Title sponsorship issues, rows about car design, live-threatening crashes for its drivers – the list of dramas that Haas team principal Guenther Steiner has had to deal with during the team’s time in Formula 1 extends far beyond even those examples.
But as the head of a team that was preparing for a second season with Russian driver Nikita Mazepin and the accompanying financial backing from his home country, Steiner had another crisis to respond to when Russia invaded Ukraine in February, triggering wide-reaching international sanctions. Haas quickly cut ties with both Mazepin and title sponsor Uralkali.
“It never happened!” Steiner says. “Which February?! Yeah, that’s right up there (of problems to handle), but as much as it wasn’t something I wanted to deal with, we knew what needed to be done. So it was about how to execute it without hurting any people and doing the least amount of damage.
“It could have done damage because all the other sponsors wouldn’t have been happy. A lot of people wouldn’t have been happy if we didn’t do what we did. Therefore it wasn’t an easy decision, but it was a clear decision (about) what needed to be done, because as much as the people involved with it didn’t do anything wrong, it’s the association with it.
“Yeah, it was distracting, but we are pretty used to that, so in the end it’s like ‘Alright then, let’s deal with this as well!’. Honestly, it is like this. You cannot avoid it, there is no way out. There is a challenge and let’s try and solve it in the best way for everybody involved as possible at that moment in time and get done with it, instead of dragging it out.”
Old news, perhaps, but it’s important to reflect on the starting point to the 2022 season for Haas, because it seems like a long time ago.
And when Steiner was handling such challenges, it was off the back of a hugely difficult 2021 for the team. In taking on two rookies, including the controversial hire of Mazepin and using the money that came from his Russian backers to safeguard the team’s future, Haas effectively wrote off last season to focus on the new regulations.
Steiner maintained that Haas could get back to its previous level that delivered fifth in the constructors’ championship in 2018, even though the following three years yielded ninth, ninth and 10th – out of 10.
With 34 points from the opening 13 races of this year and holding seventh in the championship, Steiner has been proven right, but his overwhelming reaction is more of relief than vindication.
“You know, at the time you don’t really realize it,” be says. “Maybe I’ll realize in a few years what happened – in this team with the ups and downs and the things we did, it will maybe be when we look back and think ‘Wow, how did we deal with all this?’. But it didn’t all come together at once, it was step-by-step and you get out of it.
“Obviously I was happy that it was so good, because for the team I kept on telling them ‘Keep your head up, keep on going’, and then when you deliver it’s like ‘Woah, at least I didn’t tell them bollocks!’ you know? That was more for me, because I don’t like to tell people things that don’t happen.
Haas endured an awful 2021 and then had its 2022 preparations derailed by the fallout surrounding Nikita Mazepin and Uralkali, but 11th-hour replacement Kevin Magnussen helped usher in a reset with a fifth place straight out of the gate in Australia. Carl Bingham/Motorsport Images
“I believed in it, but I had no security that it would happen like this and I was always honest about that. Then it all went well so I was like ‘Thank God, at least the people know why they work so hard and kept their head up when we had a very bad season in 2021’.”
That’s not to say he doesn’t have pride in what Haas has achieved this year, with the opening race of the season standing out: “Finishing fifth in Bahrain, that was quite a good moment. Because it was like ‘we are back after two years of ****’, you know?”
Steiner had faith, even if he couldn’t guarantee this year would be a brighter one for Haas, but not everybody shared his belief. That resulted in the team seeing a higher-than-usual turnover of staff over the winter, and some are now second-guessing their decision to leave.
“Some people left; I would say 20% more than normal turnover left,” Steiner says. “There was more than one reason, but for sure some people didn’t believe we would come back. It was mainly people who were not there for a long time – most of the people who were there for a long time, they stayed, because I think they believe in the team and they like this team and the atmosphere; what we are doing. Most of them.
“We have got quite a good bunch of people who are still here since day one or day two. I think that shows that people believed in it, but I wouldn’t say it was difficult because I am always of the opinion that if somebody doesn’t want to stay then there’s no point holding them back. You can tell them, you can explain what we are going to go through, but I wouldn’t offer them money to stay if somebody doesn’t believe in it anymore.
“And I’m not getting upset, either – you just need to make the move, because some people left and some people now call us to ask if they can come back because they realized that the neighbor’s grass is actually not greener.
“So they went to other teams and then they called back saying ‘Oh, if there is an opening coming up, would you consider me?’. ‘Sure!’ If an opening is coming, I’m not a guy who holds a grudge. If you left because you thought somewhere was better or you made an improvement in your career which we cannot give you, fine with me.”
After navigating the team’s way through the COVID pandemic and avoiding the potentially damaging scenario at the start of the season, Steiner is confident Haas is in a strong place to move forward.
It doesn’t currently operate at the budget cap, but is likely to in 2023 thanks to an increased constructors’ championship payout, and he believes that will allow the team to aim higher than it eve has before.
“I think at the end of these regulations – 2024, 2025 – not to win races, but at least hopefully we can aim for podiums,” he says. “That is the aim. But all of the other teams have got the same opportunity, they are also in the budget cap, we must never forget that.
“We still need to do a good job. And that’s the thing, now it’s on us as the technical team to deliver the results we want to get. It’s not a financial issue anymore.”
It’s about time Steiner had fewer issues to deal with, to be fair, but as 2022 has shown once again, he seems to always find ways of handling them.