Haas has cut ties with Guenther Steiner after almost a decade together in F1, and it leads to the big question of what comes next for F1’s regular backmarkers.
It’s un-focking-believable, isn’t it? After almost 10 swashbuckling years as the charismatic leader of the perennial underdog Haas F1 team, Guenther Steiner and the organisation with which he was synonymous parted ways on Wednesday evening UK time.
Despite his popularity as a media darling, made famous by his expletive-laden appearances on Netflix’s Drive to Survive, it’s perhaps unsurprising that Gene Haas has called time on Steiner’s time as team boss and decided to take a punt on a new and fresh face in charge.
Guenther Steiner ignominiously dropped by Haas
Considering how Steiner, since 2015, has been the very public face of Gene Haas’ eponymous team – the last to get into Formula 1 before the sport’s evolvement into the franchise-based model it has become – the wording of the confirmation of his departure was eye-opening.
Indeed, the primary subject of the Haas press release sent to the media was actually the appointment of Ayao Komatsu as team boss, with Steiner’s departure after nearly 10 years being the secondary topic. In fact, Steiner’s name was only mentioned twice in the entire release – a very clear indication if ever there was one that their separation hasn’t come under the best of terms.
Looking at Haas’ performance over recent years, it’s not surprising why there might be tensions between Haas and Steiner.
After all, 2023 marked a return to the purgatory-like state that Haas has existed in almost since it entered the sport – a quick-ish car over a single lap, only to fall apart in the races due to excessive tyre wear.
With frustrated drivers, whose talents are known, just 12 points were scored in total in 2023. Last in the Constructors’ Championship once again, the year was marred by the roll-out of a B-spec car that proved, at best, to be the same performance level as the old one.
Having introduced no upgrades throughout the season, only for the B-spec to actually make the high-speed handling of the VF-23 worse, it led Nico Hulkenberg – a Le Mans winner – to bluntly say it hadn’t delivered.
“Nothing,” was Hulkenberg’s blunt answer to Germany’s AMuS, when asked about what Haas achieved with their B-spec car. “[It’s] sobering and alarming. You can’t hide that.
“We have to be honest with ourselves and admit that it doesn’t meet our standards when we do so much work to rebuild the car and then the end result is almost the same. It’s our job to do better next year.”
Haas’ approach to F1 has been different to every other team, in that they are not a constructor in their own right. With a chassis manufactured by Dallara, Haas has always bought as many Transferable Components as possible and only designed the parts themselves that the rules dictated.
It’s a cheaper way of going racing, which is always appealing to a frugal team owner, but it’s notable that, in almost 10 years of racing, Haas never really seems to have fully understood their cars or how best to exploit them – and that lack of understanding has always translated into fluctuating levels of performance.
With the big-name teams becoming global brands – if they weren’t already – under Liberty Media, Haas has also been an outlier in that no new investment streams have come on board – did Haas view Steiner as a barrier to attracting further investment?
While Alpine, Sauber, Williams, and AlphaTauri have all seen fresh investments and realignments in their business models, Haas has remained steadfast – an admirable quality, but only if it translates to on-track performance. Which it hasn’t.
“I think it’s not about money, it’s about a business model,” Steiner told PlanetF1.com in mid-2023 when asked about whether Haas needs a fresh injection of funding.
“If we want to keep with our business model and work with somebody, we don’t need to do this investment. If some people think they need to make the investment, it’s fine with me. But there is more than one business model – we’re back to what we came up with in 2014 with this new business model, and we want to keep it at the moment.
“So we don’t need to make this investment. It’s not just about money in Formula 1, I think money sometimes is overrated – people think, if you invest 100 million, you can beat Mercedes.
“You can invest 100 million in your facilities and in your equipment, but then you still need the people, because the difference is the people. And running different business models is a people thing, it’s not an equipment thing. So I think there’s more than one way to do this and we’re doing it the way we want to do it.”
Unfortunately for Steiner, it now appears that the people needed no longer include him. And, based on the team’s track record – returning to the very back of the pack under a second regulatory rulebook – it’s very difficult to argue against that.
Guenther Steiner: Gene Haas is tough with me, but he’s a very good boss
All the signs currently point toward Steiner being removed, or at least failing to find common ground with Haas, with him also telling PlanetF1.com that he had no intention of leaving his post any time soon in the same interview.
“I think it has to be my passion project. I started this team, I went out and found an investor [Haas],” he said.
“If I leave… I never wanted another job, I would have had other jobs before, but I didn’t want them.
“This was one thing I wanted to do. And it’s pretty cool to set up an F1 team in your lifetime. There are not many people doing that and, therefore, I feel committed to the people. We have got quite a few people here, who are still here from day one.
“I don’t get attracted by the neighbour’s greener grass. With Gene Haas, I know I have a very good boss, I’ve got a good relationship with him.
“He’s tough with me, but I’m tough with other people. So, if I do a bad job, I’m not afraid that he tells me. Not that he needs to tell me but, if he has a different opinion on it, I’m OK with it. I’m not getting upset about it.”
So, with Steiner presumably given his marching orders – or perhaps choosing to leave following Simone Resta’s apparent resignation earlier on Wednesday – what’s next for Haas?
The likeable Ayao Komatsu, who has worked in several senior roles with the team since 2016, has taken over as team boss. There’s no indication that he is an interim selection, meaning the engineer is stepping up in a big way for 2024.
But, as James Vowles has proven at Williams, talent honed in these senior roles – Komatsu having been director of engineering – can be more than capable of making the necessary step up. Will Komatsu be able to make the same immediate impact and bring a sense of stability to the troubled team?
After all, Komatsu has to worry about the availability of Mattia Binotto on the market – the former Ferrari team boss has direct links to Haas through Ferrari’s ongoing collaboration with Haas. Should Komatsu not work out, Binotto isn’t too hard to get a hold of at the moment.
Nor is Otmar Szafnauer. The former Alpine and Aston Martin team boss thrived as team boss at Racing Point and Force India in their lower budget days, and his calm, more corporate-friendly demeanour might be exactly what Haas seeks – especially if Gene is impatient for quick improvements and an image change.
Guenther’s Steiner’s style needed success to be tolerated any longer
With Steiner’s future in F1 now up in the air, it is sad to see the extremely likeable team boss depart (for now). An unconventional wit, Steiner was well-liked for his jovial, no-nonsense nature and became a hero of the Netflix TV show Drive to Survive due to his willingness to throw in a vulgar soundbite over the most innocuous situations.
But it’s indicative of Haas’ performance levels that those moments are what made Steiner famous. While the likes of Andrea Stella, Christian Horner, Toto Wolff, and the aforementioned Vowles all exude sleek, corporate professionalism, Steiner – together with the former AlphaTauri boss Franz Tost – represented the last of the old-school team bosses – the ones who weren’t afraid to straight talk and make quips about how badly things could go.
Increasingly at odds with the direction F1 is going, Steiner’s shtick could only last so long when success also eluded. Landing blue-chip sponsor Moneygram as a legitimate title sponsor, after the previous disasters that were Rich Energy and Uralkali, it was a deal fit for celebration – only for the on-track performance to slump almost immediately.
Coming off another bad season, the second time in three years they’ve finished last, all the quips in the world can’t disguise the fact that Haas continues to underperform – and the buck stops with Steiner. Rudderless and treading water with clear signs of progress from all around them, change is needed. But is replacing Steiner the change needed?
The problem for Gene Haas is that, without spending the money to operate at the budget cap for the performance side of things, was it Steiner or a budget shortfall that has held the team back?
“Moving forward as an organisation, it was clear we need to improve our on-track performances,” was the pointed message from Gene Haas in the same press release.
“In appointing Ayao Komatsu as Team Principal, we fundamentally have engineering at the heart of our management.”
Of course, this turmoil opens up the possibility that Gene Haas might yet decide enough is enough and cut his ties with F1 – after all, the team only exists as a marketing platform for his CNC machinery company. At what point does the stress of it all outweigh the benefits of toiling at the back?
After all, Steiner was the real driving force behind the team. For all his foibles, Steiner’s passion was undeniable.
Does Gene have that passion to keep plugging away without easy success, particularly with gargantuan financial offers being made to existing F1 teams? There’s no doubt Haas would walk away far wealthier leaving F1 than he did arriving – Sauber’s asking price was mooted as €600 million two years ago. Is Gene’s higher?
If Gene doesn’t have the passion, those persistent Andrettis beating down his door to sell up might yet get their way…