Interview F1 Unlocked
EXCLUSIVE: 'It came down to performance’ – Gene Haas on Guenther Steiner's departure and what it means for his team’s future
Haas have been causing shocks since they entered Formula 1 in 2016, from scoring a brilliant points-finish on their debut and taking a remarkable fifth in the constructors’ championship in only their third season, to a shock pole in Sao Paulo in 2022.
But the American outfit delivered the biggest in their so far eight-year tenure when earlier this week they announced the parting of ways with their popular, no-nonsense Team Principal and reluctant Netflix star Guenther Steiner, who led the outfit into the sport with the backing of owner Gene Haas.
The obvious question, then, is why? “It came down to performance,” Gene Haas tells me when we spoke exclusively via a video call. “Here we are in our eighth year, over 160 races – we have never had a podium. The last couple of years, we’ve been 10th or ninth.
“I’m not sitting here saying it’s Guenther’s fault, or anything like that, but it just seems like this was an appropriate time to make a change and try a different direction, because it doesn’t seem like continuing with what we had is really going to work.”
It’s the end of an era for a double act who have worked together for the past decade, bringing the most recent Formula 1 team into the sport and successfully becoming part of the family by securing a foothold on the grid. With that in mind, it must have been hard to part ways.
“It is, I like Guenther, he’s a really nice person, a really good personality,” says Haas. “We had a tough end to the year. I don’t understand that, I really don’t. Those are good questions to ask Guenther, what went wrong. At the end of the day, it’s about performance. I have no interest in being 10th anymore.”
This was the second time in three years that Haas had finished 10th, though the first time was anticipated when they wrote off the year, running two rookies in Mick Schumacher and Nikita Mazepin and throwing all their resources at the development of their 2022 car.
It was a move that saw them improve to eighth and returned them to the form they showed in their first five seasons where they finished a more respectable eighth, eighth, fifth, ninth and ninth. The 2023 result, though, was a big blow – a late season upgrade in Austin failing to the extent that Nico Hulkenberg chose to return to the older spec for the remaining races.
Promoting from within Haas’s preference
Haas will hope to return to their place in the midfield pack this season, under the leadership of Ayao Komatsu. The 47-year-old knows the team inside out, having joined as chief race engineer in his debut year and ultimately rising to the role of Director of Engineering. He’s got more than 20 years of experience within F1, and that played a key role in convincing Gene Haas he was the right replacement.
“We looked from within, at who had most experience,” says Haas. “Ayao has been with the team since day one, he knows the ins and outs of it. My biggest concern is when we go to Bahrain, we need to show up with a car that is ready to go. Maybe having more of a managerial-type and engineering approach, we’ll see if that has benefits.
“I think Guenther had more of a human-type approach to everything with people and the way he interacted with people, he was very good at that. Ayao is very technical, he looks at things based on statistics – this is what we’re doing bad, where can we do better. It’s a different approach. We really do need something different because we weren’t really doing that well. Like I said, it all comes down to eight years in, dead last. Nothing more I can say on that.”
Haas had the option of turning to some very experienced former team principals in the form of Mattia Binotto (who left Ferrari at the end of 2022), Otmar Szafnauer (who left Alpine last summer) and Jost Capito (who departed Williams in late 2022) but he preferred to keep it in-house.
“I’ve been running Haas Automation for over 40 years now,” he says. “Bringing people in from the outside, it takes them time to learn, six months to a year, and a lot of time you don’t even like them. It’s better to take people you know, and even if they are not the perfect fit, at least you know what you’re going to get.
“That’s really worked out pretty well for us here at Haas Automation, so I’m really applying a lot of the building blocks that were here to the Formula 1 team. I really like to have people that I know, who understand the day-to-day operations, understand the people, [rather] than bringing in a stranger who is going to stir everything up and create a mess.”
Haas attends races but has preferred to keep himself in the shadows and let Steiner crack on with running the race weekend. But going forward, in addition to the American squad’s plan to recruit a European-based Chief Operating Officer (who along with Komatsu will report into Haas and Vice President of Haas Automation Bob Murray) to strengthen their senior management, Haas intends to “be a lot more involved” himself.
Haas is committed to staying in F1
You can sense Haas’s frustration at the results from last season – after all a chunk of the budget is supplied from his own bank account – but while that might lead some to throw in the towel, the American has no plans to do that. He wants to win in Formula 1 and is fully committed to finding a way to do that in the long-term.
“I didn’t get into F1 to sell [the team],” says Haas. “I did it because I wanted to race. Guenther had the same perspective. We’re not here to cash out, we want to race and be competitive. If you look at any team, historically, they have had a lot of good years and a lot of bad years.
“Surviving is one of the characteristics of getting better. As long as you can survive, you always have another year to prove your worthiness. This is a big change. Losing Guenther is going to cause the team to have to focus on other aspects. We will hopefully come out better for it.”
Haas have the smallest budget on the grid, with the team using a combination of sponsorship money, prize money and Gene Haas’s own financial input to compete. Haas, though, doesn’t believe the team’s struggles are down to a lack of spending power relative to their rivals.
“There is a perception we spend a lot less money; we’re usually within $10m of the budget limit,” he says. “I just think we don’t do a very good job of spending that money. A lot of teams have had previous investments in their infrastructure, buildings, equipment and personnel. Our model was to outsource a lot of that. We spend a lot of money. We haven’t exceeded the cap but we’re pretty darn close to it. I just don’t think we’re doing a very good job of spending it in the most effective way.”
And he believes his Haas Automation tooling business, which he’s had for 40 years, is proof that spending money efficiently can deliver success. “That’s one of the reasons we have survived – because we are so conscious of how we spend money,” he says. “Being efficient at what we do is going to make sure we survive in this series. We’re one of the longest surviving teams, everyone else [other new teams] have had the tendency to spend all their money in the first few years and then they go out of business.
“We survived for eight years, and we’re not in a situation where we are going to go out of business. But I certainly want to be able to survive for the next 10 years.”
Performance boost will aid interest from backers
The Haas team have proved an attractive proposition for sponsors, including bringing onboard MoneyGram in a multi-year title sponsorship deal. With that in mind, Haas says another reason for making a change in the leadership is to ensure that they can deliver better results for the current crop and prospective new clients.
“We need to do better,” he says. “It’s easier to keep sponsors and attract sponsors if we’re a mid-pack team and not a dead last team. That’s my perspective on it. At the same time, if we can run a little faster, we’ll get more FOM [Formula One Management] money, which will make life a bit easier.
“It’s really all about winning. We have a great team, we have great engines, we have really great drivers. There’s no reason why we are 10th. I can’t understand how we can be with all the equipment and people we have.”
F1 is enjoying a boom period right now, with several investors keen on finding a way to buy into a team. Alpine secured a €200m cash injection from a group of investors including Hollywood star Ryan Reynolds. It has emerged Haas were also the subject of interest – but Haas said the proposition his team were offered wasn’t something he wanted to pursue.
“We have had outside investors come in, and they want to talk to us,” he says. “They expect a 15% rate of return every year. Give me a 15% rate of return and I have a couple of hundred million dollars I’ll give you! They have high expectations, they have all kinds of rules.
“What their job is, they want to buy into you, and five years later they want to make a $100m profit. Quite frankly, I don’t need that kind of oversight, from people who come in with $200m – it’s not enough to entice me to do that.”
Ferrari remains cornerstone of Haas project
One of the key pillars of the Haas model – which they have had since the beginning – is their very close relationship with Ferrari, the American team taking the power unit from the Scuderia as well as a string of parts, including the suspension, which is permitted within the rules.
“Ferrari has been very good to us,” he says. “They have been with us since day one, they build incredible engines. Their suspension is extremely good. We have been using a lot of their hardware. It works really well. They really do help us. I’m embarrassed that we haven’t been able to do better with it but going forward, I want to take advantage of good equipment that a lot of other teams don’t have.
“Things are going to get a lot more competitive. Red Bull have AlphaTauri, we’re starting to see these relationships evolve, and I think the competition is going to be very intense, so having a partner like Ferrari is going to be very important.”
He adds: “We’re very happy to stay with Ferrari. I hope we can help them in terms of reliability. Going forward, when Sauber drops Ferrari power, we would be Ferrari’s only user. They might want to pick up a customer or two. Maybe they’ll be happy with us. But we have got to do better. We can’t be running so far behind Ferrari. We need to be closer to them.”
Haas is keen to turn his attention to the future and put a challenging season behind him. Providing they can get on top of the aerodynamic package, an area they struggled with last year as their big Austin upgrade – that Haas himself invested in – disappointed, Haas is optimistic about the future.
“I think we’ve actually got a great formula here,” he continued. “We have Ferrari engines which probably have more power than anybody right now. We have Ferrari hardware [as per the permitted listed parts within the regulations], we have a good chassis. I talk to a lot of the engineers and I think our biggest failing is aero; our aero programme needs work. When you’re at the track and you’re humiliated every weekend, I’m going to stop taking that one anymore.”