In an interview with FormulaSpy, Haas’ team boss Guenther Steiner says that the rise of Haas from unknown newcomer to established midfielder is a personal source of pride.
Haas may now be one of the bigger boys of Formula 1, finishing P5 in 2018 after a steady rise in the rankings since entering the sport in 2016, but it’s not even five years ago since their name would have elicited a “Who?’ from anyone but ardent American motorsport fans.
At that time, in early 2014, Guenther Steiner was yet to return to Formula 1 after a six year spell away from the sport. Starting off in rallying and winding up leading Fords’ WRC program at the end of the 90s, Steiner was poached away to F1 by Niki Lauda, who was then with the Jaguar team. Leaving in 2003 for a DTM role with Opel, he returned to F1 with Red Bull Racing in their early days. Finding the team crowded, company owner Dietrich Mateschitz assigned him the task of helping to establish a Red Bull NASCAR team. As a result, Steiner moved to North Carolina before leaving Red Bull entirely in 2008. Setting up his own company in Mooresville, called Fibreworks Composites, he spent the six years between ’08 and ’14 acting as CEO and helping them go from strength to strength.
However, his eye was always on a return to motorsport and, after approaching Gene Haas of Stewart-Haas Racing, also based nearby in Kannapolis, the seeds of a new F1 team were sown. Not long after, Haas were formally accepted for entry into Formula 1 for 2016 and Steiner was named as Team Principal; a role he has relished ever since.
“The Haas project ranks pretty highly as a personal achievement.” he said as he reflected on the last four years.
“We started from nothing. I rank it up there for all the people involved as well, as we can be proud of what we’ve achieved. What we’ve got together is a good group of people with the same mentality – they want to do something a little bit…I won’t say different as we still go racing, but not being in a big group and stand out and take a risk. We achieve that and that’s pretty cool.”
The Haas team was announced as other new entrants struggled to gain a foothold within the sport: HRT had gone under at the end of 2012, while Caterham’s struggles to keep going also ended at the conclusion of 2014. Marussia’s problems were deep rooted at this point, although they managed to keep going until 2016 under Manor Racing. Steiner admits that the problems suffered by those teams meant that Haas weren’t taken particularly seriously by their rivals initially: “For me personally, we started from nothing and had no credibility or very little credibility. Especially after all the other start-up teams failed. We just came in right after them and it was like ‘Why should these guys be any better?’ But it was – it’s been a good success.”
“I think we’ve gained credibility in the eyes of some of them [our rivals], at least, as they’ve started copying us!”
“Our model is working, and it’s within the regulations, so why should I feel bad about it? Everybody is free to do the same.” Guenther Steiner
Haas have met with criticism from some quarters due to their unashamed customer status: their chassis is bought from external supplier Dallara, while engine, gearbox and ancillaries is supplied by Ferrari. Steiner explained that this business plan has worked well for them, and said that the rulebook means that any of the teams complaining about them are free to follow suit if they can forge similar relationships with external suppliers: “Certainly it hasn’t been a bad way of doing it. When you go back and look at Caterham or Marussia, they weren’t bad teams or stupid people. It’s just so difficult. For us to say ‘we’re cleverer than them’ just from doing the same and being successful – that would be quite arrogant in my opinion. They were not bad people – they had a business plan that didn’t work out because F1 is so difficult. You need to recognise what is difficult to get better. We’ve done it differently and it’s succeeding so far. For sure, there are people who would like to see us running around in tenth forever but who wants to do that?”
“Our model is working, and it’s within the regulations, so why should I feel bad about it? Everybody is free to do the same.”
The team take pride in their good relationship with Ferrari – it’s one that has been carved out over the last four years. However, Haas aren’t the only customer team of the Italian marque – the former Sauber team, now known as Alfa Romeo, have cosied up considerably to Ferrari over the off-season and are now an unofficial B-Team of the Scuderia. Does Steiner think the relationship with Haas might change as a result of the closer ties between Ferrari & Alfa Romeo? “Our relationship with Ferrari is very good – we’re working with them four years now since we brokered our deal in 2015.” he explained.
“It’s very established, they’re very good people, and we’re getting what we always got from them. We’ve got great contact, there’s no friction there, and what they do with Alfa Romeo – it’s not within my discretion to change or do anything there. As long as we get what we want from them, and we do, then I’m happy. There’s no issue there. If they do something with Alfa Romeo, I have no voice or vote there that they can or cannot do that.”
After such a strong rise in their early years in Formula 1, the rule of diminishing returns has to apply. P5 in 2018 as a customer team means that up next on their hitlist are three manufacturers (Ferrari, Renault & Mercedes) as well as the works team for Honda – Red Bull Racing. Is toppling one of these giants even remotely possible or is it a case of consolidating their position as leaders of the midfield?
With the rules remaining largely stagnant until 2021, Steiner says moving further up is impossible: “We have to wait until 2021, and a regulation change. Until then, it’s just a case of trying to get P4 as the gap in front is just too big.”
While Formula 1 dominates Steiner’s life now, his Fibreworks Composites business continues to thrive in Kannapolis. Despite his role as CEO of the company, he says that he’s had to take a back seat in order to concentrate on his Formula 1 duties: “This job here is time consuming enough!”
He laughes as he continues: “I struggle to keep up with this, let alone a second company! If i did, I’d mess them both up and I try not to. My business partner Joe Hofmann does a great job for us, not just for me. I’m still interested and I speak a lot with Joe about it but I don’t make decisions – that would be completely wrong. Someone needs to be responsible, just like here where I don’t ask Gene every day what to do! I just hear from him when I’m wrong!”