The bubble well and truly burst for Haas in 2019, when the team finally faced its first genuinely troublesome season.
Its first year in Formula 1 only yielded eighth in the constructors’ championship, but that result – and the 29 points that came along with it – was far more than any other new entrant in the modern era had ever dreamed of. Manor, Caterham and HRT went to the wall with a grand total of three points between them.
Year two in 2017 was a step forward in both competitiveness and points even if the final finishing position was the same, and then 2018 was pretty spectacular for a three-year-old team. With nearly 100 points and fifth in the constructors’ championship, Haas definitely looked to be making the most out of its Ferrari-linked business model.
But last year verged on disastrous. There was clearly underlying pace in the car, but that wasn’t being exploited most of the time. Tire issues were initially used as an excuse until it became clear that the team was struggling to develop the car and get it working consistently. 28 points and P9 was the worst return from its four seasons in F1 to date.
On the one hand, the fact that Haas is only four years old should act as a form of dispensation for last year’s woes. After all, it was still racing with and often beating teams that have been around for at least a decade, and the fact that there was raw performance is one of the reasons the year retained a tinge of optimism within all the frustration.
But on the other hand, as the aforementioned examples of Manor, Caterham and HRT can attest, the newest team on the grid is almost always the most vulnerable. Sure, there is a different business model in place at Haas to any of those three, but at the end of the day it still comes down to whether those putting the money in feel they are getting value.
Gene Haas has always appeared a little annoyed by the lay of the land in F1. He is a racer at heart – it’s why Guenther Steiner is able to run the team in the no-nonsense manner that he does – but as a racer, the Haas team owner wants to be competing on a level playing field. He gets to do that to a much greater degree in NASCAR than he does in F1.
The predominant reason for Haas entering F1 was to increase the global awareness of the Haas Automation brand, and in many ways you could argue that results aren’t needed to do that. The better the results, the more likely people are to know your product, but simply being one of the 10 teams on the grid does a lot of the heavy lifting from an exposure standpoint anyway.
So when you end up in a situation where you’ve already invested hundreds of millions of dollars and had the exposure that comes with that, but then find you’re getting diminishing returns as the team’s trajectory tails off, what do you do?
That’s surely a thought that has been crossing Haas’s mind over the past 12 months. Was 2019 just a blip, or is Haas going to settle into a back-of-the-midfield position? Either way, he now sees just how much return his brand gets from its investment in F1, and it’s an investment that has probably lessened for 2020 given the Rich Energy debacle and associated loss of revenue, on top of a lower championship finishing position (and a further loss of revenue).
So the coming year is likely to be crucial for Haas’s future on a number of fronts. Struggle, and the owner is going to be inclined to think 2019 was less of an anomaly and more a sign of a slide from that fifth-place peak. If that’s the case, is it worth still investing so much money? If not, does he restructure the team to try and attract more income, when its fingers were so recently badly burned by a title sponsor?
But even good results might not signal security. F1 is going through a period of transition, especially in terms of the 2021 regulations. If ever there was a time to be seriously considering your future in the sport, now is it.
Haas will want to be more satisfied with the next set of commercial agreements than the current ones, given the unexpected fight he faced to get a solid slice of the revenues as a new constructor. The budget cap certainly helps to give midfield teams a sense that they will have a much better chance to fight at the front in the coming years, but we’re still talking an investment of hundreds of millions of dollars just to reach that point, and it has to be worth it.
The resource restrictions also change the landscape in terms of the different business models of the teams. Claire Williams has been happy to state that her team is a big fan of the new regulations because it is so keen to remain a full constructor, rather than seeking to align itself closely with a bigger outfit.
If the new regulations dilute the advantage Haas can get from being so close to Ferrari and makes it more of a necessity to have greater independence, then such a change of model could cause a rethink of its participation. Once again, it will all come down to whether the American sees value for money.
And now is going to be the time that Haas is weighing all of the options up. Work has already started on 2021 designs, and it is set to be an expensive season for all involved in F1: an expense that you are only going to properly commit to if you see a long-term future in the sport. Hedging your bets at this stage would still cost money, but also likely hurt competitiveness from the start of the new regulations.
Of course, Haas might believe he still gets plenty in return for his investment, but the racer inside him will surely want that to come hand-in-hand with on-track success rather than simply making up the numbers and scraping around at the back of the midfield. So starting strongly and putting 2019 behind the team as quickly as possible could be worth a lot more than just championship points this year.