Haas-ta la vista, Guenther Steiner – but F1’s perennial battlers have bigger problems than TV celebrities
The Formula One news cycle abruptly arose from its wintery slumber last week, with the Haas F1 Team announcing it would be parting ways with long time Team Principal Guenther Steiner, effective immediately.
58-year old Steiner’s contract with the Gene Haas owned outfit expired at the conclusion of last year, with the eponymous team owner electing not to renew, ending a near-decade spell for the Italian at the helm of the American team.
In his place, incumbent Director of Engineering Ayo Komatsu has been promoted, as Haas emphasises having ‘engineering at the heart of our management,’ as quoted in the official team statement, complimented by the repeated use of the term ‘maximising efficiency.’
The underlying realisation of this seismic change at Haas is that change was needed, as unfortunate as it is to have lost a key figure as Steiner, who since bringing the American automation giant onto the Formula One grid in 2016 has endured such a spectrum of sensations.
Survival has been the key word to describe Haas’ eight seasons on the track thus far, to the point Steiner’s revealing autobiography released in 2023 was titled ‘Surviving to Drive’, playing on the title of the Netflix series ‘Drive to Survive,’ through which the sweary Steiner achieved celebrity status.
Celebrity notoriety which has been credited by Steiner himself as having attracted sponsors such as incumbent title partner in MoneyGram to the team. But the show also made him a fan favourite, with Haas including t-shirts featuring quotes from the Italian amongst their merchandise.
And for an organisation which in their first three years on the grid saw them peak at a fifth place finish overall in 2018, then within a year plummeting to almost the bottom of the ten teams, now finished last in the standings in two of the past three seasons. There is something fundamentally wrong.
Haas caused a stir when they first emerged onto the scene, utilising a unique operating model in which they would use their technical alliance with Ferrari to use as many components as were permitted under the regulations, as well as outsource the chassis development to Dallara. This saw furore amongst many purists, who labelled the Anglo-American-Italian collaboration as not a bonafide constructor.
“Nobody was happy with the results of 2023 but I didn’t see this coming” ????
Guenther Steiner gives his thoughts on his Haas departure ???? pic.twitter.com/3w6whybFf7
— Sky Sports F1 (@SkySportsF1) January 13, 2024
Development has been a key item lacking from Haas over the years, most evident through the thick of the Covid-19 pandemic years when Steiner made the executive decision to leave the 2021 bareboned in order to focus resources and the injection of funds brought by rookie drivers Nikita Mazepin and Mick Schumacher towards the 2022 car; the first under the new ground effect era.
But a key aerodynamic weakness has continued to plague Haas, since the infamous 2019 season where the black and gold colours of dubious energy drinks company Rich Energy adorned the car. Add in tyre degradation and the team’s continual lack of race strategy ability, and their cars go from looking like rockstars to the opposite.
Stalwart Kevin Magnussen famously claimed the team’s one and only pole position in Brazil in 2022, though come the 24-lap sprint the Dane quickly found himself plummeting rearward and barely hung on for a point. This amongst many examples where their single lap qualifying pace shows their potential, but not so over a longer distance.
This is an issue that could be perhaps remedied should the team build the chassis in-house and better correlate their findings on the track – as we see with the other nine teams on the grid.
The crux of this split is believed to be a disagreement between Steiner and Haas over the need for further investment in their facilities. Gene’s view was clear – what they’ve got between their bases at Banbury, Maranello and Kannapolis are not being efficiently optimised.
“Here we are in our eighth year, over 160 races – we have never had a podium. The last couple of years, we’ve been tenth or ninth,” Haas told Formula1.com. “At the end of the day, it’s about performance. I have no interest in being tenth anymore.”
— MoneyGram Haas F1 Team (@HaasF1Team) January 10, 2024
Yet Steiner’s unfulfilled desire for Haas’ investing in development and its facilities could be the outfit’s undoing. How quickly within a sport that has technical evolution and innovation at its core, that the Haas model of relying on external partners has become irrelevant.
Given the near equalisation the cost cap has brought for teams on the lower end of the grid in Formula One, added to the extensive lobbying from Williams boss James Vowles for the minnow teams to be granted additional CapEx allowance to bring their facilities up to standard, there’s a fear if Haas can’t move forward in that area, they’ll continue to be consigned to the rear of the grid.
Williams have the healthy investment from Dorilton Capital and Vowles in charge of bringing them forward, Stake (née Sauber) have an impending takeover from automotive giant Audi into a works team and the yet-to-be-named Red Bull second team (formerly AlphaTauri will have closer technical alliances with the world champions.
The grid is not staying still and while it remains to be seen how Haas operate in 2024 under the engineering-driven leadership of Komatsu, there is a tale of caution to the eponymous team owner.
Sure, Haas will continue to profit under Formula One’s cost cap and could sell for a sizeable sum, despite Gene’s emphasis on the team not being for sale. Though without matching the commitment seen from their rivals, Gene is better off saying Haas-ta la vista to Formula One and making way for someone willing to do more than make up the numbers and be an expensive billboard for their own tool company.