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Great expectations - Gene Haas on his team’s first race on home soil

20 Oct 2016

It’s been decades since an American team was on the grid for a race in the United States, but Haas are set to change that this weekend. On the eve of their first Grand Prix on home soil, we sat down with team owner Gene Haas to discuss the significance of the event, how he'd assess his squad’s first season in F1, and why he won’t be making any driver announcements just yet…

Q: Gene, the United States Grand Prix with an American team on the grid - we haven’t seen that for decades. How does it feel?

Gene Haas: That is very, very special! I feel a little apprehensive because there’s so much expectation and I am a little bit concerned about not meeting those expectations. Of course it is not just another race, but in the end I am definitely getting carried away as I’ve been in racing for such a long time. Every race is important - so I am not saying that this one is the most important I have ever been too. This season has been pretty intense in terms of travelling and I have really enjoyed going to all the different countries where there are F1 races and seeing all the different cultures. And yes, here in Texas I would say it is a different culture as well! (Laughs) Austin has a very friendly atmosphere - so it is a great place to be this weekend!

Q: It’s your first season in F1. How would you sum up how things have gone, with four races to go?

GH: Well, we came out very strong at the start. We have been very fortunate and lucky - but then going into the season the difficulty of racing in F1 became apparent. You have to have upgrades - that is very important - and the team had to form to a strong unit as before nobody had ever worked together. So there is a lot of formation work that has to be done starting from a small nucleus. Now we have reached a point where you can say that we are a real organisation - that we have basically put the right person into the right position. That is a very important process, as everybody has to know what the person next to him is doing! Structure is important if you want to be successful.

Q: Have you been caught out by the fact that F1 is about permanent upgrades? That if you don’t bring something new at least every second race you are behind? That might be a huge difference to US racing…

GH: Well, we do have upgrades in NASCAR. There is a constant tweaking with the cars but what we do not have is homologation - you start with something and have to stay with it. In NASCAR you can start with whatever you want. But don’t get me wrong. NASCAR has got rules - it’s just different rules! (Laughs) We [Stewart-Haas Racing] won the Kansas race last weekend in NASCAR so we know how to tweak! But let’s get back to F1: we do have upgrades for this weekend. I just saw for the first time the actual front wing - and let me tell you: it is quite a big difference to the one we were running a few weeks ago. In Suzuka that front wing got us into Q3! Yes, we are not doing upgrades like one of the upfront teams who bring upgrades every race weekend. We tend to bring upgrades more likely every quarter of the season.

Q: At the first four races it all looked so easy: three times in the points. But since Barcelona it has been more difficult. How have you coped with that reality?

GH: Well, each race has its own story to tell! And from my long racing experience there is a lot of luck involved in racing! And it is always better to be lucky than good! (Laughs) We had a lot of beginners luck and maybe the preparation that we did for those first three races was so much more because once you get into the season your preparation time gets very, very short. And that’s when the team experience becomes very important! So we have to turn this card around quickly as there are so many little areas that if you make a mistake things go bad! We had almost six months to prepare for the first race - and now hardly one week - and with the back-to-back races sometimes not even a week! But having 28 points in your first season - I would take that!

Q: Haas Racing is still ahead of three established teams: Renault, Manor and Sauber - that must feel good?

GH: It certainly makes us look good! But you also have to have in mind that those teams go through transitions too! Formula One is like a huge river: it meanders - and sometimes you are on the right riverbank!

Q: Romain (Grosjean) is confirmed for 2017 - but what about the second cockpit? When will you drop a name?

GH: We have contracts with our drivers and we are taking time to announce our driver line-up. And it doesn’t mean that we are not staying with the same line-up and that it is just the case that we have not announced it. We are happy with our current drivers, but we also don’t see the need to announce anything yet as it is my impression that the media like to guess! So we keep the suspense for them! (Laughs)

Q: Maybe you are just waiting to go to Mexico next week - as you did last year…

GH: Yes, maybe!

Q: Liberty Media has agreed to acquire Formula One - an American media conglomerate. Is that something that you appreciate? What do you expect from them?

GH: Let’s put it this way: the American media are the best in the world. Take the movie industry, the music industry - take companies like Facebook or Twitter - so if Liberty Media is taking over that role in F1, that sounds good. The more people watch, the more money rolls in! The question ultimately will be: what are their motives? I am sure they’ve made a huge investment in F1 to make more money too! So to make more money you want to grow Formula One.

Q: Will that be a benefit for an American team to have an American company involved in such a way? Also in terms of finding sponsorship?

GH: Well, yes. Hopefully. Half the teams on the grid don’t have [lots of] sponsorship - and to be able to take sponsorship dollars is crucial for some of the teams! My guess is that the team upfront will have huge possibilities - so you better be upfront! Winning solves a lot of problems! (Laughs)

Q: There is a belief that as long as there is no American hero in F1 it will be difficult for it to break into the mainstream in the US. Red Bull’s junior program has been looking for years without success - do you see a possible talent on the horizon?

GH: We do have a few American drivers in the wings! But for us - Haas Racing - one of the paramount criteria right now is to have somebody who has experience. And in that respect it is true: there are not many American drivers - actually no American F1 driver - who fulfils that. Probably only a big team can afford to take an inexperienced driver on board and move him up - we can’t. We don’t have those resources. So we want experienced guys. We can’t take the risk of an inexperienced guy. But why not later? We are only in our first year!

Q: So you have an experienced guy with Romain - and Esteban is now in his third full season so he also should come with that label too…

GH: Right, we have two experienced drivers. Just think of it like this: each car takes almost 50 million dollars to run, so it is a big investment. So big teams can afford to take chances of trashing cars. Just take Romain: in his fist season he trashed a lot of cars, but now he knows that wrecking cars doesn’t win races. We need that kind of mind set! (Laughs)

Q: In 2017 a lot will be different. How would you rate your 2016 season in terms of a test bed for the future?

GH: I think we will be much better in 2017. But lately I have realised that everybody else is getting better too! Last year the last-place team was something like five seconds off the front runner - this year it is only three seconds. Finding two seconds in a season - that is a heck of an improvement! It was easier to move up the constructors’ grid a couple of years ago than it is now - and next year it will even be more difficult! But with all the changes it think it will re-shuffle the deck, too! Some teams - my luck - will be better.

Q: What is the overall feeling nearing the end of your first year in F1 racing?

GH: Still very positive! If somebody asked me one year ago that we would be eighth in the standings I would have called him a dreamer! I thought we would be fighting for tenth place! And we want to move up one place - that’s the target! But we will have to fight for it as nobody gives you anything here!