Haas - too much home comfort? Thoughts on the new entrant

Haas Automation
12 April 2014 by Graham Keilloh | M

F1's final frontier. Its unfinished business. Its itch that it just can't scratch. Call it what you will, but it has applied to the sport's relationship with America for years and decades. 

America is important to F1. Like it or not it's nothing short of absurd that anything purporting to be a world championship should not have significant presence there. The potential benefits to F1 – in terms of fan base, commerce and investment – of getting it right in America are considerable. And if got right having its own American team would be a massive help.

Yesterday we had a significant step towards establishing this last point. American NASCAR team owner Gene Haas confirmed that he’d been told by the FIA that his proposed team had – after a careful evaluation process – received a licence to join the F1 firmament from the 2015 season. And indeed later that day the FIA confirmed that in its World Motor Sport Council meeting in Marrakech it had indeed ‘accepted the candidature of Haas Formula LLC’ for F1.

And just about everyone it seems is very happy with this. With as outlined good reasons too that extend even beyond the usual the more the merrier considerations.

And, contrary to the claims of some who should know better, there is no inherent reason for F1 to fail in the US. There have been many successful F1 races in the country with lots of local interest; indeed we have one on the calendar now. While any glance around F1-related social media will reveal the existence many US-based F1 fans.

Even though Haas has convinced the FIA that his effort has the bucks, gravitas and infrastructure to clear this first hurdle, it cannot be denied that the hard work starts now (and Haas himself said as much). The clock already is ticking before pre-season testing for the 2015 season. The nine months between then and now will be gone in what seems like no time.

And without wishing to sound like a doom-monger right now is much more end of the beginning than beginning of the end of what is required before the team’s race debut; plenty of fledgling efforts – including some backed initially by a lot of fanfare – have floundered after this point, often before they’ve come close to turning a wheel. 

The challenge of building an F1 team from scratch is not to be underestimated, especially not in an age wherein effective cost control in the sport remains an elusive as ever; indeed FIA President Jean Todt revealed in recent days that the cost cap previously pencilled in for 2015 has been dropped in just the latest episode of an attempt to resolve the matter coughing its last. 

And the sport’s previous two US-centred efforts – Team Haas (no relation) in 1986 that fizzled out just as quickly as it had fired into life, and US F1 intended to take part in the 2010 season but which did not even live to see its debut race – are not encouraging precedents. But only a churl wouldn’t wish all concerned luck.

It remains to be seen what happens next. Details are to follow next week, and some murmurings of the operation buying an existing team have reverberated. But the most common understanding is that the Plan A is to build its own operation, and to base it in the USA itself, in North Carolina. And this possibility will likely cause a shudder in a few.

North Carolina of course has a motorsport infrastructure all of its own, being the US equivalent of the motorsport Silicon Valley, where many Indycar squads, NASCAR squads and others are based. But one wonders if this fact will be enough to make up all of the difference required to hold a successful F1 effort. The concept of a North Carolina-based F1 team has floated in the ether for some time, although it has invariably been met with barely-concealed guffawing by many in the paddock (reflecting in some part the snootiness many in F1 have about all things American). Still, the best evidence is that while, in comparison to F1, North Carolina isn’t as bad as many in F1 assume it is, it still isn’t as good as North Carolina thinks it is. Not in comparison to F1 at any rate.

Yet F1 has a Silicon Valley of its own, in the Oxfordshire area of south-eastern England. And moreover this Silicon Valley exists for a reason. The benefits of being based there – just as clustering benefits many industries – are manifold. Not only is it much easier to recruit experienced staff from other F1 teams (e.g. you don’t have to convince them to move house, move their children to another school etc etc) the team can also benefit from the network of supplier and sub-contractors that necessarily exist to serve the teams there.

And the teams that have suffered – all the way to the bottom line of the stopwatch – from being placed elsewhere roll off the tongue: Toyota (in Cologne); HRT (in a variety of locations in Spain and elsewhere); Ligier (in Magny-Cours in France). Heck, even Ferrari – F1’s strongest brand and wealthiest collective – based in Maranello is often said to suffer from it. Underlining how critical it can be, Caterham even found that being based in Norfolk rather than Oxfordshire was an impediment. 

But it’s a time-honoured problem for those entering F1 that they don’t know what they don’t know. F1 is peculiar, and that such individuals (usually) are the self-made, strong-willed sort, possibly wedded to whatever worked for them in whatever field that they had their success in, hardly helps matters.

Perhaps the most apposite example of such comes from the mid-1970s however, with Copersucar. It was a Brazilian team backed by Brazilian money which arrived in the sport in a blaze of promise. After a year it even managed to attract one of the top drivers of the age in Emerson Fittipaldi, who was tempted by a combination of patriotism and family loyalty (as his brother was involved in the management of the team) to jump ship from the top-line McLaren team. But Copersucar’s results were paltry, and probably the greatest cause for the underachievement was that the team’s Brazilian backer insisted on a team based, and cars built, in Brazil.

McLaren's long-standing Team Coordinator Jo Ramirez who used to work for the Copersucar team when asked to reminiscence about his time there said: ‘Mmmm, well, for a start, can you imagine building an F1 car in Brazil? I don't need to say any more, do I?’

Karun Chandhok on Sky’s F1 Show had similar matters in mind when foreseeing the Haas F1 effort’s likely experiences in seeking to direct matters from North Carolina: ‘I think we don’t realise because we’re quite cut off from it, but there’s a huge motorsport industry there. The problem will be, can you get experienced F1 personnel? And logistics I don’t think is as big an issue as it used to be in terms of getting the stuff around because of the number of flyaways outside Europe, but in terms of suppliers I think there will be an issue’. 

Johnny Herbert meanwhile described an American base for an F1 team as ‘logistically a total nightmare’.

You’d think the Haas team would be better served doing something akin to Force India, in that even if it is minded to wrap itself in a national flag then why not do it with an effort based in England? And if that sounds rather absurd then remember that given Force India is Indian owned, has an Indian figurehead, is officially registered as Indian and has cars painted in Indian colours no one minds too much that in actuality it’s based in Silverstone with an overwhelmingly English workforce.

Establishing a successful F1 team isn’t easy whatever way you do it, as mentioned. But at least that way Gene Haas would give himself a much better chance.



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