Haas might have the fourth-quickest car of 2018 behind the ‘big three’ teams, but a variety of problems has kept them from delivering on their potential. Meanwhile their unique approach to F1 has been met with sniping from rival teams.
But Guenther Steiner, in his third year as team principal, tells @DieterRencken F1’s newest team will keep coming back stronger from every setback.
Mention the name “Guenther Steiner” to F1 paddock folk, then ask for their impressions, and invariably terms such as “German” or “Austrian” crop up, as does NASCAR. Strictly speaking, though, the descriptions are inaccurate, or, at best, only partially correct: The 53-year-old is Italian, albeit from the German-speaking Southern Tyrol region, and spent a large part of his professional life in European motorsport.
When Ford restructured the team after Lauda’s departure in 2002, Steiner was offered alternate employment, but chose to join Opel as Technical Director on the DTM project. He was reunited with his former Jaguar colleagues after Red Bull acquired JagRac in 2005, and when Adrian Newey joined the team he was deployed to the USA to assist in establishing Red Bull’s NASCAR team, becoming technical director.
He left the team in 2008 to form his own composites company Fibre Works, which is how he found his way back into F1: the founders of USF1 contracted the company to provide composite work. Steiner was about the only contractor to benefit from the ultimately-stillborn project: He learned how not to go F1 racing, he studied F1’s rule book, and met Gene Haas and his racing lieutenant Joe Custer, who ultimately declined to partner USF1.
He vowed he could succeed where Kenny Anderson and Peter Windsor had failed, and thereafter Guenther’s every spare moment was devoted to founding a US F1 team. He toyed with running a third car for Ferrari when such concessions were mooted, and considered running customer Ferraris if permitted, as speculation at one stage had it. All the while, though, he kept Haas and Custer warm.
When the 2013-2020 eligibility regulations, themselves broadly based on the 2010-12 Concorde Agreement’s listed parts* clauses were confirmed, Steiner enquired whether Ferrari would be willing to supply a kit of non-listed parts and make available their wind tunnel. The answer was in the affirmative, subject to irrevocable guarantees.
Thus the next stop was Dallara in Varano de’ Melegari, situated in the province of Palma. Would the world’s largest constructor be willing to design and manufacture the listed parts, namely those parts the teams holds the design rights or intellectual property to, he asked?
Dallara had spare capacity – plus the will to prove it could get the job done – after its abortive dalliance with Campos / HRT, so the answer was in the affirmative, again subject to satisfactory commercial arrangements.
The final step, then, was persuading Haas and Custer to buy into his concept. Impressed with Steiner’s plans and his persistence, they agreed to fund the first serious American F1 effort since Haas Lola (no relation, having been founded by Carl Haas) made its debut in 1985, as a global marketing platform for Haas CNC machine tools. An application for entry lodged with the FIA in early 2014 was approved shortly thereafter.
The rest is history: Haas F1 Team made its debut at the 2016 Australian Grand Prix, with the entry of Romain Grosjean finishing sixth, with the team ultimately placing eighth (of 11 teams) in the overall constructors’ classification. 2017 saw the team again place eighth, with pre-season testing for this season suggesting that the VF-18 could be the fourth-fastest car after Mercedes, Ferrari, and Red Bull Racing.
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Still, Australia saw both cars retire with wheel nut issues, in Bahrain Kevin Magnussen finished fifth after a scintillating drive while Grosjean failed to score, in China Magnussen scored the team’s only point, and in Baku Grosjean embarrassingly thumped the car under a Safety car while Magnussen came under flak after forcing Pierre Gasly into a wall – for which the Dane received a 10s penalty and two penalty points.
The bottom line is that, heading for Barcelona, Haas lay eighth in the championship with Magnussen on 11 points and Grosjean on zero. A long way from McLaren (34) in fourth, where pre-season testing suggested Haas could be. I interview Guenther on Barcelona Thursday in the team motorhome, and he seems relaxed. His Austro-Italo-American-accented English is measured and tricky questions are firmly responded to.
The race weekend is ahead of the team, and as it turns out its another curate’s egg: Magnussen drives superbly to lead the midfield home while Grosjean reprises the kind of antics which earned him the label ‘first lap nutcase’ early in his career, and leaves the team with another bent car.
But that lies in the future, so I put to Steiner that he must be hurting given the team’s overall performance to date this year, particularly after the promises of testing?
“It hurts, but you cannot do anything different, because it happened, it’s in the past,” he says firmly in his Austro-Italo-American-accented English. “What you have to focus on, for sure I’m not happy about it, but being unhappy and upset about it, that doesn’t help you going forwards.
“It’s water under the bridge, we know we lost some points, we didn’t collect them, but the car is strong. We were not in a position where you say we were lucky in one race, and missed it. No, the car is good. We just need to try to execute good, and then we are fine again.”
The key thing in F1 is to benefit from mistakes by returning stronger. Has the team learned from what some see as unnecessary incidents?
“Ja, exactly” he says, revealing his Germanic heritage, “I think the team learned when we had the mistakes in Australia. We analysed what we did wrong, and focused on not doing it wrong again. We got it right. We missed it, we shouldn’t have missed it.
“I feel responsible for that, I have no problem to say that. But what you can do? The only thing you can do, you have to have a good car every weekend, you need to focus and try not to make mistakes. Again, to try not to make any new mistakes, because you’re not trying hard to make mistakes, but they happen.”
Surely, though, the answer is to eliminate all the things that can go wrong, how have the processes changed since?
“We always had this process, there was nothing that changed in our process. You know, we’re racing now the third year; we never had… we once had a pit stop problem in the two years and then we had two in one race. What can you do?”
I remind Guenther that it is not only pit stops that went wrong this year, that there have been other issues…
“No, no, overall I think we are pretty good for being still a young team, not to make mistakes,” he counters. “We just need to execute the process we have in place, we don’t need any new ones. We put in place good processes here, they just sometimes go wrong. Like when Kevin, when Ericsson ran into him, what can he do about it? We should have qualified better, that’s what we should do.”
What does he consider to be the strengths of the team?
After a pause he says, “I think that we always get up again. If you’re knocked down, you always come back, we come back better. I think all of these guys, they come back better. Nobody has their head down low. You go out there, you see them, they are going. They haven’t forgotten about last week, but they got over it. It’s not a problem. We keep on going. That is the biggest strength.”
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Counter question: Weaknesses?
“I think the weakness is still we are young and the possibility to make mistakes is higher than when you are more mature. It’s like when you’re young, in something you make more mistakes. You make more mistakes when you are 20 than you make now. And the same is for a team.
“That is what we are. But I think that we are so young is not bad, but you always can be better. If you say that’s a weakness, but only time will fix this weakness. And we cannot buy time. We just need to go through this, to get stronger?
In fact, one of the remarkable characteristics of Haas is that the team seemed to arrive “together”, unlike some start-ups who went before. Does he believe he has a team of people or simply a collection of people?
“There is always [a] way to go in a team. You can never be strong enough. But I think in general we are good. But would I say we have reached [where] there is no margin to get better? No, no, there is always margin. But I think even the best teams, there is margins to get better in that area.”
Time to get rather more personal: Given his relative lack of experience as an F1 team principal, how did Guenther manage to slot into the role so easily?
“It’s experience. You know, I’m doing motorsport 30 years, in different roles. I never had the role of team principal before, but I’ve done all the jobs which combine the team principal. I think I’ve got one advantage here. I could do most of the jobs the guys do in the team, most of them.
“I started as a mechanic… I did logistics as well, I co-drove in rallying, I did them all. And that I think you just learn. But it’s just experience, nothing else. And 30 years, it’s a long time to do this.”
“No. And I don’t want to. I will be dangerous!” he laughs loudly.
Talking drivers, how does he rate his pairing, particularly given recent incidents?
“I rate them highly,” he says, not unexpectedly. “I think they’re the best we can get in our position. I think for where we are we have got the perfect drivers. The drivers are better than we are, in my opinion. In the beginning we got lucky that they believed us, because after what happened with the other teams, they started and went nowhere. It was a risk to come to us and we have to respect them for that as well.”
But, are they delivering?
“I know that they both have great talent. And somehow they both had, I wouldn’t say ‘problems’, there were always something in their careers, you see ups and downs. Both of them, they were in, out, in [at other teams].
They also had certain reputations, I hazard…
“Yeah, but that is one of the things that I am not afraid of. I just can do my best. If they don’t like it, then we find another way. But they had the talent, and the biggest thing you look at in a driver is his talent. I don’t want to have the nicest guy and the sweetest guy and the best guy.
I have no problem with having somebody [with] a reputation. I can deal with that. There is a point where I tell them what to do. That’s my job, that is what I have to do. And I’m not afraid of anybody. If something is wrong, it’s wrong.
“I think they respect that with me. I actually think they quite like it. Sometimes they don’t like to hear what I have to say, but I still say it. It’s the same with me. Sometimes they say something that I don’t like. But I think we get on pretty well. Like in every relationship with a driver there are ups and downs, but in the end you always come to the same end, that we need to perform for the team. That is what we want to do.”
Time to talk future: Does Steiner see Haas sticking to the listed parts model given the massive changes expected to hit F1 at end-2020. When does his Ferrari contract run out?
“Everything expires end of 2020. In the moment there is no Formula One after 2020, because nobody’s got a contract. It could be longer, but if there’s no F1 in ’21, we have no Ferrari contract…How can you do a contract after 2020 if you don’t know what is happening?”
During testing the team endured a barrage of criticism from rivals over its business model. How does he react to that?
Guenther sits forward, his chiselled chin jutting, clearly ready to defend his team’s modus operandi, then responds: “I think you have to divide here between the model we are using and what people are criticising. People are saying we are using Ferrari aero data, which we don’t. So that is wrong.
“The listed parts, I think nobody is really against that one. Some people are accusing us, falsely, that we are using last year’s Ferrari. Which is complete nonsense. It’s nonsense. So, again, we are the first one to say we wouldn’t do it and we shouldn’t do it, because we don’t.”
In his opinion, does F1 have the right balance for listed parts, or should the list be extended, or reduced?
“No, no, I think at the moment it’s where it’s the right… at the moment it works for us,” he says, not unexpectedly. “If there are changes… I don’t want change at the moment because we have got a good system going. For sure some people want changes because they think that we shouldn’t be doing what we’re doing. That is why they want the changes. Because they have to cover their incompetence.
“It works. In the moment we wouldn’t change. If everything stays the same, if Formula One stays like it is now, in the moment we wouldn’t change. Why would we? There is not good enough reason to take a risk to change it. Because if you change it, you take a big risk. And why would we do that?”
Possibly because the FIA and commercial rights holder force through changes after 2020…
“I guess then we would have to change. Or we go and race somewhere else. But that’s not my decision, it’s Gene’s, but I don’t think the sporting regulations [will change to that degree].
“First of all, we don’t know what is happening in ’21. We don’t know what is changing, and why. You [all] assume it’s changing. In the moment, if you know more than me that something is changing…there is a plan to change something, but it’s not done yet. I think there’s a plan to change it, but I don’t know exactly what will change and I don’t know if this regulation changes. If they change, we will consider what to do.”
With that Guenther changes from team boss to friend. This lean son of a South Tyrolean butcher has surely come a long way since leaving the town of Bozen, located in the foothills of the Italian Alps, to follow his motorsport passion.
Follow Dieter on Twitter: @RacingLines
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