Simon's snapshots #11


European Grand Prix, Valencia, June 25-27 2010

This column tends to thrive on the distant past, with occasional glimpses at its recent counterpart – and this week’s shots come from just four years ago, when Formula 1 welcomed three new teams that spent their maiden campaign in a parallel universe to rivals. They are pictured against a backdrop of one of modern F1’s great follies, the Valencia Street Circuit.

The first photograph shows Lucas di Grassi passing an almost empty grandstand in his Virgin VR-01: it’s a practice shot, yes, but the circuit perimeter rarely bustled on Sundays. Virgin had been born as Manor Grand Prix, but was renamed after Richard Branson stepped in and then morphed into Marussia following investment from a new – but short-lived – Russian sports car manufacturer. The backer closed its factory doors earlier this year and the racing team recently did likewise.

Shot two features Heikki Kovalainen’s Lotus T127 threading around the fringe of a harbour that always seemed a touch short of boats. Originally owned by Malaysian entrepreneur Tony Fernandes, the operation began life as Lotus Racing, then became Team Lotus before settling finally on Caterham following a protracted dispute about naming rights. The company changed hands earlier this year, but the team dropped out of F1 following the Russian GP after a spat about the sale’s legitimacy. At the time of writing, Caterham was clinging on by its fingertips and might yet reappear in this season’s Abu Dhabi finale if a crowdfunding appeal bears fruit: with a couple of days to go, it had nudged just beyond halfway in its bid to find a £2.35 million sticking plaster.

This Valencia race highlighted the starkly contrasting performance between the new teams and the rest. Running towards the back after pitting out of sequence, Red Bull driver Mark Webber was sent somersaulting at 190-odd mph after tripping over Kovalainen. The Lotus would normally have ceded to blue flags, but in this instance the Finn was entitled to defend. Webber was checking his dash on the approach to Turn 12 and was caught unawares when an unfamiliar foe braked improbably early…

Item three is the HRT F110 of Bruno Senna. This team began life as Campos Grand Prix, with a car built around a Dallara tub, but financial struggles – the new teams committed to the sport on the basis of a cost cap that was never imposed – led to a change of both management and name before the season started and its cars didn’t turn a wheel before the opening race weekend in Bahrain. The operation survived on little more than fresh air for three seasons before folding at the end of 2012.

And Valencia? It’s a wonderful city, but its F1 race was born while Spain was busily spending money it didn’t have – and even Fernando Alonso’s popularity was insufficient to sustain two Grands Prix per annum in the country. By 2011, the venue’s fourth and penultimate F1 fixture, the trackside installations were all but falling apart. At some parts of the circuit crowd control fences contained massive gaps, or were else lying flat on the ground, and it wasn’t unusual to find spectators wandering around, aiming point-and-shoot cameras through the debris mesh. I stood and watched as one of them did this, before he turned to me, smiled and pointed out that he “wasn’t professional”.

That much could have been said about the whole project.

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