Chapter and verse with Haas team prin­ci­pal Guen­ther Steiner

F1 Racing (UK) - - CONTENTS -

Two din­ners have shaped the des­tiny of Guen­ther Steiner’s life in mo­tor­sport. The first, with his child­hood hero Niki Lauda, led to his move into For­mula 1. The sec­ond, with busi­ness mag­nate and team owner Gene Haas, led to his cur­rent role run­ning Haas F1. So what bet­ter way to talk through Steiner’s fas­ci­nat­ing life and ca­reer than an­other din­ner?

When you travel to 21 grands prix a sea­son, there are reg­u­lar haunts you find your­self re­turn­ing to year after year. One of th­ese is Il Sole di Capri – a small Ital­ian restau­rant on a side street of the Bel­gian town of Spa, which is al­ways buzzing with F1 peo­ple dur­ing grand prix week­ends. One night you might see Da­mon Hill chat­ting to Paul Di Resta; the next, Car­los Sainz re­lax­ing with his fam­ily. And tonight it’s the Haas F1 team prin­ci­pal cast­ing his eye over the pizza menu.

Since their ar­rival in F1 in 2016, Haas have made sig­nif­i­cantly greater progress than their three ‘new team’ pre­de­ces­sors, Manor, Cater­ham and HRT, all of which are now de­funct. The way Haas have gone about rac­ing – ac­quir­ing from Fer­rari those parts of an F1 car that can legally be shared – means they have changed the model of what is pos­si­ble in the sport. The idea for this rev­o­lu­tion­ary ap­proach idea came from Guen­ther Steiner, the for­mer Jaguar Rac­ing manag­ing di­rec­tor, who moved to the USA in 2006 to set up a NASCAR team. It was his ini­tia­tive to ap­proach Gene Haas with a novel scheme for es­tab­lish­ing a team in F1 – a sport he’s loved since child­hood.

That pas­sion was born of the early in­flu­ence of F1 broad­casts by Aus­trian state TV chan­nel, ORF. Steiner, an Ital­ian from the Sud­ty­rol re­gion, close to the Aus­trian bor­der, was able to tune in from his home in Mer­ano through­out the 1970s and – pre­dictably – his hero was leg­endary Aus­trian Fer­rari racer Niki Lauda.

Once Steiner has or­dered his pizza, he begins his story, start­ing with how he watched the 1976 Ja­panese GP as a young boy, dis­traught that Lauda had pulled out of the race due to the atro­cious weather con­di­tions. And then moves on to how a meet­ing with Lauda, years later, would set his own course for F1…

F1R: Guen­ther, did Niki Lauda fuel your pas­sion for rac­ing? How much of a hero was he?

GS: I think for a lot of peo­ple at that time he was a hero and an even big­ger hero after his accident. But I al­ready had a pas­sion for all rac­ing cars and I would beg my fa­ther to take me to hill­climbs. After school, I com­pleted an ap­pren­tice­ship as a me­chanic, did my na­tional ser­vice and got a job in Brus­sels as a me­chanic for the Mazda world rally team. Oddly, Haas Au­toma­tion’s Euro­pean head­quar­ters is just three build­ings down from where I worked 30 years ago. There is still the IKEA next door, and I can’t tell you how many times I ate meat­balls there for lunch! It was very strange.

F1R: In the mid-1980s, ral­ly­ing was much big­ger than it is now. What did you learn as you were pro­gress­ing up through the sport?

GS: When Car­los Sainz drove the Rep­sol Lan­cia, I was one of his me­chan­ics. Then, lat­terly, I was di­rec­tor of M-sport when he drove for Ford. I’ve got a very good re­la­tion­ship with Car­los, he’s a very spe­cial hu­man be­ing. One year I spent nearly 200 days with him. He’s de­mand­ing, but I had so much re­spect for him be­cause

he’s a great worker. I learnt a lot from him in terms of be­ing pro­fes­sional, hard-work­ing and fo­cused on the right things. I’ve never seen any driver so adamant before in my life – if he wants to get some­where, he gets there. The guy is amaz­ing and re­lent­less. It was very im­por­tant for my ca­reer to learn from him.

F1R: After a few years work­ing with Ford, how did you come to join Jaguar Rac­ing in 2002?

GS: Niki Lauda was tasked with find­ing some­one and asked around at Ford, who owned Jaguar at that time. My sec­re­tary called me and said: “Mr Lauda wants to speak with you.” You know how Niki is. Promptly he said, “Can you come to Vi­enna for din­ner?” I went there, we had din­ner, and the next day he says: “Okay, I’d like to em­ploy you – when can you start?”

When he phoned me, I told my wife, “I’ve just spo­ken with Niki Lauda and he asked for me!” It’s quite an ex­pe­ri­ence when I think back to watch­ing him race on TV in the 1970s. He was sort­ing out the company and he of­fered me the job as manag­ing di­rec­tor of Jaguar. But the team wasn’t in a good way – there were too many peo­ple try­ing to run it and it was very dif­fi­cult.

F1R: What did Jaguar want to achieve?

GS: They wanted to be the green Fer­rari. They wanted a sea of green in the grand­stands, but that would have taken some time. They wanted to build a brand. I didn’t want to stay: my al­le­giance was to Niki, so when he left, I couldn’t see it work­ing. I parted company with Jaguar and moved to Opel. I al­ready knew Di­et­rich Mates­chitz from ral­ly­ing and, after a year, he called me up and asked if I wanted to join Red Bull as tech­ni­cal op­er­a­tions di­rec­tor.

F1R: Red Bull bought Jaguar Rac­ing in 2004, so you were ef­fec­tively re­turn­ing to the same team un­der a new name. Was there a big dif­fer­ence?

GS: I didn’t see Jaguar de­velop in those two years that I was away. There were a lot of peo­ple there who were nice, but they weren’t rac­ers. They wanted to build this cor­po­rate image. When Mates­chitz bought it, in the first year we tried to find our feet – then in the sec­ond year I went to the States to start a NASCAR team for Red Bull. That’s when the big in­vest­ment came. But set­ting up a team in North Carolina was a lit­tle bit harder than my pre­vi­ous projects be­cause I had no ex­pe­ri­ence in NASCAR. What I learnt is to never un­der­es­ti­mate what other peo­ple know. Mo­tor­sport in the US is dif­fer­ent. If you go there and try to im­ple­ment the things we do here, you will not suc­ceed.

F1R: But cer­tain prin­ci­ples are the same?

GS: You need good peo­ple – that is the same ev­ery­where. But the rules are dif­fer­ent. When I got to NASCAR the crew chief was still the big­gest guy. What I did with Red Bull in NASCAR 12 years ago was to im­ple­ment an en­gi­neer­ing struc­ture that peo­ple ques­tioned then, while now I think it’s stan­dard to have en­gi­neer­ing teams. I wouldn’t say I in­vented it, but at the time few teams had this struc­ture and we es­tab­lished it in our team.

F1R: How did you get to know Gene Haas and how did your project to start an F1 team in the US come about?

GS: My fam­ily has al­ways run busi­nesses – my fa­ther was a butcher. While I was in North Carolina I set up a com­pos­ites company, which I still co-own. Be­cause of that work, one of my clients was the abortive USF1 team. I got to know [USF1 bosses] Ken An­der­son and Peter Wind­sor well and I was try­ing to help. Chad Hur­ley, the founder of Youtube, was one of the in­vestors and he called me up say­ing he wanted some ad­vice on F1 and how I would go about it. I said the only way to get a car to the track was to go to Dal­lara and try to buy HRT. He asked me if I’d do that for him… I’d known Gi­ampaolo Dal­lara for a long time, so I said sure.

I went over to Italy for three days and sat in Gi­ampaolo’s of­fice and tried to do some­thing. At one stage I went to see for­mer Fer­rari boss Ste­fano Domeni­cali, who is a good friend of mine – he spends most of the year liv­ing in the part of the world where

I come from – and I asked him his view and what the po­lit­i­cal sit­u­a­tion was. He gave me some ad­vice and then I went back to Chad Hur­ley and said: “What you want to do is dif­fi­cult, I think you should call it a day.”

A few months passed and I came up with the idea of set­ting up an F1 team with the model of buy­ing parts. Ken An­der­son tried it, but he didn’t have the knowl­edge or ex­pe­ri­ence of F1. I thought maybe there could be some­one in Amer­ica who could in­vest in a team. I started to write up a busi­ness plan in­spired by the USF1 idea. At that time there was a lot of talk about cus­tomer cars, B-teams, and with my con­tacts I dis­cussed what we could do. So, I went to find some peo­ple who could do it. I ran into Joe Custer, who was run­ning Gene Haas’s busi­ness in NASCAR. I said I had a propo­si­tion that Mr Haas might be in­ter­ested in. Joe and I had a cof­fee in Star­bucks where I showed him the pre­sen­ta­tion and asked if we should talk to Gene about get­ting in­volved. A month later, I got a call to say Gene was in town and could we meet for din­ner. There I ex­plained to him how to do it. He lis­tened a lot, then we spoke some more, it de­vel­oped, and when it got a bit of mo­men­tum Joe came with me to meet Fer­rari in Italy. Then one day, Gene said: “Let’s go and get the li­cence and race in F1.”

F1R: You took ad­van­tage of reg­u­la­tions that al­lowed you to buy parts from an­other team to give you a head start. Would you say that this model has been the key to your suc­cess?

GS: I would say so, but it was there for ev­ery­one to do. We looked at the teams that re­cently came into F1 and didn’t make it: Cater­ham, Manor, HRT and USF1. I re­spect them all be­cause it’s very dif­fi­cult to do, but for us, to come in and do the same and be suc­cess­ful, we were think­ing: how can we do it dif­fer­ently? If we hadn’t done things dif­fer­ently, we would have ended up like them. At the time there was a lot of talk about cus­tomer cars, so we looked at how much we could ac­tu­ally buy. We wanted to find some­one who would work with us and trust us and Ste­fano Domeni­cali [who was, at that point, still team prin­ci­pal at Fer­rari] trusted me and knew me. Fer­rari were open to do­ing it, although we also spoke with an­other team. There aren’t many more can­di­dates, so you can come to that con­clu­sion your­self.

F1R: Were they sil­ver?

GS: They were in Eng­land. Fer­rari saw a num­ber of ben­e­fits to our pro­posal: if they had to in­crease the num­ber of wish­bones they pro­duced, the tool­ing re­mained the same, yet an­other a rev­enue stream was cre­ated. The other plus was that they could use us to test parts, so if some­thing on our car broke, they’d im­me­di­ately know it could hap­pen on their car as well. Plus it meant they had an­other cus­tomer for their power unit and an­other ally in F1.

F1R: It must have helped that Gene Haas has money be­hind him. Your pro­gramme hasn’t been op­er­at­ing on the sort of shoe­string bud­get that char­ac­terised Cater­ham, Manor and HRT. You haven’t had to chase pay drivers, for ex­am­ple.

GS: Yes, we spend money, but we spend it care­fully. We spend it on the right things. In Ban­bury there is no ex­cess. When we bought our paddock mo­torhome, we didn’t buy the cheap­est one avail­able and plan to fix it ev­ery year. We bought a brand new one that will last ten years and Gene can see the value in that. We’re not throw­ing money away, we are very care­ful. There is no ex­cess; it’s not shiny and pretty like Mclaren – we’re ef­fi­cient.

F1R: And that’s down to your past ex­pe­ri­ence of set­ting up teams?

GS: Yes, you fo­cus on what is im­por­tant, de­cide to do it and then move on to the next thing. There is no point dis­cussing go­ing to the moon if we can’t even get to the mo­tor­way. You need to take one step at a time. We’re not adding hun­dreds of peo­ple a year, we’re adding ten to 15. We are care­ful where we add to avoid cre­at­ing a mon­ster that you can­not tame any more. Within the company, peo­ple know each other be­cause of its size.

When we have team meet­ings, we have con­fer­ence calls. I’m sit­ting in Kan­napo­lis, North Carolina and we have Dal­lara on one

screen from Parma and Ban­bury on an­other and we get used to work­ing that way. Okay, it’s maybe not 100 per cent as ef­fi­cient as if we were side by side, but we work well to­gether. If we get a bad con­nec­tion we just stop the meet­ing so we don’t waste time.

F1R: How do you cope with com­mut­ing to ev­ery grand prix all the way from North Carolina?

GS: I’m for­tu­nate in that I can sleep very well. For sure your fuse is shorter when you are jet lagged, and peo­ple around me know that now. But I know my­self, so I avoid mak­ing de­ci­sions or con­fronta­tions when I am tired. Jet lag is part of the job. Our busi­ness model works like this.

F1R: Do you ever have other teams say­ing to you that you’ve changed the na­ture of For­mula 1? That by mak­ing this team work, you’ve called into ques­tion how all the other teams go about rac­ing in the sport?

GS: No, be­cause maybe there is an even bet­ter way. Never think that your way is the only way. If I was to do this again, I’d try to ex­plore an even bet­ter way to do it. I don’t as­sume this is the best. Five years ago, ev­ery­one called us stupid or ig­no­rant, say­ing we didn’t know what we were do­ing – and they were wrong. Also, times have changed. This way is get­ting more dif­fi­cult.

F1R: F1 has his­tor­i­cally been about con­struc­tors de­sign­ing and build­ing their own cars. Would you say that your model has changed the spirit of the sport?

GS: Yes, to an ex­tent, but we do still de­sign our own car. We don’t do ev­ery­thing our­selves, but then look at road cars. Fifty years ago ev­ery­one made their own wheels. Now, they all buy them from the same sup­pli­ers. Times change and if you want to stay cur­rent, ev­ery­thing you do, you need to change. If you stand still, you won’t make any progress. Twenty years ago elec­tron­ics were im­por­tant in a rac­ing car, but no one spent any money on them. To­day they



are more im­por­tant than any­thing else. As time changes, all the pro­cesses change. Peo­ple tend to want to stay within their com­fort zones, though.

F1R: Do teams like Mclaren and Wil­liams need to read­just their pro­cesses? For ex­am­ple, they both pre­fer to build ev­ery­thing in­house rather than out­source.

GS: Yes, a good ex­am­ple is a pedal box. Twenty years ago they could have saved 200 grammes in weight, but you can’t do that th­ese days – and a pedal box doesn’t make your car go faster. The most you could im­prove now is 20g, so why should I spend all that time, ef­fort and re­source work­ing hard to take just an­other gramme out? That doesn’t make you go any faster – you need to go and get more bang for your buck.

F1R: What does Gene Haas get out of hav­ing a For­mula 1 team? And what is his goal?

GS: He wants to give Haas Au­toma­tion and the tool­ing ma­chines they make more ex­po­sure, and F1 is a global sport and mo­tor­sport is some­thing he loves, so it’s an ob­vi­ous choice for him. It wouldn’t make any sense for him to go into foot­ball, for ex­am­ple.

Yes, he would also like to win a world cham­pi­onship one day. In NASCAR it took a long time, but he didn’t give up. He’s well aware of the cur­rent sit­u­a­tion of where F1 is at the mo­ment. He can’t win it yet, but things are al­ways chang­ing. Life is in­ter­est­ing and there will be a change even­tu­ally. There is al­ways some­thing new com­ing through and, who knows: one day there might be a chance for Gene Haas to win a world cham­pi­onship.

F1R: But surely it would be im­pos­si­ble for you to com­pete with – and beat – Fer­rari, as a cus­tomer team?

GS: Things will change. We can­not pre­dict what will hap­pen in five years. For now, we need just to do our best job and stay on the ball. From where we are, es­pe­cially in mo­tor­sport, you don’t see big changes in other in­dus­tries in such a small times­pan like you do with our sport. Brawn came and left in 2009 hav­ing won the world cham­pi­onship – no one could have pre­dicted that. In 2010, there were three new teams on the grid; to­day none of them are left. There is al­ways some­thing go­ing on. With the eco­nomic cri­sis, Toy­ota, BMW and Honda all sud­denly left the sport. It’s not luck, it’s our in­dus­try. It doesn’t mean that we’ll def­i­nitely do it – but op­por­tu­ni­ties arise. I don’t be­lieve F1 will stay like it is now for an­other five years – some­thing will change.

F1R: Do you see your role as team prin­ci­pal of Haas as a spring­board to an­other po­si­tion, sim­i­lar to when your friend Ste­fano Domeni­cali moved from be­ing Fer­rari team prin­ci­pal to be­come the CEO of Lam­borgh­ini?

GS: I’ve never planned my ca­reer, so why should I start now? In gen­eral, I like to do what I love to do rather than what would be best for me maybe fi­nan­cially or for the fu­ture. I’ve been lucky enough to have achieved that for most of my life. Maybe I could have done some­thing dif­fer­ent and made more money. I’ve got goals that are nor­mally based around rac­ing cars, not on be­ing the rich­est man. I’m liv­ing my dream and I’ve got there by work­ing. My fa­ther was no­body in rac­ing, so I didn’t get a leg-up.

F1R: What if a con­ven­tional F1 team, such as Mclaren or Wil­liams, ap­proached you to be­come their team boss, and asked you to help them re­or­gan­ise their struc­ture – would you go?

GS: It’s a dif­fi­cult ques­tion, be­cause why would I want to leave what I’ve got at the mo­ment? Then again, it could be a chal­lenge – I live on chal­lenges, as you can see. I don’t choose the eas­i­est way. I wouldn’t go to some teams. I’m happy with what I’m do­ing, but there are some chal­lenges out there that would be fun to fix just to prove it can be done. In a few years maybe, but I haven’t had an of­fer, so I’m not think­ing about it. I’m happy with where I am at the mo­ment.

Din­ner: of­fi­cially the most im­por­tant meal of his life. As re­lated to F1 Rac­ing

Team spirit: Steiner with the Haas F1 crew – in­clud­ing drivers Kevin Mag­nussen and Ro­main Gros­jean, and team owner Gene Haas

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