It has dropped its title sponsor, Russian potash producer Uralkali, along with driver Nikita Mazepin as a result of the Ukraine invasion, leaving the team in a lurch before a critical year.
In order to steady the ship then, the decision as to who might partner Mick Schumacher this season will be a potentially critical one. It might also indicate the longer term thinking of owner Gene Haas.
Haas has downplayed the suggestions that the lack of Uralkali funds will impact its ’22 campaign and while he has said that he hopes to find a driver with F1 experience, the monetary impact of Uralkali’s departure will still sting.
As is always the case, the driver rumour mill has whirred back up just as quickly as it ceased over the winter break, and now there are several names in with a chance at an F1 race seat on the eve of the 2022 season.
The safe bet – Pietro Fittipaldi
He has already been confirmed as driving for the team during the Bahrain pre-season test and Pietro Fittipaldi may have found himself in the perfect place at the perfect time.
Breaking into F1 is hard enough but as world events overtake the sporting landscape, the return of the Fittipaldi name to Formula 1 is a good headline for the sport.
The Brazilian has been the team’s test driver since 2018 and has already raced for the American outfit. He drove in place of Romain Grosjean following the Frenchman’s fireball crash in 2020 for the final two rounds of the campaign.
While both outings brought about a lowly 19th-place finish, they were recorded in what was the slowest car on the grid.
His familiarity with the team, how it works, the personnel and the relatively mild expectations might then make his promotion to full time race driver the most sensible decision the team could make in the current circumstances.
There’s also the small detail that Fittipaldi will be bringing money into the team at a time when it’s losing one of its primary sources of income.
Many expect the development rate in 2022 to be incredible, meaning that funds will need to be spent on improving the car throughout the season. Extra funds to enable that is hardly a bad thing.
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The experienced choice – Antonio Giovinazzi
He was the most heavily linked name with the vacant Haas seat and Giovinazzi could be the best option available for Haas right now.
It’s been a miserable time so far for the Italian in Formula E, notching up just two P20 finishes and a DNF in the three rounds of the 21/22 season so far.
So might a return to the F1 grid be a welcome refuge? For a driver that more than held his own against F1 world champion Kimi Räikkönen in the Finn’s final campaign, it’s not a huge leap to make.
Giovinazzi will have at least some knowledge of the 2022 F1 cars and the Ferrari power unit operation having been with Alfa Romeo last season.
His pace was at least on par with Räikkönen so going up against Schumacher in what will be the German’s second season in F1 won’t be overwhelming.
Getting to grips with the Haas car will of course be the biggest stumbling block, but such is the world of F1 simulators and data, it shouldn’t take him too long to become acclimatised should Haas look in an experience-focused direction.
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The old hand – Kevin Magnussen
But in recent days, his name has increasingly been associated with the vacant seat and his return could make a lot of sense for driver and team.
Since leaving Formula 1, Magnussen, still only 29, has been racing a Cadillac prototype in IMSA’s Sports car championship, while preparing to join Peugeot’s World Endurance Championship effort. But the announcement that the French 9X8 Hypercar won’t be ready until after Le Mans leaves its its drivers with more time on their hands for at least the first part of the year.
The final three races all clash with grands prix, though, so Peugeot would have to agree to loan or release him to the American team.
From Haas’s perspective, an experienced driver who knows the outfit and how to develop a car will be a huge boost this year. The team sacrificed last year in order to get a headstart on the new 2022 regulations, but it will all be for naught if it can’t sustain that effort over the first few races. Rivals are expected to be bringing significant upgrades, as they refine their own designs and pinch the best ideas from the competition. If Magnussen can steer the team in the right direction, the benefits could be felt for many seasons to come.
Shortly after leaving grand prix racing, Magnussen told Motor Sport that he had got fed up racing at the back with Haas; the potential for the new rules to shake up the performance order could give him hope that things will be different the second time around.
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The wildcard – Colton Herta
With the future of the team in such a state of flux, there could be one or two interested parties from outside the Formula 1 world.
In recent weeks, Mario Andretti has made clear the family name could be returning to the fold as a fully fledged entry and there are several drivers on that Andretti shortlist already.
One of those is the newest stars in North American single-seater racing in Colton Herta, but could he be making his F1 bow sooner than expected?
The 21 year old is a prospect for the future but has already staked his claim as one of the top drivers in IndyCar, with six wins already under his belt in just three full seasons.
He was already linked with an F1 seat last year, tipped as one of the candidates for the then-vacant Alfa Romeo seat alongside Valtteri Bottas.
That drive eventually went to Guanyu Zhou but Herta’s potential and F1’s recent strides in gaining a foothold in the US means that an American driver in the series is now a question of ‘when?’ rather than ‘if?’
Gene Haas’ desire to put an experienced driver in alongside Schumacher will count against Herta, as will his lack of experience testing any form of modern F1 car.
Signing him would definitely be a roll of the dice but there would surely be a great deal of funding following behind the Californian. Herta would likely bring with him the backing of Gainbridge, hardly a small sponsor for Haas to on board.
As far as exciting choices go to fill the spot, you’d be hard pressed to find someone that fits the bill better than Colton Herta.
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The outside bets
- While he now has Aston Martin ties as the team’s reserve driver, Nico Hülkenberg is never too far away from an F1 seat despite his contractual situation at any one time.
He has twice stepped in to deputise on short notice in recent seasons, replacing Sergio Perez at Silverstone in 2020 and Lance Stroll at the Eifel GP the same year. Although an experienced and safe pair of hands, he’ll come at a cost and new Aston Martin team principal Mike Krack will be a tough negotiator across the table.
- Oscar Piastri is another name that was banded around during silly season last year but ultimately found no home on the ’22 grid. Fulfilling a similar role over at Alpine as Hülkenberg, the 2021 F2 champion should really have a race seat already.
His performances in Formula 2 last year were superb in what was his rookie campaign, and he appears to be more than ready for a step up to F1. Will Haas want another year with two inexperienced drivers guiding it into the new era though? Equally, will Alpine let its star pupil go to a potential rival? Both scenarios are unlikely.
- One name at last season’s post-season finale test in Abu Dhabi that turned a few heads was Pato O’Ward. The 22 year old is another IndyCar young gun with plenty of potential and talent to fulfil it.
The Arrow McLaren SP driver put in his best campaign to date in 2021, finishing the season third in the championship. He looked to enjoy his time in the F1 paddock immensely but McLaren boss Zak Brown said he’d need to win the IndyCar title for the team to even consider moving him over to F1. Might it use the vacant Haas seat to parachute its next prospect into a seat early?