Success for American Formula 1 teams has always been fleeting, with Dan Gurney’s All American Racers, Penske Racing and (although by this stage officially a British team) Shadow each winning one world championship race. But for the past four decades, it’s always been the ‘next’ American team that offered hope, which recently has meant the Andretti organization’s attempt to get on the grid in the future.
The first two races of the 2022 season have reminded us that there is an American team already on the grid, one that many had abandoned hope in after it spent most of the previous three seasons floundering at the back of the grid. But with fifth place in the Bahrain Grand Prix then ninth in Saudi Arabia, the latter despite under-prepared returnee Kevin Magnussen struggling with his neck as he rebuilds F1 fitness and not being at his best, Haas has recaptured the ‘little team that could’ luster that defined its early years in F1.
It wasn’t long ago that Haas’s future in F1 was uncertain. Owner Gene Haas was on record with concerns about F1’s financial model being unsustainable, the Rich Energy title sponsorship debacle in 2019 caused embarrassment and a cash shortfall, on-track results were poor and investment in the team was cut to the bone amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Michael Andretti has even admitted making overtures to buy the team, a logical attempt given the difficulty of getting a place on the F1 grid.
That everything has changed for Haas is down to a combination of factors, some external and some internal, with the return to form this year the reward for a logical strategy. But that shouldn’t be a surprise, because it has always been a pragmatic team.
Originally, Haas planned to enter F1 running Ferrari chassis at a point when customer cars seemed set to be permitted again. When that possibility vanished, it seemed Gene Haas’s hopes of creating an F1 team had been extinguished. But team principal Guenther Steiner hit upon an idea that made it possible not only to get on the grid, but also to achieve unprecedented success for a new F1 team in the 21st century.
A controversial technical partnership was established with Ferrari, whereby Haas was supplied with as many of what were then called non-listed parts (as distinct from the listed parts such as the monocoque and aero surfaces that are required for a team to qualify as a constructor) as possible. This included the engine, gearbox, suspension and myriad under-the-skin components that were deemed not to be key performance differentiators.
Sixth on the team’s debut in Australia 2016 for Romain Grosjean, followed by fifth in the second race in Bahrain, was a stunning start. Inevitably, this whipped up criticism of the Ferrari partnership among rivals to fever pitch, but despite some tweaks being made to the regulations, nothing happened that fundamentally changed the business model. Haas had a partnership with Italian chassis specialist Dallara to design the car, the Ferrari windtunnel at Maranello was also used and the team itself focused on operating the cars.
This model allowed Haas to finish fifth in the 2018 constructors’ championship, although that arguably represented underachievement given it had the fourth-fastest car on average. But then everything changed in 2019. After a promising start with Magnussen’s sixth place in Australia, the team’s form slumped and it dropped to ninth in the championship. This was down to a fundamental aerodynamic problem the team took too long to diagnose.
In low and medium speed corners, the rear aero was stalling, in particular during the braking phase. This also overworked the tires, meaning that even on weekends when the car qualified well it often vanished in the races – with track temperatures in the low-70s proving problematic. It was only at the end of the season, with a short-lived tweaked diffuser, that things started to improve but it was too little, too late.
But 2019 can be considered a one-off. Plenty of teams have hit trouble with their aero concept in the past, and while the team did take too long to understand it, in doing so it improved its capabilities. The 2020 car had no such problem and made a promising start in pre-season testing, only for the COVID-19 pandemic to shut down its progress.
The money taps were turned off, and justifiably so given the fact that there was huge uncertainty about team income. This was at a time when F1 didn’t know when it would be able to go racing again and there were no assurances about what kind of income could be expected. As a result, development was frozen – even outside of F1’s mandated, extended emergency shutdown – and parts that were in the design phase expected to produce a performance boost were never completed.
While results were terrible during 2020, with Magnussen’s opportunistic 10th place in Hungary after a formation-lap pitstop for slicks and Grosjean’s ninth at a cold October Nurburgring the sole highlights, several important things did happen that year. The first was the cost cap was dropped to a baseline figure of $145million for ’21, dropping by $5m in each of the subsequent two years. The second was the finalizing of a new Concorde Agreement in August that ensured a more equitable share of the slice of F1’s income split among the teams that convinced Haas to recommit to F1. The third was the deferring of the new rules for 2021 to ’22, which allowed Steiner to implement the strategy that led directly to Haas’s recent revival.
Realizing that the need to carry over largely the same car for 2021 offered only a slender opportunity to improve while the ’22 rules were a fresh start, the decision was made to do the bare minimum of work on last year’s car and effectively abandon the season. Steiner himself prefers the term “transitional year” but it was long, tough and profoundly unsuccessful with no points scored and a near-permanent reservation on the back row. But this allowed the resources to be poured into the Haas VF-22 that has started the season so well.
“In 2020, I sat down with Gene and explained the situation and said next year it will be what it is,” said Steiner in Saudi Arabia “In ‘21 Gene told me ‘Guenther you didn’t lie to me, you told me it would be bad, but it’s really bad’. “I said ‘yeah but I knew that and hopefully we can get ‘22 to be better’ – and it looks like it’s worked.”