Heading into their second year as a fully-fledged Formula 1 team, Haas F1 have so far exceeded the expectations of many. Karun Chandhok sat down with one of the masterminds of the project – team principal Guenther Steiner – to discuss the changes and challenges faced by the team as they set their sights on further success in 2017 and beyond.
Back in 2010, I joined a start-up team who used Dallara as a base for the production of their chassis. But we learnt with Hispania Racing that gaining credibility, respectability and competitiveness in Formula 1 is a very difficult thing to do. The money was tight and, so, the relationship between Dallara and the management at HRT broke down.
Instead of giving me a tonne of downforce, I ended up driving a car effectively in a specification that was only ever meant to be in a hotel lobby for a launch!
Ever since then, Gianpaolo Dallara and his team of people co-ordinated by Walter Biasatti have been keen to show that the Italian commercial racing car giant has the capability to compete at the pinnacle of our sport.
Fast forward to 2014, and enter Gene Haas and Guenther Steiner, the men behind the Haas F1 team. NASCAR fans would need no introduction to businessman Haas, whose Mobil 1-backed Stewart-Haas Racing team – a partnership with 3-time Cup champion Tony Stewart – has been a huge force in the American series. Italian Steiner, however, had followed an altogether more traditional (European) route into the world of F1, having formerly held technical director roles with Jaguar and Red Bull Racing.
In setting up the Haas project, which would eventually launch at the beginning of the 2016 season, the pair have followed what is effectively an ‘outsourcing’ based business model. It is indeed a model which has, in recent years, been used very well by a number of teams – not least Force India, culminating in the team’s fourth place finish in last year’s World Constructors’ Championship.
Nonetheless, it is a model which divides opinion. The customer car debate has long been a talking point in Formula 1. And whilst some see it as a necessity within the sport, others – such as Williams and Sauber – are vehemently against it.
Yes, customer cars are against the DNA of Formula 1, but buying off-the-shelf components like chassis, engines and gearboxes and then assembling them to make it work are very much a part of F1 history, arguably more so than some care to remember. Sir Frank Williams famously started his team with a customer De Tomaso designed, ironically, by Gianpaolo Dallara himself. And it was not all that long ago that someone could effectively bolt a Cosworth DFV engine to the back of a Lotus they’d bought from Colin Chapman and, hey presto, you’re in Formula 1!
Times have changed and, more importantly, regulations have changed. But the philosophy behind saving time (and money) by buying off-the-shelf technology, versus building it yourself, is still very much the same.
For a start-up like Haas F1, the customer model was the only one that made sense, as Steiner explains as we chat in his office in Shanghai: “It is a model that other people can look into”, the Italian said. “We looked at how it didn’t work with the other new teams that went away. We said [that] we needed to try to do something different so we don’t fail. Why be stubborn and say we have to get it to work [as a full constructor]? The other people that failed were not stupid – it’s just too difficult, this sport, and very technologically advanced. Maybe someone will come along with a better model than ours, but this works for us.”
As part of the process, Steiner created a technical partnership with Ferrari and Dallara, which helped a great deal in getting the team off the ground. Aside from the obvious powertrain collaboration, Haas now use the simulator and wind tunnel at Maranello. I’m sure it’s no coincidence that the cars have certain similarities in their design. Yet, the relationship clearly goes beyond the car – Indeed, a keen eye in pit-lane would also have spotted similarities in pit equipment!
By the time 2016 came about, the set-up was complete. The first few races for the team saw Haas enjoy something of a dream start to life in F1. Romain Grosjean benefitted from the deployment of a safety car at an opportune moment to secure a debut 6th place in Melbourne. And, perhaps more impressively, at the next race in Bahrain, the Franco-Swiss driver followed up with a 5th place, based purely on strategy and pace. Remarkably, after the opening two races, Grosjean had accumulated the same number of points as one Ferrari driver [Kimi Raikkonen], and more points than the other [Sebastian Vettel]!
It was an incredible start that no doubt ruffled a few feathers. At the next race, however, the reality of how hard F1 can be set in. In China – described by Guenther Steiner as “one of the lowest points of 2016” – the team only qualified 14th and 18th, and finished the race out of the points. There were further points (in Russia) for Grosjean, as well as some strong qualifying performances in Japan and Brazil in particular. But, overall, it was to be a season of peaks and troughs.
A subject which we often discussed in the commentary box when it came to Haas last year was braking. It became a recurring theme to hear Grosjean in particular, but also his teammate Esteban Gutierrez, complain about the brakes on their car. Haas were one of a number of teams on Brembo brakes, and it became quite clear that, in this modern era of Formula 1 with the brake-by-wire system, getting the actual brakes to work in the right operating window is not easy. In fact, I was told by engineers from teams up and down the paddock, that many had spent significantly more budget than planned on new brakes last year, as they often had to throw away a set that was glazed (generally caused by low temperatures and which badly affect retardation) after just an installation lap.
This year, Haas therefore considered their options – testing brakes from Carbon Industries, which they think was a step in the right direction, but one which they can’t get enough supply of yet. Steiner touches on this: “It’s a very complex subject with getting the right material and, of course, we have the change in regulations with the bigger brakes this year, so supply [from CI] is limited.”
Sir Jackie Stewart – whose eponymous team was perhaps the last successful start-up team to enter Formula 1 – once told me that the second year of a new team is much harder than the first, notably because you have to split resources between going racing and developing the new car. Certainly, this is something Haas have had to wrestle with. Though Steiner is adamant that the team are not fazed by the task at hand.
“We always planned for the second year, so it wasn’t a surprise”, he said. “We always communicated that we weren’t doing any updates with the 2016 car – OK, we did a small one, with the front wing – but we were very clear not to bite off more than we could chew.
“We were better off concentrating on next year  and get everything lined up so that we [will] bring upgrades through the year, as they will be worth much more. We all started this year, the first year of new regulations, with an immature car, so every upgrade will be worth much more than when we had stable regulations for 4-5 years.”
Having been trackside at the pre-season tests in Barcelona last month, there’s no question that Haas – at that point – looked firmly like it was going to be in amongst the 2017 midfield battle.
But the real test would come in qualifying at Melbourne’s Albert Park. And when the flag dropped and the talking stopped, Grosjean emerged as the best of the rest behind the big three teams, who are evidently in a league of their own. Indeed, only a turbo problem in the race cost Grosjean and the team a good haul of points.
With just two races down and eighteen still to go as it is now, Steiner acknowledges that the battle is going to be hard. “The midfield is so close together that the difference between being 8th or 14th is so tight. It depends on the weekend, the track, the form of the driver… so many factors with 4 teams being so close.”
I asked him about the consistency that was lacking last year, and how they expect to improve that. “We have more tools on the car to adjust for getting the tyre in the right window. We need to still prove that we can do it. We have more tools and information, but we’ll only know after 10 races of this season whether we really have the consistency.”
Judging by their performance at the Chinese Grand Prix, during which Kevin Magnussen looked strong all through the race, you have to conclude that this is certainly a big step forward for the team.
As for the sport, the Haas story has unquestionably been good for F1. I haven’t even touched upon the American angle, as that’s pretty obvious. But the fact that a start-up team can arrive at the paddock with a business model based on key technical partnerships and emerge straight away into the thick of a midfield battle, is clearly something that the FIA and Liberty Media should perhaps use as a case study in how to create a cost-effective Formula 1 team. Now, to see if they can be in the thick of that battle consistently.