The honeymoon period is over - exclusive Gene Haas Q&A
In only their second F1 season, Haas are involved in an incredibly tight midfield battle – one in which any scoring opportunity must be taken. Team owner Gene Haas discusses their prospects for the second half of the year, and what he thinks the future has in hold for his American squad...
Q: Gene, midway through your second season as F1 team owner - still in the honeymoon period with the sport?
Gene Haas: Ha, wow, interesting question. I would say the honeymoon is over. Now comes the tricky part of living together! (Laughs) F1 is a challenge, it is not easy - coming to a race every second weekend and seeing opportunities slipping away and you know that you have to work harder to achieve what you want.
Q: Have you been surprised by how difficult F1 is – compared to what you knew from American motorsport?
GH: Well, racing at this level - Formula 1 - is not easy. Your competitors are always as good if not better than you are, so you can’t just go out there and pass – you have to look at strategies, look at what you are capable of and what they are capable of, and try to find differences that gives you a chance to take advantage of that.
Q: How involved are you in the running of the team?
GH: I like to come to races. It is always very interesting. I am still learning a lot. That stimulates me. I am still somewhat of an F1 apprentice. (Laughs) It is an engagement of mind over racing! That’s fun.
Q: You came into F1 with a clear commercial aims (as well as sporting one). Is that working for you?
GH: Yes, it is working quite well. Take for example the UK. We have a little office in Banbury just near the Silverstone track. We had a reception last week and it was fantastic to see how enthusiastic our customers are about our F1 engagement. For them, we are no longer a simple machine tool builder - our customer perceives us now as part of Formula 1. Wow, these guys are participating in this high-level racing! And that is translating over to the image of Haas Automation. We are a lifestyle company now. There you go! (Laughs)
Q: F1's commercial rights holder is now American. Does that help you, as the understanding of business is perhaps more congruent now?
GH: We are in the early stages. What they are doing now definitely will be of benefit down the road. Liberty Media is making a lot of changes to Formula 1, opening up more to the fans. The F1 Live event in Trafalgar Square was simply fantastic. These things will help to get more people engaged with F1.
Q: The Haas model was one of leanness. Have you gradually had to move away from that to keep up with the development?
GH: I think our budget is at the low end of all the teams. It might not be the lowest out there, but sure it's not far off. It would cost us more if we had to develop our car on our own as opposed to our leaner business model which basically translates into if we don’t have to make it, we won’t.
Q: People always wondered if it would be possible for you to run a team with three bases. Obviously it is. Where is the final car really built?
GH: Very simple: in the garage of every track! But we are not different to any other team. Everything comes in boxes to be finally assembled at the track. And I would go so far as to say that even Mercedes is not so different to how we work. Boxes is the magic word.
Q: Midfield was always the aim. Are you satisfied with P7? The gap between Haas and Toro Rosso in P6 is only 4 points. Is that the goal?
GH: Right now I would say from P5 to P8 it is so close that eventually we could drop or gain a position with every race. And in this midfield section the team that will finish ahead of his opponents will be the one that makes the least mistakes. If you don’t make mistakes and get both drivers in the points every race you can do really well. Force India has done very well and if we can do that we can move ahead. And if we don’t then Toro Rosso will do it. We have to be consistent and reliable – and finish races. If we finish a race we are probably in that seventh, eighth or ninth position – or maybe tenth. All these positions make points.
Q: Do you have a clear target for where you want to be come Abu Dhabi?
GH: Not really. But when I remember Baku there could have been an opportunity to get on the podium, as Kevin was third for a while and we were screaming in the garage - 'Keep going, keep going!' A podium, that would have been a milestone for our history.
Q: For your second season you made a driver switch from Esteban Gutierrez to Kevin Magnussen. Was that the right decision?
GH: Esteban was a good driver. He was as fast as Romain (Grosjean) in practice, but I think that Kevin has an edge in terms of race experience. He can score points and that was the key for bringing him on board. Kevin can grab points and Romain can too. We now have 29 points. Last year around this time we also had 29 points, but did not score for the rest of the season. So now if we can score another 29 points by Abu Dhabi, that would be a great position.
Q: So you hope to do better in the second half of the season than last year?
GH: Ha, it cannot get worse that in the second half of 2016. Even if we only score one more point we would be in the plus side! (Laughs) My guess is that we will score at least another 29 points. And next year, without a big car or engine change, and with the drivers the same, that should give us a nice continuity boost.
Q: A lot of driver contracts terminate at the end of 2017. You are not looking around?
GH: We will run with the same drivers that we have this year again next year. That is a given. And given the other continuity aspects, we should be better racers next season.