Why Guenther Steiner is Still the Right Leader for Haas F1 Team

Some people ask why Haas F1 Team principal Guenther Steiner still has a job in Formula 1.

It’s a fair question heading into this Sunday’s race F1 Bahrain Grand Prix.

The Haas team finished ninth in the Constructors’ Championship last year and it is heading for a similar result this season. In few pro sports can a team go winless (or, as in the case with F1, go without even so much as a podium) for five consecutive seasons, perform worse in Year 5 than Year 1, and yet the team’s boss—the person calling the shots—would still be secure in his or her job.

What most people forget that 2020 was still only the team’s fifth season in the sport—and that Haas finished fifth overall in 2018, competing against teams which have been involved in F1 for decades.

Haas is the only new Grand Prix team in the last 10 years to still be in business. Others have changed identity, but the only new teams—Caterham, Marussia and HRT (in their various different guises)—have all foundered. Haas is still going. In part this is because of the business model that Steiner came up with to give American team owner Gene Haas the chance to enter F1.

It was possible, within the rules, to get into F1—despite the huge budgets—by buying the machinery from others. Haas did a deal with Ferrari. Some felt that this was a bad thing because it undermined the constructor status that F1 teams must have. But Steiner and Haas decided, after studying the other new teams, that their approach was not going to work. Haas pushed the limits, buying as much as was allowed to do, but it still develops its own chassis and bodywork, in league with Dallara, and with help at the time from Ferrari.

The team was always entirely open about its approach, just as Racing Point has been with its decision this year to copy the Mercedes. It’s within the rules.

Last year, Steiner admits that the team got itself into a tangle understanding how the Pirelli tires work—it is not the only team to have done that—and so the results were poor. At the end of the year, however, largely thanks to Romain Grosjean working it all out, Haas went back to its original spec of aerodynamics and the team was competitive again.

But then this year the Ferrari engines have been a disaster. So the results are the same, even if the reason for the failure is very different.

If you ask him what the team did right this year, Steiner laughs.

“We survived,” he says. “That is what we have done right. There was a big chance that we would not be here anymore. Now, we are here to stay. It’s not been good at the tracks, but it has been good for the team and good for F1. F1 needs people like us.”

A few months ago Gene Haas signed the new Concorde Agreement, tying the team into the sport for the years ahead.

Haas will survive this 2020 season and return in 2021, despite what will be a dramatic reduction in prize money caused by the global pandemic. No one knows for certain how much less the team will be paid in 2021, but it could be as much as a 50 percent reduction in what might have been paid for the same finish a year ago.

Steiner says that he cannot talk about the 2021 driver lineup just yet, but it is fairly clear that things have been decided. The team will run Mick Schumacher and Nikita Mazepin. The thing holding up an announcement is the confirmation that the Russian Mazepin will have an FIA Super Licence. He cannot be a Formula 1 driver without one. In order to do that he must finish in the top seven in the Formula 2 Championship this year. He is currently in sixth place and there is a big gap behind him. There are four F2 races left in the next 10 days. Once they are done Haas can confirm the deals.

It is not great to have two novices in the same team, but these are decisions that are based on talent and revenue versus cost and experience. It’s a necessary evil, if you prefer. At the same time there are a few people in F1 who think that Mazepin may be a much better driver than people think he is. This is his first season of Formula 2 and he’s just a few points behind the best current rookie—Yuki Tsunoda, who lies third in the F2 championship. There have been four impressive Formula 2 rookies this year: Tsunoda, Denmark’s Christian Lundgaard, Russian Robert Shwartzman and Mazepin, and they are currently third, fourth, fifth and sixth in the championship.

It should be added that Mazepin is in a team (Hitech GP) which is new to Formula 2 this year, and that he has beaten his experienced teammate Luca Ghiotto. Like most young drivers he has thrown away some opportunities by being too fiery. Time will tell.

Whatever the driver lineup for 2021, the one constant will be Steiner.

Steiner has always been a joy to work with. He may appear abrasive and abrupt but that is refreshing when one is used to F1 executive corporate babble. There is nothing slick nor slippery about him. But few outside the sport knew that until the Netflix show Drive to Survive cameras snuck into the paddock in 2018.

Very rapidly, his colorful language and openness turned him into an F1 star. He doesn’t know the meaning of the phrase “poker-faced” and it is his emotional responses that have endeared him to the fans. He wears his heart on his sleeve and tells people what he thinks.

OK, he looks a bit like a pirate and gives the impression that he’s a bit of a rogue but he’s never far from a laugh, or a mischievous giggle. And the team loves him. This is a leader with whom you know where you stand. Behind the image he’s tough and seasoned and intensely competitive. And that is what drives teams forward.

They say that the measure of a good team boss in F1 is whether or not the team would follow him (or her) off a cliff. Or whether they will be polite and say: “After you.”

In Steiner’s case, you get the impression that they would follow.

With the drivers’ championship and constructors’ championship decided, are you still planning to make time to watch the final three F1 races of 2021? Let us know what you’re looking forward to seeing over these last three races in the comments section below.

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