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Why Steiner's departure is a big loss for Haas F1 team

The sudden departure of Guenther Steiner from the Haas Formula 1 team has come as a shock, despite the unprecedented turnover in team principals over the last couple of years.

In two years, all teams but Mercedes and Red Bull have changed their team principals. Steiner has joined Mattia Binotto, Jost Capito and Otmar Szafnauer (twice) on the list of those who were ousted in somewhat acrimonious circumstances, with director of engineering Ayao Komatsu taking over at Haas.

This unprecedented level of churn has made the sport look a little like football, where managers pay the price for a team's lack of form. In F1, there are many factors at play, and lead times are long as teams try to climb the grid. Nevertheless, team principals and technical directors are often held responsible for below-par performance.

The difference in Steiner's case is that, in many people's eyes, he was the Haas team. He built the outfit piece by piece from the germ of an idea, and its public perception was dominated by his larger-than-life personality.

Why Steiner embodied Haas

Steiner had worked at Jaguar and Red Bull before heading to the USA to start a composite business in North Carolina, the home of NASCAR. He watched with some interest as the doomed US F1 team crashed and burned at a facility just a few miles away, but that didn't deter him from putting together his own project.

Steiner came up with the idea of hooking up with Ferrari and taking everything allowed by the rules in terms of mechanical parts, thus reducing the need for in-house design and manufacturing resources, and making the project realistic.

The next step was to find someone to pay for it, and Haas – already successful in NASCAR and keen to grow his machine tool business worldwide – was the perfect candidate.

"Originally when we started off Guenther was proposing customer cars, back in 2009-10," Haas said as the project was coming together in 2015. "That never really worked out, but as time evolved, it was: 'Here's a different way of doing it, would you want to try it this way?'"

Gene Haas, Owner and Founder, Haas F1, Guenther Steiner, Team Principal, Haas F1

Photo by: Andy Hone / Motorsport Images

Gene Haas and Guenther Steiner during the 2022 F1 season

Stainer's achievement in putting the team together with a sound, long-term business plan should not be underestimated. He single-handedly made all the deals and went through a similar entry process with the FIA and F1 to what Michael Andretti has been so frustrated by.

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He also had to put together the personnel, initially calling on former Jaguar technical colleagues and hiring folk left stranded by the collapse of the Manor team, whose factory he bought as the UK base. And he convinced Romain Grosjean, a driver with 10 podiums to his name, to join the start-up project.

Although the Haas cars were on the penultimate row of the grid on their debut at the 2016 Australian GP, Grosjean drove a strong race to finish sixth, following up with fifth next time out in Bahrain.

Maintaining that form was always going to be a challenge, and over eight years, Haas bettered that result just once, with the Frenchman fourth at the Red Bull Ring in 2018 – the year the team achieved a remarkable fifth in the world championship. In every other season, the team has floated between eighth and 10th, its form sometimes dipping in seasons when supplier Ferrari had a poor year.

There were a few setbacks, notably the Rich Energy sponsorship fiasco in 2019 and the disastrous 2021 campaign with rookies Mick Schumacher and Nikita Mazepin – with the Russian funding subsequently backfiring due to the war in Ukraine.

Romain Grosjean, Haas VF-16

Photo by: Dirk Klynsmith / Motorsport Images

Haas had a memorable debut thanks to Romain Grosjean

However, the latest season left Gene Haas looking for answers after the team ended up last in the championship despite running two veteran drivers, Nico Hulkenberg and Kevin Magnussen. Ousting the boss seemed like the obvious solution.

Although he praised Steiner's "human-type approach", Gene Haas told the F1 website this week: "We had a tough end to the year. I don't understand that, I really don't. Those are good questions to ask Guenther, what went wrong? At the end of the day, it's about performance. I have no interest in being 10th anymore."

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Was Haas right to make this decision? Steiner has a solid engineering and technical background and a good understanding of what it takes to get the job done. A team principal is the person who inspires employees, is the organisation's public face for the media and perhaps most significantly fights its corner in dealings with the FIA, the F1 organisation and the other teams. Steiner ticked all of those boxes.

Haas hitting a glass ceiling

The bigger picture is that Gene Haas and Steiner have been at loggerheads in terms of how to move forward. This sport evolves at a rapid pace, and what worked when the team finished fifth in 2018 is no longer good enough.

Immediate rivals Sauber, Williams and AlphaTauri are making significant investment in infrastructure and personnel as they try to close the gap to those ahead, while Haas has been stagnating, its hands tied by its reliance on Ferrari and Dallara. The budget cap has forced all teams to ruthlessly pursue efficiency in order to cut R&D and manufacturing spend, but Haas is still committed to paying its main suppliers at a given price.

Alex Albon, Williams FW45, Valtteri Bottas, Alfa Romeo C43, Kevin Magnussen, Haas VF-23

Photo by: Andy Hone / Motorsport Images

Other small teams like Williams and Sauber have been pulling away from Haas

The former Manor factory in Banbury was just about fit for purpose when the team started in 2016. Allowing for the fact that manufacturing is done elsewhere, it has nevertheless fallen behind the times. Even the paddock hospitality facility is the most basic of any team.

Although he was always efficient with the budget granted to him, Steiner was keen to upgrade everything in an attempt to keep up. He was held back by Haas, with dissenting views on management and spending becoming obvious.

"We haven't exceeded the cap but we're pretty darn close to it. I just don't think we're doing a very good job of spending it in the most effective way," Haas said.

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Steiner was clearly getting frustrated by having his hands tied. Continuing despite regular disputes with the owner, being unable to pursue the changes he deemed necessary, was going to be difficult – to the point where he may perhaps even have been wondering whether he wanted to continue over the long term. In the end, Haas made the decision for him.

In retrospect, one could suggest he should have insisted on having a shareholding in the business when he was putting it together, because he might now be in for a big payday, given the value of team franchises. On the other hand, back in 2014, F1 teams were potential money pits, and he might have ended up facing a black hole of debt.

What now for Steiner?

A glass-half-full kind of guy, Steiner will quickly move on. As with Binotto and Szafnauer, it remains to be seen whether a team principal role will ever come his way again. Even if he were offered a management job elsewhere, he would never enjoy the level of overall responsibility and power that he had at Haas.

The high profile created by Netflix's Drive to Survive could open up all sorts of opportunities – he's already done some media punditry in NASCAR – and the F1 organisation would be wise to find him a role that keeps him in the paddock and in view of the Netflix cameras.

Meanwhile, Steiner still has his Fibreworks Composites business, which has been quietly expanding while its founder was busy with Haas. It now employs more people and has a more impressive infrastructure, than the F1 team he's just left. One thing is for sure – we haven't heard the last of him.

Guenther Steiner, Team Principal, Haas F1 Team

Photo by: Andy Hone / Motorsport Images

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