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Haas F1 To Start ’17 High On Confidence, Grid

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Saturday, March 25 2017

Thanks to a fast run by Romain Grosjean, Haas F1 will start Sunday’s Formula One season-opening race at Albert Park in Melbourne, Australia, from its best grid position ever. (Steven Tee/LAT Images)

By John Sturbin | Senior Writer
RacinToday.com

American-owned Haas F1 Team will begin its second season in the FIA Formula One World Championship Sunday searching for the elusive “incremental improvements” that separate a mid-pack organization from a potential title contender.

That process was accelerated Saturday, when lead driver Romain Grosjean qualified sixth on the 20-car grid for the season-opening 33rd annual Australian Grand Prix. Grosjean, driver of the second-generation No. 8 Haas VF-17, toured the 3.295-mile/5.303-kilometer/16-turn Albert Park Circuit in Melbourne in 1 minute, 24.074-seconds. Grosjean gave Haas F1 Team its best qualifying effort to-date, bettering its previous best of seventh earned by the 30-year-old Frenchman at last year’s Brazilian Grand Prix.

Meanwhile, new teammate Kevin Magnussen will start at the back of the grid after running wide at Turn 12 on consecutive laps in Q1. His best lap of 1:26.847-seconds in the No. 20 VF-17 placed him 17th. The Australian Grand Prix will mark only the 22nd start for American industrialist Gene Haas’ team.

“Happy day. It was quite an unbelievable qualifying session for us,” Grosjean said. “It’s a shame that we didn’t get Kevin there, but the car is looking good, even better than what we’ve seen recently. We’ve made some good progress over the weekend. There’s a lot more we can understand and analyze but, generally, it’s a great start for us.

“It’s always good to start with a strong qualifying session. It tells you that if you keep improving the car, you could be in a good place very soon. If that’s our baseline, and you can fight between sixth and 10th position, where it’s so tight, it would be great to be there most of the time and enjoy some good times.

“Tomorrow’s start is a big unknown. We’ve been practicing and some have been good,

Romain Grosjean behind the wheel of his Haas F1 car during qualifying at Albert Park, Melbourne, Australia on Saturday. (Andy Hone/LAT Images)

others not so much. Hopefully, we’ll get the first one right tomorrow.”

Three-time World Driving Champion Lewis Hamilton of Mercedes AMG Petronas qualified on-pole in Melbourne for the fourth consecutive time, sixth overall and 62nd time in his career with a track-record lap in 1:22.188-seconds. Hamilton has qualified on-pole in five consecutive races, dating back to last October’s United States Grand Prix at Circuit of The Americas in Austin, Texas.

The Brit will be joined in the front row by four-time World Champion Sebastian Vettel of Scuderia Ferrari and Germany at 1:22.456-seconds, or 0.268-seconds behind Hamilton. Rounding out the podium qualifiers was Mercedes’ Valtteri Bottas _ the native of Finland who has replaced retired/reigning World Champion Nico Rosberg of Germany as Hamilton’s teammate.

NBC Sports Network’s live coverage of the 58-lap/191.118-mile/307.574-kilometer event will begin at midnight (EDT).

Haas’ first-year team stunned the sport last March when Grosjean finished sixth after qualifying 19th in the 2016 season-opening Aussie GP. The eight points Grosjean scored for Haas F1 _ the first American F1 team in 30 years _ marked the best debut by any F1 organization since 2002, when Mika Salo finished sixth for Toyota.

“It meant a lot. It was a result we were clearly not expecting after a tough qualifying,” said Grosjean, who vacated his seat at Lotus F1 Team to join Haas’ fledgling organization. “We had a brilliant race. When we took the checkered flag, for us, it was clearly as good as winning the race. It was fortunate, but perfect.”

Grosjean went on to score 21 more points during the season en route to placing Haas F1 eighth in the final Constructor standings. “I didn’t need that to validate the move (from Lotus),” the Frenchman said. “I knew the day I signed that it was the right choice for my career. Of course, good results are always a good thing but I was already convinced that I’d made the right choice.”

Sunday’s race will present Haas F1 with a new set of technical challenges. After building its first car under one set of FIA guidelines in 2016, a new set of technical regulations in 2017 meant another car was required to be built from scratch.

The Haas VF-17 features an advanced aerodynamic package designed to create a higher level of downforce. A wider front wing, larger barge boards, a lower and wider rear wing and a diffuser that expands 50 millimeters (two inches) in height and width comprise the changes, along with wider tires from Pirelli, by 60 millimeters (2.4 inches) in the front and 80 millimeters (3.1 inches) in the rear, a 25-percent increase to bring the front tires to 305 millimeters (12 inches) and the rear tires to 405 millimeters (15.9 inches).

The new rules, theoretically, will test teams up and down a grid led by traditional powerhouses Mercedes and Ferrari.

In addition to its new car, Haas added 24-year-old Magnussen in place of Esteban Gutierrez of Mexico in a bid to bolster the point-scoring. Magnussen, of Denmark, said he was “really annoyed” by his qualifying result.

“Went off the track in Turn 12 on both of my laps. The car was there in qualifying,”

Kevin Magnussen will make his Haas F1 Racing debut on Sunday in the Australian Grand Prix. (Andy Hone/LAT Images)

Magnussen said. “My lap was good until I went off. Both times my lap was good. I’m disappointed with that. We should’ve been a lot further up the grid. Now, I have to fight quite hard in the race. There’s still a lot that can happen and I will give it my best.

“I went for it and twice it went wrong. The first time I did it flat-out to see where the limit was and I went off. The second time I asked for a little bit more front wing and I went a bit slower to get it right, but I didn’t get it right. It’s very annoying when you see how good the car is. I’m gutted not to be up there and give myself a better chance at some points.”

Haas believes his F1 operation is on-pace to consistently score points. “It’ll be just as challenging as it was last year, but I think with the knowledge we have, we should actually perform a little bit better this year,” said Haas, addressing the myriad changes. “I think by the end of last season we silenced the critics and, now, most people see us as a serious competitor.”

Haas F1 Team is based on the same Kannapolis, N.C., campus as Haas’ championship-winning NASCAR Cup organization, Stewart-Haas Racing. The chairman of Haas F1 Team, Haas also is the founder of Haas Automation, largest CNC machine tool-builder in North America. 

Team Principal Guenther Steiner, who has overseen all testing and race weekend proceedings for Haas F1, said the team continues to evolve.

“It’s been a great weekend for Romain. Not the same for Kevin,” Steiner said. “We had issues with his car. We couldn’t find a balance, so he didn’t run properly in the free practice sessions. He never tried the (Pirelli) ultrasoft tire over the weekend, so he went into qualifying with an unknown. It didn’t work out.

“Again, great for Romain. He put a lap down, second to none, I would say. Thanks to all the team again because what they did was fantastic. It’s our best qualifying _ sixth-place behind ‘The Big Ones.’ That’s great for the youngest team on the grid.

“I hope we have a good race tomorrow. We are ready for it. The car seems to be on a good pace, on the long runs as well. Hopefully, we can get Kevin further up the field in the race. I think even where Kevin is we can still go for points. If we get a good start, everything is possible for both. The start is new for everybody and I hope we get a good one. You don’t know but we’ll try our best.

“It’ll be an interesting day at the front end. It seems like it’s closer than it’s been in a long time.”  

Grosjean sidestepped setting any goal for the opener of an expanded 20-race schedule. “Let’s see how it goes,” Grosjean said. ”We’ll do our best and, hopefully, we’ll remember it as well as Australia 2016.”

Additionally, Grosjean pragmatically said he does not feel pressed to emulate last year’s early-season successes.

“I think this year it’s actually going to be the opposite,” Grosjean said. “This year, if you had to choose, I think you’d want to start slow and finish hard, and not the opposite. This is because in 2018 the cars are going to be very similar to 2017, and therefore if you’re finishing on a high it means you’ve understood the regulations and everything’s going well. Your next car will be on that trend. We really want to keep the development going and push through the year, improving race after race.”

Magnussen made his first career Formula One start in the 2014 Australian Grand Prix in style _ finishing second after qualifying fourth. The 18 points Magnussen earned for that runnerup effort put him in the Formula One record book for most points scored in a debut. And unless a new driver wins in his/her first race, it’s a record that figures to stand for quite some time. Next best is Felipe Nasr, who scored 10 points in his debut via a fifth-place finish in the 2015 Australian Grand Prix.

“I think I just went into it with a smile. I enjoyed it,” said Magnussen, recalling the moment. “I didn’t really think too much about the race. I had nothing to lose. I just went for it. I drove at my best, had a bit of luck as well and I ended up on the podium. It was a great experience and a memory I will have forever. It’s always going to be quite cool to say that I finished second in my first Formula One race, although it would have been nice to win. I’ll do that another time.”  

With his second-place finish, Magnussen joined an exclusive group of drivers who claimed a podium in their Formula One debut. Canadian Jacques Villeneuve did so in 1996 (second) and Hamilton followed in 2007 (third). Both accomplished the feat in the Australian Grand Prix. Villeneuve went on to win the Formula One title in 1997, while Hamilton scored his championships in 2008, 2014 and 2015.

Magnussen is well-aware he will need to hustle from back of the pack in order to score points Sunday. “It’s always important to have a good start to the year just to kick-start everything,” Magnussen said. “It gives you a boost to have a good beginning. The end is important too, but it’s always nice to start off the year with a good race. We’ll do our best and see what we get.

“My goal for the season, and it’s the same for the team, is to try and improve on the result from last year, which was very good. Going on to then finish eighth in the Constructors championship, with 29 points, was a great result for a first-year Formula One team. To improve on that, even just a little bit, would be a good target.”

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COUNTDOWN TO THE LAND DOWN UNDER

Jan. 12: Haas VF-17 passes FIA-mandated crash test.

Jan. 20 and 23: Kevin Magnussen in simulator.

Feb. 9-10: Romain Grosjean in simulator.

Feb. 20: Magnussen in simulator.

Feb. 21: At 4:45 p.m. (CET), successful fire-up of the car’s engine, the Ferrari 062.

Feb. 22: Haas F1 Team sets up at Circuit de Barcelona – Catalunya for preseason testing.

Feb. 25: The VF-17 turns its wheels for the first time at Barcelona with Grosjean in the cockpit. The installation lap around the 2.89-mile/4.655-kilometer/16-turn circuit comes during the team’s production day.

Feb. 26: The VF-17 publicly debuts via a digital launch on the team’s social media platforms and website.

Feb. 27: First day of preseason testing at Barcelona. Magnussen completes 51 laps with a best time of 1:22.894.

March 1: Grosjean takes wheel of the VF-17 for the first time in preseason testing at Barcelona. He completes 56 laps with a best time of 1:22.118.

March 10: Preseason testing at Barcelona ends. Haas F1 Team logs a total of 715 laps (1,067.326 miles/1,717.695 kilometers) during the eight days of track time spread over 12 days (Feb. 27-March 2, March 7-10). This is 241 more laps (697.088 miles/1,121.855 kilometers) than the total logged by Haas F1 Team in 2016.

March 18: Cars and equipment arrive at Albert Park Circuit.

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WHERE THE RUBBER MEETS THE ROAD

Pirelli is bringing three tire compounds to Australia for the 2017 season-opener:

P Zero Yellow soft:  Less grip, less wear (used for long-race stints).

This is one of the most frequently used tires in Pirelli’s range, as it strikes a balance between performance and durability, with the accent on performance. It is still geared toward speed rather than long distances, but remains capable of providing teams with a competitive advantage at the beginning of the race, when cars are carrying a full fuel load, and at the end of the race, when the fuel load is much lighter and the race effectively becomes a sprint. It is a high working-range compound.

P Zero Red supersoft: More grip, medium wear (used for shorter-race stints and for initial portion of qualifying).

This is the second-softest tire in Pirelli’s range, and it is ideal for tight and twisting circuits, especially in cold weather, when maximum grip is needed. The supersofts warm up rapidly, which has made it a stalwart choice for qualifying. But with increased grip comes increased degradation. It is a low working-range compound.

P Zero Purple ultrasoft: Highest amount of grip, highest amount of wear (used for qualifying and select race situations).

This is a newer tire in Pirelli’s lineup, debuting at last year’s Monaco Grand Prix and most recently used at the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix in late-November. It is the softest tire in Pirelli’s range, with rapid warming and massive performance. It is best used on tight and twisting circuits that put a premium on mechanical grip. However, because it is so soft, it has a limited lifespan. It is a low working-range compound.

Two of the three available compounds must be used during the race. Teams are able to decide when they want to run which compound, adding an element of strategy to the race. A driver can also use all three sets of Pirelli tires in the race, if so desired.

If there are wet track conditions, the Cinturato Blue full-wet tire and the Cinturato Green intermediate tire will be made available.

Pirelli provides each driver 13 sets of dry tires for the race weekend. And for the first five grand prixs of 2017, Pirelli sets the allotments _ two sets of the hardest tire available, four sets of the medium compound and seven sets of the softest tire. At the sixth race of the year at Monaco, teams will be able to choose the specifications of 10 of its 13 sets from the three compounds Pirelli selected.

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Saturday, March 25 2017
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