The Haas F1 looked a very quick car in Melbourne and it was only the extraordinary double pit stop error that prevented the team from scoring double-digit points in the opening round.
Not surprisingly, after the guesswork and ‘phoney war’ that is the pre-season testing, now the gloves are off.
Rivals who spend significant money on designing and building all aspects of their own F1 cars – the traditional model of being a ‘constructor’ – are crying foul on Haas’ model.
There are strict rules that list the prescribed parts allowed in this kind of collaboration. The rules draw the line at the actual monocoque the driver sits in as well as a short list of other parts, including the front impact and roll structures, as well as some of the bodywork. Haas has a team in Italy under Dallara that does that, but how many ex Ferrari people there are in that mix is not public knowledge.
The FIA has its way of assessing and policing the rules and the Haas has to have enough of its own IP in that car for it to be compliant.
It is a good model in many ways, because it means a team like Haas can come into F1 at a midfield level and race for under $100m a year. That’s still an insane amount of money, but they have shown that you can compete on that basis.
Peer group teams like Force India and Williams spend around $120-140m and McLaren another $40m or so on top again.
It’s good for Ferrari because it brings in extra money on their F1 programme for engines, gearboxes and all the other pieces not in the list of parts a team must make itself. They get extra revenue for their R&D and production work.
Red Bull has played around the fringes of this regulation on prescribed parts in the past; its 2008 season with the Ferrari engined Toro Rosso driven by Sebastian Vettel being a good example. It is now benefitting from having that junior team to bed in the Honda engine and there is a clear strategy there to fast track that process and bring Honda to the Red Bull team. It may be 2019, it may be 2020, but it’s quite clear that’s the way they are thinking.
But for independent F1 teams like McLaren and Williams especially, as well as Force India to a certain extent, this latest Haas car is a problem. You hear murmurs about it being essentially ‘last year’s Ferrari’.
It is certainly fast; Kevin Magnussen and Romain Grosjean were 6th and 7th on the grid, Magnussen a second off the pace of the Red Bull, but ahead of the McLarens, Williams, works Renault cars.
As Jonathan Noble posted in his analysis on Autosport.com “Fernando Alonso cheekily labelled the Haas a ‘Ferrari replica’, while McLaren’s executive director Zak Brown referred to the car as a ‘Faas’.
“We report what we are doing, like everybody else, to the FIA,” countered Haas F1 team principal Guenther Steiner. “That’s why I’m more than confident we are not doing anything wrong.
“I’m perfectly fine with how we do business. We design our own aero, as per the regulations, and yes, we use mechanical parts from Ferrari, but everybody’s known that for the past two years.
“We are well above board, and happy to be where we are.”
The battle for supremacy in the midfield, behind the top three teams, is set to be very intense this year and a lot is at stake. Renault on paper should finish fourth, but McLaren, Force India, Williams and Haas are all battling over fifth place. Get on the wrong side of that and you’ll find yourself explaining to sponsors and shareholders why you finished eighth in the Constructor’s table!
A showing like Haas’, with a net spend of probably half of what McLaren are spending, for example, doesn’t look good.
It is the way of F1 to arouse suspicions whenever someone makes a leap in performance like Haas has done and this will now be the subject of much scrutiny.
What is more interesting to me is what Ross Brawn and his team at Liberty Media will propose about the constructor model when they release their blueprint for F1 post 2020 next week. It’s possible that this initial reveal will be more top line, around engines, broader regulations and they won’t go into that kind of detail at this stage.
But if the goal is to reduce costs and make the teams sustainable, then the model Haas has adopted is attractive. Force India’s Bob Fearnley has always maintained that owner Vijay Mallya isn’t interested in F1 if you can’t be a ‘constructor’ in the truest sense of the word. But if money is tight and there is a sense that ‘everyone’s doing it’ among the independent teams, then he may have to review that opinion.
Ferrari’s Sergio Marchionne has spelled out that for the manufacturer teams there has to be a major point of technology differentiation between the cars otherwise Ferrari will not play in F1 any longer.
But he’s also benefitting financially from the Haas model (and Alfa Romeo Sauber too), so he has a foot in both camps. Follow the thinking through and it plays to his and Mercedes’ political position against Liberty that the midfield teams would be dependent on the manufacturers for their customer chassis, thereby making the manufacturers even more powerful.
Brawn’s strategy will no doubt want to counter that, so in theory the independents should take some comfort from that.
But F1 has to find a sustainable model; you can see why it makes sense for the midfield to go racing with parts derived from a top team, as Haas does. It’s a disruptor in the F1 ecosystem and as we see in so many other areas of life today, it’s hard to push back against disruption.
The only thing that can maintain the status quo is when you have a strictly regulated environment, such as we have in F1.
That’s why, what Liberty and the FIA have to say about this technical collaboration model post 2020 will be very interesting indeed.
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