During pre-season testing RaceFans interviewed several Formula 1 team principals about their plans and objectives for the year ahead.
The global pandemic has eclipsed this, as with so many things. Inevitably, some of what was covered in those interviews is no longer relevant and ended up on the editing floor.
One interview which was published as F1 headed down under for its (aborted) season opener involved Haas team boss Guenther Steiner, the colourful and direct Italian whose business model disrupted the sport when Haas appeared in 2016.
The American entry classified eighth in its first championship after a consistent year, a position it repeated in year two. In 2018 the team owned by machine tool magnate Gene Haas rose to a sensational fifth. It harboured hopes of taking on the top teams the following season, but a combination of aerodynamic and associated tyre problems saw them slump to a disappointing ninth, as detailed in our previous interview.
By way of an update Gunther kindly agreed to a new interview, this time conducted not in the team’s hospitality but by video link to his home north of Charlotte in North Carolina. Steiner settled there after leaving his homeland – he was born in the German-speaking South Tyrol region – to take up a post with Red Bull’s NASCAR team (a tale for another day).
“I came back straight from Australia on Saturday,” he explains. “I’m back here since then trying to leave the house as little as possible.”
Unsurprisingly, arguably this most hyperactive of team bosses says he’s managing to keep “as busy as ever” despite the lockdown.
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“It’s just different challenges at the moment. It isn’t like you don’t have a target, [so] you go easy. I’ve got so much to do. There are a lot of big decisions in Formula 1, for the team, [and] I have my own company to run.” This is Fibreworks, a carbon fibre supplier to the local motorsport industry.
“I normally start between 7 and 7:30 in the morning in my office here at home – obviously I’m not going to the office – but there is so much to do. I normally finish a little bit earlier than I did before because when it is getting to afternoon here [with a time zone difference of five hours to the UK] everybody is slowing around 2, 3pm there my time, I [then] do all the things I pushed back during the day.”
With research and development, design and production undertaken at Ferrari and Dallara in Italy, a team base situated in the British midlands (Banbury) and support functions operating out of the Haas race headquarters – its teams are active in NASCAR and off-road competition in the USA – in Kannapolis (near Charlotte), Steiner embraced ‘distance working’ long before it became vogue in F1. Has that made it easier to cope with the challenges presented by the pandemic?
“For me not a lot changed. For example the meetings with the people in the UK or Italy, where 95% of them are in any case, it’s a matter of ‘Just give me an address or send me an invitation and I’ll be there’.
“I think the world will learn a lot out of this, that maybe we don’t need to do all this travel. Look at how we’re speaking, I mean, the quality. We can’t shake our hands, but we shouldn’t be doing that anyway [at] this time.”
It’s something F1 could benefit from in future, he points out. “It costs less because we don’t need to travel, and it’s less tiring because you don’t sit down in an aeroplane.”
But there is a more important lesson F1 must learn from the current situation, he adds.
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“Not everything is always going up. Sometimes you go down as well and you need to be ready. I think we were not prepared for this because normally you have a crisis plan about what you will be doing, but now we are still negotiating our crisis plan between the 10 [teams].
“So I think to learn, we need to be a little bit more careful. Not always aim for more, more and more but sometimes just stabilise something and try to live within our means so that everybody can live even if we hit a bump on the road, which always can happen.
He is full flight, so I let him continue: “You know, nobody predicted this one. Everybody was afraid of a financial crisis coming, and all of a sudden we have a pandemic which ends up to be a financial crisis as well. Nobody predicted this. We just need to be a little bit more careful, not [be] scared of [it], but be better prepared for anything that could cross the road.
But could F1 realistically have planned for a pandemic hitting the sport, particularly when the entire world was arguably caught napping?
“You cannot put a specific plan in place, in my opinion. But what we should plan is not to run always at 100%, to squeeze whatever we can get out of it, because then you have nothing left. You should make sure that you’ve got a buffer [in case] something like this happens.
“Like in every company, you [need] some money back in the bank, then if something goes wrong, you know that you can survive for a period of time. We have never even thought there could be a crisis. If you get a crisis, [we thought] we just deal with it. But it’s not easy, and a lot of people are working hard to make it happen.”
Despite tales of dissent between teams, he is bullish: “A lot of people which came out pretty strong are trying to help this, you know within the teams, and being creative and positive.
“Not everybody has understood yet that we are in a crisis, but a lot of people are very, very supportive, very creative [so] that we can survive. All of us, not only a few of us.
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I wonder whether this is an oblique reference to Ferrari’s stance on budgets, and decide to pursue this point separately – see below. However, back to his point about maintaining a crisis reserve: would doing so not go against the very essence of F1, which is being on the absolute limit at all times?
“Basically, as a sport it needs to be on the limit,” he says. “As a business we need to differentiate. It’s always two discussions. As a sporting competition we always need to go 100, max. As a business, we need to be clever enough as businessmen, because it’s a big business. We’ve got a lot of responsibility for a lot of employees, a lot of families which work [in F1].”
Given the aforementioned comments, what is Guenther’s take on the team principal teleconferences, called on a regular basis so that the FIA, F1 and teams can face the sport’s various challenges head-on?
“There’s a lot more understanding of each other,” he says. “It is not unanimous – yet – that we are all agreeing on the same things. There are different things [we disagree on]. You also need to consider that our business models are quite different, so if it would be unanimous, something would be wrong.
“We just need to be unanimous to find a compromise. We have to respect each other. But we are getting close and hopefully in the next week, we can be can make a step to be done with our discussions in the moment.
Obviously, all teams have different wish lists; what would he prefer to see as end result?
“If you want a [simple answer]: that everybody can be competitive. Even on the [prize] money, the money needs to be very similar in order for us to be competitive. So, it should be a budget cup everybody can live within: The big teams can live within it; the small teams can live within it.
“But the biggest thing [that] for me that needs to come out, is we need to be competitive. Being competitive doesn’t mean that all of sudden Haas wants to win races. Yes we want to win races, obviously, but you have to be conscious about where we are.
“We want to be in a position – in a realistic position – where in a few years we can be on the podium. And then if we do a good job we get more [prize] money, and we can get the higher budget. Then we can win races. There needs to be an honest possibility to achieve that. That is for me what I would like to see coming out of this.”
During testing I spoke briefly with Gene Haas, who said he came into F1 in the belief that the team had a chance of winning, but soon realised there no chance due to the sport’s financial and organisational structures. Based on Gene’s comments, I ask Guenther whether F1 could (again) be a sport in which every entrant has a chance of winning provided they do most things right.
“Most [could]. I wouldn’t say everybody because it’s not possible. Everybody over a certain time period, I would say just to clarify that, should be able to win if they do a good job. I think we’re getting closer to that. [But at] the moment, who can beat the big teams?
“Works teams like McLaren and Renault cannot beat them, so what chance do we smaller ones have? But with a budget cap I think we have at least a chance to bring the field closer together, and then if you do a good job, you will be rewarded. That maybe pushes you up the next step, and then maybe you can actually win.
“But, in the moment, it’s just not [possible]. Or you inject billions. I’m not talking millions. Billions.”
Which leads neatly to the next question: Given that budget caps seem to be the thorniest topics during team boss calls, at what level would he like to see budget caps set? Already Haas operates one of the lowest budgets and certainly the lowest headcount due to its unique ‘buy-in’ model.
At first he refuses to be drawn, saying the teams were about $10m apart after the last call, but I point to numbers of between $100m and $150m being bandied about.
“The FIA and the president of the FIA (Jean Todt) have a good understanding of where the budget cap needs to be, to suit everybody. Their decision will be based on facts, not on politicking and biased opinions. I think we’re getting there, but we’re not there yet, so I don’t want to sing ‘glory’ too early.”
One of the accusations often levelled at Haas by its detractors is that is effectively a political slave of Ferrari, in lockstep with Maranello due to its dependence on the Italian team for technical support and services. Yet the two are clearly at odds over budget caps. How difficult is it to maintain cordial relations under such circumstances?
“Our respect for each other Ferrari, Haas it’s still there, for sure. We have got discussions about it, obviously, but we never were a slave to Ferrari. We always worked together in a respectful way. Without them wouldn’t be here, and I would never deny that one. I said it in public more than one time that without their help we would not be here.
“But we cannot be slaves, because at the moment it’s a crisis. We need to look after our own corner, because if we go with them, we go down. And we cannot go down. They know that. I think our relationship is strong enough that we can agree to disagree on some things in life, or how we conduct our business. I think that shows that we respect each other, but by no means are we servants or slaves.
“By saying that I don’t disrespect them, because I respect them a lot. So, it’s one of these things in this relationship that sometimes you need to agree to disagree, and just move on. We don’t decide. They don’t decide; we ten teams decide [the way forward].”
Would he describe the relationship between his country’s iconic team and that of the team he founded in his adopted homeland as purely commercial, and not politico-commercial?
“I mean,” he laughs, “it’s political when it suits both of us. It’s business but it’s not opportunistic, it’s somewhere in between. It doesn’t need to be always one or the other. There can be something in between, you know.
“It’s like if you agree on something we fight together; if we disagree on it, we don’t fight each other, but tell each other what we think about that. But, there’s no disrespect in it, and whenever I go against Ferrari there’s no disrespect.
“My biggest interest is to protect Haas, and the second one is [to protect] everything that comes after [that].”
RaceFans will publish an extended video interview with Guenther Steiner later this week. Subscribe to our YouTube account to make sure you don’t miss it.
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