Gene Haas, it seems, is doing pretty much everything right. A methodical approach to entering the Piranha pool that is Formula 1 has seen him strike up key alliances and build the solid foundations upon which, finally and unlike the last four teams granted a license, we may see a new team enter the sport with a fighting chance of scoring points.
But all of this hard work and disciplined enterprise comes to naught without the soft fleshy bit of the equation between the pedals and the engine being as quick and reliable as the mechanical parts. So who will Gene Haas choose to drive his cars, and why won’t it be Danica Patrick?
Well, let’s start with Patrick. Haas has insinuated, again, that Patrick isn’t off the table for consideration but if we are being entirely realistic we have got to view this as simple marketing speak. Linking Patrick, who races for Gene Haas’ NASCAR team, with an F1 seat creates headlines and publicity. But that’s all it is. Patrick herself has ruled out making the switch, and at 33 years old she is well past the age at which an F1 debut would be competitively conceivable.
Many will argue that Danica Patrick proved she could hold her own against the boys when she raced single-seaters, her 115 races in IRL / Indycar netting her one pole position and seven podiums. But it is her sole victory at Motegi in 2008, which is raised aloft as the burning beacon of irrefutable evidence that she has, or at least had, what it takes to race alongside the Hamiltons, Alonsos and Vettels of this world. The reality, however, is that she does not.
Danica Patrick can be quick on her day, but her day doesn’t come around nearly often enough. Those inconsistent flashes of speed have at least provided some sporting foundation upon which to base her lucrative marketing deals… but an F1 driver she is not. She wouldn’t have stacked up a decade ago when, with age and momentum on her side, Honda was interested in testing her. A decade older and four years of being beaten up on a NASCAR track have not made her any more suitable for consideration among the world’s supposed best.
Haas himself, when asked by Reuters about the possibility, made it clear it was simply a case of not ruling anything out, and furthermore stated that any such move for Patrick away from his NASCAR team might only be considered “if the right sponsor came along.” The reason this is even a thought is because she has just been dropped by her long-time backer Go Daddy. Any positive Danica headlines are good headlines at the moment, as she aims to find herself a backer that will ensure she can continue racing something, somewhere.
Will Haas F1 give her a test in one of its cars? It’s not out of the realms of possibility and, again, would be a tremendous headline grabber. But Haas needs all the testing it can get, and wasting what little track time it will have to prepare for its debut Formula 1 campaign on a PR gimmick simply doesn’t fit in with the team’s thus far professional and careful approach. So I think we can rule out Danica Patrick. But who could we rule in? Back in September last year I spoke to Gene Haas on this very topic, and he had a few interesting suggestions on drivers.
“Everybody I talk to is interested,” he said. “I was talking to Kurt Busch last week. He was interested. He said if he wins the NASCAR championship, if could he have a ride in one. I said “For sure!” if he wins the championship.” “I said he can get in the car! I tell you, an American driver in a Formula 1 car in Europe, that would just knock it out of the ball park. I’ll give it to you: Kurt Busch could drive one of these cars.”
Of course Busch didn’t win the title and has had to move past his own personal demons over the past few months, and at 36 he’s even older than Patrick. While his run to sixth at the Indy 500 last year on that crazy day where he competed in the 500 and also the Coca Cola 600 where he suffered a blown engine, was impressive, a move to single seaters may be a little out of the question.
But, as Haas has stated time and again, the big story will of course come if the team signs an American driver.
But who could realistically step across? Tony Stewart runs a NASCAR team with Gene Haas. He conducted a seat swap with Lewis Hamilton in the Brit’s McLaren days via their mutual sponsorship at the time from ExxonMobil, and hugely enjoyed the experience. But hearing the jokes about how the McLaren boys had to fit him into the car with a crowbar and a tub of grease tells you all you need to know. He’s a mega talent. A huge star. But there’s just a bit too much of Tony Stewart for modern F1.
Here’s one from leftfield while we’re looking at NASCAR… Brad Keselowski, the 2012 Sprint Cup Series champ and 2010 Nationwide champ. He’s fast, but possibly a bit too old. Plus he looks far too much like Sebastian Vettel when he’s being punched in the face.
Two NASCAR drivers who I think could cut the mustard, however, are Joey Logano and Kyle Larson. They’re both superbly quick and of a good age to make the jump, but the chances of either of these guys wanting to move are slim.
Looking away from NASCAR and to the more realistic potential avenue that is Indycar, two names immediately crop up.
Currently seventh in the standings, 24 year old Josef Newgarden won his first Indycar race earlier this season with a tenacious drive at Barber Motorsports Park in the Indy Grand Prix of Alabama, and is seen by many in Indycar as America’s great open-wheel hope. Young, fast and hugely likeable, Josef competed against the likes of Esteban Gutierrez back in the very first season of GP3 in 2010, taking a pole position (admittedly reverse grid) in a year where the Carlin team he drove for were nowhere near the powerhouse in the championship that they have become over recent years. He returned to America in 2011 and was duly crowned Indy Lights champion later that year, gaining promotion to Indycar in 2012.
I’ve got to say I like Josef and his prospects very much, and think he would be a great fit for both Haas and Formula 1.
Then you’ve got 26 year old Graham Rahal who is seemingly in the form of his life right now, sitting fifth in the championship off the back of two podiums in the past two races. Rahal has sometimes struggled against the weight of expectation and is without an Indycar victory since his rookie season in 2008. But he is fast and he does hold that all important surname that so connects with open-wheel fans Stateside. And, let’s not forget, Bobby Rahal ran the Jaguar F1 team and Gunther Steiner worked there. Admittedly at different times. It’s at the very least a connection.
Given age and momentum, they’re the only Americans I could see wanting to make the move.
Ryan Hunter-Reay is an Indycar champion and an all-American posterboy. But would he want to risk his reputation on a switch? Would he want to uproot his young family? I can’t see it.
Conor Daly has all but given up on his F1 dream after budget shortfalls saw him race only part-time in GP2 last season after a great run to the top three in GP3 the year before. He has tested for Force India and is no slouch. Great fun and the kind of driver who just lights up when you put a camera on him, I feel his focus now however is on a career in America. Which is a shame.
I don’t see Marco Andretti moving across. His Grandfather Mario is still regarded by most as one of the greatest racing drivers who ever lived. Ironically, while seen as a flop in F1 terms, his son Michael is widely regarded as one of the greatest Indycar drivers of all time, certainly of his generation. But Michael was burnt by his F1 experience at McLaren in 1993 and Marco’s best opportunity to switch came a decade ago. I remember there was excited talk about him potentially testing GP2 back in 2005 / 2006 and possibly even running an F1 test for Honda, but that was quickly shot down by his father. Marco’s got it good in Indycar. He has no reason to move.
James Hinchcliffe, while not American, would however be a great selection. His Canadian passport does at least give him points as a North American, and his racecraft, sublime talent and sparkling personality make him, to my mind, one of this generation’s greatest lost potential F1 talents. I’d love to see James make the move.
Other than that? Simona de Silvestro impressed Sauber when she tested for them at Fiorano, with mutterings from the boys at the time that they’d have replaced Sutil with her there and then. As one of six drivers promised the Sauber race seat for 2015, however, it was not to be. Although Swiss, she has a huge following Stateside and being female has kept her very much in the recent focus of conversation in the F1 paddock.
The issue, of course, comes down to the need for the chosen driver to have a Superlicense and the problems brought about by the recent shifting of the regulation and points system required to be granted one. Under the new system, and from our list, only Ryan Hunter-Reay would qualify but he would need to amass 30 FIA points this season to still qualify next year. There is no reasonable expectation for the FIA to make any concessions for this new team, so Haas and Steiner’s selection may be diminished before it has even been drawn up, thanks to this irksome and gratuitous regulatory amendment. One hopes the ludicrous system is abandoned post haste.
But there is an American who does currently hold a Superlicense: the only one to do so. He sits third in the GP2 Series standings with two podiums from the opening two weekends of the season. He is fast, dependable and with a dry-Californian wit that makes him instantly likeable and media-friendly. Alexander Rossi could be the best hope America has of one of their own landing a plum ride with Haas in 2016. He has tested for BMW Sauber, Caterham and Marussia, and came very close to making his F1 debut both in Belgium and Russia last season.
Bar none, Alexander Rossi is the best American hope and I believe he would do a great job for Haas F1. \
But that’s just one seat. What of the other? Gene Haas has spoken of his desire to have an experienced driver in one of the seats, and so that limits us to those racing today, or from the past few seasons.
Might Adrian Sutil be under consideration? Twiddling his thumbs at the back of the Williams hospitality unit is not Adrian’s idea of fun, but a move for Sutil would, for me, show no sign of ambition from Haas. It’s the equivalent of Caterham signing Jarno Trulli. His day is done and his star has waned.
If Haas wanted to make an immediate impact, it could go after a big name. And two of them are out of contract at the end of this year. Valtteri Bottas and Daniel Ricciardo are both without a contract for 2016. Admittedly, stepping to Haas would require an unbelievably bold leap of faith, but might they be willing to do so for a longer-term objective? Would Bottas leave Williams and nigh on guaranteed points, potential podiums and possible wins, for a start-up? Would Ricciardo leave a four-time world championship winning team, admittedly one with a horrible engine and zero chance of winning a bake sale, let alone an F1 race in 2015, for a newcomer?
The answer, you’d have to assume for both drivers, would be no.
But what if the long term objective wasn’t Haas? What if the end game for a Bottas or a Ricciardo, was the biggest name in motorsport?
One of the key alignments that Gene Haas has made has been with Scuderia Ferrari. For the most part, whichever parts can be shared under the regulations, Haas will bring in from Maranello. This is a serious deal, and while not quite making Haas a Ferrari “B Team”, it is expected that it won’t be far off.
Bottas and Ricciardo are on the market, but if Ferrari sticks with Kimi Raikkonen for another season into 2016, it risks losing both of these massive talents. So could it sign one of them, and put them in a holding pattern at Haas? Might it sign both, and utilise its relationship with both Sauber and Haas to orchestrate an even larger holding pattern across the paddock? We know that Jules Bianchi had signed to race for Sauber in 2015, ironically and tragically on that very Japanese Grand Prix weekend that led to his horrific accident.
Ferrari’s use of affiliated teams to house its stable of drivers is nothing new.
Valtteri Bottas’ manager, Didier Cotton, told me in Spain that the Finn has signed no pre-contract with Ferrari, and that until the Scuderia decides what it is doing with Kimi Raikkonen, any talk about pre-contracts or anything else are premature. Ferrari doesn’t (yet) have a seat available. But, as is the way in Formula 1, everyone is always talking to everyone. Possibilities of seats opening up at any moment mean that managers have to be all eyes, all ears, and all knowing. If Bottas and Ricciardo truly are on the market, their signatures will be two of the most coveted in the sport.
What, we might also ask, of Ferrari’s two reserve / test drivers and young, recent F1 competitors Jean-Eric Vergne and Esteban Gutierrez? While Vergne currently races in Formula E for Andretti Autosport and has expressed his desire to move Stateside and get a seat in Indycar, Gutierrez has a purely F1 focus. Ever since he signed for Ferrari, he has been very clear but also very cryptic in his reasons, stating time and again that he has a very clear objective and the team has given him assurances that they will be delivered upon. Gutierrez is a racer. In his junior career, I’d go as far as to say he was one of the most impressive I ever saw. I dubbed him “The Chosen One,” so breathtaking were his skills.
I wonder, and I have done ever since he signed the Ferrari deal, whether he will be farmed out to Haas in 2016, to help the team as an experienced F1 driver with Ferrari’s backing and blessing. It certainly stacks up far more convincingly than putting Valtteri Bottas at the team to keep him warm for a seat at the Scuderia.
Could that, then, be the Haas F1 line-up? Esteban Gutierrez and Alexander Rossi. Both from the North American continent. Both fast. Both dependable.
And they both despise each other.
And not just a regular, faint dislike of the other. This is genuine, pure, unbridled hatred, stemming from a miserable year as GP3 team-mates in 2010.
Does Haas need that kind of aggravation? Or is it just the kind of thing that spurs two young charges on to produce the form of their lives?
The great thing about this is that, right now, nobody knows who is on Haas and Steiner’s list. As we reach the part of the season where contracts start to be negotiated, and the 2016 line-ups start to be debated, who races for F1’s newest outfit could be one of the most intriguing stories of all.
EDIT: I’m not going to pretend I originally included this, but I absolutely meant to… So as a post script…
Nico Hulkenberg. Might Haas wish to have a driver as highly regarded and experienced as the German? Might the motivation of a new team give Nico back an element of the spark that the Force India frustrations this year have taken away? Might taking on Hulkenberg, with his tall frame, also be perfect for the team owing to his similar height to Alexander Rossi?
Again… just a thought…