An important piece of the puzzle to Haas F1’s debut in 2016 is now in place. How did it come about?
Haas: “Well, you know, this is part of our long‑term strategy. I think we’ve always maintained that we wanted an experienced driver to lead our team into the 2016 season. You know, Formula One is a tricky business. It’s like any other kind of business. You have to learn it, and the best way to learn it is to learn it from other people.
“We were looking for an experienced driver, and Romain was one of several candidates. He’s been in Formula One for many years. He’s been an excellent driver for Team Lotus. I reviewed a lot of his video of his driving styles. One thing that was very impressive is the fact that he’s scored points almost every season, and that’s really what our primary goal here is – to be able to score points.
“I think as a piece of the puzzle, he’s going to have a lot of work to do. He’s going to be our lead driver and we’re going to depend heavily on him to help us with our strategies with the car, with the racetracks, and just the learning of the whole operations of an F1 team.”
Romain, you’ve had a very accomplished career in motorsports, winning championships in every series you’ve competed in as you’ve climbed the ladder to Formula One. What was it about Haas F1 that made you decide this was the place for you?
Grosjean: “Well, it’s a question I had to ask myself, first of all, and thinking about your future and your career is always important. I discovered the project a few years ago through the media, and then got to know a little bit more about what Gene and Guenther were doing and how it was nicely building up, and I like the fact that it’s a different approach to what a normal new F1 team would do. I think it’s an approach that can be pretty quickly successful and, if we’re racing in Formula One, it’s not to be last on the grid. It’s to always do our best as a team, as a driver, and what we’d like is to try to drink the champagne on the podium.
“I like the idea of the partnership with Ferrari. I like the way everything has been going. I like the fact that it’s going slowly but nicely and, as I said in the media recently, I’m very, very happy that I made that decision.”
Guenther Steiner, team principal, Gene discussed the overall reasoning for pursuing Romain, but can you talk about some of the details that make him the ideal fit for Haas F1 in its inaugural season?
Steiner: “As Gene said before, you know, we looked around a lot to find the right guy because we wanted somebody with experience but still hungry to do something, to go with us this long way. I mean, I started talks with the management of Romain in Barcelona to see if he’s interested and, you know, we spoke to quite a few drivers, and in the end I spoke also with technical people, what they think about Romain, how he develops a car, because we have got a steep mountain to climb here, new team, all new team members, so we needed somebody who knows what he’s doing.
“I think in the end we found the right guy because he has so much ‘want to drive’ now, and he’s still aggressive or still wants it, you know, but he’s not young (so) anymore that he’s inexperienced. We lose time by having accidents or doing rookie mistakes. I think we just picked the best one out there for what we are doing, and we focused on him and got him, and we are very happy and we are looking forward to working with him.”
Romain, what would you say is a reasonable expectation for Haas F1 going into the next season?
Grosjean: “That’s always a question you get at the beginning of the year. It’s a tough one to reply (to) when you know a team. It’s even more difficult when you know it’s going to be the first time the car is on track. But I think from what I’ve seen so far, we should be able to run straight away without I think the problems for new teams, which makes – which was part of my reflection for the decision, and I think it would be really good to score a few points early in the season for a newcomer American team, and I think a lot of support behind us.”
Gene, can you compare for us building a NASCAR Sprint Cup Series team as you’ve done over the last 15, 20 years, and the last couple of years building an F1 team? What are the similarities and what are the differences between building the two types of operations?
Haas: “Well, I think if anything the main ingredient is just stubbornness, not giving up and just keeping your head pointed forward and just taking your licks as you go. NASCAR was certainly difficult. We spent five or six years in NASCAR and we were always in the back. It was a pretty gruelling, tough experience. I can sympathise with a lot of guys that run in the back and just how hard that is.
“We were one of the fortunate teams in that Joe Custer put together a deal with Tony Stewart, and that became Stewart‑Haas Racing, and I think in our first season we started winning races, so that was a real eye-opener. It takes the right people to make things happen. The same thing with Formula One. When we first started out, initially Guenther took me to I think Austin, and I met Bernie Ecclestone, and that was a real eye-opener there, too, because here’s the godfather of Formula One, and you get to meet him, and he’s a pretty coy person. It’s kind of like he almost dissuades you from wanting to start this business because he’s seen so many people attempt it and fail.
“But, like anything else, we kept banging away at it, and I think it was a couple years later he finally said, look, if you’re really serious about this, we’ll make a tender for you, and he had to open it up to various teams.
“You know, through the whole process, it really comes down to selecting the right people, taking your time, trying to analyse things, then adapting to what you learn. What we initially started with, say, two years ago has really kind of changed quite a bit, and our whole direction now has gone a little bit different than as opposed to say what some of the other teams are, where the other teams are looking at being a primary constructor, and we’re trying to just basically use as much as we can from our partners. So I think that’s the main difference between us and other ones, and I think that’s really going to be a difference in the way we run our team.”
When selecting Romain as a driver, did you also look at his commercial appeal to bring sponsors to the team in the future?
Haas: “You know, I’d have to say that we had a lot of pressure to hire an American driver, but the reality of it was that a rookie driver with a rookie team just isn’t a good fit. Our primary purpose here is to show that, as an American manufacturer, that we can compete in the most difficult, competitive series in the world of car racing, and that was Formula One.
“In order to achieve that goal, our direction was to do whatever it takes. I mean, it’s like, say, when we first started out, we’re not here to sit there and say: ‘Hey, we as Americans can do it the American way.’ Our goal is to race competitive teams and, basically, whatever it takes to get that car on the grid with the right people is what we’re looking for.
“I think with Romain, the difference is that there’s only 20 drivers that are currently now driving in Formula One. He fits that bill perfectly and we were kind of surprised, I’m a little surprised, that we got a driver with the experience that he brings to our team because it’s going to be a real challenge. He’s going to be working a lot harder than he thinks he’s going to be.”
The last three teams that entered Formula One failed, although one did revive. Where will Haas succeed where they failed, or how will Haas succeed where they failed?
Haas: “You know, I think our strategy is different than what those teams faced. I think they were under a real time constraint. They had probably almost six months to put together a whole team, and I think when people think about entering Formula One, at least from my point of view at that time, and even a casual observer, is that somehow these cars, you can go down and parts in cars are all readily available, but you really have to build everything from scratch. I think that’s what really tripped up the previous teams was, is, that they just didn’t allow enough time to actually build their cars so, when they got on the grid, they were really, really behind. Not only are you trying to develop and design your car, but you’re also trying to race, and trying to do those things simultaneously is probably impossible. That’s probably the biggest difference with us.
“We took a little – we’re taking quite a bit more time, actually, to get our car prepared and, at the same time, we’re also able to put together some very important relationships with obviously Ferrari and then Dallara, plus our UK operation. We were very fortunate to be able to obtain a race shop that had a lot of facilities that we really needed. If we had to do that in a short of timeframe, I don’t think any of that would have happened.
“I think that’s really the biggest difference is, just the more time you have, the more time you have to develop the relationships that you need and secure the people, equipment and other parts of the puzzle that just takes time, and time is what we need, and when we get to the grid, we won’t be developing a car, we’ll be ready to go. The car is fully developed, and I think even later this year we start to get to work on the 2017 car. So I think we’re a little bit ahead of where those other teams were.”
Romain: Can you tell us what specifically about Haas convinced you that this was a good move, or is it more of a situation where you saw things weren’t going the way you wanted them to at Lotus and you’re just looking for a change?
Grosjean: “Well, I think, as I say, I took my decision before – there was not decision A and decision B. I’ve met Guenther, I’ve met Gene. We spoke. They explained to me what was the project like, and I believe that it’s a new approach going on in Formula One and an approach that’s going to work. I’ve spent 10 years, and I know the guys very well, and it would have been easy to take the comfortable road and stay there. But, on the other hand, I want to try to win races, win championships, and I thought that coming here to Haas was a good step in a good direction to achieve that.”
Gene, besides Formula One experience, what were the additional qualities you were looking for in a racecar driver for your team?
Haas: “Well, that’s actually a very good question because that was the primary focus, was looking for a racecar driver. But I think some of the other qualities would be just the maturity of experience. You know, there’s always theory and then there’s actual experience. I think when you start out as a racecar driver, you have a tendency to be a bit aggressive so, hopefully with Romain, his maturity will lend itself towards us being able to progress as a team.
“I think other areas, too, is that he’s a bright young person, so I think he’s going to help a lot as far as promoting our machine tool brand in Europe. I mean, obviously he’s French‑Swiss nationality, so those are both very important countries to our business. So we’ll be looking forward to him representing our products over there. I’m sure that will open up marketing opportunities both here in the US and Europe.”