Luke Smith

F1 writer

Great Britons

In the early hours of June 24, news filtered through that the people of the United Kingdom had made a historic decision regarding their nation’s membership in the European Union.

In just the third referendum held in British political history, voters were given a seemingly straightforward decision to make: should the United Kingdom remain a part of the EU, or leave?

The answer for 52 percent of the voters — a small yet seismic majority — was leave. After joining the EU back in 1973, the United Kingdom would now become the first nation to step back out of the single market.

The hostile campaign and surprise result sent shockwaves through the nation. The pound fell to a 30-year low against the dollar, Prime Minister David Cameron announced his resignation. British society became fractured.

The Leave campaign had always argued for short-term losses in favor of long-term gains, yet few could have predicted the fallout that would follow in the two weeks following the referendum. People were left questioning just what was so “great” about Great Britain — and what even was Great Britain? With its population divided politically and the geographic divides between England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland appearing more pronounced given their respective voting patterns, few had a firm answer.

But last Sunday, the Brexit blues took a back seat. Instead, Britain did its talking in the sporting arena, as two men — tennis player Andy Murray and Formula 1 racer Lewis Hamilton — led the way and brought the public together once again. It was a show of the best of the British that captured the nation’s imagination, uniting people through sporting success and helping to heal the scars the referendum had left on the country.

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* * *

As David Cameron stepped outside of 10 Downing Street, the historic residence where Prime Ministers have lived since 1905, the speech that he held in his hand was a drastic departure from the one that he had once expected to give.

The referendum had been his gamble, taken largely to appease the right wing of the Conservative party which he had led since 2005. After becoming Prime Minister at the helm of a coalition government in 2010, Cameron led the Conservatives to an unlikely outright victory five years later, his pledge for a referendum on the UK’s membership of the EU being a key point of support among voters.

Not until the first results began to trickle through late on June 23 did it seem possible that the Leave side would win. But at 7:51 a.m., the result was official. The United Kingdom was to leave the EU.

“The British people have made a very clear decision to take a different path and as such I think the country requires fresh leadership to take it in this direction,” Cameron said, his voice catching.

“I will do everything I can as Prime Minister to steady the ship over the coming weeks and months but I do not think it would be right for me to try to be the captain that steers our country to its next destination.”

In contrast to Cameron’s emotional speech, Leave leaders Boris Johnson, Michael Gove — both Conservative Members of Parliament (MPs) — and Nigel Farage, the leader of the UK Independence Party (with its very raison d’être being withdrawal from the EU) celebrated. They had won the battle, but the war had just begun.

For when Cameron announced that he would be resigning, the Conservative party was thrown into a flux.

Most looked to Johnson and Gove as likely successors, the assumption being that a “Brexiteer” would carry out the motions required to leave the EU. Six Conservative MPs put their name forward to succeed Cameron as Prime Minister, only for Johnson to announce his withdrawal. The former Mayor of London, who had been a driving force behind the 2012 Olympic Games in the city, backed out due to feeling betrayed by a political colleague in Gove. But Gove soon followed when Conservative MPs failed to give him the required support. With Farage also stepping down as UKIP leader, not one of the three leading Leave campaigners would have any role in deciding the Brexit settlement.

The opposition Labour party occupied with in-fighting amid sentiment that leader Jeremy Corbyn did not do enough to back the Remain vote, leaving the electorate fearful of what would follow. Brexit was always going to result in uncertainty, but no one could have predicted it hitting such a level.

And against the backdrop of this, a second “Brexit” of sorts was taking place just across the sea in France at EURO 2016.

* * *

England arrived at EURO 2016 quietly confident of its chances following an impressive qualifying campaign (10 wins in 10 games) and friendly victories over Portugal and Germany earlier in the year. From the outset of the first game against Russia, the team led by record goal-scorer Wayne Rooney looked lively, hungry and capable of upsetting anyone. Such hope looked justified when, after 73 minutes of trying to break down Russia’s defense, Eric Dier smashed home a free kick to give England the lead.

Yet in the final minute of the game, England began its slip down the all-too-familiar slope. After failing to clear a corner, the ball came to Russian defender Vasili Berezutski, whose header looped over the hapless Joe Hart and into the net, making the score 1-1. Two points lost for an otherwise-dominant England team.

The next game was against Wales, a team in its first major tournament since 1958, when it won its opener against Slovakia in confident fashion. Another upset looked in the cards when Gareth Bale, the world’s most expensive soccer player, swerved a free kick through Hart’s gloves to give Wales the lead. A fight back from England followed with Leicester City’s cult hero, Jamie Vardy, equalizing before Daniel Sturridge worked home a stoppage-time winner, sparing the Three Lions’ blushes. Qualification was all but secured, although a 0-0 draw with Slovakia meant that Wales went through as group winners, having beaten Russia 3-0.

Alas, England fans weren’t too concerned given their next opponent would be Iceland. A nation of less than 350,000 people, Iceland appeared to be simply enjoying the party after getting through to the round of 16 thanks to a win over Austria and draws with Portugal and Hungary in the group stage. Few gave the underdogs a fighting chance against England. The odds became all-the-less favorable when Rooney converted an early penalty to give England a 1-0 lead.

What followed was the upset of the tournament. Iceland rallied, scoring two quick-fire goals, courtesy of Ragnar Sigurdsson and Kolbeinn Sigþórsson, to shell-shock England. The players were thrown, leading to a lifeless and sloppy performance for the remainder of the game during which they rarely looked like scoring. A 2-1 defeat sent Iceland into the quarterfinals, its fans into raptures and England onto the plane home after another disappointing international tournament.

For the second time in the space of four days, England had left Europe.

Wales was left to fight for the “home nations” that make up the United Kingdom, enjoying its own fairy-tale run to the semifinals before falling to eventual winners Portugal. Wales’ success only made the divides between the four parts of the UK more evident. Scotland and Northern Ireland had both voted to remain in the EU, only for the English and Welsh vote to tip Leave to victory. Wales now had sporting success. England had nothing to shout about. Britain seemed to be breaking apart, the notion of a “united kingdom” challenged. Absent, rudderless management was an apt and multi-functional description for both the government and England’s soccer team.

All the doom and gloom surrounding both Brexit and the EURO 2016 humiliation of England left national morale at a low ebb. Yet in the space of two weeks, two sportsmen – two great Britons – worked wonders to get people united in celebrating sporting success. Neither Murray nor Hamilton can claim to have fixed the breaks caused by Brexit or make up for England’s EURO disaster. However, what they did do was hold the Union Jack aloft to baying crowds, reveling in their heroes’ successes.

* * *

For a nation that boasts one of the finest tennis facilities in the world, it seems unfathomable that Britain has produced just one grand slam victor in the past 75 years.

Andy Murray arrived at Wimbledon three days after the referendum fancying his chances of a deep run in the tournament. His first appearance back in 2005 as a gawky, Scottish teenager now a distant memory, Murray was the second seed, making him one of the favorites. The only issue? No. 1 seed Novak Djokovic, who held all four majors simultaneously and had beaten Murray in the final of both the Australian and French Opens thus far in 2016, was also in the tournament.

Alas, following the withdrawal of Rafael Nadal — admittedly no longer the player he was five years ago, but a threat all the same — Murray appeared to have a trouble-free route to the final. Djokovic and tennis legend Roger Federer were paired on the other side of the draw, meaning that if Murray could continue his early-season form, a berth in the final seemed academic. It’s what the British public expected.

There is a long-running joke in the UK that Murray is Scottish when he loses but British when he wins. It is meant in jest, yet it offers a nice insight into the issues surrounding the nationality in the UK. In the United States, the question of nationhood is more straightforward, largely determined by place of birth or heritage. In the UK though, all citizens have another layer. If you’re from London, are you British, English, or both?

Such divisions become less important when it comes to sport. British people love to celebrate the success of its own sons and daughters, regardless of their more precise national allegiances. This was clear during the 2012 Olympics when Team GB lit up London, featuring athletes from all four parts of the UK. The same is true of Murray at Wimbledon, the stands filled with red, white and blue when he takes to the court.

Murray lived up to their expectations with relative ease. He didn’t drop a single set en route to the quarterfinals before being taken to five by France’s Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, testing the resolve of Britain’s No. 1 tennis player.  A partisan crowd that packed Centre Court at Wimbledon showed their nerves. Since winning the tournament two years earlier, Murray had twice left the hungry British fans disappointed, losing in the quarterfinals in 2014 to Grigor Dimitrov and the semifinals in 2015 to Federer. When the game entered a fifth set, Murray’s fans would have been forgiven for thinking the match was about to go the same way.

Yet Murray was able to finish what he started. The pressure of seeing a two-set lead be equalized failed to rattle him as he outclassed Tsonga in the fifth, taking it 6-1. Murray’s reward had always been expected to be a final against Djokovic, yet the Serb had crashed out in the third round to American Sam Querrey. The result stunned the tennis world as Djokovic looked powerless over two days of play — extended thanks to the rain — leaving Querry to sail through in four sets.

Querry’s charge came to a halt in the quarterfinals, losing to the only other North American left in the draw: Canada’s Milos Raonic. Raonic set up a semifinal against Federer in which he added to the list of upsets, dumping the seven-time Wimbledon winner in five sets to reach his first Grand Slam final. Boasting the fastest serve in tennis and the bravado of a player yet to be weathered by the occasion of Grand Slam finals, Raonic looked capable of raining on Murray’s parade and dashing the hopes of a nation in the process.

Rain would come on the Sunday of the men’s singles final. But it would not grace Wimbledon. Instead, it played a part in another British sporting success some 90 miles north at Silverstone during the British Grand Prix.

* * *

Standing on the grid with 15 minutes to go until the start of his home grand prix, Lewis Hamilton was going through his usual pre-race routine. The Mercedes team that had carried him to the past two Formula 1 drivers’ championships prides itself on its attention to detail, ensuring that every facet of Hamilton’s car is ready for the race. Hamilton continued waving across to the grandstands packed with fans sporting Mercedes caps with a Union Jack under its peak — as worn by Hamilton himself. Of the 120,000 fans packed into Silverstone for the race, few backed anyone else.

Hamilton’s gaze was soon drawn from the stands to the sky. A black cloud that had been brewing over the track burst, releasing a sharp rain shower onto the grid. All strategy plans were thrown out the window, the onus now being on the drivers to manage their cars and tires in the tricky conditions.

Hamilton led the field away behind the safety car, deployed due to fears about the wetness of the track, before eventually being given free rein once conditions had improved and the sun had emerged. Many of his finest victories in F1 had come in wet conditions, Hamilton boasting a confidence that most struggled to find. As the laps ticked by, his lead grew and grew before the time came to switch to dry tires.

All the while, Mercedes teammate Nico Rosberg continued to struggle through the spray. The German had arrived at Silverstone cast as the pantomime villain following a last lap clash with Hamilton one week earlier in Austria — one that Rosberg was deemed to have caused. His lead in the drivers’ championship had fallen from 43 points to just 11 in the space of six weeks, putting him under enormous pressure at Silverstone. Rosberg had long struggled to match Hamilton’s pace during their time together at Mercedes, losing the title in both 2014 and 2015. Four wins in the opening four races of the year combined with some bad luck for Hamilton put Rosberg in his strongest position yet, but the momentum had swung dramatically back in the Briton’s favor in the space of a few races.

Come rain or shine at Silverstone, Hamilton was unstoppable. He eased across the line after 52 laps to pick up his fourth British Grand Prix victory, sparking jubilation in the grandstands. Rosberg came home second after a close battle with 18-year-old Max Verstappen, only to drop to third thanks to a post-race penalty.

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The significance of the win was not lost on Hamilton as he got out of his car. After celebrating with the Mercedes team, he bounced across to the fans who had made their way onto the main straight for the podium ceremony. After clambering onto the barrier, he dropped backwards into their raised hands and crowd-surfed, producing iconic images that perfectly captured the connection between driver and supporter.

“Ever since 2007, I’ve felt this incredible energy from these fans here, the best fans in the world, without a doubt, and the best crowd we have anywhere,” Hamilton said. “I really feel like I’ve grown with them over the years and obviously, naturally, when you have success that speeds up the bond, that connection you have. They really do make a huge difference. When it was wet, every time I made it through certain corners I could see in the corner of my eye the fans right there with me.

“That’s why the British Grand Prix is the best grand prix we have. Plus, look at these guys, you don’t see this anywhere around the world. We’ve got good British spirit here.”

Good British spirit was in abundance at Silverstone. Rosberg found himself on the receiving end of some booing on the podium, which, while being somewhat distasteful, summed up the tribal nature of parts of the British support which had packed the stands. Hamilton united them.

* * *

With the champagne sprayed and the celebrations over, the fans on the straight at Silverstone turned their attention to a big screen that had played out the race an hour earlier. Murray was by now a set up against Raonic, a break point in the seventh game allowing him to hold serve and win it 6-4.

The next two sets saw Raonic put up a staunch defense against Murray, his serves reaching 147 mph — the biggest of the tournament — and preventing his opponent from breaking again.

Murray’s big tournament experience shone through in the end. Both the second and third sets went to tie-breaks; both were won with relative ease by Murray. Five championship points in hand, the fans moved to the edge of their seats, willing Murray to finish the job. At the third attempt, a strong forehand pushed Raonic into the corner, his return sailing into the net. Game, set, match, and championship to Murray.

Whereas his first Wimbledon victory in 2013 had been met with an immediate feeling of elation and delight, Murray initially seemed more relieved than anything on Centre Court. He had won a match he was the overwhelming favorite for; the upset had been avoided. As the officials rushed onto the court and prepared for the trophy ceremony, Murray sat in his chair and let the moment sink in. The now-two-time Wimbledon champion — Britain’s first multiple winner of the tournament since Fred Perry in 1935 — broke down in tears.

“I’ve had some great moments here and some tough losses, and I’m proud to have my hands on the trophy again,” Murray said. “I played really good stuff today. Milos has had a great few weeks on the grass. He’s one of the harder workers out there. And a huge thank you to everyone who came out to support me.

“The Prime Minister’s here as well,” Murray added, glancing up to David Cameron in the Royal Box. “Playing in a Wimbledon final is tough, but I wouldn’t want to be Prime Minister. It’s an impossible job.”

Cameron smiled as the crowd released a mix of claps and jeers. The two weeks that had followed the referendum had seen him take a step back from the in-fighting marring the country’s major political parties. He knew his gamble had failed and his position had become untenable.

Yet as he watched Murray sending most of the 15,000 fans in Centre Court to their feet with every point won, draped in Union Jack colours and holding their flags aloft, even for just a couple of hours, the divisions in British society would have seemed less severe. People were together, celebrating British success.

* * *

At a time of such fragility, hostility and uncertainty in Britain, good news stories were hard to come by. Its national newspapers have been dominated by hyperbolic scaremongering, talking of crisis and mayhem — but Murray and Hamilton’s success brought some positivity to both the front and back of the papers.

“This is the biggest thing that I think I’ve experienced or at least I remember experiencing and that I’ve seen in England in terms of a change,” Hamilton said of Brexit on Saturday at Silverstone. “Whilst sometimes change is frowned upon or some change is not always welcome, I think sometimes change is a good thing. The fact is that it has happened, whether or not everyone that voted exactly knew what they were voting for. Now it’s the job of the government to make the right steps forward.

“I don’t so far believe it’s affected the grand prix. We shall see tomorrow, but for sure it’s affected people but we all have these dips and maybe the next high will be higher.” As Hamilton celebrated his victory, it was abundantly clear that Brexit had done little to dampen the British support or unity at Silverstone.

The celebrations on Centre Court at Wimbledon and the main straight at Silverstone may be microcosms within a far bigger picture, yet they act as indications of the power that sport has.

Andy Murray and Lewis Hamilton did their bit to put the “great” back in Great Britain last weekend. Two of the most significant British sportsmen of the past 10 years offered some kind of remedy to the ease the Brexit blues that have blighted the country for the past three weeks.

Sporting solace amid political polarization.

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    One of a kind

    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.

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    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.”

    * * *

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    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.”

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    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.