Haas, sour grapes and the F1 business model

Haas F1’s critics need to stop nagging about its approach and get with the program

Images with this article have been graciously borrowed from Haas F1’s Instagram account.

Once upon a time — we’re talking the late 1980s and early 1990s now - Formula One weekends featured a fascinating spectacle called pre-qualifying. The sessions lasted one hour, started at the ungodly hour of 9 am on the Friday morning, and saw obscure hopefuls trying to qualify for the first qualifying session later on the Friday. Shoe-string operations with quirky names like Osella, Life, Moneytron and Eurobrun needed to show that they were quick enough to take one of the 26 available places on the grid. There were simply more teams than grid spots in the championship. In this day and age, it sounds unreal (and in a way, it was).

In 2016, Formula One does not have that luxury problem. The last time Formula One had a fully filled, 26-car grid was in 1995. At the end of that year, the demise of Pacific and Simtek reduced the grid to 22 cars and since then, new independent teams have been few and far in between. Successful new independents have been even more rare. Which is why the glorious start of Haas F1’s existence this season has been such a joy to watch, because Formula One needs it. It needs fresh blood and new competitors badly. But modern-day Formula One wouldn’t be its schizophrenic self without the criticism lobbed at Haas in recent weeks.

As I wrote a few weeks ago, ahead of the 2016 season, Formula One comes across as a series that doesn’t quite know what it want or what to do with itself. While that is in no way strange, in a time where the sport is under fire from all sides and suffers from lots of criticism, it also leads to unnecessary and distracting bickering. Whether it’s true or not, the constant arguing between drivers and teams over everything from qualifying formats to driver protection gives an impression of a community in disarray. The excellent start to the 2016 season, with two exciting races, does nothing to change that.

Throughout 2015, a heated discussion raged within Formula One about the position of the larger, factory-backed teams compared to the smaller and less wealthy ‘privateer’ teams. The discussion focused on how to distribute prize and television money, and how larger teams might give up some privilege so that their smaller colleagues can stay in the capital-intensive business that is Formula One. Smaller teams argued the existing contribution scheme was unfairly geared towards the big boys, while the big boys said it wasn’t that bad. So far, so predictable.

The worry that smaller teams are struggling to keep up with the cost levels needed to compete in Formula One is an old one, but no less pressing. Sure, the days of pre-qualification sessions are long gone. Formula One has become much more professional and only the real viable contenders are still standing. Yet problems remain, especially for the independents. The rumours that Force India’s long-term future is in doubt as a result of its owner’s legal troubles are persistent, while Williams reported a profit this week that really is a loss once you factor in things like interest payments. More seriously, Sauber currently seems to rely on advance payments from its Swedish sponsors simply to stay afloat.

Images with this article have been graciously borrowed from Haas F1’s Instagram account.

So when Haas got off to a flying start with top-six finishes in Melbourne and Bahrain, you would think the Formula One community finds that encouraging. Fans surely love the early success of Haas, with Romain Grosjean winning the new Driver of the Day award for both races. Red Bull chief Christian Horner has also understood that the Haas performance is good for Formula One and says that the American team “demonstrates that you can be competitive without having to employ 600 people and spend 200 million.”

But not everyone seems to have gotten the memo. Williams technical head Pat Symonds feels that the Haas approach “gradually erodes the status of being a constructor” and fears it is the wrong way to go for Formula One. An interesting view from a man representing a team that started out with pure customer cars. Others have been less vocal in public but have, off the record, dismissed the Haas as a ‘customer Ferrari’ and also raised the question whether Haas really adheres to the spirit of the law.

The reality is that this is irrelevant. Gunther Steiner, the man in charge of Haas F1’s operations, is rightly not interested in the spirit of the law. He is being paid to make Haas as successful as possible, as long as he stays within the regulations. Steiner and owner Gene Haas took a long hard look at recent new entrants (Lotus/Caterham, Virgin/Manor, HRT) and decided that simply copying their approach would be unwise. “Of the last three teams that started [in F1 in 2010], only one is left,” Steiner told Motorsport.com. “Doing more of the same will not work.”

The bottom line is this: the Haas approach is perfectly legal and within the limits of what the FIA allows in terms of sharing parts, technology and know-how. While Haas is still responsible for developing its own bodywork and chassis, the rules do not explicitly state that a team can’t work with an engineering firm such as Dallara. Meanwhile, getting stuff like suspension parts, engines and transmissions from Ferrari is also fine as far as the letter of the law is concerned. If anything, the Haas business model, in which it cooperates as closely as legally possible with Ferrari and Dallara, might very well be THE way for smaller, less financially strong teams to compete in F1.

Outsmarted

That is why Haas should be applauded for finding an approach that works well for the team. Basically, it has outsmarted the competition by charting out a hybrid approach to starting a Formula One team from scratch. There is nothing that keeps Sauber, Force India or Manor from teaming up with, say, Renault or Mercedes . Indeed, Manor’s new-found pace this season is partly the result of a closer collaboration with the world champions. In the end, the regulations are there to be played by all and at the moment it looks like Haas has been just a little bit smarter than the competition. As Steiner said to Motorsport.com: “I take it as a compliment, if they say it’s wrong. Anyone can do it, it’s within the regulations. The regulations are the same for everybody.”

The interesting thing, of course, is that Haas has been quite open about its approach and received no criticism whatsoever during its build-up and development phase. On the contrary, as information was dribbled out and more pieces of the puzzle fell into place, Haas was described as a serious new entrant who could very well produce some surprises. Now that it HAS produced some surprises, to the detriment of some of its competitors, frustration rears its ugly head and Haas’ approach is suddenly questioned. It is the definition of sour grapes.

And if we get back to the original worry about the viability of smaller teams in Formula One, maybe it is more constructive to try and find ways for those smaller teams to adopt the Haas approach. As Pat Symonds should know, the rich history of Formula One is littered with teams competing by simply buying a chassis and an engine, while the team in question only provided the entry. That is indeed no longer legal, but it is also not at all how Haas works. Instead, the American squad has found a business model that produces results while keeping costs at sub-astronomical levels. Which is why its approach should be studied, encouraged, and copied by others who are thinking about taking the big leap into Formula One as well as by those who are struggling to stay in.

And who knows, maybe before we know it we can welcome back the Friday morning pre-qualification sessions again. Now wouldn’t that be a wonderful prospect?

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