Gene Haas: The art of balance

GH Candid at 2017 Canadian GP

Owner of Haas F1 Team, Gene Haas talks about his team’s evolution, American drivers and the racing bug.

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Your debut season was hard, but you found success. You could argue that your sophomore year was harder because there was pressure to at least maintain that success. What about year three? It seems everyone is positioned to improve drastically, meaning the ever-competitive midfield is going to become even more competitive.

It looks like everyone is going to be better. We identified our weak spots and Guenther [Steiner, team principal] and I had a good heart-to-heart talk on that one in Mexico City about what direction we were going to take and how we were going to improve. It’s no secret we use a lot of Ferrari equipment, so we’re using them as our baseline. We need to be within a half-second of the Ferraris in order for us to be competitive. We weren’t last year. I would say we were a second to a second-and-a-half slower than the Ferraris. Overall, we were maybe two seconds off the pole qualifiers, so we need to knock a second off that if we really want to be competitive.

While car design remains relatively unchanged this year, there is a new rule that limits teams to three engines per year as opposed to the four engines they used last year. On top of that, there’s an additional race this year for a total of 21 races. Reliability is always important, but does this rule change further limiting the number of engines you can use in a single season put an even greater emphasis on reliability?

I think it’s like anything else – the more seasons you have with an engine package, the more reliable it’s going to become. I have no doubts they can do the season with three engines. Plus, there’s not going to be this tremendous need for upgrades because the engine horsepower has somewhat plateaued. They are getting about as much performance out of the current dimensional package as you can. I don’t think Mercedes or Renault is going to be that much farther ahead or behind Ferrari. I think they are all within a half-a-per cent of one other. I think from a reliability standpoint, the Ferraris are excellent.

There’s a lot of similar technologies and I’ve even had a lot of people from the Formula 1 side wanting to know how NASCAR guys do this, so there’s a lot of interest.

There has been talking this offseason about whether or not an American driver is ready to compete in Formula One. What’s your take?

Well, I’m pretty sure I know where that talk came from. Our team principal was asked about having an American driver in Formula 1 and, more specifically, with Haas F1 Team. He responded by saying something to the effect that it wasn’t at the top of our priority list, and things kind of took off in a bunch of different directions as people made a number of imaginative assumptions.

The fact is that we’re still learning here in Formula 1, and bringing on a driver who needs to learn about Formula 1 probably isn’t the best thing for us. I felt like there were times last year where our drivers were better than our cars. Therefore, we need to step up, but we know where we need to improve thanks in large part to the experience of our drivers.

We’re definitely not saying no to having an American driver, but the reality is that of the American drivers who have a super license and could actually compete in Formula 1, they should really be with a team that can serve as their benchmark rather than the other way around. Now, we fully expect to eventually be in that position – ideally, sooner rather than later – but this is only our third year and we need to get better in a variety of areas, and Romain Grosjean and Kevin Magnussen are playing a big part in that improvement because of their experience. They help us, rather quickly, determine if the course we’re taking is a proper one or if we need to re-think our approach.

This debate about American drivers really isn’t a debate. I believe in American drivers – my NASCAR team is full of them, and we’ve won a lot of races and championships. Obviously, the discipline is different, but sure, there are competent American drivers who can compete in Formula 1. But we’re not ready for that yet, and with the limited amount of testing, teams have, getting anyone up to speed who hasn’t already been a part of a development program would be hard. I think that’s the point Guenther was trying to make.

How helpful is it to go into this season with the same driver line-up and, with the exception of the addition of the halo, a rules package regarding car design that is relatively unchanged?

We’ve eliminated a lot of the variables where we knew we were weak, and we knew where we needed to focus. We need to be able to go to the majority of races and put the car down on the track and be fast. We’ve focused on what it’s going to take to get the cars to be consistent and to close that gap between the top cars.

How did the pairing of Romain Grosjean and Kevin Magnussen work out and what can we expect from them in 2018?

I’ve said it before – I thought our drivers were better than our cars in 2017. Grosjean is a very, very fast driver. His driving style is very different from Magnussen’s style. Grosjean is more hard-charging, braking and going through the turns. Magnussen is a little smoother going through those turns. They just have different driving styles, but they are both very aggressive and both want to win, and you have to have that kind of killer mentality to score points. When the opportunity is there, you just have to go for it.

Looking back on your second Formula 1 season, how would you assess it?

It was a learning year. Our first year, everything was new and everything has to be mentally digested about how do we go about racing in Formula 1. In the second year, we understood a lot more in terms of what we were missing, and it became obvious midyear that our cars just weren’t fast enough to really be competitive. Some tracks they were quick, but other tracks they weren’t, and the question was why. That’s really a big pivot point for us going forward – how to solve those issues.

How was your second Formula 1 season different from your first?

In our first season, we were extremely lucky to do as well as we did because in the second year there were a lot of races that we just felt lost. You would think that in the second year we would’ve been better at that, but I felt that we were actually worse and it became more obvious about what we had to do to find what we were missing. If you don’t know how to solve some of these issues, you go out and you just have a really bad day, no matter what you do. And that’s really frustrating because you’re supposed to be out there doing your Free Practice 1 and 2 and you should get better, but it’s like you would go out there and do Free Practice 1 and 2 and the third one would be worse.

Is there any transfer of technology or methodology between Haas F1 Team and Stewart-Haas Racing and vice versa?

We’re a NASCAR team and here we are doing Formula 1. There’s a lot of similar technologies and I’ve even had a lot of people from the Formula 1 side wanting to know how NASCAR guys do this, so there’s a lot of interest. You have two sports that are at the top of their fields – stock car versus open-wheel racing – but they seem to have a lot of interest in how each of these entities has evolved over the years and what can be gleaned from the two series.

You grew up in Youngstown, Ohio, attended college in southern California and started Haas Automation out of your garage. Haas Automation is now the largest machine tool builder in North America, your NASCAR team has won two championships and you built the first American Formula 1 team in 30 years. Looking back, are you able to appreciate the scope of your achievements or are you constantly looking forward?

As soon as the last race is over, you have to prove yourself at the next race, and it’s a similar thing in the machine tool business in the sense that our customers are using these machines in all kinds of different environments and it’s very frustrating because as much as we design them and get them to do what we think the customer wants them to do, they make them do something we don’t think they are capable of and then we see the failures. Almost like in racing, where you have all of these grand plans for the next year and then you find out that the competition is ahead of you, so it’s a challenge. But I think that challenge, whether it’s in racing or in building machine tools, that challenge is what I thrive on – the environment is changing and I have to adapt to it and I have to make a better product.

We’re definitely not saying no to having an American driver.

How do you balance all of your work – Formula 1, NASCAR, running a billion-dollar company?

It’s a constant process of testing all of your abilities – your stamina, your resources, your ability to outdo somebody else and win a race, and it’s very difficult. The NASCAR side works pretty well without me. Those guys know what they’re doing and have been doing it for a long time. We’ve won a couple of championships, so I have a lot of confidence in them. We’re still learning on the Formula 1 side. We don’t want to be in the mid-pack forever. We want to get on top of the mid-pack. That’s our goal.

When did the racing bug bite, and when did you meld your passion for racing with machine tools?

I was in high school when I went to work for LeGrand racecars. One of my starting jobs there was machining magnesium wheel for racecars. I was 16 years old when (Red) LeGrand said: “I’ll show you how to make some wheels”. So he gave me a couple of tips and I’d say a month later I was sitting their machining wheels out of magnesium by myself. I could set the machines up and run the machines, so I was the magnesium machine guy there and that’s what I did. It doesn’t take long until you get involved with the racers there. The highest form of racing at that time was Formula 5000. I actually went to the Long Beach Grand Prix in 1975 followed by the Formula 1 Grand Prix in 1976, which went on for almost 10 years. I saw some of that high-profile racing right after college.

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