Gunther Steiner interview: How to become an F1 team principal

Being the team principal of a Formula 1 team is arguably one of motorsport’s toughest jobs and certainly one of its most prestigious, making all the big decisions in the day-to-day running of a team.

Gunther Steiner interview: How to become an F1 team principal

Gunther Steiner has led Haas F1 Team since it entered the championship in 2016, and has worked in motorsport for over 35 years.

But what does it take to become a team boss?

We spoke to Steiner to find out what qualifications you need, what skills you should have, and everything else you need to know.

What is a team principal?

I think you have to see it like a CEO in a company – you run the team. Formula 1 has got a lot of elements in it, it’s a big mix of different things. It’s technical, it’s marketing, it’s sporting, there’s a lot of things involved and you just need to adapt whatever you’re doing at the moment, trying to be as knowledgeable as possible and make the right decisions.

What does a team principal do?

Basically it’s running a company, we are a small team but the bigger teams are companies with 500 people, we are about 200. It’s nothing else than that, and then on the weekends, we go racing. Instead of having your quarterly review by the board, you have got it every week, that is what you’re judged on. You are just as good as your last race, just like a CEO is just as good as his last quarter of the financial year. That is a very short answer as to what it is.

How do you become a team principal?

I don’t know how I did it, you know! Everybody’s got a different story. I can tell you my story, but everybody has got a different story. I started in motorsport 36 years ago now, so just one thing came to another. You move yourself up.

To get into the Haas team principal position, I went around and tried to find an investor for a new team seven years ago, found an investor, and then ended up becoming the team principal. It maybe sounds too simplistic but I think obviously you need to know the sport, you need to know the people, you need to know the environment.

Like I said, everybody has a different story to how they became team principal, it’s not like you go to a school like with a normal job and then you make your career – you’re working somewhere and then you move your way up, things like this. I think everybody here has got their own story to say. There’s no one way to become team principal. What you need to do is to be very willing to work and have a big interest in motorsport. I guess it’s also very demanding, you have to work quite a lot, it’s a 24-hours-a-day job, to be honest, and seven days a week.

I started in 1986 as a mechanic in rallying. I left my homeplace, I went from Italy to Belgium, because I liked racing cars, and for me that was a starting point. From there, I did various technical positions. I was in Belgium for two years, then I worked for a team in Italy for three years, then I worked for another team in Italy for six years. I moved to the UK in 1996 and started a custom team for Prodrive, which is a big company still. Then I became the project manager for the Ford Focus rally car, then I moved up to be technical director there.

Then I got a call from Niki Lauda when he was the team principal of Jaguar Formula 1 team, and that’s where my F1 career started. I was the general manager at Jaguar, after that I did a year in DTM for General Motors Opel at the time, then I moved to Red Bull F1 team which is what Jaguar had become and was technical director there. I moved to the US for Red Bull to open up their NASCAR team in the States and stayed there.

Niki Lauda Jaguar Team Principal with Gunther Steiner Jaguar Technical Director, 2002 United States Grand Prix

Niki Lauda Jaguar Team Principal with Gunther Steiner Jaguar Technical Director, 2002 United States Grand Prix

Photo by: Sutton Images / Motorsport Images

I spent five years opening up my own company which I’ve still got, a composites business, and then I had the great idea – I don’t know how great it was – to have an American F1 team. I wrote a business plan and found an investor, I went around and found investors, and I’ve been at Haas now for seven years.

What experience do you need?

I think it was different days [when I was starting my career], 36 years ago it was different times, you cannot compare it with today. I wouldn’t suggest for anyone to do what I did, if somebody wants to get into motorsport it’s getting a degree. If you want to do technical stuff it’s getting a degree focused on engineering and then specialising in motorsport, that obviously helps. You need to be good as well, you’re starting not just having it as a piece of paper. If you’re interested there is law people involved in motorsport, there are marketing people, just do your studies.

I think the first thing is always when you are young, you’ve got a lot of energy, you start in a small team in motorsport because you learn a lot because you have to do a lot, because the small teams – not even Formula 3, even smaller series, Formula 4, private touring cars teams and things like this – they’re a good training ground for getting a good base and good knowledge of how it actually works, so you get an understanding to move up. If you come in straight to F1, you think that’s the reality, but F1 is very specific to a job. If you have got a broader picture, it’s much better for your career, I always think. If you know what’s happening in the big picture, you can move forward, but if you just specialise in something you are somehow trapped – either that works or nothing works.

So I always find starting on the side, even volunteering for a small racing team as an engineer or something, it helps a lot to learn and to move on in life.

What other skills are useful?

I think in F1, you need to be quick at making decisions, because it’s a very fast moving business sport, so you need to be sharp and develop that by working in motorsport, because if you know what you’re dealing with, you can make decisions, because you have seen the situation before and you’re qualified.

Obviously communication – you deal with a lot of people from different countries, knowing the cultures, knowing languages helps a lot as well. Just these things and knowing cultures so you can estimate how other people think, because not everybody thinks the same. It helps you to get along and make progress in your career and also to be part of something, but that is not only in F1, that is in general – if you want to be part of an industry, you need to have good social skills as well.

You need to have a lot of passion for motorsport if you want to do this. This is not a job. If you do it for the money, there are a lot of jobs which pay you more that you don’t have to work as hard at. So it needs to be a passion, you need to be interested and really like it otherwise there’s no point, you’d come here and be leaving in a few years.

Gunther Steiner, Team Principal, Haas F1, on the pit wall

Gunther Steiner, Team Principal, Haas F1, on the pit wall

Photo by: Andy Hone / Motorsport Images

What is the best career advice you’ve been given or can give?

Just work hard. Always be correct and always be fair. Nothing else. A good working attitude and fairness. Don’t lie. Just keep on going.

How can I get work experience as a team principal?

As I said before, as a team principal there are so many different careers here. Some people have no technical background, some have a bit, some are team owners from minor racing series. So it’s very difficult to say what they should specialise in. There are only 10 team principals in the world, that is not many. I think a lot of it is being in the right place at the right time.

Anything you do, if you do it passionately and correctly, you have a chance to get there.

What does a normal day at work look like for you?

We have got three different places we work from – one in Italy, one in the US and one in England – so my office would be in the States. But I normally on a Monday travel back to the States, I travel somewhere, like for the summer I stayed in Europe. But now with COVID I base myself in the place I’ve got in Italy, so I work out of there. It is not like going to the office, you’re always in the office. I’ve got my office in the airport as well, I work from my laptop – where my laptop is, is my office. We are all over the place, but I just work like any other person. On Mondays, you go to a normal job, and then on the race weekends, you go to the race track. You get there on Thursday or Wednesday night, and then you do media stuff.

What does a race day look like for you?

A normal race day – it’s not normal yet with COVID – but on a normal race day, in the morning you’d do your meetings, your briefings, you take part in them, you don’t do them, just listen to what is discussed with the drivers in the engineers. Then you do some press stuff, various things which are lined up. Then, if you have a good car, you really look forward to the race, if you have got a bad car, you cannot wait until it’s over. That’s how race day goes.

In general, you do this job to go racing, and the race is on Sunday. That’s what you look forward to. During the race, I don’t do a lot. I speak with the chief race engineer a little bit but they’ve got all the control. I always feel if I have to interject during the race, I’ve hired the wrong people. If I need to run the race, that job is a job in itself – a team principal cannot do it in my opinion. You know, you’re aware of what is happening, and if they ask you, you normally know what is happening, but I don’t interfere with them. They do a good job and also, they do the hard work, and for me coming in at the last minute to do what I want to do wouldn’t be correct. I would have the wrong people if I have to correct them. They can make mistakes, and if I tell them something I see, they would take my advice, but I’m not interjecting myself into the race.

Gunther Steiner, Team Principal, Haas F1 speaks to the media

Gunther Steiner, Team Principal, Haas F1 speaks to the media

Photo by: Andy Hone / Motorsport Images

What else should people know about the life of a team principal?

It’s quite stressful sometimes. I’m not complaining about the job, it is a good job, because if you like motorsport that is what you want to become at some stage. But it is a lot of hard work. You need to have your family around you and they need to understand, because if you have got issues from more than one place – there’s enough issues with running an F1 team, so you don’t need any distractions from outside. It’s a tough job but it’s a very fulfilling job. At the moment it’s not very fulfilling, because we’re not fighting for a lot, but that time will come again and I’m sure about it, that’s what we work towards. You can never give up, if you’re down, it’s not how you get down, it’s how you get up again. That’s how I see it.

This article was created in partnership with Motorsport Jobs. Find the latest jobs in motorsport, as well as jobs with the Haas F1 Team, on the Motorsport Jobs website.

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