A Mercedes one-two, Nico Rosberg from Lewis Hamilton, was not big news. Mercedes being pushed hard by Ferrari, while welcome, wasn’t exactly unexpected either. No, the biggest story of the season-opening Australian Grand Prix was the remarkable sixth place finish of the new Haas team, courtesy of Romain Grosjean and a fortuitously timed red flag.
Is Haas – with a car developed in the Ferrari wind tunnel, built by Dallara and with Ferrari mechanicals – the new model for an independent F1 team? There may be certain hazards to F1 going down that road. But is it at least a viable alternative? Had the new team entered and performed much like the HRT, Caterham and Manor operations of recent years, then its significance would have been quickly discounted. Instead it scored points on its debut – good points, too. Yes, there were several times during the weekend when the team’s lack of F1 experience showed, but no matter; it’s clearly made of the right stuff.
Gene Haas first visited a Grand Prix as a 24-year-old fan at Long Beach 1976. So he will have seen Clay Regazzoni dish out a rare defeat to team-mate Niki Lauda – and will also have witnessed the final Grand Prix of the American Parnelli team. Though Penske went on to win a Grand Prix that year, just as had Eagle before it, the concept of an American F1 team is still not a thing that has ever properly caught on. Yet it’s something that could benefit F1 hugely.
Haas Automation was founded in 1983, making machine tools. Haas formed his own NASCAR team in 2002, initially as a medium to sell those tools. It merged with Tony Stewart Racing in 2008. It ran at the back for years before success was achieved. Although the F1 team can draw on the resources of the American NASCAR base, essentially it operates out of Marussia’s old Banbury premises and has a dedicated design staff within the Dallara factory, where its wind tunnel model is kept when not being tested chez Ferrari. Obviously Ferrari co-operation has lent it a power and competence way beyond the size of the team – which has only about 120 staff. Tiny even by an independent F1 team’s standards – about half the number that were employed by Caterham and Marussia before they each entered administration at the end of 2014.
“I actually think this is very important for the future of F1,” says the man who convinced Haas to spread his wings to F1, team principal Günther Steiner (left, with Haas). “We’ll see if this way works or not in the next few years. The cars are so advanced today, there is so much technology in these things that if you start from zero with a new team, it’s impossible. If we can show it’s possible to start this way it helps F1, otherwise maybe nobody tries it in future. If it becomes too difficult that’s not good.”
Steiner – with previous F1 stints at Jaguar and Red Bull – is essentially the guy running the operation on Gene’s behalf. Gene was here in Melbourne but admits a lot of it is over his head. He presents an amiable, humble presence. Two weeks of testing at Barcelona prior to shipping the cars out here produced a few dramas: a front wing failure on the first day (quickly rectified), electronics and turbo failures that restricted mileage in the second week. It did enough running to make it clear that its pace is capable of placing it respectably in midfield. But accessing that on demand first time out might be a big ask. It could really have done without all of Melbourne’s Friday practice being washed out. In the wet sessions Grosjean and Esteban Gutierrez were about 3sec off the pace of the McLarens, let alone the Mercs and Ferraris – but this was simply a reflection of the drivers proceeding cautiously in treacherous conditions in the knowledge that there are as yet very few spare parts. The second car had only finished being built prior to being shipped out. Furthermore, technical chief Rob Taylor couldn’t make the trip because of illness.
“We just have to keep our heads down and not try to re-invent the wheel,” says Steiner pre-weekend. “I think points are possible if all the stars are aligned. But I don’t know if we can access the correct set-up immediately.”
The team’s inexperience showed in the new-format countdown qualifying system. They got both drivers up at the front of the queue in Q1 – extra valuable now, with the time so compressed before the countdown to knock-out begins – but when Grosjean was caught in traffic and Gutierrez locked up, they were very vulnerable. It meant coming back in to refuel and fit tyres and getting back out immediately. The crew was simply too long in turning the cars around – and they didn’t get out in time for the second runs to count. Those laps that didn’t count suggests the pace was on a par with the much-improved 2016 McLaren – which made it through to Q2 and qualified 12th and 13th. So although the grid positions of 19th and 20th don’t reflect it, this little team of 120 people is running a car that’s faster than Renault, Sauber and approximately on a par with Force India and McLaren (1000 people). It’s perhaps 0.3-0.4sec adrift of Red Bull… On that basis, the model works.
In the event, Gutierrez sacrificed himself to make Grosjean’s fairytale sixth-place finish. It wasn’t intentional, of course. But on the 17th lap, as the freshly rubbered McLaren of Alonso quickly caught the yet-to-pit Gutierrez in the 200mph braking zone of Turn Three, Esteban was easing left to take his line into the corner at the very moment Fernando had switched sides. The McLaren hit the Haas and an extraordinarily violent accident unfolded, thankfully without harm to either driver. But the red flag the incident created – as well as probably denying Sebastian Vettel’s fast-starting Ferrari victory over Mercedes – was perfect for Grosjean.
He had risen up to ninth courtesy of being the only driver yet to pit. So he got his tyre change (at the restart) without losing position. A few retirements ahead of him put him sixth as he fended off the challenge behind him of Nico Hülkenberg’s Force India and Valtteri Bottas’s Williams. Romain was grinning even more broadly than the winner Nico Rosberg. A fairytale result, yes. But also perhaps hugely significant.