Haas is entering the 2021 Formula 1 season tipped by many to be bringing up the rear of the grid. It only narrowly avoided the ignominy in 2020, grasping opportunities that last-placed Williams missed, to at least score three points. But it is in a dispiriting situation.
Haas’ current malaise is more striking when placed against the context of its prior results.
It burst onto the scene with sixth spot on its debut in 2016 and then stunned by going one better next time out, giving it a return of 18 points from two starts. It regressed thereafter but back-to-back eighth places were very respectable, particularly given the failure of Formula 1’s previous new teams.
In only its third year of existence it claimed fifth place in the standings and even through the first half of 2019 was a credible midfield contender – Kevin Magnussen managed to qualify fifth in Austria with one of the laps of the season. Considering its limited resources and relative inexperience as an operation these were sensational achievements.
But the development of its VF-19 stuttered, with Romain Grosjean reverting to a Melbourne-spec car even in Abu Dhabi, while the VF-20 was a natural evolution of that car as the team planned for 2021’s intended new regulations. They were then postponed by a year due to the pandemic while Haas tightened its own purse-strings as it awaited longer term visibility on the financial impact of Covid. The VF-20 was barely developed and the team has already switched its attention to 2022’s reset, effectively meaning the VF-21 – a car based on an unloved 2019 machine – will be abandoned after Bahrain. The revised floor rules have been combatted, while Ferrari’s engine gains should provide a much-needed power boost, but the development tokens were left unused. Only the most optimistic of observers would expect Haas to be anywhere other than scrapping to avoid the wooden spoon.
“It’s a transition season, a transition to get to ‘22 with big expectations,” said team boss Guenther Steiner.
“This year, if we invest a lot, time, money, tokens, wind tunnel time, it’s one year [of benefit]. If you put it all together, it was pointless to invest in the short-term and much more important to invest in the mid- and long-term and that’s ’22.
“Hopefully we can make some gains [in 2021]. I’m not saying we give up; we never give up. We had some developments planned for the year which then did not materialise. But we picked them up and put them in. The engine looks promising. The engine makes a good step up, so we should be in an okay spot.
“But will we be fighting in the top midfield? I don’t think so. But we are not going there [to races] and saying we definitely want to finish last. That is not happening. That is never happening as long as I will be here. You always try to get every little bit out of it.
“We want to be ready for 2022 in all areas, so, in the end, we will come up with two drivers that are ready, young and hungry, that are already there and we’ve got a good car for them in 2022.”
The most striking aspect about Haas’ season launch was the alignment with Uralkali, the potash fertilizer firm controlled by Dmitry Mazepin – father of Nikita – which has led to an overhauled livery. Out has gone the predominantly grey scheme, reflecting Haas’ corporate colours, and in its place arrives a white, red and blue scheme that immediately drew comparisons with the Russian flag.
“I mean the colours of the American flag are very similar to the Russian one,” quipped Steiner. It has understandably raised speculation about the involvement of the Mazepin family in Formula 1 and Haas, especially given Uralkali’s prior attempts to acquire Force India. Though any suggestions that the team is moving away from its American identity and towards Mazepin were quickly dismissed.
“We pushed down as I explained a few times last year on a commercial avenue,” Steiner said. “We have got something to sell – sponsorship – and we need to do that. That is our way forward and I don’t think it has got anything to do at the moment with nationality. At the moment there is no talk and nothing that Mr Mazepin will be a shareholder of the team. The team is owned by Gene Haas and there are no talks about that one.”
Looking to the future was one reason why Haas opted to dispense with veterans Romain Grosjean and Kevin Magnussen and hire rookies Mick Schumacher and Mazepin.
Schumacher joins Formula 1 carrying one of the most distinguished surnames in history, which he stresses is an honour not a burden, but with a curious junior record. Schumacher claimed titles in Formula 3 and Formula 2 yet in both categories had underwhelming rookie years, classifying 12th on each occasion, as he applied himself methodically. In 2020 a spate of setbacks – some self-inflicted, others unfortunate – threatened his campaign, and his pure pace was questionable given he never qualified on the front row. Yet at the conclusion of the rapid-fire 12-round season he had done the job and was the deserving champion. It was not a meteoric rise in the style of Lewis Hamilton, Charles Leclerc or George Russell but no driver wins multiple titles without having talent.
Schumacher pointed to team bonding as one key attribute he has learned from his father and even relished aspects such as a 14-hour day at Haas’ Banbury factory for his seat fit, for which he had to spend a week in quarantine owing to England’s current entry restrictions.
“I feel the relationship between me and the team is really strong and will get even stronger throughout the season so we have every right to think positively of this year,” said Schumacher, whose assimilation began last year in Abu Dhabi.
“It’s [about] pushing every detail [so] that I’m perfect, that I’m able to deliver to perfection every single time out on track. It’s to have no questions and no doubts in any situation. That’s very important, to have a very good relationship and communication with the team, which I think is very, very important. I need to use and take every opportunity you can get to get forward, to get points, to get whatever it might be, to basically [be] open minded in every situation you might face in the race, in the weekend, outside and inside of racing.”
Picking up even a single point may be the height of Schumacher and Haas’ prospects for 2021, given experienced podium-winning drivers managed just five across the most recent 27 grands prix. But Haas has loftier long-term goals in mind.
“I would like to be back where we were in 2018, to fight on top of the midfield,” said Steiner.
“I’m very hesitant to give up positions because as long as you are racing and fighting, that is what a sport is about. And some you win and some you lose. You just try to do the best, but to get on I want to achieve this number is very difficult because I do not know what the other teams are doing.
“[But] if we would get back to our performances from 2018, I would be very happy.”