Exclusive Q&A with Guenther Steiner: Preparing for Haas handover, Gene Haas, and being a rockstar

Thomas Maher
Haas' Geunther Steiner at the British Grand Prix. Silverstone, July 2023.

The last seven years haven’t always been easy for Guenther Steiner as team boss of Haas, but he’s not ready to give up the reins to someone else just yet…

Entering Formula 1 as an independent team seems unthinkable in modern Formula 1, but that’s exactly what Guenther Steiner managed to do when he partnered up with American businessman Gene Haas to create the Haas F1 team.

More than seven years on, Haas recently celebrated their 150th race in the sport as a team with Steiner in charge, and the no-nonsense boss sat down with PlanetF1.com for a chat about the swings and roundabouts of life at the helm of a midfield F1 team, as well as what might come next…

PF1: Hi Guenther. Congratulations on reaching the 150-race mark in charge at Haas. It’s been a pretty crazy journey so far. Looking back over the seven years, how would you sum them up? Stressful? Satisfying?

GS: “It’s been a roller coaster! A roller coaster I call it, let’s call it a roller coaster. No, I’m happy. I’m happy, you know, we had some tough years – 2021 was tough when the pandemic came along, which nobody wanted. But we got out of it and now we’re building up again.

“For me, setting up an F1 team from scratch is a cool thing. If there are hurdles, we need to get over them, and that will happen, but it’s up and down.”

PF1: I don’t think anyone enters F1 underestimating the enormity of the challenge. But did you think outright success was going to be as difficult to come by as it has been – has it been even more challenging than you anticipated?

GS: “No. I mean, I actually think we did pretty well. If you take out the years 2020 and ’21, I think we’re not doing bad!

“Obviously, now, we could do better, but we lost two years so we had to take a step back in 2021 to make two forwards. Then, to make the second step forward, it takes a little bit of time.

“In 2016, we scored points at our first race, ’17 we had a decent year, ’18 we finished fifth, and then, obviously, 2019 wasn’t good for us. And then 2020 came…

“I’m under no illusion. If I would have talked to you in 2016 that we win the World Championship in 10 years, people would know that we are dreaming because look at the competitors out there.

“It’s a different league what we are in, but we are fighting hard. With the budget cap in place, we have got a big opportunity in the midterm to do even better.

PF1: So the budget cap is fundamental for Haas?

GS: “Absolutely. We wouldn’t be here without it.

PF1: From the years already behind us, what do you view as being the absolute high point for the team? What was the moment you look back on and say ‘Yeah, that was f**king cool’?

GS: “Going out in 2016, the first race ready and scoring points. If I think back now, at the time, I didn’t realise how cool that was. Because I don’t think many people have done that before.

“If they’ve done that, it was different times but, in this time, to go into your first race… When we came in, there were so many naysayers. I mean, I don’t care about naysayers, I want to… I do my job, and I’m sure they are proven wrong, you know?

“So we proved them wrong. All of a sudden, we had a lot of friends because it was like ‘you will never get to the grid with the business model’ because we adopted a new business model, which a lot of people now copy or take parts of it themselves.

“When I think back now, we got out there in Australia, on the grid with two cars with no mistakes, and scored points – it’s pretty cool.”

PF1: What else? The pole position with Kevin last year?

GS: “Yeah. [And] finishing fifth in our third year, I think that will stick in the history [too].”

PF1: If I had to try guessing at the low points, I’d probably guess Romain’s crash in Bahrain in 2020…

GS: “I wouldn’t say that’s a low point because he got out pretty good. It was a difficult point, but was not a low point, because it would have been a low point if he came out [the wrong way].”

PF1: Aside from that, I’d guess maybe Silverstone 2019?

GS: “What happened here four years ago?”

PF1: On-track, there was the collision between Kevin and Romain while evaluating different setups, off-track, the publicity from the Rich Energy situation, and the off-track stuff with Kevin and the door…

GS: “Oh yeah! No, I think 2020 when the pandemic came, I think that was a lower point.

“Because we didn’t know if we could continue or not in 2020.

“Maybe, racing-wise, [Silverstone 2019] was the low point but, as a team, the low point was 2020 when the pandemic came. We didn’t go racing, we didn’t know if Mr. Haas would continue, and then we turned it around and we made something out of it. And we are still around, as you can see!”

PF1: What’s the end goal for you in Formula 1? Long-term, I presume you want to stay as team boss at Haas. But, at what point, do you say ‘I’ve achieved what I want to do’? Is there a point where you’ve set that for yourself?

GS: “No, I never set… you know, some things – if they’re over, they’re over and it’s fine. I never set points in my life where ‘I wanted to be the team principal of a team’.

“I never set this point. I got here in my own way, and I will go in my own way. When I don’t have the enthusiasm to do this anymore and the drive, I know when to stop. When I get up in the morning and I don’t have the drive that I want to get up to do this, then I stop, because… I’m fine to stop.

“I’ve done what I need to be doing, always hoping that my health will let me do this because there can be somebody else deciding for me that I have to stop. I hope that it’s not coming but my own goal is for the team to… as I said, 2021 was difficult, we’re building it up again, and I want to stabilise it.

“Then, at some stage, I can say if I leave, the team continues and that’s what I want to leave – a team in Formula 1, which I started, and then somebody else can take over, run it, and, hopefully, better than me.

“Honestly, I don’t mean that sarcastically, because I wish everybody good fortune going forward but, at the moment, I’m still motivated to get it to that stage to hand it over. I think, at the moment, it is not ready yet but, if the moment comes tomorrow, I’m fine as well. I have no regrets.”

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PF1: There was plenty of team boss musical chairs coming into 2023. Would that be something that you’d get involved in, or are you Haas to the end? Is this your passion project?

GS: “I think it has to be my passion project. I started this team, I went out and found an investor. If I leave… I never wanted another job, I would have had other jobs before, I didn’t want them.

“这是我想做的一件事。这是pretty cool to set up an F1 team in your lifetime. There are not many people doing that and, therefore, I feel committed to the people. We have got quite a few people here, who are still here from day one. I don’t get attracted by the neighbour’s greener grass. With Gene Haas, I know I have a very good boss, I’ve got a good relationship with him.

“He’s tough with me, but I’m tough with other people. So, if I do a bad job, I’m not afraid that he tells me. Not that he needs to tell me but, if he has a different opinion on it, I’m OK with it. I’m not getting upset about it.”

PF1: So no chance of seeing you jump to replace the likes of Toto Wolff? You’re Haas to the end?

GS: “No, I want to finish something here. I don’t know about to the end, that’s what you said!”

PF1: Within a few months of entering F1, the sport was sold to Liberty Media. Under them, the value of the team has skyrocketed – as it has for everyone due to the boom in popularity. Do you think Gene would ever be tempted to sell up and cash in on that investment?

GS: “He’s not tempted at the moment. But what Gene wants to do in two years? I have no idea. At the moment, he is pretty happy. I think he can be proud of it… he came in at the right time. Nobody else took the risk, but he took the risk to come here.

“The value, at the moment, there seems to be no limit to it. We have got offers, as many as you want, but he doesn’t want to sell it.”

PF1: Looking ahead to the future and to 2026 and the new engine regulations… I know Haas aren’t into the engine manufacturing side of things, but there’s been a bit of negativity about the direction the engine rules are going – suggestions of downshifting down the straights to keep the energy up, etc. Is this the direction F1 should be going?

GS: “I don’t think we have to, we have got two more years to develop. I’m a little bit careful here because, as you said yourself, I’m not involved straight away.

“But, in two years, what we are trying to develop, a technology, obviously we don’t have it now. Otherwise, we wouldn’t need to develop it.

“So I think, in two years, maybe we find ways to overcome it. But I think, if it doesn’t work out, then I think we still can make changes at the last minute – we don’t need to give up now.

“What we want to do with sustainability, with showing the future, we need to get more efficient, we need to get more out of these cars, so we need to find ideas.

“Already saying now that we just need to make it easier for us – I don’t really like that approach in general. It’s like ‘OK, there is a hurdle. Let’s change the hurdle and take it out of the way’.

“No, let’s see a way that we can jump the hurdle, and I think a lot of people try to do that. Meet that challenge head-on and if, six months before, you don’t get there, how can we mitigate it that you’re not having to do what… That wouldn’t be cool, clipping halfway down the straight.

“Then it’s just like an economy run. I’m not for that. But I think we can fix it if we put the effort in.”

PF1: As a smaller team, what do you think of the recent suggestion that a start date for development for the following year could be introduced? Every year since Haas entered, there has been a dominant team… could it be something that F1 looks into?

GS: “How would you enforce it? What is the year after and what is this year? Everything you do for this year is for next year, how would you divide it? We would create a problem for ourselves that we cannot solve.

“Because, even if you want to be honest, everything you do now is for next year. What I learn now, I apply next year, you know? Yes, there’s a design for a new chassis, but it’s the aero.

“The aero you develop this year, you will carry over what you learn to next year. So I think that’s something that’s very difficult to do.”

哈斯PF1:接下来是什么?有大量的investment coming into the sport, such as at Alpine, Sauber have Audi coming in, the potential Andretti entry tying up with General Motors – is that level of investment something you see Haas needing, or is Gene’s money alone enough?

GS: “I think it’s not about money, it’s about a business model. If we want to keep with our business model and work with somebody, we don’t need to do this investment. If some people think they need to do the investment, it’s fine with me. But there is more than one business model – we’re back to what we came up in 2014 with this new business model, we want to keep it at the moment.

“So we don’t need to make this investment. It’s not just about money In Formula 1, I think money sometimes is overrated – people think, if you invest 100 million, you can beat Mercedes.

“You can invest 100 million in your facilities and in your equipment, but then you still need the people, because the difference is the people. And running different business models is a people thing, it’s not an equipment thing. So I think there’s more than one way to do this and we’re doing it the way we want to do it.”

PF1: Coming back to you, the sport was hugely popular, but somewhat niche, when you entered the sport. Nowadays, due to F1’s popularity and that of Drive to Survive, everyone knows who Guenther Steiner is. Commercial aspects aside, which environment did you prefer? Did you like having a certain level of anonymity or do you prefer being the rockstar Guenther?

GS: “I never tried to be this, what I got to. When I started in 2016, I never tried to be this guy, where everybody knows my name and shouts my name. It’s a little bit weird to me.

“I never tried to be it. But, on the other side, I think it is good for Formula 1, not because of me, but because of the whole business growing because then we make it sustainable.

“If you’re a niche sport, you’re always on the edge. When does it go away? Motorsport is very difficult to keep alive because it costs a lot of money. Look at IndyCar, you know, it is a niche sport.

“I think it’s good in general for Formula 1 and, obviously, I ended up playing a role in this one. So you have to live with that, you cannot now say ‘Oh, I didn’t want this’ and run away.

“It happened and now I have to deal with it. Would it be nicer sometimes to walk in without being asked for selfies and autographs? Yeah but if it is there, you have to do it.”

PF1: Final one from me. 24 races next year, meaning you’re away a lot. Have you reached the point where you would like to be at home a bit more?

GS: “I haven’t reached that point yet. I still want to go. My wife would tell you differently if you speak with her tomorrow, but don’t tell her what I said!”

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