It always seemed likely that Haas would change at least one of its drivers at the end of this season. Stability had been a key part of the team’s success, but two poor seasons and a driver line-up that had been in place for four consecutive years needed a refresh.
But for a team that has only made one driver change in its five-year history in Formula 1 so far – swapping Esteban Gutierrez for Kevin Magnussen at the end of 2016 – starting again with its line-up is a big departure from what it has done in the past. And despite both Sergio Perez and Nico Hulkenberg being available for next year, I understand that neither driver are serious candidates to join.
So why has Haas opted to ditch experience at this point, and why does it look like it could end up with two rookies in 2021?
It’s actually all about 2022.
As with most things, COVID-19 has had a major impact, and it will be felt in different ways in Formula 1. From a technical point of view, it led to the delay of new regulations until 2022, with the freeze of many components meaning next year is likely to be similar to this.
So on that front, Haas already has a known quantity in terms of its likely car performance, and is throwing all of its resources into the 2022 project, when there will be the chance of a big shake-up of the grid.
COVID has also had a financial impact, one so big it led Haas to decide against developing this year’s car at all in order to save money. Again, 2022 was in mind once the team committed its future to F1 by signing the new Concorde Agreement.
So it has a car as good as locked into the lower midfield, and it could also do with the additional resources due to both COVID and the opportunity that the 2022 regulations open up.
Teams always develop a car a year in advance, so any work being done on next year’s car has been carried out with the current drivers’ feedback in mind. But 2022 is such a big departure, there’s going to be little in the way of direct feedback next year that will be able to significantly influence the direction of the new generation of car.
All of that means the timing is perfect to bring in a rookie, and one who brings money at that.
“We wanted some change going forward, because as you know this year was an exceptional year for us,” team principal Guenther Steiner explains. “We just need to see how we go forward with the budget cap, where we invest best our money and what we do. So that was the reason, we want to make a change, that’s what we are doing and we need to get prepared for the new regulations in 2022 when it is a new world for everybody.”
Rookies are only rookies once, so by blooding new drivers in 2021, Haas will have given them crucial experience that gives them a better chance of being successful in 2022.
“Next year, as well, I think it will be better. I hope it will be better, but the chances are that we are back to our 2018 form next year are pretty low. We need to be realistic. So if you make a change you’d better make it now so you have something to build up again and not just going into it with something to lose.
“Next year we have nothing to lose we just have something to gain, because we cannot lose a lot from where we are now. If we make a change, what we want to do is have the same drivers in 2022 when the new regulations come out because there is a new car.
“Next year is also an opportunity, and a challenge. Our package next year looks as if it will not be wonderful, but that is the challenge and opportunity to build up the rest of what we have got for 2022 when we hopefully are better again, or back to where we want to be.”
With the likes of Nikita Mazepin believed to be a frontrunner for a seat – the 21-year-old bringing significant money from Russia as well as two wins in Formula 2 so far this year – there will always be question marks about teams choosing money over talent.
The trade-off Haas will be looking at relates to the overall impact. If you get a driver who is a quarter of a second slower than an experienced option, but the financial package they bring helps you find more than that time in car development for 2022, you’ve made a net gain. The bit in the team’s hands is how well it performs in delivering a good car, then it hopes the driver can exploit its full potential.
And if any driver fails to produce in 2022, you have a more competitive car that attracts a higher caliber of driver that wants to drive it if you look to make a change beyond that.
But it does mean compromising 2021 compared to the outright results that can be achieved with the strongest drivers available if other factors weren’t taken into account, and similarly could mean chances are missed the following year if the car’s good but the drivers don’t perform.
It’s a calculated risk that makes complete business sense. But Haas has to hold up its side of the bargain. Only when we see its 2022 car run will we know if it’s the right one.