Feature F1 Unlocked
ANALYSIS: The key reasons behind Guenther Steiner’s shock Haas departure
2024 was just days old when news broke that Guenther Steiner – the unlikely star of Netflix’s F1 docuseries Drive to Survive – had parted ways with the Haas team he helped build from scratch and entered into Formula 1 in 2016, with Ayao Komatsu promoted to the role.
In one way, it might come as a shock. After all, Steiner has fought tooth-and-nail to not just keep the team going but try and make it consistently competitive with the smallest budget on the grid. It’s become his baby.
There have been incredibly difficult times, hundreds of sleepless nights. The stress has become an incredible strain at points. But he has, deep down, loved every single moment of it. It’s what gets him up in the morning. And he’s done an impressive job, weathering every storm that has blown his way.
First, there was the frustration from rival teams that he was utilising the rules to full effect by taking a string of parts from Ferrari. Then there was the saga with energy drinks sponsor Rich Energy, and the fight to keep the doors open during the Covid pandemic. And there was the severing of ties with Russian sponsor Uralkali and Russian driver Nikita Mazepin.
Through all of that, Steiner has held it together with aplomb, and been an absolute pleasure to deal with throughout. You’d struggle to find a person in the paddock who wouldn’t make time for the Italian. That in itself is an incredible feat.
That Haas have survived eight seasons – and are the only new team to enter F1 in the last two decades to have become a permanent fixture and stable outfit – is a remarkable achievement, and one for which Steiner is owed the lion’s share of the credit.
For the relationship to end after everything Steiner has put into the team, and when they have the foundations to kick on with the right strategy, is a sad day for everyone involved.
However, there are reasons why it is not a surprise. Haas have just endured the second-worst season in their history, the American team ending up rock bottom of the 2023 constructors’ championship.
That’s two places down on their finish the previous year, and will have cost them prize money in the region of $20m. That is a huge sum for a team like Haas, who are not yet spending up to the cost cap, which is $135m.
Haas's investment challenge
Part of the challenge for Haas is that they lack the money to invest in the team. Recently, the capital expenditure allowance – which can be spent on things like infrastructure and tools – was increased by $20m.
While many of their rivals can find that money to spend and improve their operation, it’s much tougher for Haas. They have done a good job in recent years of bringing in external cash, such as from title sponsor MoneyGram, but they don’t have the backing of a big manufacturer.
To take advantage of that allowance and improve their own capabilities that are trailing rivals in the short-term, they would need Gene Haas to spend his own money. He did just that for the big upgrade package introduced in Austin last year. Sources say that cost around $8m. The results were disappointing, with Nico Hulkenberg even reverting to the old spec, which turned out to be faster.
The disappointment of the big and expensive upgrade irritated Gene Haas for obvious reasons. It wouldn’t be a surprise, then, if he is reluctant to put his own money on the table once again.
The topic of investment – and how change was needed because something wasn’t working – is likely to have been a central point of discussions when he met with Steiner for their regular winter catch-up to review how the team was doing and what the future looked like.
The two of them have enjoyed a good relationship throughout their time together, the partnership working because Gene Haas let Steiner get on with the day-to-day running of the outfit and trusted his judgement. This approach got the best out of the operation, and has been key to the team becoming a stable member of the sport.
However, that relationship has been tested in recent years by the aforementioned storms that the team have weathered, and after such a tough year – and the necessity to find a clear direction for the next two years quickly before the rules change in 2026 – common ground couldn’t be found.
And thus the two have gone their separate ways. Steiner, with his immense amount of experience in Formula 1 and rallying, will have no shortage of options for his next steps, whether that’s in motorsport management, the media, or focusing on his own company.
Filling Steiner's shoes as Team Principal
Gene Haas has overlooked experienced Team Principals on the market – such as Otmar Szafnauer, Mattia Binotto and Jost Capito – and instead looked within to fill the big shoes vacated by Steiner by promoting Director of Engineering Ayao Komatsu to Team Principal.
In Komatsu, Haas has someone who has been with the team since the very beginning, and through his current role heading up engineering trackside, he has the experience to run the operation across a race weekend.
Steiner’s role was all-encompassing, so Haas’s decision to begin recruiting a Chief Operating Officer to look after the non-competition parts of the business, such as HR, admin, finance, purchasing, marketing and communications, will allow Komatsu to focus on the performance and his strengths.
He has two decades’ worth of experience in F1, having worked for BAR Honda, spent 10 years with Renault, and he is approaching the same amount of time with Haas. He’s done all sorts of jobs, from washing tyres to race strategy – and that exposure to several roles gives a solid balance to his experience.
However, stepping up to the role of Team Principal is a massive job, particularly at a smaller operation like Haas, which doesn’t have a big structure of people to help spread the workload. And replacing someone like Steiner will be no mean feat.
Steiner has been the face of Haas for the last decade. He is a hugely popular character both inside and outside the sport, and well respected by his team principal contemporaries. He is a racer to his core, with an immense amount of senior management experience, and can take a huge amount of pressure on his shoulders.
Komatsu will have witnessed those qualities first-hand. Now it’s up to him to continue the job Steiner started and take Haas into their next chapter. Interesting times ahead.