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Analysis

Can F1’s latest engineer team boss pull off a McLaren-style turnaround for Haas?

Formula 1’s trend for team bosses to come from engineering ranks means it is not too big a surprise that the experienced Ayao Komatsu will replace Guenther Steiner at Haas.

Ayao Komatsu, Chief Engineer, Haas F1

Photo by: Andy Hone / Motorsport Images

After all, the way that Andrea Stella took to the team principal role at McLaren like a duck to water – helping steer one of the most impressive F1 comebacks in living memory – showed all that’s possible with the right engineering-led focus at the top.

Komatsu, who has until recently been Haas’s director of engineering, steps up to the top job after a lengthy career in the garage and on the pit wall for BAR, Lotus/Renault and his current employer, which he joined from the off in 2016. 

The messaging from Haas’s statement outlining the team boss's move on Wednesday clearly focused on Komatsu’s engineering background as being a key direction change for the squad. 

As team boss Gene Haas was quoted as saying: “In appointing Ayao Komatsu as team principal, we fundamentally have engineering at the heart of our management.” 

The thought process of team owner Haas is clear, that in F1’s cost cap era and, with the current generation of complicated ground effect cars, getting more out of what the team has already got is key to moving things forward. 

It is understood that this was an element that he and Steiner did not see eye to eye on, but others within the organisation, including Komatsu himself, did. 

While Steiner felt that more investment was needed to move the squad forward, Haas felt the team already had everything it needed to deliver – it just needed someone to pull it all together.

Gene Haas, Owner and Founder, Haas F1, Guenther Steiner, Team Principal, Haas F1

Photo by: Andy Hone / Motorsport Images

Gene Haas, Owner and Founder, Haas F1, Guenther Steiner, Team Principal, Haas F1

As Haas said: “We need to be efficient with the resources we have but improving our design and engineering capability is key to our success as a team.  

“I’m looking forward to working with Ayao and fundamentally ensuring that we maximise our potential – this truly reflects my desire to compete properly in Formula 1.” 

From Haas’s perspective, there are clear benefits to having an engineer at the top – and it’s a conclusion that other teams have also come to in recent years with a move away from the kind of corporate executive bosses who were the mainstay of F1 for decades. 

As well as Stella at McLaren, just in the past 12 months we have had Williams opt for strategy mastermind James Vowles, Alpine go for engine chief Bruno Famin and Red Bull pick Laurent Mekies to help lead the rebranded AlphaTauri squad. 

Nowadays, team principals are not coming from the boardroom, they are coming from the pitwall. And Stella is the shining example of how great the transition can be. 

However, it would be a mistake to believe that engineering decisions at the top are now the be-all and end-all to be good in F1. 

Speaking last year, Mercedes boss Toto Wolff felt that Vowles was a good choice for Williams not because of his garage experience, but because he had the necessary knowledge on the commercial and political aspects that are important too. 

James Vowles, Team Principal, Williams Racing, on the pit wall

Photo by: Steven Tee / Motorsport Images

James Vowles, Team Principal, Williams Racing, on the pit wall

“You need to have the commercial understanding, and the political perspectives, and you mustn't be fooled by what you've been told by someone in the engineering and technical area,” said Wolff. 

“James's background is an engineering background. I would much more put him in my camp in terms of skills and not skills, than let's say a pure engineer. 

“But having said that, it's about the personality. You can have an engineering background and still be the right personality for team principal, or you can have a business or finance background and also be able to contribute well to an organisation.” 

Steiner was one of those who had both the technical and commercial background – so covered both important team pillars. 

He had been instrumental in getting the team up and running, had played a critical role in keeping it alive throughout COVID when the possibility was there for it to have been shut for good, and he was the key player in putting the team on a more solid commercial platform – which included the title sponsorship from Moneygram. 

He was also an important public image of the team. He was the big star of Netflix's Drive to Survive, and kept Haas in the media spotlight with his honest and forthright opinions – even if it got him in hot water at times. 

No one will deny that Steiner’s departure, coming after Haas elected not to renew his contract, will be a loss for the squad. 

Komatsu is a very different personality, and will almost certainly not be as forthcoming – and headline-grabbing – as Steiner was. 

Ayao Komatsu, Chief Engineer, Haas F1, Guenther Steiner, Team Principal, Haas F1

Photo by: Andy Hone / Motorsport Images

Ayao Komatsu, Chief Engineer, Haas F1, Guenther Steiner, Team Principal, Haas F1

In the dog-eat-dog world of F1, engineers can be known for the kind of strong-armed approach that works wonders in the heat of competition but can sometimes get people’s backs up. 

It is also important to note that those teams who have put an engineer in charge, have also made the extra effort to ensure extra support around them in the areas where they may not be so strong. 

Stella has formed an alliance with CEO Zak Brown, while Red Bull ensured that Mekies will work alongside Peter Bayer at AlphaTauri. 

And while Haas has plans to appoint a factory-based COO to cover all non-competition matters and departments, the set up still means Komatsu will face responsibilities in the paddock that expand beyond what he has done up until now. 

While it is clearly too early to judge what impact Komatsu can make in 2024, it would be naïve to think that it is automatic that putting an engineer like him at the top is a road to guaranteeing the kind of turnaround that Stella unleashed at McLaren. 

Firstly, Stella is perhaps a unique case of being an under-the-radar gem. He came on board at a team that was already quite advanced in turning things around, after realising as long ago as the 2022 French Grand Prix that it needed to plot a different path. 

Stella had also been a popular and stand-out personality within the confines of the Woking factory – and has proved to have the perfect character to unleash the potential of everyone inside McLaren. 

Andrea Stella, Team Principal, McLaren, Lando Norris, McLaren, 3rd position, Oscar Piastri, McLaren, the McLaren team celebrate after the race

Photo by: Sam Bloxham / Motorsport Images

Andrea Stella, Team Principal, McLaren, Lando Norris, McLaren, 3rd position, Oscar Piastri, McLaren, the McLaren team celebrate after the race

Komatsu is taking over a Haas team that is in a totally different spot.  

It finished last in the constructors’ championship in 2023 and ended the year appearing to be a bit lost with its car after the Austin updates did not bring the clear step forward, and more importantly, direction, that it had hoped for. 

Whether or not the winter allowed to it deliver the answers on its concept choice remains to be seen, and things will not have been helped by the departure of technical director Simone Resta who appears to be returning to the Ferrari fold. 

Komatsu is becoming team principal at a much earlier stage in the team rebuilding cycle than Stella, which means matching the kind of progress McLaren made last year will be a nigh-on impossible ask. 

Stella also arrived off the back of huge investment from management in creating new facilities – likes its simulator and wind tunnel – and getting on a bit of a recruitment drive. 

Komatsu’s appointment is very much about doing what he can with everything that is already in place. 

The Japanese is also a very different personality to Stella. He has a steely attitude, and from the outside does not appear to have the soft touch that has become a mainstay of Stella’s popular leadership style. 

Ayao Komatsu, Chief Engineer, Haas F1 Team, Kevin Magnussen, Haas F1 Team, on the Sprint grid

Photo by: Andy Hone / Motorsport Images

Ayao Komatsu, Chief Engineer, Haas F1 Team, Kevin Magnussen, Haas F1 Team, on the Sprint grid

So, it will be interesting to see how Komatsu deals with that transition from pitwall to leader. 

But one thing in Komatsu’s favour is that he knows Haas inside and out, having been one of the key players in its formative years. He’s lived through its various ups and downs. 

And while it remains F1’s smallest team, he sees potential upside in it. 

Speaking to Autosport last year about his views on Haas, Komatsu said: “We are a true race team. We don't have, let's say, inertia or bureaucracy, like some other teams. 

“If we have to make a decision, we make a decision. I don't worry about what other people think. I don't have to think about whether I'm going to get fired if I make the wrong decision. Because if I make a wrong decision and I have to explain it to my boss, I will - I don't have to hide anything. 

“Here, at Haas, you don't have to be afraid to make decisions. As long as most of them are right, that's what really matters. Nobody can be 100% right all the time. But if you're afraid to make your own decisions, it's never going to work.” 

In his new role, the spotlight on his decisions will be greater than ever though – and as a boss, there will be far less room to get things wrong. It’s sink or swim time.

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