Life after Guenther Steiner: How Ayao Komatsu is planning his own Haas revolution

Thomas Maher
Ayao Komatsu presents the Haas VF-24 with Kevin Magnussen and Nico Hulkenberg

Ayao Komatsu: Sits down with PlanetF1 in Bahrain

It’s the beginning of a new chapter for Haas in 2024, with Ayao Komatsu replacing Guenther Steiner as team boss.

The Japanese-born engineer has been a leading player with the Haas organisation ever since their arrival into F1, with Komatsu working closely alongside Guenther Steiner throughout.

With Steiner and Haas divorcing over the winter, it’s Komatsu who steps forward into the limelight for the first time – the latest iteration of the engineer-turned-team-boss that is slowly becoming de rigeur in recent years.

Ayao Komatsu: It’s a huge responsibility to run Haas

Having stepped into Steiner’s empty shoes just six weeks ago, Komatsu has had a busy time since.

Accustomed to being a familiar but background character, Komatsu’s promotion means he’s suddenly one of the 10 main players who face the intense scrutiny and unrelenting pressure that the role of a modern F1 team entails.

Having worked in F1 for 20 years – Komatsu has had stints with BAR, Renault (and later Lotus) before moving to Haas – the move from being a (major) cog in the machinery of a team to becoming the driving force is a daunting one, regardless of experience.

But there’s no sign that Komatsu is feeling out of his depth as he engaged with the media throughout the three-day Bahrain test. While perhaps not quite yet at ease being out front and centre for the likes of the main press conference, Komatsu is verbose and engaging as he talk to gathered members of the print media through how testing has gone for Haas at the end of the three days on Friday.

Would that ease and comfort remain when I sat down opposite him afterward to talk about himself and the team, rather than the car? I certainly hoped it would, as our exclusive interview began on the terrace of Haas’ hospitality on the Friday evening of the test.

After all, Komatsu’s predecessor was one of the media darlings of the paddock – always chatty, never shy of expressing an opinion.

Having never spoken to each other before, I had no idea what to expect as we began our chat, where the obvious opener was to ask how he’s found his first few weeks as an F1 team boss.

“To be honest, I don’t know what I expected, I guess,” he said.

“I still don’t know what I don’t know, right? But, in terms of what we need to do to the team to improve, I had some ideas. So, in that aspect, I’m just getting on with it.”

I asked him when, over the winter, he first had inkling things might be happening behind the scenes between Steiner and Haas, and how the job offer came about – presumably the offer came directly from Gene Haas [team owner].

“Of course, it’s Gene. This is Gene’s team,” he replies, perhaps a little tersely.

“He decided to go in that way, and then he asked me, so I thought about it. And I said, ‘Yes, I’m definitely happy to give it a go’.”

Having got the offer from Haas to step up to assume responsibility for pretty much everything, was that a decision Komatsu took a while to ponder over? After all, that aforementioned cog-to-boss step hasn’t worked out for everyone – a recent example being Mattia Binotto’s decades-long Ferrari tenure ending after a messy 2022.

“It’s not like something you can think lightly [of],” Komatsu said.

“It’s a very huge responsibility, to run the team on behalf of Gene. Huge. At the same time, I was very grateful that I was given the opportunity because I feel… I’ve been with the team since 2016.

“I know many people, and I know the various departments – how they function together, or not, together. Throughout the various discussions we had over the years, we had ideas on how to improve the team. So now, we just get on with implementing those changes.”

Haas ‘hasn’t maximised every opportunity’ since 2016

Having finished 10th in last year’s championship, Haas almost feels like a team that’s back where it started when it entered the sport in 2016.

Slumping to the back wasn’t part of the game plan, and the ousted Steiner has been more opinionated about the racing model the Haas team has utilised over the years.

Picking things up and ‘starting fresh’ with the eyes of someone who has seen every twist and turn of Steiner’s attempts, how does Komatsu feel about the intervening years since 2016? Has the team made the best of what it’s had available to it?

“If it was a team that maximised every opportunity, then Gene wouldn’t have done what he did. So no, of course not,” he replies.

“2016-2018, I think we made decent improvements and ’18 was still the most successful year for Haas F1 history. But, in ’19, that was the turning point where we lost the way in terms of the development of the car. So we haven’t really recovered from that.

“So then, 2020, COVID hit, and ’21 was just recovering from COVID. ’22 was the first year we had the chance to move back up again, and then in ’23, it was basically a repeat of ’19. So I just feel we haven’t recovered fundamentally from ’19. But that’s what we’re doing now.”

Feeling that Komatsu was starting to relax in our conversation, I asked him to evaluate his personality and leadership style. Steiner managed to walk the fine line of being charismatic and charming, while also having a hard-nosed edge.

Does Komatsu see himself as having that same hard edge, or is he a softer character than Steiner?

“I don’t think it’s a matter of soft or hard,” he offers.

“I hate bullshit so, in that sense, I’m the same. But, as a character, and human being, we are very, very different.

“Guenther has got his strengths and weaknesses, and I’ve got my strengths and weaknesses – I know that so I’m just trying to be the best advisor on myself, rather than trying to be somebody else.

“There’s no point in keeping comparing myself to my predecessor, because there’s nothing to be gained. We are very different human beings. He tried his best – he had his approach. I’m gonna try my best, in a way that I think is the best and see where it goes.”

The nature of Steiner’s departure, and the suddenness of it all, could have been problematic within the ranks – particularly on the morale front.

With Steiner being a well-liked and popular boss, suddenly dropping someone else into the position and everyone having a new boss to report to – anyone who has ever worked anywhere knows how factions of rebellion can form.

Has there been any sign of resistance from within the ranks at Haas to being willing to adopt new thinking, new practices, and a new path forward?

“Honestly, I’ve been very, very grateful that everyone’s reaction is overwhelmingly supportive,” Komatsu replies.

“Once the announcement was made, I spent one week in Banbury trying to speak with as many people as possible.

“I was grateful for all the support I was given. Then I flew to Italy – I’m UK-based – so my contact with Italy has been much less.

“So I was a bit more concerned, shall I say. But, again, I was pleasantly surprised. Everybody is taking this as an opportunity to improve and then show what they can do. So I’m very grateful for that.”

Would that acceptance of Steiner’s sudden replacement have been as straightforward if Haas had gone for an unknown external hire, rather than internally promoting someone already well-embedded in the team?

“That’s what Gene thought, right?” Komatsu said.

“That’s why he asked me to do it, I guess. Our setup is very unique, as you know.

“So, if we got somebody from outside, it [would] take some time for this person to arrive on the team. And then it [would] take some time for this person to understand the team. So it’s gonna be a much longer process. So yeah, I think it’s a big, big difference.”

The tangible changes made and the path forward for Haas

Just six weeks into his role, Komatsu is still only starting to shuffle things around on his desk. Having inherited an organisation that has struggled more often than not over the last five years, it’s going to take time to make changes – and for the effects of those changes to make themselves known.

But those changes are already underway, and Komatsu confirmed some tangible company re-arrangement is already complete.

“For instance, the organisational structure,” he said, when asked about what he’s implemented.

“So we’re still in the middle of doing it. But, in the technical organisation, we’ve made some fundamental changes.

“I cannot put the place upside down because we’ve got to operate on a daily basis to get the car built, to get to the shakedown, to have the car available for the test.

“So I’ve made fundamental changes. But I would say like the minimum big changes, but that’s something I really had to make, I believe I had to make. But that was fundamental to how we’re going to work together going forward.

“But, at the same time, I tried to keep that minimum, if you see what I mean. So just trying to get the balance right. That’s where we are now.

“So let’s say, the very first phase is complete. Of course, there will be many, many phases coming up in the future to improve the organisation.”

It was at this point that I asked Komatsu about what he feels the next priority is – what’s the big weakness that needs addressing? He politely declines to answer but, just as I’m about to move on, he explains the reasoning for wanting to stay quiet.

“I wouldn’t like to say specifically,” he said.

“It’s not like it’s a secret. But I want to communicate those things internally first. A few days or within a week after the announcement, [journalists] asked me, ‘What are you going to do for technical director, etc?’

“I already had an idea. But I didn’t want to tell those guys, only because I wanted to talk to those people first, internal communication first. I never want our guys to find out things from outside.

“So, the next steps, I haven’t necessarily spoken with all the managers about what we’re gonna do next or to discuss and get them on board, so I’d like to do it in the right order. That’s why I don’t want to talk about it, not because I want to be secretive.”

One of the opinions expressed by Steiner since his Haas departure has been pointing to a lack of infrastructure and facilities being made available to the team, by way of financial resources.

F1’s budget cap (which refers to operational spend) is capped at $140 million – that’s the maximum a team can spend on the parameters and performance factors outlined in the regulations. But that doesn’t mean every team can reach that expenditure figure – and Komatsu declines to comment on whether or not the team is operating at the cap.

With an FIA agreement reached late last year to allow the teams a capital expenditure budget to allow for facility and infrastructure investment, this means that – provided the funding is there – teams will be permitted to invest back into their factories without it coming out of the operational spend.

Komatsu confirmed he has come up with some ideas on what he’d like to use the CapEx budget on, but smiled as he opted to keep the details to himself. Haas is one of the four teams with the largest CapEx allowance permitted – the team can spend up to $65 million on these areas, if funding allows.

But, even regardless of that extra money being pumped in, Komatsu said streamlining what’s already available opens doors for opportunities to improve.

“Absolutely, that’s the first and the most critical thing today,” he said.

“There’s a lot we can improve within the given resources we are provided by Gene. So absolutely.”

One of the first decisions Komatsu was involved in was the internal promotion of Andrea De Zorda to technical director, succeeding the departed Simone Resta. Komatsu was effusive in his praise of what he feels the Italian is capable of.

“I have a huge respect for him,” he said.

“I’ve been working with him for the last couple of years. I know what he’s capable of, he is technically very, very good. He’s got a very good personality and is very, very engaged. He’s really focused on the right thing. I have full confidence in him.

“So far, what I’m seeing backs up what I expected. Brilliant, very enjoyable. You asked me about the response from the people. These are the things really making this new challenge enjoyable. Working with Andrea, as an example, it’s been nothing but a pleasure.” recommends

F1 team principals: How long has each team boss been in charge?

F1 team principals’ rich list: Net worth figures revealed for Wolff, Horner and more

But will this revolution at Haas, including a new technical director, mean an eventual change of concept with the car itself – away from what was decided before him?

Komatsu said it’s possible a new direction could be identified with either this or next year’s car, but said it’s too early to say: “I cannot answer that yet. His approach is very structured, and very measured, but he’s not shying away from any problems. Honestly, it’s brilliant.”

Feeling that Komatsu has relaxed quite a bit over the course of the last 15 minutes while we’ve been chatting, feeling the heat of the desert dissipating into a cool breeze as the last few minutes of testing tick away, I asked him what he’d view as a successful first season for him at Haas.

Rather than pointing to results or lap time, as I expected an engineer to focus on, Komatsu instead offered an answer that hints at why he may well end up instigating genuine change at Haas.

“To make this team as one, to get everyone to work together, provide our people with an environment that they enjoy, a positive environment that they can come to work motivated and really try to do their best,” he said, without a moment’s hesitation.

“Not telling them to do their best but just to provide the environment that they want to come to work, they want to make a difference. Come up with the solutions, and ideas – if I can be part of creating that environment, I’d be very happy.”

But while the words are all well and good, the reality of the situation is that Komatsu and De Zordo are assuming control of a team that has had little by way of on-track performance recently.

After finishing 10th in 2023, and the regulations remaining static, can the team really make enough progress over a few short months to make another 10th place less of an inevitability?

“If I thought 10th was an inevitability, I shouldn’t be doing what I’m doing,” he said.

“It’s a competition. If you haven’t got the aspiration to get off the bottom of the grid, you shouldn’t be doing it. So it’s not an inevitability – we’ll do everything possible to get out of that.

“Only time will tell, but I don’t think about the result in that way.

“I look at what’s in front of me, and then really try my best to find a solution, and improve it. That’s what I’m focused on – what’s in front of me. And then the result will come – it will be whatever it may be.

“But, as long as we maximise what we’ve got, but also keep expanding that capability efficiently, that’s my target.

“There’s no golden bullet. You’ve got to look at all the areas. When I took over the organisation, if I said ‘OK, we seem to be doing a very good job, everything is efficient, everything makes sense’, then we are in trouble, right?

“Because you don’t know how to improve them. That’s not the case at all. There are plenty of things we can do before we need to expand the constraints.”

Read Next: Could Alpine really have the worst F1 car on the grid?