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Q&A: Gene Haas Getting A Rolling Start On F1 Effort

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Thursday, November 6 2014

Gene Haas took time during last weekend's Formula One race in Texas to talk with RacinToday.com about the state of his entry into F1. (RacinToday/HHP photo by Garry Eller)

By John Sturbin | Senior Writer

AUSTIN, Texas _ Businessman/racer Gene Haas says his start-up American Formula One team figures to dive into the international driver market in approximately one year in preparation for entry into the 2016 FIA Formula One World Championship.

Still, it’s never too early to start the scouting/schmoozing process, which was part of Haas’ agenda at Circuit of The Americas during last weekend’s third annual United States Grand Prix.

Preparation for Haas F1 Team’s debut is underway on multiple fronts. Work is nearing completion on a 125,000-square-foot facility adjacent to Haas’ NASCAR team in Kannapolis, N.C., that will house the F1 operation. Construction is scheduled to be completed in late November.

Haas already has secured a critical technical partnership with Scuderia Ferrari, which is celebrating its 60th year of racing in the United States this season. Haas Automation, Inc. – the CNC machine tool-builder Haas founded in 1983 in California – will serve as the team’s primary sponsor, although the search has begun for additional high-profile brands looking to reach a global audience.

In addition to Haas F1 Team, Haas’ motorsports holdings include Stewart-Haas Racing with three-time NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion Tony Stewart and Windshear, a 180 mph rolling-road wind tunnel in Concord, N.C., that is the first of its kind in North America.

Accompanied by Gunther Steiner, team manager for Haas F1 Team, Haas logged valuable face-time at COTA with key international and American officials while talking-up the merits of the first American-owned F1 team in nearly 30 years. Chairman Haas, 61, took time from his COTA paddock tour on Saturday afternoon to sit down for an interview.

Q: Update us on your activities here this weekend, what you are learning and to whom you are talking?

GENE HAAS: We’ve met with Nick Craw, (President/CEO of ACCUS, which coordinates the FIA’s motorsports activities in the USA)…he was welcoming us, offering his hospitality and just talking about the adventures that

The home of America's Formula One hopes. (RacinToday/HHP photo by Garry Eller)

await us…and how the FIA is going to do whatever they can to help us through the problems we have. And if we do have problems to give them a call.

We spent a little time talking with some of the sponsors and associate sponsors with Ferrari, so we were there earlier. And basically just getting around the garage. Actually had some people come up and introducing themselves from different teams, so we’re just becoming more noticed around here because it’s going to be a quick year next year and we want to make sure that people know who we are. Because 2015 is going to be our building year to put all the pieces together.

Q: On Friday, five F1 team principals spent an hour passionately debating the financial issues that divide the sport’s big-guy and small-guy teams, specifically the problems facing the Marussia and Caterham organizations, and how the sport is governed. That led to rumors of a possible boycott of the USGP by three teams. Has all that given you any second thoughts about your impending entry into F1?

GENE HAAS: Well, you’ve got to love controversy, don’t you? I mean, Formula One is about 50 years of controversies and the way things evolve and exotic cars and six-wheel cars and 1,000-horsepower cars and rules. Year after year there’s always a pressing event, so I think this is just another of those pressing events. I don’t have any second thoughts about it. If anything, it seems like kind of a natural progression with what I’ve done in racing, in NASCAR, and my company, which builds machine tools. And this seems like a natural event to go on in the international market with international racing.

Q: Speaking of the money required in F1, it’s astronomical compared to NASCAR. Do you feel like you’re good-to-go from that angle?

GENE HAAS: You know, that’s an unknown. Unlimited budgets have had a tendency to become exceeded. But we know what the numbers are. I think we can be a lot more conservative with our money and get a lot more value out of it than say a businessman who comes in here and thinks, ‘Hey, I’m going to have a Formula One

Kurt Busch's window for an F1 ride may be closing.

team as a hobby.’ That’s not what I’m planning on doing. I’m planning on being a professional Formula One team. That’s really what our goal is. We have a totally different perspective than say some other people that have gotten into the sport.

But people come in and out of Formula One. In previous years teams fall apart, teams splitting off or under new ownership _ I think it’s a pretty common event. And I’m willing to bet you that even this year that one team will probably be out of racing. Sounds like it’s a much bigger story.

Q: Detail your technical partnership with Ferrari, as to what it involves besides engines?

GENE HAAS: It started out typically as an engine partnership. I think at the time Ferrari had an opening to supply another engine and I think a lot of times the teams like to supply engines to other teams because it gives them more experience, and they can actually use those other teams as a test bed. So you’ve got Renault, Mercedes and Ferrari as the three engine-builders. Gunther had some alliances with Stefano Domenicali (former Ferrari F1 team manager) so that’s how it got started. Basically we started out as an engine (customer) and it became apparent that they could help us with some other things.

And then the FIA issued their list of parts that a constructor could buy, and so we’ve kind of built on that relationship. Ferrari can help us not only with some of the parts but also with how the cars work, and being a newbie team we’ll take all we can get.

Q: FIA rules require that your team must own the “intellectual property rights” to your car’s chassis. How close are you to hiring a chassis designer?

GENE HAAS: We’re working on getting our CFD together because aero is obviously the most important thing…you’ve got to get your aero right before you can figure out where the parts of your chassis go. But we need to start, at worst, sometime in January to start working on the chassis so we can have some final designs probably by June because it takes a couple of months to make the molds and get the chassis on it. So at the moment we’re still putting the little pieces together, but it’ll all come together.

Q: Do you believe it will be particularly difficult to attract top-flight engineers, and a driver, to a team based in America?

GENE HAAS: It’s always tough to find top-flight engineers in anything. That’s part of business, is finding talent and attracting it. We have a lot of interest just because we’re a new team and some of the other teams

Danica Patrick is the right size for F1. (RacinToday/HHP file photo by Alan Marler)

are struggling. So there’s a lot of talent available out there, it’s just a matter of finding the right people. And let’s face it – everything these days is younger-orientated in terms of computers are getting faster and better. Twenty years ago people used to draw things on pieces of paper, now no one draws anything on paper, everybody uses a computer screen. So I think the younger generation probably will be most suited towards the type cars we’re designing today.

Q: You’re going to have to hire two drivers. What are your thoughts on that process?

GENE HAAS: It’s probably a little bit early to be talking about that. Seats will open up, drivers will quit and move around…it’s happening right now. I think the same thing is going to happen next year and so that’s probably when about the same time next year we’ll be actively looking for drivers.

Q: Will you look at American talent, just because the team is based in America?

GENE HAAS: You know, as a start-up team I think we’d probably be looking for an experienced driver because that will give us…we need to have someone that’s driven these cars with the KERS system, with the hybrid turbine system, so we need someone like that who has current experience to help us sort the car out. And as time goes on if we develop a driver that would probably be a good opportunity for an American to come along and sit in that seat. Unless you heard of some phenom American driver that just had the talent, like a Tony Stewart person or someone like that.

Q: Fans in the United States have been clamoring for an American team, an American driver and even a possible second American race. It seems like your team fits right into all of that, right?

GENE HAAS: I know, everything’s lining up. It looks good but it doesn’t have to happen all on the same day either. We’ll just have to see how it works out. But I think from a marketing standpoint that would be the best thing in the world for Formula One and the sport.

Q: Does this event at Circuit of The Americas, which will be your home race, kind of help sell things for you – with a new facility, big and enthusiastic crowd, etc.?

GENE HAAS: Yeah, I love it. I’ve been in racing all my life so I love that part of it. There’s obviously a fan base for Formula One in the U.S. and I think some people are skeptical how big it is…but I think it’s big. You have football, basketball, baseball all these things…three nights a week you can watch these different sports (on TV). I think automobile racing, if there was more to look at and choose from you could have similar results, too. NASCAR has a long legacy in racing and so does Formula One. People like those kind of races, like the Indy 500. People like the Indy 500 because they’ve been doing it for 100 years. I think Formula One has that same kind of legacy.

Q: Are your NASCAR team guys getting jacked-up about this F1 project, with maybe some of them thinking about crossing over?

GENE HAAS: A lot of the guys in the garage are very interested in what we’re doing. Kurt (Busch) is very curious…’What are you doing? I’d like to see that. I’d like to come over and see what these cars look like. I’ve heard about it’…but they’ve never had the opportunity to see one. They don’t know what a Formula One car looks like, they’ve never touched one. So we’ll have a lot of them come over snooping around.

Q: Kurt showed a lot of savvy during his open-wheel debut in the Indy 500 last May, right?

GENE HAAS: Kurt’s one of those (versatile) drivers…but like anything else there’s these time windows, too. (Busch is 36-years-old). The way I look at it seems like in Formula One the prime time for a driver is probably 25. And if he’s had superb results he might make it to 30 and if he’s a legend maybe to 35. The other thing is the weights. They want you to weigh 50 kilograms or something…every extra kilo or 10 kilos is worth a quarter-of-a-second or so.

It’s like you just can’t be a big person and race Formula One. That’s where Danica Patrick (32, of Stewart-Haas Racing) would probably be an attribute. She doesn’t weigh anything. It’s like you spend $100,000 trying to move a pound from here down to the bottom of the car. Well, for $5,000 you can get a gym pass for your driver and do the same thing.

Q: You’ve said one of your primary reasons for going F1 racing is to expand the sales of your company’s CNC machine portfolio worldwide. But how much of this is Yankee pride and showing the world you can do this?

GENE HAAS: Well, I take a lot of pride in building machine tools. We build machine tools in California, probably the highest-taxed state in the union now and we’re successful at that. You’ve just got to be smarter than the average guy and that’s how we do it in California and apply the same thing to race cars. It’s very complex when you look at it as a whole but when you start taking it apart…it’s still very complex. But they’re bits and pieces that go together and that’s something that we’re very good at doing, as far as Americans.

America’s always been the inventors of the world and built the better mousetraps. I feel confident we’ll have the same traits when it comes to building Formula One cars. We’re not going to do things exactly the way they all do. We’ll come up with different ways to do it and that’s what’s going to make it interesting, seeing those methods and ways of doing things give us an advantage.

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Thursday, November 6 2014
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