NASCAR team owner Gene Haas still hopeful of building U.S.-based F1 team

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CHARLOTTE, N.C. — When NASCAR Sprint Cup team owner Gene Haas is serious, he puts his money – and with an estimated worth of $250 million, he has plenty of it – where his mouth is.

Haas recently paid $5,000 as part of the first phase of the application process for a Formula One license.

“I’ve had interest for a number of years,” Haas said of owning an F1 team. “I think it’s an incredibly difficult challenge, it’s nothing to be taken lightly, it’s filled with peril and there’s a million ways to fail. For all those reasons is why you do it, to see if it’s something you can do. … I think it would be a great honor as an American to participate in that type of racing.

The second phase of the application process is due by February 10, Haas said during Monday’s opening of the 32nd annual NASCAR Media Tour. And if F1 officials look with favor upon Haas’ bid, they could award him an ownership license by March.

Perhaps he’s playing his cards close to the vest, but as eager as Haas is to own an F1 team, he’s melancholy about his overall chances.

“We have a shot,” Haas said, before conceding, “I don’t think it’s a great shot. It could go either way. I think (F1 chairman Bernie Ecclestone) is a little skeptical whether we can actually do it. He’s seen teams make these applications and then fail, and I don’t think he really wants to do that again.”

Haas can understand if Ecclestone has some reluctance at an American F1 team. The last attempt to get a U.S.-based team off the ground, a highly publicized operation also based in the Charlotte area (where Stewart Haas Racing is based), fizzled out before ever getting on a racetrack.

“If I were Mr. Ecclestone, I’d probably be saying, ‘We’ve tried this before and it didn’t work. What makes these guys different?'” Haas said. “But it’s like individuals, you never know who can get things done and who can’t. I can see Formula One being gun shy about putting another American team out there since the last one did not get to the grid. That was not good at all.

“It’s a formidable challenge. It’s not easy to do and it’s not 100 percent guaranteed that we’ll succeed at it. It’s daunting, as far as I’m concerned.”

Equally daunting is that F1 controls how many ownership licenses will be available to be issued when a final decision is made just over a month from now.

“(F1 officials have) has said there will anywhere from none to one (new license granted),” Haas said. “They might not issue a license at all if they don’t feel any teams are qualified.”

Still, there are several upsides to a U.S.-based team, Haas said.

First is the uniqueness of an American team.

“We’re American and I think we have a different way of doing things and can be a lot more efficient at what we do,” Haas said. “When you see the number of people building a Formula One car, you have to scratch your head and say, ‘Wow, are all these people really necessary?’

“The Europeans have their way of doing things and we as Americans have our way of doing things, and I think we can be competitive and successful. I don’t want to do things the way the Europeans do, and they would never do things the way we do. That’s what makes it an interesting series, you’d bring different perspectives on how you’d run these teams.

Another plus is Circuit of the Americas in Austin, Texas, which held a very successful F1 event in November.

“(Formula One is) going to have the Austin race, they’re looking at New Jersey either next year or the year after, they’ve talked about going back to Mexico City and then you have the race in (Montreal),” Haas said. “So you could have four or five races in North America, which I think would be great.”

If F1 officials approve Haas’ application, it’s questionable whether he could form a team in time for the 2015 season. To do it right, he may push back a potential team’s debut until 2016.

“I don’t know. It seems like every time we deal with it, the process takes a little longer than you think,” Haas said. “If the process drags on into June or July, we probably wouldn’t be able to do it. If we had known back in December (that a license would be approved), we probably could do it. We’re getting into this grey area of what we could do and also depends on what we could partner with as far as engines and chassis and all that other stuff. Those are questions that haven’t been answered yet.”

Co-owner of Stewart Haas Racing and NASCAR star Tony Stewart would not be part of the F1 operation, which Haas would run separately from the four-team NASCAR operation he and Stewart currently have.

“I’m excited for Gene, I think it’s a great opportunity,” Stewart said. “It’s not something that you can just go make the decision and go do it. There’s a lot of processes that I’ve learned through Gene how this all works. Gene’s had the ability to build a championship-caliber team in NASCAR, and now he’s ambitious to expand on that and go to a world-wide scenario.

“We’re all real supportive of his aspirations to be in Formula One. Gene’s the kind of person that when he puts his mind to doing something, he can make it happen and stays focused on it. It’s going to be exciting to watch him do the same thing in Formula One.”

Schmidt Peterson aiming high with Hinchcliffe, Wickens

Photo: IndyCar
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The new Schmidt Peterson Motorsports duo of James Hinchcliffe and Robert Wickens expressed a high amount of confidence during Wednesday’s confirmation of Hinchcliffe’s return and Wickens’ signing, as the pair looks to return the Sam Schmidt and Ric Peterson co-owned team to prominent status within the Verizon IndyCar Series.

“We’re hoping to give Toronto and Ontario and Canadian sports fans in general something to cheer about over the next season,” Hinchcliffe quipped during a teleconference on Wednesday.

Granted, there are likely to be several challenges to overcome, notably for Wickens, who returns to single-seater competition for the first time since 2011, when he was a champion of the Formula Renault 3.5 series and served as test driver for the now defunct Manor Racing (then known as Marussia Virgin Racing).

Having spent every year since then in DTM, where he won a total of six races and finished as high as fourth in the championship (2016), Wickens knows returning to open wheel competition will be an adjustment. However, he explained that the history of Schmidt Peterson Motorsports, specifically its Indy Lights history, speaks to their ability to help a driver adapt, and he rates the program they’re putting together very highly.

“I think Schmidt Peterson Motorsports have a fantastic driver development program. They showed that in their multiple Indy Lights championships along the way. I think we will have a strong program in place. I have a feeling that the simulator will be my new best friend,” Wickens said when asked about getting reacquainted with an open-wheel car.

Of course, having an experienced teammate like Hinchcliffe to lean on will undoubtedly help the transition, something Wickens readily admitted.

“I’m very fortunate that I have James as my teammate because he’s so experienced, I can learn off him. Because we already have such a good off-track relationship, I feel like you can just take his word, trust him, kind of move forward with it,” he revealed.

They’ve been teammates before, both in karting where they first met in 2001, and then in the now-defunct A1 Grand Prix series in 2007-2008, a series that pitted nations against each other in spec open-wheel cars. Funnily, that A1GP type of vibe returns as Schmidt Peterson Motorsports now has that with its “Team Canada” mantra while all four of Andretti Autosport’s full-season drivers are American.

For Hinchcliffe, Wickens’ background, even if it hasn’t been in the single-seater realm since 2011, was a big selling point in adding him to the team.

“In Robby, we have a proven winner at a very high level. The level of technical expertise that he comes with from his time in DTM is very impressive,” he said of Wickens’ technical background.

Hinchcliffe added that Wickens’ ability to analyze the car and its setup was evidenced in two outings: one at Sebing International Raceway in March, in part of a “ride swap” between the two longtime friends, and a second at Road America, when he subbed on Friday practice for Mikhail Aleshin.

Wickens sampled Hinchcliffe’s No. 5 Arrow Electronics Honda earlier this year. Photo: IndyCar

Hinchcliffe revealed that Wickens’ feedback to the team and his ability to quickly adapt to the chassis took everyone somewhat by surprise.

“We did our ride swap. He had two hours in the car, hardly anything even resembling a test day, and his performance was pretty impressive. No doubt the time in Road America helped because that really gave us a better sense of his technical feedback, integrated with the team a little bit more. Everybody was happy to work with him on that day,” said Hinchcliffe.

Further still, Hinchcliffe is firm in his belief that the 2018 aero kit and its reduction in aerodynamic downforce will fall right into Wickens’ wheelhouse, based on Hinchcliffe’s own take after sampling Wickens’ DTM Mercedes earlier this year.

“In all honesty, I was saying earlier today, the 2018 car is probably better suited for him than the 2017 car because of the experience he’s had the last handful of series,” Hinchcliffe asserted.

“The (aero kit) was such high downforce, it would be a big change coming out of DTM. But with the loss of downforce that we’ve seen, the car is moving around a little bit more, brake zones, things like that, it won’t be as big a transition I think. Just based on the experience that I got in our ride swap, I think he’s going to adapt very quickly, be comfortable very quickly, and as a result be competitive very quickly. So it’s going to be exciting.”

As for expectations heading into next year, team co-owner Schmidt did not mince words and expects the team’s performance to resemble what they did in 2012, 2013, and 2014, when they won a total of four races (with driver Simon Pagenaud) and finished in the top five in the championship each year.

“We had a stint in ’12, ’13, ’14 where we finished fifth in the points (or better. I think we want to get back to that level of competition,” Schmidt added. “We felt like we were missing things in having two cars with equal funding and equal drivers and equal capabilities. We think this gets back there.”

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