Thursday 10 March 2016

F1 2016 Season Preview: Haas - American dream

On the face of it, not a great deal looked promising. F1's recent previous for squads joining from outside was woeful: of the four debut team slots snapped up for 2010 only one occupant, Manor, still exists and in that case had a very near-miss of extinction. And even so it has never got so much as on the back the sport's peleton, just like none of the other newbies had. And this latest newbie Haas also is far from the first team to come into F1 with much talk of American glory. It's not even the first Haas to do so. Every team in both circles for one reason or another flopped. But it appears that in the shape of this team the sport has, for the first time since Toyota in 2002, got a built-from-nothing squad operating in the main F1 pack right from the off, as well as represents its best chance in a good while of having a successful US operation.

Photo: Octane Photography
One major difference between the lost generation of 2010 and Haas now is that the 'listed parts' teams must produce itself is much shorter, perhaps is these days surprisingly short, and Haas took this and exploited it to the full in order to minimise costs and risk. Indeed this reflects the team's earliest conception - team principal Gunther Steiner stated that the initial discussions with Ferrari about an F1 effort were about running a customer car, when such a prospect looked possible. When it wasn't possible Haas tweaked the approach accordingly.

Technical expert Craig Scarborough explained that Haas "is the first team to make the most of the 'listed parts' regulations and produce only the minimum components required to be classed as an F1 constructor", which includes outsourcing build of the chassis as well as the design and manufacture of the listed parts to Dallara on a contract basis. As Dieter Rencken outlined too, on these regs "Steiner had clearly done his homework" and sourced parts from Ferrari to an extent that "sent shockwaves through the paddock". Many other teams grumbled and Mercedes even sought clarification in Abu Dhabi last year (and indeed certain definitions were amended for future teams, although what Haas had done was pronounced legal).

Haas noticed too that as not yet a non-competing team last year it was then unbound by restrictions on windtunnel and CFD running that applies to everyone else, and exploited this as well. This - combined with that it was using Ferrari facilities at Maranello - also set rival teams a-grumblin', although an FIA visit gave all a clean bill of health. It seems Haas has learnt one of the sport's most fundamental rules, that its regs are there to be pushed to its most tenuous limits. This it appears is no callow newcomer.

There will be almost inevitable teething problems for the squad, not so much in the car itself necessarily but operationally - just that period where people get used to working together - which will likely create a few problems in the early rounds at least. That the operation is split across four locations will be the subject of plenty of keen watching too. It has R&D, design and build at Dallara; engine and gearbox among other things are from Ferrari in Maranello, where the windtunnel also is; a UK hub in Banbury and 'Haas central' with commercial operations and more R&D in North Carolina - indeed there are five locations if you include that Gene Haas and Haas Automation are based in California. The squad's hoping that modern communications will ease the habitual problems.

After getting many plaudits in the first pre-season test - the team looked ultra professional and its 281 laps completed was more than McLaren managed - the second test gathering was more of a wake-up call, with plenty of reliability woe. This decimated the first three days but at least on the final day it got the show back on the road, as the two drivers combined to complete 91 laps. Yet the complexity of current F1 technology should not be understated - just think of the running or the general lack of it in first 2014 testing, as well as that when Honda debuted last year. That Haas has run as much as it has is mightily impressive.

Currently on pace it seems somewhere around the second part of the midfield, near to Lotus, McLaren and Sauber. And with its learning curve steeper than others its aim of points in the first year still doesn't look fanciful. "I think in Australia the objective is to get into Q2 and, if possible, to get a point home," Steiner said. "And otherwise finish in the top 15, but to do the best we can. You know, just be respectable out there."

Haas appears that at least. Really it's hard to point to anything wrong in its approach so far - a wariness of over-stretching, sensible and unrushed long-term planning, realistic targets, an experienced outfit, smart driving and technical recruits, and an owner with wedge behind him. Not for nothing have plenty said that if this team doesn't prevail then it's hard to imagine one from scratch that ever will.

And as James Allen pointed out this, in time, could be about much more than just Haas. It could provide a major fork in the sport's road for that perennial bugbear of its costs. "They will continue to be closely watched in their debut season" he said, "because if their model works of buying everything legally available within the F1 rules from a top team and going racing for around $100m a season, then other wealthy business owners, keen to capitalise on F1's global platform, will follow". It's worth reflecting that only Manor's budget is thought to be smaller, and that team hangs off the back. This really could be a game changer.

Romain Grosjean - Car #8
Photo: Octane Photography
There are many reasons to think that Romain Grosjean is among the very best out there. In late 2013 he was brilliant and almost alone took the fight to the dominant Red Bulls time after time. It demonstrated that if the machine was there Grosjean had grown into one capable of doing it more than justice. There even exists Pirelli data that suggests Grosjean is the quickest out there bar none and consistently so. Yet ever since that 2013 run Enstone woe on and off the track has not allowed him to build on it.

Even so it was hard to see how much else could have been asked of him in that time. In both campaigns he destroyed his team mate Pastor Maldonado in qualifying - and if Pastor's anything he's quick - while he seized on both of the isolated opportunities for good results, Spain in 2014 and Belgium last year, getting a podium in the latter and healthy points despite engine problems in the former. Frustration showed sometimes, but surely it was understandable.

And yet there is the creeping risk he'll become the sport's next Nico Hulkenberg - one ignored unfathomably yet repeatedly by those allocating the plumb drives. Again none of them snapped Grosjean up for 2016, and in the case of Ferrari it was particularly curious, given more than one other contender was scratched on the grounds of requiring cash to buy out their contract, and the Franco-Swiss would have come for free. Perhaps in the wacky world of F1 he was tainted by association with a struggling car. He does get a next best thing of sorts though, as having got fed up waiting for Renault to ink its deal with the Enstone team he made rather a sideways step to the debutant Haas squad, where at least he'll have a good chance there of getting into Ferrari's eyeline.

Whatever is the case he is a fantastic coup for Haas, which will benefit greatly from the benchmark Grosjean provides. If the lap times aren't there blame cannot be laid at the driver's door. And Grosjean should be the last to give up both on his team and on his F1 career, as he's been prematurely written off before, more than once indeed. His story of self-realisation has been a wonderful one, but now it needs another chapter.

Esteban Gutierrez - Car #21
Photo: Octane Photography
Esteban Gutierrez is a curious one. He came into F1 with reasonable pedigree - he was a GP3 champion as well as had a good (but not stunning) record in GP2. Yet in two years at the top table for Sauber he didn't often do a great deal to suggest he was much more than one who brought Mexican sponsors. Admittedly circumstances often were difficult, in 2013 he was up against the brilliant Nico Hulkenberg while in 2014 the evil C33 made it hard to judge him. He also put in some good performances, particularly towards either season's end, but even there he struggled to string such performances together consistently, and had a tendency for errors at crucial moments.

But he showed up a bit better in his second year - there rarely was much to choose between the Mexican and his much more experienced team mate Adrian Sutil and indeed often Gutierrez led the way in qualifying and the races. And some of his runs were genuinely good while in Hungary's treacherous conditions he looked set to end the team's points drought before his car let him down. Then at the campaign's end he was ditched, in a live-and-die-by-the-chequebook situation as others brought along more money than he did; the team's desperate hand to mouth existence did the rest.

Yet Ferrari clearly saw something as it lost no time in snapping Gutierrez up for itself after Sauber had discarded him, and now presumably was involved in his placing in its de facto B team of Haas. Cynics could say that his commercial opportunities occurred to the Scuderia, and indeed Claro logos can be spotted on the Ferrari these days.

A little like his debut year this time at Haas he'll have a midfield car, one that will likely improve as the season goes on, and is alongside a very highly-rated team mate. Then it took him most of the season to start to do himself justice, but now three years on and with more experience he'll have to join those highs together more consistently. Otherwise we may have to conclude anew that he is no better than his Pesos.

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