BARCELONA, Spain — Gene Haas had a lot to learn when he decided to venture into Europe with a new Formula One team.
One adjustment as a team owner was adapting his standard for success.
In F1, winning has a different meaning if you are not Ferrari, Mercedes or Red Bull. Being the fourth-best team — the best of the rest — is the most Haas can do in the top racing series.
“We really don’t consider ourselves to be a competitor with the top three teams,” Haas told The Associated Press at the Spanish Grand Prix. “I mean, they are so far ahead of us, they are kind of in another universe. So we are just really trying to figure out how to compete in the bottom seven teams. There’s a lot of competition there.”
Haas said “a win for us” is to be running about a second behind the Ferraris and staying in front of McLaren, Renault and Force India. He said the only way for Haas to win a race is if the “stars align” and all the big teams make some mistakes.
“If you can run, say, mid-pack, which would be fourth, fifth or sixth, it’s a good business model, you can actually almost break even. That’s kind of our immediate goal,” Haas said. “We are not running for a championship, we are running for the points. You can’t believe how the teams respond if they get one or two points. To them that’s a podium, getting a few points.”
Haas driver Kevin Magnussen said his seventh-place grid start in Spain felt like “pole position.” His sixth-place finish in the race was the team’s second-best this season.
“This is where we should be fighting,” Magnussen said. “This weekend we have been very strong, we’ve been the fourth-best car and I think we should be somewhere around there every weekend.”
In only its third year in F1, the U.S-based team has done “really well” trying to succeed behind the top three teams, Haas said. The team has shown from the start it has a car fast enough to compete for fourth place in the constructors’ championship.
“With the regulations like they are now, this is the maximum we can do,” team principal Guenther Steiner told the AP. “If I would say we are going to beat Red Bull or Ferrari, people would think I’m dreaming. Anybody in the moment could celebrate fourth place, because that is the best of the rest.”
Changes in F1 regulations, especially the introduction of budget caps to reduce the huge financial gap to the top teams, is the only hope Haas and other smaller teams have to one day realistically challenge for victories. There have been discussions to implement spending limits beginning in 2021, which could theoretically reduce the advantage of the front-runners who sometimes have budgets two or three times bigger than the smaller teams.
“You have to keep in mind that when we go to the races we might bring two wings, and Ferrari, Red bull and Mercedes will bring 10,” Haas said. “So, you know, it’s just that they are so much more advanced in how they approach racing than we are. But that’s part of that budget cap too.”
Steiner said he was “very optimistic” that regulation changes would eventually come into place to give Haas a chance to aspire more in F1.
“The biggest criticism is that never anybody can get up there except Ferrari, Mercedes and Red Bull,” he said. “So for sure something will change.”
Haas said the team’s future in F1 doesn’t depend solely on the approval of the budget caps. He came into the series with a five-year plan to see if he could stay longer, and he has been satisfied with the overall results so far.
“We are reassessing every race, every year,” Haas said. “As long as we are moving forward, we are OK. Going backwards is not what we want to do.”
He admitted the team’s struggles to finish races this season have hurt the long term plan.
Haas started the year with a huge disappointment in Australia, when consecutive pit-stop mistakes forced both cars to retire with loose wheels when they were running fourth and fifth in the race. Magnussen followed with a good fifth-place finish in Bahrain and was 10th in China, but teammate Romain Grosjean is yet to finish in the points.
The veteran French driver crashed by himself under the safety car while running fifth in Azerbaijan, then on Sunday caused a three-car collision at the start of the Spanish GP, prompting FIA to hand him a costly three-place grid penalty for the Monaco GP in two weeks.
Haas is currently sixth in the constructors’ championship, already 134 points behind leader Mercedes.
“We’ve had a hard year so far, we’ve probably left 40 points on the table that would have made a big difference in our plan,” Haas said. “But it’s part of racing, just winning and losing every weekend.”
Haas got into F1 with an admitted goal of boosting his commercial enterprises as a high-tech tool manufacturer and he says that’s paying off away from the track. It was a risky move considering that many other smaller teams tried to enter the series but got bust within a few years.
“I think we did more than anybody expected us to do when we started off,” Steiner said. “There were a lot of naysayers because some teams which tried to start up in the last years all failed. So people expected us to be more of the same. We are not. We are actually in the third year and we are fighting for best of the rest position.
“I think (Haas) is proud of what he created,” Steiner said.
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