America’s F1 team, Haas hopes to continue rebound from worst in helping U.S. growth

F1 Grand Prix of Miami - Opening Party
Dan Istitene - Formula 1/Formula 1 via Getty Images

MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. — Most Americans know Haas F1 as the worst team in Formula One, its drop to the back of the grid playing out over four seasons that happened to be captured on Netflix programming.

But that was before the debut of this year’s new car, a makeover forced by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and a super fast engine from Ferrari. Now Haas is turning heads and scoring points, and hopes to convince the audience at the inaugural Miami Grand Prix that it is America’s team.

“We absolutely are America’s team. We’ve got the American license, there is not many companies more American than Haas Automation and Gene Haas,” said Guenther Steiner, the team principal of Haas F1 and resident of Mooresville, North Carolina – the heart of NASCAR country.

Steiner found himself amidst the stock cars and oval tracks when Haas, the California businessman and founder of a machine-building company, decided he wanted to take Haas Automation global. He’d already reached the top of NASCAR when he brought in Tony Stewart as co-owner of Stewart-Haas Racing and won a Cup Series title, and Haas figured placing the Haas Automation logos on F1 cars as they raced all across the globe would broaden the brand.

The business strategy has been a winner for Haas’ machine company. The racing, however, has been daunting since he purchased the assets of the collapsed Marussia F1 team.

Haas’ debut was delayed a year from 2015 to 2016, and what started as a midpack organization gradually faded out of contention. When the pandemic hit ahead of the 2020 season opener, Steiner and Haas made a decision among the uncertainty to pause spending.

Their plan was to wait out the 2022 regulations and development of a new car. Then Haas dumped veteran drivers Romain Grosjean and Kevin Magnussen and replaced them with a pair of rookies who didn’t stand a chance last season in a car not capable of competing.

Mick Schumacher and Nikita Mazepin didn’t score a single point combined, the rookies didn’t get along, and Mazepin was widely criticized for even being in the seat; his father’s Russian fertilizer company, Uralkali, was Haas’ primary sponsor.

“It was very difficult and Gene told me after a few races, four or five, he said, `Guenther, you told me we’d be bad, but actually it’s really bad,’ ” Steiner recalled. “And I said, `I knew this was coming and we’re only a quarter of the way through the season and there’s a lot more disappointments to come.’

“But it’s very tough, tough for everybody. The least affected was probably the drivers because they were rookies, and for them, being in Formula One was already a plus. But for the rest of the team? Being last is a lot more work than being first. It’s unbelievable.”

The belief was always that the 2022 regulations would help Haas improve. But Haas is also a Ferrari customer, and Ferrari was on target to be a much better team – Charles LeClerc is the current championship leader – and its engines would give Haas a dramatic boost.

The plan seemed to have worked when the cars hit the track for preseason testing. Haas was fast.

And then everything unraveled when Russia invaded Ukraine.

Gene Haas could not keep Uralkali on his cars – Dimitri Mazepin is an associate of President Vladimir Putin – and the logos were stripped off. After a week of uncertainty, Haas cut ties with both Mazepin and his father’s company.

It should have been a disaster. It instead has been the surprise of the season.

Steiner called Magnussen, who had vowed to never return to F1 as he raced in the United States last year, and offered him his job back.

Magnussen was on vacation in Miami when he took the call, which lasted only a couple minutes. Now he’s out of sports cars – he drove for Chip Ganassi in IMSA last season – and back where he wanted to be. The Danish driver was fast in preseason testing and a jaw-dropping fifth in the season opener and has scored 15 points so far this season. Schumacher, the son of F1 great Michael Schumacher, has yet to score points but has a veteran alongside him to help.

Schumacher said it wasn’t difficult knowing he’d likely be last every race last season and it helped him grow.

“I was still excited racing, my first year, and it’s a matter of thinking long-term,” Schumacher said. “The tough days are the ones where your character gets shaped and as a driver you can really try and make a difference.”

Three months after Steiner interrupted his vacation, Magnussen has settled back into F1. He wants to help Haas show that it can be America’s team, and they race Sunday for the team owner, who said Wednesday his mother, Margaret, had died.

“She loved NASCAR and, especially, Stewart-Haas Racing, and since Haas F1’s team’s debut, she became a Formula One fan, too,” Haas said in a statement. “We compete in her honor and are forever guided by her principle and spirit.”

Max Verstappen, Sergio Perez and Formula One embrace the United States

Verstappen Perez United States
Jared C. Tilton / Getty Images

Last week, Red Bull Racing revealed their new car, the RB19, and a new relationship with US-based Ford Motors in a press event in New York City complete with drivers Max Verstappen, Sergio Perez and Team Principle Christian Horner. They are the only Formula 1 team to launch in the United States, but even that small move of the needle reflects a major shift in the attitude of both F1’s management and their teams – and the extent to which the American audience has fully embraced the sport.

“It’s something fantastic and unique, for the sport to be able to break it into the U.S,” Perez told NBC Sports. “The market is huge and it’s a huge opportunity for everyone involved, for the drivers, for the team. It’s always a huge market.”

Verstappen Perez United States
Sergio Perez finished fourth in the Unites States Grand Prix, but he was first with the fans.  – Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images

In 2023, Formula 1 will race three times in the United States and five times in North America. The Circuit of the Americas will host their 11th consecutive race in October before heading south to Mexico City. Miami returns for a second time in May on a temporary street course around the Hard Rock cafe and the third addition is in downtown Las Vegas in November.

With the Canadian Grand Prix on the schedule for June and the Brazilian Grand Prix in November, American fans are now in the ballpark of Europeans, who have eight events on the continent and one in England.

In 2022, Verstappen won every race in North America. He was kept from sweeping the hemisphere only by George Russell, who won in Brazil. That fact is less remarkable when one considers that Verstappen won 15 times in the season – nearly two-thirds of the races on the schedule.

By the time Formula arrived in Austin for Round 20 of 23, Verstappen had already wrapped up his second consecutive championship.

“Sometimes it can be hard to replicate the season, but I think it’s the same as with the car, right? You always try to improve it,” Verstappen told NBC Sports. “And I always look at the little details that even when you have had a good race, you could have done better. And then of course you also learn from the bad races. So we always try to look for these little improvements and general experience you gain year after year.

“You try to do better, but of course it also depends a lot on the package you have.”

Verstappen Perez United States
Max Verstappen United States Grand Prix win was one of 15 for the drivers and 17 for Red Bull.
(Gongora / NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Now Verstappen’s thoughts will inevitably turn to establishing a dynasty – and America will again play a pivotal role.

“I just enjoy what I’m doing,” Verstappen said.  “After the years in Formula One, when you have to be on top of your game and you gain a lot on your experience – in that sense nothing really can get to you anymore. Every year you just try to do the best you can. But a lot depends on the material around you. It’s always a bit of a guess. Start the season as fit as you can be and be well prepared. But if you don’t have the car, you’re not going to win the championship.”

Perez added two wins to Red Bull’s total, at Monaco and the Marina Bay Street course. With two of the US 2023 races on street courses, Perez hopes to close the gap on Verstappen and potentially be his principle rival for the championship.

“The strategy is clear; it is to maximize the potential of the car – and we believe we have a good car, but how good?,” Perez said “We don’t know what the competition is doing. We just give our best in building this car and we hope that it’s good enough to get us to win races.

“I think we have to work together as a team. At the same time. We both want to win the championship. It’s just having good compromise. The competition will be really strong out there, so we really need everything we possibly can get from each other.”

Formula One returns to the United States for Round 6 and the Miami Grand Prix on May 7.