Haas rules with head, not heart, by passing on Rossi

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Over the past few years, Formula 1 has enjoyed a rapid resurgence in popularity in the United States, largely thanks to the establishment of a grand prix at the Circuit of The Americas in Austin, Texas.

COTA’s arrival was a breakthrough ‘moment’ for the sport in the United States, which had traditionally been its ‘problem child’ market. The collapse of the race at Indianapolis in 2007 made many think that F1 simply couldn’t crack the American market.

We are now on the cusp of a second ‘moment’ for F1 in the USA: an American team will be racing in 2016, courtesy of NASCAR team co-owner Gene Haas.

Haas F1 Team won the race to join the grid back in 2014, and opted to delay its entry until 2016 so it could prepare accordingly. A technical partnership with Ferrari is in place, whilst facilities in Kannapolis, North Carolina, and Banbury, England are up and running.

The third ‘moment’ many anticipated was the arrival of an American driver on the grid. This, however, looks unlikely to happen in 2016, after Haas’ deputy Günther Steiner revealed that the team wanted drivers with prior F1 experience, thus ruling out the few American candidates.

Fans will not be seeing an American driver racing for an American team at the United States Grand Prix next October as many had hoped.

But in reality, it could be better this way.

ROSSI, EVER THE NEARLYMAN

If any American is to end the eight-year drought since Scott Speed made his final F1 appearance, it will be Alexander Rossi. The former Caterham and Marussia reserve driver came close to making his full debut in the sport on a number of occasions in 2014, with outings in Belgium and Abu Dhabi never coming to fruition due to the financial difficulties being faced by Marussia.

Rossi made the decision to return to GP2 for 2015 with Racing Engineering, and has enjoyed his best season to date. A solid start to the season was followed up with victories in Belgium and Italy, placing him second in the drivers’ championship. He may trail runaway championship leader Stoffel Vandoorne by 108 points, but he looks poised to finish the year as vice-champion.

Rossi has always been an option for Haas. Early talks were held back in 2014, with more following this year. Had it not been for Ferrari’s technical partnership, then he may well have got the nod. Many drivers would be uneasy about joining a new start-up – look what happened with Jacques Villeneuve at BAR in 1999 – but with Ferrari backing, Haas isn’t going to be another Caterham, Marussia or HRT.

What Rossi has done in 2015 is put forward a strong case as a racing driver – not an ‘American racing driver’. He has showcased his talents, with his finest hour coming at Monza last weekend as he battled from eighth on the grid to win the race. Haas may have passed over him, but that doesn’t mean others will. And Rossi knows this.

“My goal has always been to drive in F1,” Rossi said last month. “It hasn’t been a dream with a specific team, it has been to get on the race grid and to prove myself that I deserve to be in the championship.

“Obviously any opportunity that comes my way that allows me that opportunity is one that I’ll welcome with open arms.”

And it will come one day. Had Haas hired him and struggled from the word go, it could have done Rossi’s career more damage than good. He may have to bide his time a little longer, but at 23, the American’s future remains very bright.

HEAD OVER HEART

The appeal of having an American driver racing for an American team will not have been lost on Gene Haas when he came to think about his 2016 line-up. He and team principal Günther Steiner will have known that the grandstands in Austin would have been awash with Rossi/Haas shirts, cheering for the Californian.

But what Haas has instead done is something quite rare in the modern sport. He has decided to hire the best two drivers for the job.

Isn’t it logical? Why would you settle for anything other than the best? Of course, commercial factors are key in F1. Looking at the 20 drivers currently racing, it is difficult to argue that these are the best 20 for the job. Ultimately, if a pay driver can keep the team afloat, they will get a drive over a quicker but poorer driver.

Rossi is a highly talented driver. However, he is not the best driver on offer to Haas. A team in its rookie season needs experience, and due to the saturated nature of the sport’s driver market, there is no shortage of eligible drivers on offer.

Nico Hulkenberg was at the top of Haas’ hit-list, and talks were held before the German opted to sign a new deal with Force India. Now, Romain Grosjean is being courted amid the uncertain future of Lotus F1 Team. Should the Frenchman decide enough is enough at Enstone, he could possibly join Haas for 2016.

Esteban Gutierrez seems to be a shoe-in for one of the seats. The Mexican driver has two years of F1 experience with Sauber, another year in a reserve role with Ferrari, and also brings a good deal of sponsorship from Mexican telecommunications giant Telmex.

Jean-Eric Vergne is another option for Haas, given that he is also a Ferrari development driver. The Frenchman was unfortunate to lose his Toro Rosso seat for 2015 in the fashion he did, and arguably should have been given more time by Red Bull. His talents are still clear to see in Formula E, and he would be another fine choice.

A curveball option could be McLaren’s Kevin Magnussen. The Dane spent one year racing with the team in 2014 before taking a step back to make way for Fernando Alonso, but could yet replace Jenson Button for 2016. However, if McLaren was to either keep Button or move Vandoorne – also on its books – straight into a seat alongside Alonso, Magnussen may decide a future away from Woking is the best choice.

Put yourself in Gene Haas’ shoes and pick the two best drivers from a shortlist of Gutierrez, Grosjean, Vergne, Magnussen and Rossi. It is evident to see why the team has ruled him out.

WHEN WILL AN AMERICAN BREAK THROUGH?

This is the big question that is still unanswered. Just when will an American driver break through and line up on the F1 grid?

For the time being, Rossi remains the best bet. His next move from 2016 will be intriguing given the lack of seats available in F1 – really, his only option would be Manor. IndyCar was where he was looking to race in 2015 before the Racing Engineering deal came about, and could be an option once again. The booming FIA World Endurance Championship is also becoming a choice for many drivers.

A reserve role with Haas may still be an option for Rossi. To roll him out in front of the booming crowd at COTA next October would go down a treat, and other practice opportunities across the course of the year would most probably be tied in. He could then become an option for the future should the elected partnership change after a season.

The other youngster linked with the Haas seat, albeit completely from left-field, was Josef Newgarden – he’s young, he’s American, he’s quick – the shoe must fit! He does however still lack an FIA super licence even after his superb 2015 campaign with CFH Racing.

Newgarden has a bright future ahead of him in IndyCar. He did race in GP3 back in 2010 before moving into Indy Lights, so racing in Europe isn’t something he is a stranger to. He would have to do an enormous amount to stand out in F1 like he already does in IndyCar, though.

Further down the ranks, junior drivers such as Ryan Tveter and TJ Fischer fly the flag, and it will be interesting to see how their careers develop over the next few years. Both are talents to keep an eye on.

CHALLENGES AHEAD

Challenge one was a race in America. Challenge two was an American team. Challenge three is an American driver. Given we had none of those back in 2011, two out of three isn’t bad.

After these years of rise, though, the focus must now turn to defending what has been gained. The arrival of the Mexican Grand Prix is great for F1, giving it a foothold in one of its biggest market. However, it is bound to have some kind of impact on Austin.

Thousands of Mexican fans made the trip over to cheer on home favorites Gutierrez and Sergio Perez last year. Will they do the same if they have a race in Mexico City just one week later? 2015 will yield some interesting answers.

There is also a big challenge for Haas as well. He said that he wanted to spark interest in F1 in the United States like the USWNT did with its soccer World Cup win earlier this year.

Without an American driver, though, this could be more challenging. There is a base in Kannapolis, but the team will primarily function out of Banbury in England. The chassis is being made in Italy, where there are also close ties with Ferrari. To make an assumption, the drivers will be Mexican and French.

So just how American will America’s F1 team be? That is a question Haas must answer if he is to truly help the sport in cracking the U.S. market.