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Interview

Exclusive: Steiner opens up on what really happened at the Haas F1 team

Guenther Steiner’s shock departure from Haas lit up the early weeks of Formula 1’s 2024 campaign, with the Italian making his first public appearance at last weekend’s Autosport International Show.

Guenther Steiner

Photo by: Paul Foster

After an on-stage Q&A – and impromptu book signing – with Sky Sports F1 TV commentator David Croft in front of a bumper crowd at the National Exhibition Centre in Birmingham, Steiner gave his first media interviews since leaving the squad he formed on behalf of team owner Gene Haas back in 2014.

Before an on-camera chat with Sky Sports News reporter Craig Slater, Autosport exclusively sat down with Steiner to hear his side of the story.

READ MORE: Who is Haas' new team principal?

In his first in-depth and extended interview, the 58-year-old outlined his thoughts on leaving Haas without being able to say an in-person goodbye to any team staff, why he’s not bitter about the situation and his thoughts on his F1 future.

But he also opened up on certain events that occurred at the team throughout his 10-year stint. These, Steiner believes, should be viewed in a different light, as should the poor results that Gene Haas cited as the main reason for not re-signing his founding team principal.

Steiner “chilled” after Haas exit, but wary of restrictions in place over situation

Having revealed during his on-stage Q&A that Gene Haas had delivered the news that his 2023-ending contract would not be extended in an “out of the blue” phone call in the between Christmas and New Year period just gone, Steiner told Autosport of his reaction.

“In the end,” he said, “the contract was up and for me it’s like it always was: ‘if it doesn’t work, just let me know’. I’m not hung on anything. Gene Haas owns the team and obviously has got the right to decide what he wants to do. Simple as this. If he doesn’t want me around, I’m not [around]. That’s alright, let’s move on. I’m not running and in a rush for the next job – I’m chilled.”

While not on gardening leave following his Haas exit, given his contract was not renewed rather than terminated, Steiner is thought currently to be under an anti-competition signing arrangement, which can temporarily be put in place. This differs to the non-working situations F1 team staff can be placed in when they’ve agreed to sign for another team before leaving their current squad.

This is why when asked if in a hypothetical situation where Christian Horner was to offer him a return to Red Bull this week and could he therefore accept such an offer, Steiner replied: “No.” The anti-competing clause has not been confirmed by either side.

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

2023’s final months sealed Steiner’s fate at Haas

Given the surprise announcement that Steiner won’t be returning with Haas, as the team’s former director of engineering and before that chief race engineer, Ayao Komatsu, takes his place as team principal, the timeline of events that led to Gene Haas’s Christmas phone call is important.

Haas’s 2023 campaign was a disaster, with its VF-23 car overheating its tyres and leaving drivers Nico Hulkenberg and Kevin Magnussen generally unable to defend high grid positions they secured – mainly with Hulkenberg. That qualifying prowess was thanks to the tyre situation providing a boost over one lap.

The team became the last to switch to Red Bull’s downwash sidepod concept with a massive development package unleashed at its second of three home races last year – the United States Grand Prix at Austin.

But when it became clear in subsequent rounds that the changes had made little to no difference on Haas’s performance level, the final two months of the 2023 season and its last rounds now take on a new context.

Steiner’s position had appeared secure through the Austin and Mexico rounds, but when the team’s 10th place finish and $20million prize money hit was secured in the Abu Dhabi finale, that result was given by Gene Haas as his catalyst for making the top management change.

“I think because the performance went down, obviously nobody is happy,” Steiner said of the final part of the 2023 campaign. “There is nobody more unhappy than me. But we were faced with a situation that we couldn’t recover this year [2023] and the aim was to do something for racing for 2024.

“I wouldn’t say it [his relationship with Gene Haas in this period] went downhill. It was just like, we tried to work hard – that you do your best – but you know obviously the performance wasn’t good enough and then change needed to be made. That was [what] Gene Haas thought about it.

Asked if the failed upgrade had indeed been what had pushed Gene Haas into his decision, Steiner replied, “I don’t know, you need to ask him that” before adding, “I think it was very clear that if you do something – a concept change as quick as we did – that to make a big leap is very difficult, especially because you’ve got underlying design features that you cannot change any more at this late stage”.

He continued: “But I think for the technical guys it was a good way to go in that direction, to learn for 2024.”

Nico Hulkenberg, Haas VF-23

Photo by: Glenn Dunbar / Motorsport Images

Nico Hulkenberg, Haas VF-23

Steiner regrets waiting so long to change the VF-23 concept

Autosport sources have suggested that it was a delay in Steiner’s decision making on Haas’s 2023 development plan – which must viewed in the context of the team struggling to get on top of its in-race tyre-chewing issue across the middle part of the year – that meant the sidepod alterations, plus engine cover bodywork and floor changes, came so late in the campaign.

The Austin upgrade arrived five months after Mercedes and Ferrari had made similar moves to join the development path established by Red Bull at the start of the current ground-effect era.

The latter squad’s listed parts technical partnership with Haas meant the two cars shared a very similar aerodynamic profile. But a major car overhaul coming so late in a season is rare in F1. Steiner said he now regrets the delayed change.

“Absolutely, it was a little bit late,” he explained. “I would say, if I could go back, that’s what we should have done [made the car changes earlier]. Obviously now with hindsight, it’s obvious. I mean, it was change, but then it was not enough time anymore to do it good.

“When it was discovered that there was no performance in the old [in-wash] concept anymore, obviously as you said Ferrari, they changed quicker, and we tried to hang on maybe a little bit too long to the old concept.”

Guenther Steiner, Team Principal, Haas F1 Team

Photo by: Andy Hone / Motorsport Images

Guenther Steiner, Team Principal, Haas F1 Team

Haas’s lack of continued investment sapped Steiner’s motivation

When asked if he had wanted to continue as team principal, Steiner’s guarded response – in the context of his current restricted situation – was “I was not saying I want to leave, put it this way”.

But his additional thoughts on how he had come to view his future in the top role at the Haas F1 squad are revealing. This is centred on the understanding that he wanted Gene Haas to commit more resources to improve its core infrastructure under F1’s cost cap, where Haas can’t make R&D efficiency gains as other squads can because it pays for many already developed parts from Ferrari.

In his sole media offering on the current situation, given to F1’s official website, Gene Haas had stated: “I can’t understand how we can be [last in the constructors’ championship] with all the equipment and people we have.” The different perspectives from each on the team’s future requirements are therefore clear.

“I’ve never been in a company this long as I was in Haas F1, think about that – at some stage [the long-term future gets considered],” Steiner explained.

“You know, doing more of the same and seeing what other people do to move forwards. Like all the other teams – like AlphaTauri, Aston Martin – you see where they are going and you cannot go with them, it’s difficult to stay motivated.

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“You always try because you never give up. You try – but at some stage obviously it becomes clear that… it becomes more clear when you are gone, because you are not in the whirlwind anymore. You are outside and you look in and you say, ‘wow, I pushed for a long time, seeing where other people are going’ since [the budget cap in for 2021].

“Formula 1 has changed since the budget cap came in place. The reaction of people was like, ‘you need to think different; you need to invest in your infrastructure to get the best out of your operational budget’. You just need to be very efficient, you need to put the money in, setting everything up that you’ve got a very lean machine.

“You always push to do that. Because I think our [transferrable parts purchasing] concept was very good when we started, but then when the budget cap came it just changed a little bit. And our model is maybe not the most efficient anymore. Well, not our model, their model – because I’m not there anymore.”

Steiner also refuted any suggestion he fell out with Gene Haas as 2023 came to a close, saying: “I wouldn’t say I fell out [with Gene]. I don’t fall out; I don’t need to fall out with anybody. Because he owns the place, he can decide what he wants. I cannot fall out with him. I can be upset, but I’m not even upset. It’s his decision and he can do what he wants.

“But I think the results, results are always the product of how you can achieve the results. And if you cannot achieve them with what you have got, the results are just the end product, which is not good.”

The 2019 Ferrari engine saga hurt Haas, says Steiner

Photo by: Sam Bloxham / Motorsport Images

The 2019 Ferrari engine saga hurt Haas, says Steiner

Steiner reckons Ferrari engine saga prevented better pre-pandemic Haas results…

Gene Haas also highlighted his squad’s lack of podium results as part of his deliberations on Steiner’s future. When asked why big results had not arrived during his time at the team’s head, Steiner replied: “I think we have to go back.

“When we started, finishing eighth in the first and second season, for a new team [that] never happened before. Finishing fifth in the third season, didn’t happen many times before.

“They fell back in 2019. There was a reason there as well that has to be explained – that was the Ferrari engine saga year. And people should look into that one. That was not only on Haas. Was it the best car Haas ever had? No. But was it [worth] ninth place? No. Alfa Romeo [Ferrari’s other engine customer] that year finished eighth.”

Steiner explained the situation – where Ferrari pushed the then dominant Mercedes package hard with a powerful engine it lost in the controversial settlement ahead of 2020 that then held back all Ferrari-powered cars for the two seasons before F1’s latest rules reset – was that the Scuderia’s customer teams did not have access to the same specification as the works team in 2019.

He later said of the years in question: “Because if you lead off with 2018 when the team finished fifth, it was pretty good. 2018-2019, how it could’ve been with a normal engine, that wouldn’t have been ninth place [in 2019].”

The lockdown disruption of 2020 and Haas' near-closure did big damage to the team

Photo by: Steven Tee / Motorsport Images

The lockdown disruption of 2020 and Haas' near-closure did big damage to the team

… but lockdown disruption and Haas’s 2020 near closure did worse damage

The Haas team’s 2019 results fall was followed by the disrupted 2020 season, even before which Gene Haas was already considering pulling out of F1. He ultimately decided against the move.

But Steiner says the uncertainty of this period continued to be felt in the years up to his exit. The knock-on 2020 impacts would later lead to Haas’s 2021 car being undeveloped over a whole year when it was driven by the all-rookie, and regularly clashing, line-up of Mick Schumacher and Nikita Mazepin.

Steiner said: “[When] 2020 came and the pandemic came, we… I mean, I was told to close the team down. What were you doing there: you let people go, everything was shutdown. In 2021 we came back, but I mean we made not one step backwards in 2020, we made two back.

“Then coming back in 2021, people forget that you have to restart from new – because we had to find people again, we had to find new offices, we had to find all that stuff. Because everything that we built up with Dallara [which builds Haas’s F1 chassis] was lost – because we cancelled their contract in 2020. We didn’t do anything there, because we didn’t develop the car at all.

“So, 2021, some of the people from Ferrari came over under Simone Resta [as technical director on secondment]. And I think Simone did a good job in building up a team in a very short period of time and then we finished eighth again in 2022.

“And then obviously in 2023 we missed the boat a little bit, but in competition that can happen. These were just really bad years, [but] there was always a reason why they were bad. And that needs to be, I think, explained a little bit. Because I think where Haas got kicked in the nuts was in 2020 when the team was ready to be shut down.

“When you shut down, it’s actually easier to start completely new than half new. Because then you had all the legacy, but half of the people were missing. And for sure, some of the good people were missing. So, we had to build up again, and building up costs energy, costs money – everything.

“Then obviously all the other teams started to build up their infrastructure in 2021 and 2022. They all started because [at the end of] 2020, the budget cap era started and they all started to build up and Haas didn’t.

“Therefore, it hangs all together. It’s not [that] all of a sudden everybody was stupid. Because I always say, ‘you don’t get stupid within a year’. It was just a lot of circumstances [that] people forget now, which happened in them years.”

Steiner has no idea of his F1 future yet

Photo by: Simon Galloway / Motorsport Images

Steiner has no idea of his F1 future yet

Steiner has “no idea” of Haas’s F1 future, while his own is relaxed for now

As our extended interview concluded, Steiner stated that “absolutely when you build something from scratch, you miss the people”, who he now leaves behind at Haas.

“I wouldn’t say I’m friends with everybody,” he continued. “But I think a lot of people are there from day one, or day two, and they’re still around. There is a reason why they are there. Because 10 years is a long time. So, obviously these people you share ambitions [with them], you share feelings. And not having them around anymore, you miss people. But you all get used to things, and things change, and you move on.”

Of the team’s future success chances, he said “that’s not down to me” and he does not know “what the plans are” or what Gene Haas might decide in terms of the much discussed additional investment.

He added: “Honestly, I have nothing to say. It’s not that I am shying away, I don’t know.”

There has been speculation that Gene Haas’s recent actions at the top of his F1 team might be the start of a plan to sell the squad – with team insiders suggesting the machine tool magnate could still recoup his initial investment and make a profit thanks to the massive swell in F1 team worth in recent years. But he currently denies this.

Steiner also said of that topic, “I have no idea what he wants to do”. He continued: “And it’s actually not my problem! Which is good, you know?”

Interest in Steiner’s own future remains high, to which he responds: “I just say, ‘just say calm please’.” His onstage ASI appearance included thinly veiled references to upcoming F1 media work in the short term. He is expected to be back in the paddock in 2024.

But “at the moment, I would like to do, not nothing, I would like to do… If something comes along I like it, I do it.”

He added: “If not [I won’t]. In my life, always if I didn’t like to do something, I didn’t do it. So, I don’t know what is out there. But I’m not like phoning people up for a team principal job or something. Obviously, I don’t want to do anything else than a team principal job. If you’ve done it once…

“But it’s like, I’m ok [financially, thanks to the success of Steiner’s Fibreworks Composites business]. If something comes along which interests me, if people want me to do something, I do it.

“If I think it’s not interesting or it doesn’t satisfy me or I don’t enjoy it, I’m not going to do it. I’m not going to do it just to stay around. I think there is enough of things for me to stay around in Formula 1 – people will ask me to do things. But I can wait. I’ve already got approached for things.

“But I want to take a step back [first]. Not even step back. I just want to breathe fresh air. And then decide what I’m gonna do for my future. And I’m not 38 anymore. So, it’s like, if I do something, I want to enjoy it. Obviously, I [want] to do something people enjoy as well. Not just, ‘I want to be in F1 to be in F1’. That’s not my mission in life.”

 

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