Gene Haas is set to visit Lotus F1 Team’s base at Enstone in England next week with a possible view to buying the outfit, according to a report broken by Sky Sports today.
The NASCAR team owner won the race to secure a place on the grid for 2015, and confirmed his plans for Haas Formula at a press conference last month. Former Red Bull technical director Gunther Steiner is poised to work as team principal, and the initial plan was for the team to be run from the United States, with a support base being set up in Italy due to possible links with Ferrari and Dallara.
However, with at least four of the teams facing financial uncertainty, it has been questioned why Haas does not buy one of them. That way, he would already have a workforce in place and some world class facilities, which he could then tailor to his liking.
It would also negate the problem of running a team from the United States for what is a largely European sport. Nine of the 19 races on the 2014 calendar take place in Europe, with just two in North America.
Lotus has been blighted with financial problems over the past two years, and this has resulted in a steady exodus of staff that has seen the team downsize by 20%. Most notably, team principal Eric Boullier left at the beginning of the year to join McLaren, and star driver Kimi Raikkonen walked away after going unpaid for much of 2013, and joined Ferrari.
The financial problems have been eased by finance courtesy of Pastor Maldonado’s backers, PDVSA, but the future is still uncertain.
Haas has previously been keen on making it a truly American team and starting from scratch, and despite many critics including Johnny Herbert and John Watsom, he is confident that he can make it work.
“As time goes on, we’ll learn,” Haas said last month. “We’ll figure it out, and the car will eventually evolve into our own car – and quite frankly, I think we can beat the Europeans at their own game.
“I’m sure most people are betting that we will fail, and that’s why it’s going to be successful, because if we don’t fail, then we’ve done something that other people haven’t. And that will definitely help sell Formula 1 in the U.S.”
“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 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.”