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‘Haastralian’ GP Puts America Back In Game

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Saturday, March 19 2016
Gene Haas has brought America back into Formula One. The season starts this weekend in Australia. (RacinToday/HHP photo by Garry Eller)

Gene Haas has brought America back into Formula One. The season starts this weekend in Australia. (RacinToday/HHP photo by Garry Eller)

By John Sturbin | Senior Writer
RacinToday.com

Gene Haas’ fledgling Formula One team will begin its race-day routine for Sunday’s 2016 season-opening Australian Grand Prix from the back of the grid _ a few seconds but perhaps years away from competing wheel-to-wheel with powerhouses Mercedes AMG and Scuderia Ferrari.

buganalysisBut at least Haas F1 Team has beaten Halley’s Comet. Soundly! The famed “short-period comet” last made its periodic pass by Mother Earth in 1986, the last time an American-led team competed in the FIA Formula One World Championship. Since Halley’s Comet returns to the Earth’s vicinity approximately every 75 years, its next projected fly-by is in 2061 _ a 45-year head-start for Haas F1.

“Here we are now venturing into Formula One. I’m looking forward to it. It’s going to be exciting,” said Haas, founder and chairman of the team bearing his name and conjuring up visions of a latter-day, Americanized version of Enzo Ferrari.

“More than anything else you need challenges, things to look forward to,” said Haas, also founder of Haas Automation, the largest CNC machine tool-builder in North America…with designs on global market expansion. “From our NASCAR days I know it’s not going to be easy but that’s what makes it worth doing. I’ll actually probably be involved in NASCAR and Formula One more than I have been in the past. It’s just a change, but it’s a change for the good.”

Haas is co-owner of Stewart-Haas Racing with three-time NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion Tony Stewart. While Haas F1’s headquarters are located on the same Kannapolis, N.C., campus as SHR, the team also is working out of facilities in Banbury in the United Kingdom and Parma, Italy. An idea hatched from the ashes of the ill-fated US F1 Team project in 2010 is faced with the public relations task of cleansing that red-white-and-blue blemish from the global motor racing stage, as

Frenchman Romain Grosjean brings experience with him to American Gene Haas' Formula One team. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Stewart-Haas Racing via Getty Images)

Frenchman Romain Grosjean brings experience to American Gene Haas’ Formula One team. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Stewart-Haas Racing via Getty Images)

well as the fading memory of that 1986 effort led by Chicago businessman/racer Carl (no relation to Gene) Haas.

The makeover will begin in Haastralia if either of Haas’ drivers completes the 58-lap/191.118-mile/307.574-kilometer distance, or ideally, scores championship points out of the packing crate. NBC Sports Network’s live telecast will begin with “F1 Countdown” at midnight (EDT), followed by the standing start shortly after 12:30 a.m. The half-hour “F1 Extra” wrap-up show is scheduled for 3 a.m.

“It’s been a long time coming,” said Haas, convinced America’s loyal F1 fan base is eager to embrace Frenchman Romain Grosjean and Esteban Gutierrez of Mexico as naturalized Yankees. “I’ve actually got to the point where we’ve waited too long, I think. We need to go race. I don’t feel anxious. We’ve had plenty of time, we’re prepared. Everything’s happening as planned and that’s good.

“Formula One, obviously, is just a different world as far as what the cars are, the rules packages and everything. Hopefully it comes down to you’ve got racers racing against each other.”

As might be expected with a start-up team, Grosjean and Gutierrez were both knocked out during Round 1 of the FIA’s revamped and quirky qualifying format on Friday. Grosjean qualified his No. 8 VF-16 car 19th on the 22-car grid with a best time of 1-minute, 28.322-seconds while running Pirelli P Zero Red super soft tires around the 3.295-mile/5.303-kilometer/16-turn Albert Park Circuit in Melbourne. Gutierrez will start alongside in Row 10 in the No. 21 car after lapping in 1:29.606-seconds on the same Pirelli compound.

Formula One’s elimination-style, 16-minute Q1 format caught Grosjean and Gutiérrez early, but the duo was able to outlast Manor Racing’s rookie squad of Pascal Wehrlein of Germany and Rio Haryanto of Indonesia.

Grosjean and Gutiérrez were both poised to potentially advance to Q2, but time ran out on their second runs. That meant the times from those quicker, second runs were not counted, as both drivers were booted by the countdown clock.

“I was on a good lap and then suddenly I’m out,” said Grosjean, who signed-on with Haas in

Esteban Gutierrez is representing America in Australia. (Photo by LAT Photographic)

Esteban Gutierrez is representing America in Australia. (Photo by LAT Photographic)

September 2015. “I don’t even get a chance to go to the end of the lap. That’s annoying because the car was good, our baseline is good, and in terms of performance, we were clearly able to go through. We just missed a bit of speed on the turnaround in the garage, so we were massively out of position.

“This is one of those races where it’s tricky and you need to finish. That’s our first call for (the race) though. That’s what Gene wants. From there, everything is possible. It’s a long race and we have new rules with the radio ban, so we just have to try to use the experience.”

Gutierrez similarly was disappointed to be timed-out of the contrived format. “It was a little frustrating not to see the lap time we achieved reflected in the results,” Gutierrez said. “However, we know the potential is there. Overall, I think we’ve had a very tricky weekend, but with more time we’ll become more efficient as a team. The good thing is we know the lap time was good enough to be further up the grid. Looking ahead, we need to be positive, to keep working hard and moving forward.”

Lewis Hamilton, the three-time/reigning World Driving Champion from Great Britain, earned his 50th career pole with a time of 1:23.837-seconds in his No. 44 Mercedes. Hamilton joined his boyhood hero and triple world champion, the late Ayrton Senna of Brazil, and seven-time world champion Michael Schumacher of Germany as only the third F1 driver to record 50 poles.

While Haas F1 is very much a start-up team, it has benefitted from a number of critical associations as far as partners and personnel. Guenther Steiner, team principal, has been Haas’ international point-man from the project’s outset, most recently shepherding the team through eight days of preseason testing spread over 12 days at Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya in Spain.

“It was a rollercoaster ride,” said Steiner, a native of Italy and naturalized American citizen whose

racing resume includes the successful launch of Red Bull’s NASCAR Cup team in 2006. “At the moment, we are as ready as we can be for Australia, but you’re never ready enough. No matter what, we will do our best.”

Hass F1 is a technical partner with Scuderia Ferrari _ F1’s oldest and most glamorous team _ in an arrangement that includes the turbocharged Ferrari 061 V-6 power unit, gearbox and mechanical components such as suspension and brake systems for the VF-16. Easily one of the better-looking cars of this generation, the VF-16 was built by Dallara Automobili, manufacturer/supplier of the basic chassis run in the Verizon IndyCar Series.

Haas’ venture gained considerable credibility when its customer partnership with Ferrari was announced in September 2014. “Right now, our initial contract is like (for) three years but there’s a lot of verbiage in there about extending and options and things like that,” said Haas, referring to the Scuderia. “So I think the basic contract is for three years. We’ve been working with Ferrari for several years on this and I’m sure that things have changed a little bit there, too. From what everything I’ve seen they’ve been very, very honest, they’ve been very, very open.

“I don’t feel like they’re trying to hide anything from us. I almost get a feeling like, ‘This is Formula One. This is not easy to do. If you can sit there and take a lot of our cars and parts and put them together in your own chassis and you can make it work better than us (Ferrari), then more power to you.’ But the reality of it is that’s probably not going to happen.

“I mean, this sport’s not that easy. So we have a lot to learn. If it was just putting together the right parts to make the cars go fast, teams would be in a lot better shape. It takes a lot more than that _ it takes understanding, having the engineering behind it, understanding what the cars are doing and that only comes with the team.”

Those are reasons why Haas and Steiner insisted on hiring two experienced F1 drivers in Grosjean and Gutierrez as opposed to 24-year-old Californian Alexander Rossi, who made five starts for Manor Racing in 2015. Steiner said Grosjean and Gutierrez immediately hit it off, setting an example for the team’s international roster of engineers, mechanics and gofers.

“They both had the same feedback of the car and how it was behaving,” said Steiner, referencing the F-16’s development at Barcelona. “When we sent Romain out on the day we experienced the brake system problem, he said, ‘Something is wrong with the brakes, guys.’ It was very difficult to locate the issue because it was electronic, but we believed him because for him to make two mistakes, we knew something was wrong.

“On the last day, we left Romain in the car an hour longer than planned after lunch so we could finish some setup work. Then we put Esteban in and he confirmed the work we did before. So, we’ve got a basic setup for both drivers . They both gave us their input and drove us forward.”

Grosjean, who spent five seasons with Lotus F1 Team, said he thoroughly enjoyed the task of developing a new car for a new team on-the-fly.

“It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience, being part of a new team and driving the car out of the garage for the first time, especially with Haas being an American team,” said Grosjean, 29, whose stint with Haas widely is viewed as an audition for a fulltime seat at Ferrari. “It’s been a unique experience. I felt a very warm welcome from Day One with Gene and Guenther and from everyone I’ve met in the team. It’s a nice spirit. It’s an American spirit. Everyone wants to go racing. It’s very exciting, as it’s a new challenge. It’s going to be something unique having an American Formula One team on the grid for the first time in 30 years. There’s a lot to look forward to. And it’s good to be able to give your advice, give your feedback. All the engineers have been listening a lot. Everyone is an important piece of the puzzle and we’re all trying to do our best.”

Grosjean said the VF-16 on-track reacted similarly to his simulation experience. Gutierrez, who spent last season as Ferrari’s test and reserve driver, one-upped his teammate.

“I love driving it. It’s very enjoyable,” said Gutierrez, 24, who signed-on with Haas in October 2015. “I’ve had cars in the past which were difficult to fine-tune in order to get a good feeling where you can anticipate, where you can push the car to the limit. The VF-16, straight away had a good feeling. As a baseline, that’s always a good sign. It’s a great car.

“It’s been a different experience to be part of the team integration from when the conversations started with Gene and Guenther back in the summer. Obviously, I’ve always tried to give input from my experience and to try to be part of what was going on with the development of the car _ to be aware, to be close to the team, to be close to the designers so I could best prepare myself. It’s a whole new adventure and it’s an honor to be a part of it.”

Steiner said the team employs 110 people in its three locations, as well as 70 contract engineers in Italy. Thirty-five employees are Americans including Matt Borland, formerly of SHR and now Haas F1’s technology vice president.  Haas F1’s chief operating officer is Joe Custer, formerly on the NASCAR side of SHR.

A lot of the team members that we’ve actually hired are from that area basically northwest of London,” Haas said. “These guys have done this many times. So almost everybody we’ve hired knows the routine, they’ve come right in, they’re going right from the start. It’s not like we have to figure this out ourselves. Almost everybody that’s come on-board has prior Formula One experience all the way from the bottom to the top. We’re not starting off with novices.

“Obviously, Guenther’s been involved in Formula One so he knows that better than anybody else. We need experienced people, that’s what we’ve been hiring. I think we’ve kind of filled the ranks with a good portfolio of capable people. We have a lot of good help to kind of tell us what to do. Ferrari has helped us with a lot of suppliers, so I think we haven’t been just out in the cold.”

That is precisely where US F1 Team wound up in 2010, reneging on its contract to be up-and-running for the season-opener because of failed finances and charges of mismanagement. Based in Charlotte, US F1 was fronted by Ken Anderson, former Haas CNC Racing technical director, and TV motorsports media member Peter Windsor, a former manager for Williams and Ferrari. The team that loudly touted a plan to feature American drivers and technology instead gave the USA another F1 black eye.

Haas watched that project slowly disintegrate, triggering his curiosity for what’s going on over there. “Everything in F1’s a long process,” said Haas, recalling a chat over dinner with Steiner. “We had been involved with Ken Anderson a little bit in his project. There were a couple of years we spent dilly-dallying around with customer car possibilities _ ‘We’re just going to get a car from Ferrari…I know the guys over there…if that comes to being, we can do this and be cost-effective, let’s do it.’

“But like everything else in Formula One, you put these things up on the table but when it’s all said and done hardly anything ever actually is approved. Customer cars never happened, so there were a couple years wasted there.

“And then Guenther was saying, ‘What do you want to do?’ Then we went to talk to Bernie (Ecclestone, F1 marketing boss) a little it. Bernie was pretty standoffish about it, like, ‘OK, we welcome anybody. If you want to be involved in Formula One you’re welcome to take a shot at it.’ But as time went on he didn’t take us serious. I think he was more kind of saying, ‘OK, I have people all the time who want to be in Formula One. But out of 100 people who tell me they want to be in Formula One hardly anybody ever makes it.’ I think he thought the same of us. So after about three years it was finally…’Well, if you guys are really serious, we’ll put forward a tender’…and that’s how the process really got started.”

Haas responded to the FIA’s expression of interest in January 2014, with the FIA granting Haas a Formula One license in April of that year.

“I find it rather intriguing, a whole different racing venue,” Haas said. “If anything, Ken Anderson left a taste in my mouth for Formula One and I liked it. We supplied USF1 with CNC machines and they had a handful of machines. I think I went over to their shop like twice and he showed me how he was doing things and it was interesting, different. I liked the whole Formula One format. I think Formula One obviously has a lot of history and legacy and great racetracks and being able to participate in that is something that’s very, very gratifying.”

Haas said the original concept was for this team to do everything in-house…a prime example of American automotive exceptionalism. “But once we became involved and became a little bit more of a serious contender some doors started to open up and relationships were built,” Haas said. “And we found out that there’s different ways of doing things that would be a lot quicker and more productive, so we immediately switched courses.

“The ultimate idea at the Kannapolis facility is still to do all our intellectual property and have it there. And as time goes on we’ll start making say some of the aero parts and probably some of the really basic stuff maybe like bottom pans, things that aren’t nearly as aero-sensitive because there’s a lot of tricks and technology that goes into making carbon fiber parts that we have to learn.

“Our primary purpose was to get to the racetrack and race. The secondary purpose for us is to learn and the third thing actually is to build. From NASCAR one thing we’ve learned is how to run a race team, how to manage inventory, how to keep track of costs _ all those things are very, very vital for any race team. We have the basis for starting in Formula One.”

 

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Saturday, March 19 2016
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