narain. He’s a thoroughly nice bloke, but he isn’t really up to racing in Formula One; he was slow in 2005, dropped off the radar for half a decade and came back just as slow, a bit older and with stories of driving NASCAR Trucks.
Liuzzi out-qualified him 7-0 during their time as team-mates and on a number of those occasions was a full second faster than the Indian. Whilst the Italian seemed to be making progress, sometimes nipping ahead of the Virgins in qualy and giving it plenty of welly in the races, Karthikeyan was adrift at the very foot of the field. On a pure ability level this is a massive step up.
Because Ricciardo is fast. Witness his superb performances in the 2009 and 2010 young driver tests, both of which he topped with eye-catching pace. Consider also the lad’s record at sub-F1 level: dominant British Formula Three champion in 2009, he came within a lap of winning the highly-competitive Formula Renault 3.5 title in 2010 and is challenging for it again this year, despite missing the opening round to contest FP1 for Toro Rosso in China. His pace and feedback has impressed the Italian team too. They’d have happily slotted him in to a race seat had Buemi and Alguersuari not been so peskily solid in 2011.
The benefit of throwing Ricciardo in to the team should also be felt by the knock-on effect it will have of Liuzzi’s performances. Tonio’s had it easy thus far, knowing full well he’s much faster than Karthikeyan. That stops here. The kid they’ve dropped in alongside him is rated as a star of the future. If nothing else this will spur Tonio on to push harder, to show the world that he’s got what it takes to swat away this so-called wonderkid. Liuzzi will be a tenth or so faster now that he’s got a proper team-mate, no question.
So what are the benefits for Ricciardo? Essentially, this is all about seat time. The reason he’s landed this drive is to wrack up as many F1 as possible – simple as that. He’s not there to impress anyone. That job has already been done.
Because Dr. Marko knows which of the team’s three young drivers he wants to slot in alongside Vettel, and that chosen son doesn’t hail from Spain or Switzerland. Marko is a man whose mind is quickly made up and very difficult to change. He decided some time ago that Ricciardo was the wave of the future and that he would be the man to join Red Bull’s main team when Mark Webber’s tenure there comes to an end.
With that in mind Ricciardo’s mission isn’t to blow Liuzzi away or miraculously drag the Hispania in to Q2: he just needs to do a sensible job and get good mileage under his belt. Marko is unlikely to change his mind about the Australian unless he makes a real mess of this opportunity – which he wont – so there’s little pressure to impress. Keep your head down and keep it on the black stuff.
Tonio is approaching veteran status, having been in F1 since 2005 and with 70 grand prix under his belt. Though there have been some lacklustre seasons the guy is still fairly well thought of. No one would write Ricciardo off if he doesn’t beat Tonio in a no-doubt difficult car that the Italian has had eight races to get to grips with. All Daniel has to do is be close to Liuzzi, maybe out-qualify him towards the end of the season and give him a run for his money in the races.
Tonio’s sole aim, meanwhile, is to drive the team forward, and if he feels being as open as possible with Ricciardo will aid that cause then he’ll do it. Would things be quite so simple at Toro Rosso? I’m not sure. This is a team created to produce the next generation of Red Bull drivers: the competition between whoever’s in the cars is huge. Had Ricciardo been dropped in alongside Alguersuari or Buemi you have to believe they’d be hesitant about helping the Australian out, being as they’re in direct competition for a seat alongside Vettel at the main team.
And even if they were open to sharing, who knows more about F1, Liuzzi or the Toro Rosso boys? It’s the Italian, with several seasons in the sport at four different teams who has the most wisdom to pass on.
And a final reason why this move makes sense now: in Silverstone Ricciardo is making his debut on a circuit he knows well. He raced there during his title-winning British F3 campaign, winning twice, and again during last season’s Formula Renault 3.5 championship. What’s more he lives just down the road in Milton Keynes; the Aussie calls Silverstone his second home, and if you’d asked him to pick circuit at which to make his F1 debut there’s a high probability he’d have selected this one. And what tracks does F1 visit next? The Nurburgring, Hungaroring, Spa and Monza. Ricciardo has raced on them all at times during his junior series exploits. It certainly beats starting your career with four circuits you’ve never seen before.
Don’t expect fireworks from Ricciardo’s F1 debut. But do expect a driver much closer to Liuzzi than his predecessor was and, perhaps, the beginning of a long and successful career in Formula One. This switch can only be seen as a good thing for both Daniel and Hispania.