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.”