‘I’m not trying to be Guenther Steiner’ – Ayao Komatsu on Haas’s new chapter and their targets for the future
Ayao Komatsu has a big job on his hands. The Japanese engineer will this season take the helm of the Haas F1 Team, stepping up into the Team Principal role for the first time as a replacement for Guenther Steiner and tasked with pulling the American squad off the bottom of the constructors’ championship.
It will be no easy feat. The operation is split across three locations – the UK, USA and Italy – and operates a model where they take their chassis from Dallara, a swathe of parts including the engine from Ferrari and the aero from their own design team, located in an office at Maranello.
But having been with the team since its debut in 2016, and risen through several roles having started as Chief Engineer – alongside two decades’ worth of motorsport experience, Komatsu has a core understanding of how the unique operation works and has developed relationships with people across the business, which should in theory help ease the transition.
“I’m really overwhelmed by the positive support I’ve been given,” says Komatsu, speaking to a small group of media at the UK base in Banbury in his first interview since getting the new job.
“Everyone’s been really positive, excited, supportive, so I’m really excited about what we can improve with the people we have here.
“I know that there’s so many talented, high-quality guys here so I really wanted to provide them with the environment and framework so that they can show their best. So I’m really excited.”
A new chapter for Haas
Steiner – who played a key role in building the team from scratch and led the operation until the end of last season – is a larger than life character, who became an unlikely star of Netflix’s Drive to Survive series. Komatsu is a very different persona – but that doesn’t bother him.
“Of course, I’m not trying to be Guenther Steiner!” he says. “He’s a very different person. We got on, honestly, really, really well. We respect each other, we respect each other’s positions and job roles during work and off work as well. We used to go to dinner quite a lot as well over a race weekend – again, not to talk about work but because we got on pretty well. But I’m not here to replace Guenther Steiner as a character.
“He’s a very different character, as you know, and he has got very different strengths and weaknesses to me. I’m not trying to be someone else and Gene knows that and if Gene wanted a Guenther Steiner replacement in that way, he would have appointed somebody else. So I understand that Gene wants something different and I will try to be the best version of myself rather than trying to be somebody else.”
Komatsu does admit, though, that he gives Steiner a run for his money in the swearing stakes. “This is not something I’m proud to say!” he jokes. “My language is not great, I swear way to much, but, again, I try not to do that.”
Strengthening senior management
Komatsu accepts that he doesn’t have Team Principal experience but in conversation with owner Gene Haas, it became clear that his boss wanted to change tact and have a more technically-focused leader. He would then recruit a separate position (likely to be called Chief Operating Officer) to deal with the other areas.
“When I was given this opportunity I just made it clear to Gene: ‘You know my expertise, there’s no point in me trying to focus on the marketing side and trying to get sponsorship because that’s not where my skillset is’,” says Komatsu. “In that field I need someone else who is an expert in that area to run it, then I can focus on the technical side, trying to get an organization that we can improve the technical side of the team.
“So yeah, it’s a very different responsibility, but at the same time, any job I’ve done – so I used to be in the vehicle dynamics, performance engineer, race engineer, chief race engineer – when you do your current job you always try your best in the job you are doing but you also look at ‘OK, what are the other constraints? If certain things are improved, how can I do a better job?’.
“You always think about that, so even when I was doing the previous job, of course this team means a lot to me because I was here since day one. I know what potential this team has got, so in certain areas I can see ‘Oh maybe you can look at doing things in a different way’ etc. So in that sense, we’re not short of ideas, if you like, so there’s plenty of areas that we can take a look to improve the team.”
Discussions are ongoing about shaping the Chief Operating Officer job description and finding the right person and, while they would be keen to get one in as soon as possible, they won’t rush the decision.
“Not having a COO at this minute is not slowing us down,” he says. “But if you are looking at going forward, we clearly need one and this person needs to be running that area coherently. But it’s better to get the correct person than rush it and then settle for something you are not so sure about.”
Komatsu is keeping his plan under wraps for now, because while he’s spoken to the UK-based team, he hasn’t had face time with those in Italy yet (though he is flying there today for meetings) and wants to reveal everything internally before it becomes public.
Fixing what they have is first plan of action
No dramatic changes are expected in the short term, though, because Komatsu feels there are efficiencies to be made with what they have. “I do believe with what we got, we can do a better job, for sure,” he says. “With the people, with the ideas people have got, if we put it together, I'm sure we can do a much better job.
“And then once we get to the stage where 'OK, with what we’ve got we are maximizing, we are an effective racing team, then there is a next stage of ‘OK, is the absolute boundary, is that not good enough?’ But I think we are far from it if you'd like, so yeah, I'm focusing on improving what we got for sure, to start with.”
With tweaks planned for this year, Komatsu sees this point in time as a “transitional phase” and concurrently together with Gene, they will work on a longer-term plan to ensure that the team doesn’t fall behind their rivals in terms of the way they grow and operate.
“Whatever we learn across the course of the year in 2024, I’m sure that will help us very clearly define what we’re doing in five years’ time, eight years’ time, 10 years’ time,” he says.
One area Komatsu wants to work on is communication. He accepts Haas will always have a challenge in this area because they are split over different sites – and this is not something that is going to change any time soon – but he does think they can improve.
“Of course, disagreement happens everywhere,” he says. “That's healthy. That's not a problem. But then just to move forward everybody needs to know, ‘OK. X said this, A said this, I disagree, but we dealt with all the disagreement, as a team we decided to move in this direction’.
“I think that's important, rather than people don't know why we're going through that direction. ‘This doesn't seem to work, but we still keep going on. Why?’ So that's not healthy, I don't think. So, again, that comes from communication.”
Haas keen to avoid finishing last again
The 2026 rule change offers Haas – like all their rivals – an opportunity to take a step forward after a difficult period but Komatsu knows he can’t wait that long before showing improvement because Gene wants to see progress quickly, the owner clearly frustrated when we spoke last week and he said he was “embarrassed” by their performance in 2023.
“Gene at the moment wants to get off the back of the grid,” Komatsu says. “Obviously you saw and heard how unhappy Gene was. Of course, who’s going to be happy competing in last place? It is embarrassing, it really is embarrassing.
“So I think it’s positive that Gene is unhappy where we are. If the people in the team think ok, we’re last, and we’re not sure where we’re going, Gene doesn’t say anything, then ok, is Gene happy just making up the numbers and being P10? That’s clearly not the case. So that’s actually motivating for everyone here. Ok, Gene is serious, he wants to improve the team, so let’s do it together.”
But he does believe Gene will give him time. “It’s part of my job to get Gene to engage and understand what we are dealing with here,” he adds.
Haas had high hopes of making a step in 2023, but they struggled with in-season development, and a late decision to change direction meant they couldn’t get their first big upgrade to the track until Austin in October. When that sizeable new package, paid for by Gene’s own funds according to sources, debuted, it proved to be a disappointment with Nico Hulkenberg even returning to the old spec and proving that was quicker.
Positively, Komatsu says the team have learned a lot about where they struggled to get the most out of last year’s package. “I don't think we understand everything,” he says. “[But] I think we understand a significant part of it. But then again, the only proof is if we can produce a car that can deal with that problem. So I don't like to sit here and say that we understand it 100%. We have a decent idea why and where we need to focus on.”
The car will break cover in the flesh at a shakedown at Silverstone on February 11, before running again in Bahrain two days before pre-season testing begins at the same venue on February 21. And while they have made progress, Komatsu accepts the start of the campaign could be challenging.
“The ’24 car is a clear step, but whether it’s good enough against the competition to start off with, I don’t think so, because we started so late,” he says. “We changed the concept so late as well, and then by actually doing the Austin upgrade, we diverted our resources a little bit. I’m realistic with the car we’re putting out in Bahrain, but not in a negative manner. It’s not the fault of our engineers, our guys. They’re good people.
“For me, then the key is whatever the car in Bahrain, whatever problem we see, we try to understand it and then move from that point as a team. We are a small team as you know. We’ve got to move as one, otherwise we don’t stand a chance. To answer your question directly, it is a step forward. Is it good enough? No. But what we do from that point is how we can show that we can improve the team or not.”