THE LONG INTERVIEW
Chapter and verse with Haas team principal Guenther Steiner
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
WE SPEND MONEY, BUT WE SPEND IT CAREFULLY. WE SPEND IT ON THE RIGHT THINGS. WE’RE NOT THROWING MONEY AWAY. THERE IS NO EXCESS; IT’S NOT SHINY AND PRETTY LIKE MCLAREN – WE’RE EFFICIENT
THE MOST YOU COULD IMPROVE A PEDAL BOX 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
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