Haas and Steiner are ready to live the American dream
Ambitious new boys on the Formula One grid are out to make money and open up an untapped marketBy Daniel Johnson
Gene Haas and Guenther Steiner, two men crazy enough to start a Formula One team in these times of gloom and doom, make for an entertaining double act.
The pair came together in 2010, after the failure of the stillborn USF1 project. Having founded a Nascar team, the 63-year-old Haas’s interest in the sport slowly grew, while Steiner, 50, was a former technical director of Jaguar.
Roman Grosjean drives his new Haas car during a testing session at the the Catalunya racetrack in Spain earlier this year. Picture/AP
The failure of USF1, not to mention two of the three teams that made it to the grid that year, did not put them off. Nor did the prevailing mood in F1.
And so in Melbourne this weekend the first American-led team in three decades will be on the grid. So, are they mad - getting into the sport now?
“It was a strange evolution, for sure,” Haas says. “We met Bernie [Ecclestone]. He’s a very nice, sociable guy. ‘Oh, you’re Americans! We’d love to have you,’ he said, because he thought Americans would never do anything.They got this all the time.”
“Mad is relative, you know that,” Steiner jokes. “I never doubted it. Once Gene said, ‘This is what we’re doing’, then there was no doubt.”
Formula One always unstable
Haas goes on: “If you read the history of F1 it’s always been unstable. Racing is an unstable sport and business.”
Hass is the founder of a machine tool manufacturer - like Adrian Newey, he still likes drawing designs himself, including one for a machine making carbon composite moulds for the F1 programme - and has loved motorsport since working on race cars as a 17-year-old, when he made magnesium wheels, travelling across America as part of his job.
Having made a success of his company, he started a Nascar team in 2003, based in Kannapolis, North Carolina (part of the F1 team is there, as well as in the old Manor factory in Banbury, Oxfordshire).
Their policy was to buy in as many parts they could and then beat the suppliers, a philosophy they hope to carry over to F1 with the assistance of Ferrari.But Haas has not just set the team the ambitious target of scoring points from the start, or ending the year firmly in the midfield. He wants to make money out of the operation.
“I don’t think F1 wants us to be here for two years. We want to be here for 10,” Haas says.
“We want to make a business out of it. We want to make money. There’s no doubt in my mind we can do it, especially with our model. There’s opportunities that come along. A good, functioning Formula One team will probably have value to someone down the road.”
They have made a good start. The fact no one in the paddock believes they will be the slowest team this weekend is an achievement in itself.By buying as much as they can from Ferrari in a sometimes controversial relationship, they are keeping costs down. (The stewards had to produce a ‘clarification’ in Abu Dhabi about how far collaboration can be pushed, after a query from Mercedes).As a result Haas will be branded by many as a Ferrari B-team, an accusation the man himself rejects.
“I think it’s just a moniker that people put on us. Everybody gets their tyres from Pirelli. There’s only four engine suppliers out there. Buying your transmission? That makes sense, too.We just went a little further.I think what we’re doing is probably more in line with what old school Formula One was.”
Haas team driver Romain Grosjean poses during the team's presentation at the Catalunya racetrack in Spain in February. Picture/AP
The results so far have been impressive. Their first test in Barcelona was spectacular, even if the second a week later brought them back down to earth.
They are still one of the best prepared new F1 teams for some time. Haas and Steiner also abandoned the preference of smaller teams to head straight for drivers who can bring massive sponsorship packages. Steiner estimates that they spoke to around 20 or 30 candidates, before settling on podium finisher Romain Grosjean.
Esteban Gutierrez joins as No2, an unsurprising choice given that the Mexican was a Ferrari reserve last year.
Frenchman Grosjean admits that a new team and the link to Ferrari, where before long there should be a vacancy, were enough to take him away from the return of Renault.
“Yes, I’m much closer to Ferrari today than I was a year ago,” Grosjean said.
“But then I’ve never put in my mind, ‘Let’s go to Haas to get the Ferrari drive’. I’ve got the chance to bring a brand new American F1 team, and if we manage to do it, my image is going to be f-----g good!”
One slight snag: Grosjean and Haas sometimes struggle to understand each other. The Frenchman also has enormous difficulty saying the word Haas. Amusingly, he inadvertently describes it as “a pain in the Haas!”
There is plenty else for Grosjean and his team to get used to. First, the politics of F1, famously known as the ‘Piranha Club’, is new to Haas. On the day we meet in Barcelona, Steiner has just flown to and from Geneva for a one-hour F1 commission meeting. Haas is not impressed. “They don’t seem to utilise the teams’ time very efficiently.”
Gene Haas, the founder of Haas Automation, and the Haas F1 team making its debut during the Melbourne Grand Prix this weekend. Picture/AP.
Yet he is clearly fascinated by Ecclestone, the sport’s ringmaster.
“He’s the man everybody goes to. F1 would be worse off without him. Everybody wants something different, but no one can tell you what that is. You know what Bernie is.”
The sport has tried and failed many times to crack America. An American team on the grid will do that ambition no harm.
“I think there’s a core group of 10 million people in the US that love F1,” Haas says.
“If you can get some nationalism in there, you could quadruple that. They all want to know about it in Nascar. If they saw what we were building here, their jaws would drop. It’s starting a fire.”