With their debut season now firmly under their belt, Haas F1 will be looking to build on a steady, if unspectacular, entrance to Formula One for 2017. Many will point to the tribulations of other recent new teams (Caterham, Manor (previously Virgin/Marussia) and HRT) to highlight a good foundation in comparison with which to build on, but the American outfit were probably in reality hoping for more than their 8th place finish in 2016. The season started so promisingly, with three points finishes in the opening 4 races, but a further two from the following 17 showed a team unable to capitalise on early success, with reliability on several occasions proving their Achilles heel.
One of the other issues behind their stuttering performance was perhaps their mismatched driver line up. The five points finishes were all achieved by Romain Grosjean, a driver with 10 career podiums to his name from his time at Lotus, who was evidently able to take advantage of opportunities that came his way, which came as little surprise given his class.
Conversely, teammate Esteban Gutierrez despite some decent qualifying performances (six top 12 results), never seemed able to make the most of his opportunities, and finished with five 11th placed finishes to demonstrate an inability to take his chances in the same way Grosjean was able to.
Points aside, the two were perhaps more closely matched than you may assume, with Grosjean coming out by a relatively slim 12-9 margin ahead in qualifying, and in races in which they both finished, Gutierrez actually edged his French teammate 7-6. Grosjean though was able to turn it on when it mattered, showing the advantage that a smaller or new team has in signing a driver with a history of top finishes, when the chance came, Grosjean found extra pace and drive needed to bring home valuable points.
The team clearly also noticed this trend, and Gutierrez has lost his race seat for 2017, to be replaced by Kevin Magnussen. Magnussen has had an interesting career to date, his 2014 stint at McLaren showed some promise with an excellent 2nd on debut in 2014, the first driver since Lewis Hamilton in 2007 to reach the podium in his first race. But despite a strong qualifying showing in which he actually beat his former world champion teammate Jenson Button 10-9 over the season, his race pace was well short of the Briton, losing 14-3 overall when they both finished. Some may say that in your debut season being judged against a driver of Button’s obvious stature is a harsh comparison, but McLaren were hoping to uncover a future world champion, and if you follow the Hamilton comparison, he at matched his world champion rival (Fernando Alonso) in his opening season.
Magnussen’s poor race showing meant he lost his seat to Alonso for 2015 and dropped to test driver, but returned to the grid last year with Renault, having been released by McLaren. Many expected him to use this opportunity to stake a claim for a seat at a more competitive team than struggling Enstone outfit, especially given he himself now partnered a rookie, but a fairly modest return of results against Jolyen Palmer has seen his stock fall further still. With 27 points to Palmer’s 9 he beat the Brit over the course of the season, but not as emphatically as he needed to given Palmer’s lack of experience.
Haas provides Magnussen with an opportunity, in partnering Grosjean, for him to show that he does in fact have the capabilities to mix it at a higher level, but fail to impress this year and he may see his future opportunities restricted to the lower midfield, if at all. Grosjean will be up for the fight too, he turns 31 in April and his dream of attracting a top team seems to have all but disappeared. He has the pace for podiums, but younger drivers have now come through which will restrict his options, and his best chance of success appears to be landing a drive with an overachieving midfield team. Whether this can be Haas is yet to be seen, but the early indication does not look good.
Haas themselves will obviously be aiming for big improvements this year to justify their inclusion in the sport, this wasn’t a project for lower midfield battles. The Ferrari engine is already receiving high praise in comparison to last year’s less than reliable power unit which is a positive sign, but in truth, it’s hard to see how far they can push into what is a very competitive midfield.
In 2016 they finished a full 34 points behind Toro Rosso, and seemed to be in a league of their own in 8th, a long way behind the midfield, yet noticeably stronger than Sauber, Renault and Manor. They may be able to make up some ground on the midfield and add distance to Sauber, but unless one of the teams above them have got is desperately wrong, it’s difficult to see how the gap can be eradicated completely. Consistency and reliability will be key if they want to achieve this though, the drivers will need to know they can rely on the car over a race weekend and that they can push it to the limits, but Haas have yet to demonstrate in their short time in F1 that this is a realistic expectation. A year of feeding of scraps appears far more likely at this stage.