MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. (AP) — Most Americans know Haas 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 mid-pack 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 last 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 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. The tough days are the ones where your character gets shaped and as a driver you can really try and make a difference,” Schumacher said.
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.”
More AP auto racing: https://apnews.com/apf-AutoRacing and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports