Haas F1 Team have enjoyed a spectacular debut in F1. But, back in the 1970s, a Canadian team exploded onto the scene and enjoyed unprecedented initial success. Haas have enjoyed a tremendous start to their F1 career, swooping in and immediately scoring strong points finishes with Romain Grosjean in Australia and Bahrain, while Esteban Gutierrez has rarely been far behind throughout two unlucky races. The team have been put together as a ‘B-team’ of the Ferrari outfit, and are run by successful American businessman and racer Gene Haas. But, back in the 70s, an unheard-of team came in and caused even more of a stir in their debut season.
Austrian-born Walter Wolf, a naturalised Canadian businessman, made his fortune in the 70s from his involvement in deep sea oil drilling – namely, the sale of oil drilling equipment to large oil companies. Partial to motor racing, he began looking for a way into the world of Formula 1 racing in the mid-70s and struck up a partnership with Frank Williams. In 1976, Wolf bought 60% of Frank Williams’ first attempt at a team – the eponymous Frank Williams Racing Cars team. In terms of racing assets, the defunct but mildly successful Hesketh team had a car and equipment up for grabs which Wolf jumped upon. Working out of the Williams facilities, then in Reading, the team didn’t really work and failed to qualify for several races.
However, just like the animal of his name, the ruthless Wolf decided against continuing with Frank Williams and removed him from the team. This allowed Frank to head off and set up another F1 team, still on the go today under the Williams moniker. Wolf, now going on his own, employed Lotus’ legendary manager Peter Warr, who had overseen successful championship victories for Jochen Rindt and Emerson Fittipaldi.
Harvey Postlethwaite, having cut his teeth with March & Hesketh, designed the first Wolf WR1. Signing promising driver (and eventual World Champion) Jody Scheckter, the car was powered by the legendary Cosworth DFV. Just how would the Canadian-British team fare as the 1977 Championship got underway in Argentina in early January?
As well prepared as Wolf were, even the team weren’t expecting to achieve the results they did. Starting the Buenos Aires race from P11, Scheckter made his way up the order as frontrunners like James Hunt, Jochen Mass, Mario Andretti & John Watson all retired, while Carlos Pace struggled with heat exhaustion. As a result, the South African driver came through to win the first race of 77 – Wolf’s first proper race as an independent team in F1.
A retirement in the next race was followed by three consecutive podiums in South Africa, the US & Spain – proving that the win was no fluke. Another win in Monaco for Scheckter put him 7 points clear of Niki Lauda, but this was followed by four straight retirements that put him down to P3 overall and 7 points down on Lauda. Three further podiums and another win would come before the end of the year, but Scheckter was powerless to stop Lauda & Ferrari claiming another championship before the Austrian’s prompt departure from the Scuderia.
The 1978 season didn’t bring as much success, with the team managing occasional podiums with Schekter in the updated WR4, before the curtain came down at the end of 1979 after a disastrous season with James Hunt. So bad was this year, Hunt opted to retire halfway through the season.
The initial success of the new Haas team in 2016 has caught many by surprise, and will likely lead to a backlash from the other teams. Gene Haas’ model has been to link up and work with Ferrari as much as is permitted under the current regulations, which forbid true ‘customer cars’. The gearbox, suspension & engine are all Ferrari supplied, while the chassis, aero and safety structures are all put together by Dallara & Haas themselves. Dallara were no strangers to the Wolf empire either, with both parties working together on a fairly unsuccessful Can-Am project in 1977 – meaning that just like Haas & their NASCAR team, Wolf were racing on both sides of the Atlantic throughout their first year.
Of course, another team has come in and won at their first attempt – the Brawn GP team. At the end of 2008, Honda withdrew abruptly from F1, allowing then Team Principal Ross Brawn to swoop in and buy the assets of the team. Having developed a highly competitive new car with Honda’s funding throughout 2008, the renamed 2009 BGP001 dominated most of the year and claimed both championships before being bought out by Mercedes-Benz. However, the circumstances of the Brawn team are quite different to the Wolf/Haas approach to F1, with Haas being far more similar to the independent customer approach taken by Walter Wolf rather than the privately-run Honda outfit that was Brawn GP.
Romain Grosjean’s strong points finishes in Australia & Bahrain see the French driver ahead of Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel at this early stage, tying on points with the other works driver Kimi Raikkonen. Haas are ahead of Red Bull B-team Toro Rosso, who use last year’s Ferrari power unit and an in house chassis design. They’re also ahead of another Ferrari customer, the struggling Sauber team, as well as Merc customers Force India. Works outfits like Renault & McLaren-Honda also trail the Haas package, apparently even on pace. Haas even appear to have found ways to make the Ferrari power unit reliable, encountering none of the issues so far in the two events that have seen the works Ferraris both encounter issues.
After a strong start to their career, Wolf fell apart quite quickly once they lost their initial competitiveness. Walter Wolf grew bored of toiling his way through the season and sold up to Emerson Fittipaldi, who then set up his own team using the remains of Wolf. Haas have enjoyed initial success using the resources they have bought but, unlike the more simplistic days of the 70s, are in danger of being left behind in the development race by more experienced outfits. A big budget doesn’t always equal success, as BAR proved over a decade ago. Haas’ team boss Guenther Steiner’s pre-season conservatism has been revised to a goal of scoring points every race – something that’s even difficult for bigger and better names like Williams & McLaren.
While one is always reluctant to doom-monger, there will be an inevitable backlash against Haas’ competitiveness from other teams and this will expose Gene Haas to the petty politics that go hand in hand with F1, and will also bring scrutiny upon the customer model employed by the team. As long as Haas enjoy success in their current form, bespoke constructors are not likely to be happy campers. Richard Branson was only happy to be associated with success with Brawn, and gave up on his Virgin Racing project almost immediately when he realised his team weren’t fast. Tony Fernandes was another businessman who got tired of spending money on F1, but businessman and former racer Toto Wolff has fully integrated himself into F1 over the last decade through driver management, investments and team management at Mercedes. . The going is good for Gene Haas right now but, if things don’t always stay so rosy, will he turn out to be a Wolf or a Wolff? Time will tell.