Haas, Rossi – F1 Dreams Down 2 Paths (updated)

American Formula 1 fans, along with the Haas F1 Team are enjoying the 2015 formula 1 season with a sense of detached optimism. Next year, we’ll show em…

The most popular discussion topic among  American Formula 1 andrace fans this season has been Alexander Rossi. As the only  American with a F1 Super License,  the general consensus was that Rossi should be driving the new Haas F1 car.  Haas was quick to quell speculation about Rossi by stating that they would not hire a “rookie” driver.  Rossi did spend a stint with the Caterham F1 team in 2013 as a reserve driver. He did see action in that car, but only in practice,  he did not race.

Yesterday, Alexander Rossi was announced as the new driver for the Manor Formula 1 team. This was confirmation to many Americans that the opportunity for an American driver in an American car has been lost. But first let us consider the needs of the Haas F1 Team.

The Haas Team are still in the process of designing and building their 2016 race car.  There are no templates in F1, every car is built from the ground up and is completely unique unto itself.  The Haas car has never run around a track yet. Every second of testing time is extremely valuable to the team. As they begin testing on March 1, 2016, Haas needs a driver that can hit the ground running. The driver in the Haas car will be required to provide critical feedback and input to both the design and race engineers. Gene Haas does not need “drivers” right now, he needs test pilots.  And Alexander Rossi needs to get some flying time in his log book before he can add value to the engineering development side of the house. The Haas F1 car that will line up for the 2016 Australian Grand Prix should be a much different car than the one they test in March. And the drivers development ability will decide the breath of that jump .

Alexander Rossi’s assignment to the Manor F1 team this week is the result of his surge up the GP2 grid. His win in the Belgian Grand Prix at Spa Francorchamps and the Italian Grand Prix at Monza literally propelled Rossi’s name back to the top of the public’s  “Haas short list”…  After his wins at Monza and Spa the buzz was almost deafening. The obvious expectation was that Rossi would be hired by Haas. But what is obvious to the fan does not necessarily resolve the engineering challenges the team faces. After Monza older reports from Haas resurfaced, iterating their need for an experienced driver,  the team’s position was clear. Haas would pass on Rossi for now, they need an experienced test pilot.

The Manor Formula 1 Team saw the opportunity with Alexander Rossi, and did not hesitate. Rossi will be displacing Spanish driver Roberto Mehri  for the remaining 5 races in the 2015 season, including the Unites States Grand Prix. An American will be lining up on the grid at the Circuit of The Americas on October 25th.  The Manor seat should not be seen as a trial for Haas, as some in social media have stated. The performance of the Manor F1 car will be a huge frustration to both Rossi and the American race fans. It will take some luck for the team to score points. But the upside to Alexander Rossi far outweighs any risk. If Rossi continues to improve he will become a commodity and other teams will want him.

As the sole American driver in Formula 1, Rossi has become the poster-boy for Formula 1 in the United States. Americans will love having a team, but are a sucker for a face. With nearly 300 million Americans, most see all open wheel cars as Indy cars.  At some point, every  American F1 fan is faced with the task of explaining the differences between the Indy Car and Formula 1. It is not an easy distinction to convey some times.  But put a good looking young American into a European racing car, on American soil, and the options for educating Americans arise. Alexander Rossi will be participating in the United States Grand Prix at Circuit Of The Americas on October 25th.

Alexander Rossi will attract corporate sponsorship from an American corporation. The NBC broadcast team will want to highlight his performance during commentary. This guaranteed attention is exactly the endorsement  venue  a sponsor is looking for.  The American Formula 1 market can only be described as an emerging market and Rossi is the first to catch air! The decision by Manor Formula 1 to tap out Alexander Rossi can only pay off with a new sponsor.  He’s a great driver, so there is no down side for Manor or Rossi.

On the other hand, The Haas F1 Team is still up in the air about their driver line up, or are they? News about the driver lineup from Haas has been oozing out , like honey slowly dripping away from the hive.

Gene Haas’s  approach to his Formula 1 team is probably more aligned with how he runs Haas Automation as opposed to his Stewart-Haas NASCAR team.  Unlike other Formula 1 teams, Haas F1 turned to Italian chassis manufacturer Dallara to facilitate their manufacturing. He is relying upon Ferrari for every possible component the regulations will allow. But Ferrari provides much more than just an engine or technical components. The team, it’s culture and working methodologies are far more important to Haas F1 than anyone can realize.  When the Haas F1 car races down the grid in Australia next April, it will represent the quantitative work effort of the team. Often over looked is the culture within the team, and how they do business.

The Haas F1 team has already selected their first driver. He is Esteban Gutierrez.Guiteriez tweet...  Gene Haas has been using best in class for all of his partnership choices. His engineering staff are fully responsible for the design and manufacturing of his F1 car chassis.  Haas F1 has a unique arrangement with chassis manufacturer Dallara. The Haas Team has access to the assets, manufacturing techniques and most importantly, the skilled crafts men and women of Dallara. They have become the chassis manufacturing extension for Hass F1.  Dallara will continue to manufacture all chassis components for the team including upgrades and replacement parts. Haas has also partnered with Ferrari for his engine, and any other scrap of value he can absorb. Gene Haas himself is a world-class engineer and has owned a NASCAR race team since 2002. Surely there has been an F1 learning curve for Gene Haas, but he is already fluent in 80% of the stuff that is standard in any garage in any racing series. But what does this have to do with confirmation of Gutierrez as their first driver?

Haas has taking a best of breed approach to his team. A best of breed approach is usually coupled with a strong  cultural component. the intent is to enforce a defined set of strategic values and disciplines that payoff. It speaks to the importance that Gene Haas has placed on the makeup and culture of his team. As the Ferrari reserve driver, Esteban Gutierrez brings much more than his driving skills to the team. Guitierrez has been working with Ferrari! He is not the same driver now as before he arrived. When Esteban joins the Haas team he will be bringing his raised expectations for “how things are done” at Ferrari. Experience derived in  Maranello Italy is of great value and is something that no rookie brings.

But there has been no announcement about the selection of Esteban Gutierrez by Haas Formula 1. Well here is where we need to connect the dots a bit and all the facts add up. The team has stated that they are using a Ferrari reserve driver. But there are no hard reports or confirmations. The piece that seals it for me comes from Esteban Gutierrez himself. On the Tuesday after the Italian Grand Prix in Monza, he posted this Tweet:

When I add these things up there is no question that Esteban Gutierrez is the first driver for Haas Formula 1.

The second driver is still in play. There is a lot of outside pressure on the team to hint to their second driver. As it stands there are no drivers available. But the Fortunes of Formula 1 can shift very quickly. We are still waiting to see what happens with Lotus. In an article last week I explained why Ranault will not buy Lotus F1. Depending on the disposition of the team, driver Romain Grosjean may become available.  Romain has clearly improved as a F1 driver since joining the series. His experience at Lotus would be invaluable. to Haas, and he can Win!

The other name worth throwing into play for the second seat is Jensen Button. The McLaren F1 team is in a very bad place. I believe Haas is trying to avoid the exact types of cultural McLaren is experiencing. There was question lase year about Buttons seat, but he won out. But Jensen night just be interested in an American team.

You might recall, the Mobil 1 commercial with NASCAR driver Tony Stewart and Jensen Button in his McLaren driving suit.  So a connection between Gene Haas and Jensen Button already exists. With the grumblings coming out of Woking UK, a Button flight would not surprise anyone.

As the new kids on the block, Haas F1 needs to wait for other teams to move before his second becomes clear.  As we get closer to the first testing session on March 1, 2016 the anticipation will build.

But last night Romain Grosjean said he knows where he will be driving, but cannot announce it. If it was Lotus F1 the announcement would have been instant…  Jean Eric Vergne is still the final fallback driver.  The team is taking form!

Update – 9/18/2015
There have been some recent updates.

It turns out that Jensen Button will not be driving for Haas next year. I don’t think I’m far from the crown when i say he is probably taking a good long look at WEC, and he’s been chatting with Mark Weber. Life in the Porsche Compound is probably not too bad!

Romain Grosjean is looking more and more like the fit for The Haas F1 Team. Regardless of what happy at Lotus F1, the trusting friendly hand shake of Mr. Haas was probably very comforting! Aside from being a world-class engineer, Championship Team Owner and automotive authority, he is a gentleman. And when you add it all up, what is there to think about. The Americans have relied upon the French in previous other startups, why not now? Romain Goasgean will be welcomed by American race fans. He’s a nice guy and can drive the crap out of an F1 car… SOLD!

Jean Eric Vergne is still a strong possibility for the Haas F1 Team. Haas might not be the only team on the market for Grosjean,  We can’t assume that  Mr. Haas has bottomless pockets.  Time will tell, and it will be his story to tell.  BUT… if another team makes Groajean “an offer he can’t refuse”, he may keep his brains and sign for more money!!!  and I think that’s Vergns’s best shot, and the target is fading every day!