Haas' nadir: How do you solve a problem you can't identify?
Haas has a standout car in qualifying but a lacklustre package in race trim. As Motorsport Week explains, the biggest problem facing the team is that it is not sure how the situation can be rectified...
In any walk of life, be it professional or personal, you can only address problems once the root cause has been identified, analysed and understood. If you don’t know where a weakness lies then how can you ever hope to improve?
Therein lies the problem for the Haas F1 Team as it approaches the midway point of its fourth, and so far worst, season in the championship.
Haas improved on back-to-back eighth-placed finishes across 2016/17 by running Renault close for fourth last season. Even accounting for its close alliance with Ferrari and Dallara it was an over-achievement considering the teams it beat and the resources at hand. It saw no reason as to why it could not replicate, or build upon, such an encouraging campaign.
Yet Haas' strong showing through Australia’s season-opener proved not so much the foundation for a buoyant campaign but rather an aberration in a perplexing, head-scratching season.
The VF-19 has regularly been a front-running car during qualifying. Kevin Magnussen has the best average qualifying position of any midfielder (8.9), has made Q3 seven times from nine attempts and in Austria was an outstanding fifth, clocking one of the best laps of the campaign by any driver. Romain Grosjean, not quite as in tune with the VF-19 as Magnussen over one lap, has still managed Q3 on five occasions.
It is a simplistic approach but if qualifying positions were converted into points then Haas would have 56. So far, so good. But in the races it has been a different matter. It has picked up only 16 points. It has remained in the top 10 at just three events. It should have scored more in Australia due to the pit issue that wrecked Grosjean’s race and in Spain the drivers got too close for comfort, hindering the Franco-Swiss driver, but even so, there is a clear regression. Super Saturdays, shocking Sundays.
“We need to understand why we have these deficiencies between qualifying and the race, then we can work on it,” said straight-talking team boss Guenther Steiner in the team’s British Grand Prix preview. “At the moment, we’re in search of that issue.”
Grosjean has scored just two points so far, marking his worst return after nine grands prix since his full-time comeback in 2012.
“We haven’t really had a good weekend, in total, for a long time,” said Grosjean ahead of Silverstone. “Our race pace in Friday practice these last few weekends hasn’t really been amazing. Unfortunately, things then get confirmed in the race. The thing is to have a car that’s fast in the qualifying sim and on the long runs so we have something we can work with going into the race and feel confident. That hasn’t been the case in the last two races, and every time we’ve gone into a race, I’ve had the feeling that it’s going to be complicated and, unfortunately, it has been.”
Through the opening few events it was suspected that Haas’ problems were down to tyre management. In Bahrain Magnussen was shell-shocked at the regression and in Azerbaijan the feeling behind the wheel was compared to getting stuck in the graining phase but then lacking the feel to effectively find an escape. Getting the tyres back into the optimum window was also an element Grosjean struggled with after the late Safety Car period in Spain, as he was passed by Carlos Sainz Jr. and Daniil Kvyat. But Haas has already hinted that there is more to its life of strife than tyres.
“When you’re on a high, you think you’ve figured it out, and then you’re back to reality,” said an exasperated Steiner last month in Canada, where a lack of pace was compounded by Magnussen’s Q2 shunt and Grosjean’s Turn 1 clash. “It’s such a rollercoaster. If you look at Monte Carlo, in qualifying you’re not even two-tenths off a Ferrari. Here [in Canada] how many seconds we were off it? Must be something in there.” When asked whether that was difficult to understand there was a recurring response. “Absolutely, otherwise we will fix it. It’s very up and down.” It was more of the same post-race in France. “What is bizarre to me… a car that was good enough to qualify seventh and eighth in the first race and then all of a sudden be second-last. Don’t ask me what it is, I don’t know. Don’t ask me please because I wouldn’t know. We need to find out, it’s very disappointing, ending up in this situation but also not having an understanding of it, that’s the worst of it all… If you don't know that one [the problem], how can you work on solutions? Because you work on everything, then the best thing is you make a new car.” And then post-Austria? “After qualifying in fifth position, to then have a race like this, I can’t say anything other than it’s disappointing. We’ll keep working on it, try to get a better understanding of why this kind of performance is happening from qualifying to the race. We just do not understand it. At the moment we have no clue.”
Grosjean, post-race in Austria, was also downbeat. “We were fighting with the Williams early on in the race. I was saying to Kevin it felt like it was raining in the car in the first few laps. Literally no grip. No front. No rear. Very, very difficult. The balance was not good either. In Le Castellet the balance was okay but we had slow pace but here [in Austria] there was no balance, no pace. Some laps it’s up, some laps it’s down, some okay, some not, understeer, next corner oversteer. It’s not like you can build confidence in the car.” Grosjean also confirmed that tyre compounds and circuit layout made little difference to Haas’ prospects, emphasising “it may take some time” to understand the “quite big issues” the VF-19 is encountering.
Haas is still within reach of sixth-placed Alfa Romeo in the Constructors’ Championship but reeling in its rivals is just a pipe dream amid the current state of affairs. Silverstone, Hockenheim and Budapest may well be a case of the VF-19 appearing in Q3 before winding up a desultory 14th come the chequered flag. Can Haas prevent its season from slipping away? If there is to be a positive outcome then it has to at first answer a more basic question. Just what is going wrong? That it does not yet have an answer is the biggest issue it must address.