Esteban Gutierrez: Top 10s are target for Haas F1

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KANNAPOLIS, N.C.  – In a shiny, glass-plated conference room of the gleaming U.S. headquarters of newly christened Haas F1, Esteban Gutierrez confidently smiled through 36 minutes of talking firsts in Formula One.

The Mexican driver appropriately was flanked by a grainy wall mural illustrating inaugural series champion Giuseppe Farina’s victory in Formula One’s debut race at the legendary Silverstone in 1950.

Gutierrez, 24, doesn’t harbor the lofty ambitions to achieve those sorts of firsts in Haas F1’s introductory season.

But the former Ferrari test driver clearly believes he and teammate Romain Grosjean can make a splash in 2016 – boldly predicting top-10 contention out of the box for the startup team owned by Gene Haas.

“This is our target from the beginning,” Gutierrez said during a roundtable interview Tuesday with four Charlotte, North Carolina-based reporters. “We want to be there. Obviously we need to be careful on our expectations. It’s our first season.

“We are working really hard to get as prepared as possible.”

It’s more than two months from the March 20 season opener in Australia, but the preparations are well under way for Haas F1. The team already has shipped a container of equipment and pit support via sea freight to Australia for its debut (the cars will be flown separately to the circuit).

Before heading Down Under, a critical preseason test at the Circuit de Catalunya in Barcelona, Spain, will begin late next month.

Beyond just the opportunity to shake shaking down its cars for the first time, Haas F1 eagerly is anticipating the chance to size up its competition for the first time. While he has no illusions about racing with the Mercedes Gutierrez said he doesn’t have a sense yet of which teams he expects to battle to crack the top half of the field.

“It’s always difficult to say because we don’t know who is strongest or isn’t strong,” Haas F1 team principal Guenther Steiner said. “You’re trying to hit a moving target. We don’t know what they’re coming out with, so it’s always difficult to say who will be the competition or how good they are until you get to Spain. You get a good understanding there. You don’t get the complete picture (until) Australia.”

Gutierrez said the optics already are better at Haas F1 than for recent startup team failures and implosions such as HRT, Caterham and Marussia. Haas initially revealed his intentions to enter F1 in January 2014, and the co-owner of Stewart-Haas Racing, who is known in NASCAR for having a maverick streak, initially considered plunging into F1 within the year.

He elected instead to defer entry for another year and work to strengthen ties with Ferrari, which will supply the team’s engines, gearboxes and technical support.

After touring Haas’ facilities in Banbury, England, and Kannapolis, Gutierrez said prudence was the right move.

“It is a very different concept,” he said. “I think Guenther and Gene together have done a very good job, especially with preparing a long time and not precipitating things or doing things quickly in order to start as soon as possible.

“They have done things properly in putting in place a good structure of an engineering group and everything has been very important. They take their time to prepare things for the first season. We have a new team, so we need to be careful on what we can expect.”

Gutierrez is expecting more than what he produced during his first stint in F1. Two disappointing seasons at Sauber yielded only one top 10 (a seventh at Japan in October 2013) in 38 starts, and the Monterrey, Mexico, native believes Haas F1’s cars will be more reflective of his ability.

“Yes, but it’s more important to prove we can be a strong team together, and that we can be efficient and have a good development,” he said. “Also for me, obviously as a driver, it is important, but it doesn’t matter which level we are. You can always be proving as a driver that you can be consistent, and people know that from behind the scenes.

“I think at the beginning we need to focus more on finishing every lap and every race and having all the data accumulated, having good feedback, focusing on team integration in order to be consistent and minimize mistakes. Because there will, for sure, be some mistakes that we will do as a new team. We need to address them quickly.”

If the team can, it could secure Gutierrez’s second experience with achieving a successful first in America, where he already enjoys strong roots through family vacations to South Padre Island, Texas, and New York.

“I love it,” he said with a smile. “Of course. I’m a neighbor! My country is a neighbor. So from childhood, I’ve been visiting the U.S.”

It also was in this country where he began his professional career in earnest, finishing second in the Formula BMW USA Series with four victories and eight podiums.

“It represents a lot to me because (it was) the first year I drove a proper racing car in a racing series,” he said. “It was for a Canadian team, but it was in the U.S., and I feel very proud to be part of Haas’ project, which is an American team that has very big targets.

“I’m sure that together we will have a very good journey in the future.”


Toyota No. 8 car wins the 24 Hours of Le Mans for third consecutive year

24 Hours of Le Mans
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LE MANS, France — Toyota Gazoo’s No. 8 car comfortably won the 24 Hours of Le Mans by five laps Sunday to secure a third straight victory in the prestigious endurance race.

It was also a third consecutive win for Swiss driver Sebastien Buemi and Japan’s Kazuki Nakajima driving. Brendon Hartley was the other driver, having replaced two-time Formula One champion Fernando Alonso.

Buemi and Hartley sat on the side of the car as Nakajima drove toward the podium. Hartley won for a second time after tasting success with the Porsche LMP Team in 2017 before an unhappy season in Formula One.

The Swiss team’s Rebellion No. 1 featured American driver Gustavo Menezes and Brazilian Bruno Senna – the nephew of late F1 great Ayrton Senna.

It finished one lap ahead of Toyota Gazoo’s No. 7, with Rebellion’s No. 3 finishing in fourth place.

For much of the race it looked like Toyota’s No. 7 would win after leading comfortably from pole position. But late into the night the car encountered an engine problem and the 30-minute stop in the stands proved costly.

The race was first held in 1923. A total of 252,500 spectators attended in 2019, but there were none this year when the race started three months late because of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.

“We miss the fans,” New Zealander Hartley said. “I look forward to seeing all the fans again.”

In other divisions:

United Autosports won the LMP2 division with the entry of Filipe Albuquerque, Paul Di Resta and Phil Hanson.

–In LMGTE Pro, the victory was claimed by Aston Martin Vantage AMR of Maxime Martin, Alex Lynn and Harry Tincknell (who drives for Mazda in the DPi division of IMSA).

–TF Sport won the LMGTE Am class.

The Toyota No. 7 took pole after former F1 driver Kamui Kobayashi narrowly edged out the Rebellion No. 1 team in qualifying.

In damp and humid conditions Mike Conway got away cleanly from the start, while Senna held off Buemi.

After nearly seven hours, Toyota’s No. 8 fell back after a 10-minute stop in the stands to fix a brake-cooling problem on Kazuki Nakajima’s car. Rebellion’s No. 1, driven by Frenchman Norman Nato, took advantage to move into second place behind Toyota’s No. 7.

Then came the decisive moment at 2:40 a.m. as the No. 7 – also featuring Argentine Jose Maria Lopez – encountered a turbo problem. When the car came back out it was back in fourth.

“We had a few problems early in the race,” Nakajima said. “Later they had a bigger issue than us.”

Rebellion’s No. 1 encountered a problem on the hood at around 9 a.m. and the change took six minutes, allowing the Rebellion No. 3 (Nathanael Berthon-Louis Deletraz-Romain Dumas) to close the gap.

It was becoming a tight battle between the two Rebellion cars behind Toyota’s No. 8.

At 12 p.m. Rebellion No. 3 with Dumas behind the wheel was only one second ahead of No. 1 driven by Menezes. Then both cars came in for a driver change with Deletraz swapping for Dumas on a lengthy stop, and Nato for Menezes as Rebellion No. 1 suddenly moved ahead of its team rival.

Dumas, a winner in 2016 with Porsche, appeared unhappy at the strategy decision to bring his car in first and the length of the stop. There were tense explanations in the team garage.

Colombian Tatiana Calderon, an F1 test driver with Alfa Romeo, was in the Richard Mille Racing Team in the LMP2 category. She was joined by German Sophia Florsch – an F3 driver – and Dutchwoman Beitske Visser. They placed ninth out of 24 in their category.