One of a kind

Romain Grosjean, Gene Haas carry American flag into F1 history

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When Romain Grosjean crossed the line to finish the first race of the 2016 Formula 1 season in Australia in sixth place, it was a result of immeasurable magnitude.

For in Haas F1 Team’s very first race, it had not only beaten many of the field’s most established and experienced teams and drivers, but it had achieved something that many critics believed was not possible.

Scoring points on debut was not the shock. Instead, it was the fact that Haas had made the grid at all that was the real achievement. An American team had not raced in F1 for 30 years, during which time the series had enjoyed drastically varying fortunes in the United States. Many of the newest F1 projects had failed miserably, casting doubt on the viability of future entries.

And yet team owner Gene Haas had done it. His dream had been realized, offering F1 one of its most positive and important stories in the sport’s recent history.

* * *

Humble Roots

The idea of an American F1 team was nothing entirely new when Haas’ interest in joining the grid was first piqued. Before the Australian Grand Prix, the last team to race under the star-spangled banner was the unrelated Haas Lola operation that folded at the end of the 1986 season.

In 2009, a team called US F1 announced its intention to join the grid, headed up by experienced American engineer Ken Anderson and journalist Peter Windsor. As the name suggested, the fact it was an American team looking to enter a European-centric sport was its prime selling point. It wanted to be the only F1 team to not be based in Europe, setting up shop in Charlotte, North Carolina, and wanted two American drivers.

The wheels ultimately fell off US F1. Despite being granted a place on the grid for the 2010 F1 season amid concerns of a possible breakaway series being formed, a loss of financial backing saw the team close down without ever hitting the track. It arguably became best remembered for a parody YouTube series involving toasters.

It was widely regarded as being just the latest example of F1 and the USA. not being a happy match. A race had not been held in the United States since 2007, with the damage of the farcical 2005 race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway that saw just six cars take part proving to be irrevocable, while US F1 had been fruitless.

Or so it seemed. Despite never racing, US F1 did sow a seed in the mind of Gene Haas following a meeting with ex-Jaguar F1 team principal Günther Steiner at a steakhouse one night.

“Günther approached Joe [Custer, executive vice-president of Stewart-Haas Racing] and myself at dinner one night,” Haas said. “We’d been involved with Ken Anderson in his project. He said: ‘Hey, are you guys interested in some F1?’ He preached customer cars, which were on the table at the time.

“We spent time dillying and dallying when the customer car concept was around. But like everything else, you put these things out on the table, and hardly anything actually gets approved. So customer cars never happened, and a couple years wasted there.

“Then Günther said: ’What do you want to do?’ We talked to Bernie (Ecclestone, F1’s CEO and ringmaster) a bit, and he was a bit standoffish. It was like, ‘If you want to be serious… you’re welcome to take a shot.’ But I don’t think he took us seriously. He was kind of, well, ‘I have people ask all the time. But of 100 people, hardly anyone makes it.’

“After three years, we put forth a tender. And it went from there.”

And so in January 2014, following a call for expression of interest in joining the grid by the FIA (F1’s governing body), Haas confirmed his intentions to enter a team into F1. Three months later, it had been given the green light. Haas F1 Team had an entry for as early as 2015.

The timing of Haas’ decision to enter F1 led many to treat it with great skepticism. Not only was the failure of US F1 still fresh in the memory, but it came at a time when a number of teams were facing grave financial problems.

Before Haas, the latest batch of ‘new’ teams came in 2010. Three teams originally named Lotus Racing, Hispania and Virgin Racing joined the grid, with the fourth intended to be US F1. As newcomers operating on a shoestring budget compared to that of the major manufacturers in F1 such as Mercedes and Ferrari, their place at the back of the grid came as little surprise to begin with.

Four years later though, much had changed. Lotus Racing became Team Lotus and then Caterham F1 Team. Virgin Racing turned into Marussia F1 Team. Hispania evolved into HRT before collapsing at the end of the 2012 season, never to return. And all the while, they remained at the back of the grid.

Caterham closed its doors at the end of the 2014 season after entering administration, while Marussia remarkably survived a simultaneous financial collapse and lives on as Manor Racing — albeit still at the back of the grid.

Having seen these three teams try and largely fail, those setting up the Haas project knew they had to do things differently.

“Three tried and didn’t achieve a lot, so we said if we do more of them, we’re not more clever than these guys, there’s a limit to how clever you can be. We said we need to find a new idea,” Steiner said.

Customer cars — essentially a year-old model of a bigger “parent” team’s car — had been banned in F1 for some time, but this did not put Haas off. Instead, he took an ideal he had successfully tried out in NASCAR and applied it to F1. Much as Haas CNC Racing had enjoyed as much support and technical help as allowed by the NASCAR rules from Hendrick Motorsports since its debut in 2003, Haas sought a technical partner to help his F1 team get off the ground.

This is where Ferrari came in. After opting to delay entry until 2016 so that the team could prepare appropriately, Haas announced in September 2014 that it would be working with Ferrari ahead of its F1 debut, enjoying a supply of as many parts as possible — including engine, gearbox and suspension.

The end result was that come the team’s on-track debut in February 2016 at preseason testing in Barcelona, the car itself was immediately strong, leading to Grosjean’s success in Australia

“Thanks to the collaboration with Ferrari and the rules being a little bit more in favor of us that we can buy some parts, that helped,” Steiner said after the race. “I would say without the help of Ferrari, we wouldn’t have achieved what we achieved today.”

* * *

Building Momentum

With the Ferrari deal confirmed and Haas’ F1 debut still over a year away, a quiet optimism began to grow. This continued when the team picked up Marussia’s factory in Banbury, England, when the team was forced to sell off its assets after entering administration. The plan was to balance the Haas operation between bases in Kannapolis, North Carolina, Banbury, and in Italy where the chassis was being designed by Dallara.

Naturally, attention soon turned to the identity of Haas’ drivers. Being an American team, there was a certain air of expectation that at least one of the drivers would be American, which made Alexander Rossi the obvious option.

Rossi had come close to making his grand prix debut with Marussia in 2014 after working as a reserve driver with the team and tasting success in GP2, F1’s support series. However, Steiner confirmed in September 2015 that he was not on Haas’ radar for its debut season despite talks being known to have taken place.

“There is nobody out there at the moment,” Steiner said. “Yes, there are drivers in GP2 and Formula Three, but having a rookie in a new team – that is difficult for both sides. The potential of such a partnership failing is pretty high.

“So at the moment we’d rather not be looking at that avenue, because you are also not helping an inexperienced driver – he could be burned in one season. We are new, so we need a known quantity in the team.”

In terms of known quantities, the drivers on offer were plentiful. Due to Ferrari’s involvement with Haas, either Esteban Gutierrez or Jean-Eric Vergne, its reserve and development drivers, were expected in at least one of the seats. The second, however, remained up for grabs.

Much as Haas had acted quickly when the Marussia factory was up for sale, it was similarly opportunistic in securing the services of Romain Grosjean for its debut season. Since debuting in 2009, Grosjean had turned his F1 career around from being a crash-kid in 2012 to one of the most coveted drivers on the grid. As the future of his Lotus team remained unclear amid financial difficulties in 2015, Grosjean began to look at his options for 2016. And Haas came calling.

“I heard they were moving to start from 2015 to 2016. Then in Barcelona 2015, we had conversations,” Grosjean said. “Then I got a bit more deep into it, trying to understand, trying to get a few ideas from people I’ve known in the past; from engineers in the paddock, guys from Dallara I was trying to get information.

“And then Monza, I met the guys, and next week everyone was happy.”

And that was that. Soon after the Italian Grand Prix, Grosjean was presented to the world as a Haas driver, marking a major coup for a brand new team. Despite lacking prior F1 experience, it offered stability to the Frenchman — something he craved after a difficult spell with Lotus.

“The team is stable. The base is there,” Grosjean said. “Gene is coming to Formula 1 not just to be in Formula 1. He’s coming here for a long time to be successful as he has been in his life in everything he has done — automation, NASCAR, and now F1.

“The whole project is based on a solid construction, so yeah, it’s good to be here. Günther has done a really good job of finding the guys. It’s like it’s a team that has been running quite a long time. Everyone works well together, so that’s quite impressive.”

Grosjean’s teammate was confirmed at the end of October when Haas took advantage of the Mexican Grand Prix weekend to announce Esteban Gutierrez’s return to full-time F1 racing at his home race. Gutierrez had spent two years with Sauber in 2013 and 2014 before walking away from the team to join Ferrari as a reserve driver.

“Knowing the philosophy and the approach they have in NASCAR, everything made sense,” Gutierrez said. “Considering the achievements that they have done in NASCAR with the approach that they had, trying to implement that into the Formula 1 project takes a very good sense. I think it took a bit of time to bring everything together, but it was the right decision.

“It’s a completely different approach. A team like Sauber, one of the targets is to survive. In a team here, it is to grow, to do lots, projects and visions. It is a completely different philosophy.”

* * *

Walking The Walk

With the drivers now in place, attention turned to preseason testing in Barcelona, Spain, where the new Haas car would be unveiled to the world before making its on-track debut.

One day before test running began at the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya, Haas released images of the VF-16 car — ‘VF’ standing for ‘very first’, as used in the naming system for Haas Automation’s CNC machines. Despite being noticeably bare of many major sponsors besides Haas’ own companies, the design of the car was original. It was not a mirror image of the Ferrari as many had expected; it was very much a Haas.

On Monday, February 22, 2016, the Haas dream became a reality as its new F1 car rolled out onto the track for the first time in the hands of Grosjean, who came back with very positive feedback.

“It felt very good in the car. First impressions were great, which is important,” Grosjean said. “It carried over a lot of numbers from the wind tunnel, from the paper. The most important one is the feeling of the driver. It was good to be able to go out there straightaway, find a pace, be comfortable in the car. Generally very happy with the first feeling.”

Gutierrez nearly echoed his thoughts when he jumped in the car one day later, marking his first allocation of extensive running in an F1 car for almost 18 months.

“It is a very good feeling that I have on the car. The most important thing is that I enjoyed the driving and I think that’s a very good first step,” Gutierrez said. “It has exceeded my expectations in different ways. Honestly, I was very well aware of what we could expect, but actually from the installation lap I could get really a very good feeling, very solid, very consistent, so I think as a good baseline, it’s very good.”

To enjoy such a strong on-track debut is very rare in F1. Somehow, it seemed that Haas had produced a competitive and reliable car straight out of the blocks that would leave the rest of the field concerned.

Reality bit during the second week of testing, though, which, perhaps, wasn’t a bad thing. A series of issues sprung up on the car as the team continued to adjust to life as an F1 team, offering little indication of Haas’ true standing in the pecking order ahead of its debut in the Australian Grand Prix.

Such signals were expected in the first practice session of the new F1 season, only for rain to wash much of Friday out. When qualifying came about, Grosjean and Gutierrez were left 19th and 20th on the grid respectively after falling foul of the new elimination format. Given the perceived pace and reliability of the cars ahead, there appeared to be little hope of debut points for Sunday’s race.

What followed would be the fairy-tale start that Haas and Steiner would not have dared dream of when chatting over a steak six years prior.

Grosjean and Gutierrez both had quiet starts in Melbourne, with the latter reporting an issue on his engine in the early stages. It appeared to clear up quickly, allowing Gutierrez to continue. Haas had opted to run both drivers on long first stints in the hope of taking advantage of a safety car and making a risky one-pit- stop strategy work, giving its drivers a chance to vault up the order.

Gutierrez would not be so fortunate, though. On lap 16 of the race, he crashed out of the race after a terrifying crash involving McLaren driver Fernando Alonso. Alonso’s McLaren ran over the back of Gutierrez’s car, causing the Spaniard to spear into the wall at 200 mph. His car then spun in the air after digging into the gravel before coming to rest upside down by the wall. Incredibly, both drivers walked away from the accident unharmed, with Alonso later saying he felt lucky to be alive.

Haas now had just one car in contention, but the accident had played into Grosjean’s hands. The race had to be suspended under a red flag due to the massive amount of debris left by the crash on the track. All drivers were duly sent to the pit lane. Here, Haas rolled the dice and switched Grosjean onto the medium compound tire, allowing him to go to the very end of the race without pitting again.

Restarting the race in ninth, Grosjean began to work his way up the order as cars ahead pitted again. With 25 laps to go, the Frenchman was running sixth, albeit with Nico Hulkenberg and Valtteri Bottas — two of F1’s biggest up-and-coming talents — lurking just behind.

Grosjean did not crack under pressure though. As the laps ticked down, he kept his Haas car ahead by perfectly managing his tires, leaving Hulkenberg and Bottas without answer. After 57 laps of racing, Grosjean crossed the line to be greeted by his Haas crew hanging over the pit wall, celebrating as furiously as the Mercedes team that had seen Nico Rosberg win the race. Grosjean had finished sixth in Haas’ debut grand prix. It was a stunning achievement.

“It’s a win for us – it’s like a win!” Grosjean cried over the radio to his engineer, holding back the tears — before then blurting out: “I don’t even know where we finished?!”

Speaking after the race, Grosjean said: “We did it. A bit lucky in the race with the red flag but nonetheless we had a good car. We threw it on track with no setup work, no chance to do anything during the weekend and here we are, P6 at the end.

“I told the guys that this is a win for you, this is a win for the whole team, for the work that has been done in the last few weeks, few months. They haven’t slept much. They made it possible and this is incredible.”

Gene Haas had made the trip to Australia to see his F1 team make its debut, and was just as delighted.

“It’s been a long time in the making to do this,” Haas said. “A lot of people have contributed to it, so you have to think all the people starting with Günther who put this all together and kept pushing me to go out and try this.”

Gene’s dream had become a reality.

* * *

Flying The Flag

Haas’ success on debut did not just mark a victory for the team. It was a victory for F1 as a whole.

The sport’s relationship with the United States has been frosty at best over the past decade or so. US F1 was a low ebb to hit, yet by 2012, a new race had been established at the Circuit of The Americas in Austin, Texas, to widespread acclaim, boosting the sport’s profile in the USA.

The race recently survived a financial wobble after a wash-out last October and a subsequent cut in funding from the state of Texas, but has secured its place on the 2016 calendar to ensure that fans will be able to cheer on an American team on home soil.

As popular as the grand prix has been in Austin, in the arrival of Haas, Americans have a team to actively get behind and support. A strong connection can be forged that, in Haas’ eyes, has not been possible in the past.

“People love sports in America. They like that competitive feeling when they’re watching sports,” Haas said during the preseason. “I think more than just being a sport though they want to have some association with it. You watch some nationals and if there’s an American team out there and Americans know that you’re doing something that hasn’t been done before, Americans will be very interested in that.

“I think the problem with F1 in the past is that they never really had any association. These are a bunch of Europeans, who are these people. I think an American in a European sport, people are going to want to see two things. They’re going to want to see how badly you do, or if you can beat these guys.

“And if we can beat them or at least keep up with them, people are going to want to watch. They’re going to want to watch to see if you can beat them, and if you don’t, how badly you crash.”

Curiously, the American fans who braved the early hours to watch the Australian Grand Prix saw both ends of that very spectrum last weekend with Grosjean and Gutierrez.

Nationalism is not a key concern for Haas in F1 though. It may race under the U.S. flag, but with factories in England and Italy, French and Mexican drivers and an Italian team principal, keeping it all American — one of US F1’s key aims — was not the priority.

“Certainly we like to be an American team, whatever we can do to promote that, but we haven’t specifically gone out there to say we’re doing this because we’re an American team,” Haas said. “We’re doing this because we’re in motor racing and we just happen to be an American team.

“We want to put the best pieces that we can obtain and right at the moment we felt like having a really experienced driver like Grosjean, who’s French, was the best nut to put on the steering wheel. That’s what we’re doing.

“We’re not kind of looking at nationalism when we put this team together, we’re looking at obtaining the best possible people and products and engines and transmissions that we can so that we can win races. That’s what we’re here for, we’re here to win races. We’re not here to do it the hard way.”

The wider success for F1 was that Haas debunked the long-running myths about new teams in the sport. It proved that given the right planning and the right approach, a startup operation did not have to settle for seeing out a spell at the very back of the grid. Turning up and being competitive from the off is entirely possible.

And this will not have gone unnoticed. This entirely new approach to racing in F1 could be set to change the way in which new teams join the grid. Manufacturers will obviously want to keep everything in-house and promote their own technologies, but privateer operations will take note of what Haas has done.

It’s a change in philosophy that could spark a sea change when it comes to future startup teams. The technical partnership with Ferrari is beneficial to all involved, and until Haas has designs on beating the Italian marque on-track and seeks an alternative engine supply — unlikely in the near future — being its de-facto B-team is hardly a bad thing.

In the six years from US F1’s failure and the first seeds of thought being planted, the Haas story acts as a remarkable show of how even in the most hostile of sporting environments, success can be found. The F1 paddock is dubbed the “piranha club” due to its ruthless, high-pressure nature, but the enormity of the task is not lost on Haas.

“Well, I tell you all of a sudden I’m sitting here in awe that I’m sitting among all these team principals from Ferrari, Mercedes and Renault and Honda and Red Bull, that’s pretty awesome,” Haas said in Australia.

“To be sitting among this group of elite is humbling, I can say that. It’s been a long journey, I’m not sure how I really got here but here I am.”

The Haas story is only just beginning. It may be very, very early days, but already, its arrival on the grid looks to be a force for good for both F1 and for motorsports as a whole in the United States.