Feature F1 Unlocked
The Guenther Steiner way – Drive To Survive's 'reality TV superstar' and the show's impact in the US
Back in 2018, a camera crew invaded the F1 paddock. In the manner of these things, it was, then wasn’t, a big deal. Teams got used to the boom mike hovering over their conversations; the (extremely) skilled film crew, adept at fading into the background, didn’t get in the way and no-one really paid it much heed.
This unnamed Netflix fly-on-the-wall documentary didn’t particularly matter. Mercedes and Ferrari, in entirely predictable fashion, decided such things were an unwelcome distraction and declined to take part – championships to contest and all that.
It opened up the field a bit. Daniel Ricciardo seemed made for the format; Sergio Perez and Esteban Ocon got a lot of screen time too – but most of all, it made Guenther Steiner into a reality TV superstar.
Six seasons later (or five series – depending on your point of view), that seems completely normal. Of course a long-suffering Italian man with a German accent and an impassioned partiality for profanity is the breakout star of the massively successful Drive to Survive. Of course, his 2022 season diary is a massive international bestseller, and he’s central to the chain of events that leads to three rounds of the 2023 World Championship taking place in the USA.
Is that last comment justified? Probably. Drive to Survive has been a huge influence on the sport’s popularity in the USA, taking it far beyond the traditional fanbase – and Guenther was absolutely the star of the early seasons.
There are Guenther mugs; walk around COTA this weekend and you’ll see Guenther T-shirts, usually with a heavily asterisked quotation hovering over his glaring visage – is that a factor in F1 now visiting Miami and Las Vegas as well as the magnificent Circuit of The Americas? Yeah, sure, why not.
Steiner himself qualifies that a little. “Right now, Formula 1 is very strong in the United States," he says. “I’ve lived here for 17 years, my home is in North Carolina, and the perception of F1 has definitely shifted in the last few years. When Haas started in F1, back in 2016, people were aware of the sport but no-one really took much notice, but it’s boomed over the last three or four years.
“It is perhaps an oversimplification to say this is driven by Netflix and Drive to Survive – but it’s also true. Drive to Survive was perhaps the ignition. Anecdotally, my neighbour of 17 years was never particularly interested in F1, then his son started to watch DTS and now the family have watch parties for the races. This is happening everywhere.”
When Franz Tost retires, Steiner will be the third longest-serving team principal in the paddock. Having left F1 after a spell as Oracle Red Bull Racing’s technical director – to run Red Bull’s new NASCAR team – he returned to the paddock in 2016 as the team principal of Haas. Indeed, for many, the first time he was back on the scene came here at COTA in 2014 – a few months after Gene Haas announced his F1 entry.
Back at COTA in '14, Steiner spent his weekend speaking to the media and firing-up a recruitment drive (“a poaching expedition,” as another team principal drily called it).
The Haas pitch was unusual. At that point, the 2010 start-up entries of Caterham and Marussia were still limping on at the back of the grid. Haas, however, promised a very different paradigm: a technical partnership with Ferrari, another with Dallara, bases in Kannapolis and… an as yet undefined home in England’s Motorsport Valley (subsequently located in Banbury, Oxfordshire).
“We wouldn’t have done this, starting up, doing everything ourselves,” said Steiner at the time, opining on the project that had seen three new teams enter the sport and a fourth, the USF1 outfit, fail before launch. “I know how difficult it is. You cannot say that you’re going to do an F1 car from scratch.
“These cars are very complicated. You can do it – if you have enough time and enough money. Enough time is a long time; enough money is a lot of money. Therefore, we partnered up with somebody to use their experience to go from. I think this is the way for F1 in the future.”
Steiner is yet to be proved right or wrong, as the Haas team are now a mature outfit with eight years of results and is still the sport’s most recent entry – but the limitations of the model have been plain for all to see.
Haas can’t iterate a design as rapidly as their rivals. In the past they’ve struggled to create new parts to keep pace with clarifications issues within technical directives, or have gone into races with a perilously limited number of spares.
On the other hand, they’re still here, deeply embroiled in a fascinating backmarker dogfight that could still see them finish the season anywhere between seventh and last – and with an upgrade package this weekend intended to be a forerunner of a new car concept for 2024.
It’s a little late in the year for a big upgrade, but then, as Steiner said in characteristically frank manner a few weeks ago, there’s no point in upgrading something you don’t understand.
“It’s just that we’ve struggled this year a little bit,” he conceded in Singapore. “I mean, when we started off, it was OK [Haas scored eight of its current 12 points across the first five races] and then we couldn’t make any progress, performance-wise. We just couldn’t find any performance.
“We didn't bring upgrades because there was nothing to be upgraded, because what we found wasn't any better. So, we had to make a complete U-turn and go a different direction. And that’s what we did: we decided before the summer break to do that.
“And now we bring something for Austin, a big upgrade, to go in the direction we are going next year, just to learn as much as possible, and hopefully bring some performance for the last five races. We need to see what it does but also to understand where we are going next year a little bit better – because with what we have got now, we just don't know what the car is doing from weekend to weekend.”
This is the sort of comment you expect from Steiner: it’s blunt, it’s honest, it’s far less discrete than any other team principal would dream of being.
But it’s also what has created the Cult of Guenther, so beloved of Netflix viewers. He finds that a little perplexing – but F1 now gives him plenty of opportunities to come to terms with it.
Home races for any team are a mixed blessing. There’s more attention, more marketing, more juice… and all of that means a lot more work, a lot more distractions and a lot less sleep. Everyone will say it’s absolutely worth it – but sometimes the expressions that accompany that sentiment can be a little pained. For Haas, with three home races in 2023, that extra burst of frenzied activity takes on epic proportion.
“It’s absolute madness, whenever F1 comes to the States because there is so much going on,” says Steiner with a smile that’s broad rather than pained. “For us, being an American team with American partners and sponsors, it’s very busy. On a personal level, I enjoy it, because people are having a good time – but from a working point of view… wow!”
On the subject of three races, Steiner thinks the calendar balance is right… for the moment. “I think it’s right that F1 is expanding to three races in the US, with the Las Vegas race joining Miami and Austin. It’s good for Haas, of course, but I think it’s good for the sport too.
“If I’m honest, I think long-term, three is not enough. In terms of size and population, Europe isn’t much bigger than the US, and just because you have a race in England, doesn’t stop you having a race in Belgium – and Silverstone is a lot nearer to Spa than Miami is to Austin, or Austin is to Vegas.
“That said, I suspect we will stabilize with three races because we shouldn’t overcrowd the market. Three is just enough for the moment, and just enough is better than too many.”
Doubtless, early next year, season six of Drive to Survive will feature Steiner fuming, fulminating and generally living every moment of the 2023 season like it’s a personal battle against the universe. Whether or not that season ends with agony or ecstasy is still something very much in the balance.
Haas currently sit ninth in the constructors': 11 points behind Williams who are seventh, seven ahead of AlphaTauri bringing up the rear. With five races remaining, two Sprints and an all-new circuit in Las Vegas, there remains plenty of scope for drama around America’s F1 team.