Guenther Steiner departure leaves big questions for Haas' F1 operation

What led to Guenther Steiner's exit from Haas? (1:49)

Katie George and Nate Saunders discuss the reasons behind Guenther Steiner leaving Haas after joining the F1 team in 2016. (1:49)

Guenther Steiner's departure from Haas is of course a loss for Formula One, but it is a huge blow to the team he is leaving behind and one which raises questions about the long-term ambitions of its owner, Gene Haas.

Wednesday's surprise announcement means the American team, for the first time since its debut in 2016, will go into a new season not under Steiner's popular stewardship. With Haas struggling to show any tangible progress in 2023, the departure of one of F1's most tenured team principals for a rookie team boss, Ayao Komatsu, represents a massive gamble by Gene Haas at what seems to be a critical moment in the team's existence.

On the surface, it is easy just to view Steiner as the funny, potty-mouthed man with an accent that's slightly hard to place -- it often surprises people to learn he is Italian, hailing from the northern Tyrol region, not German or Austrian. Steiner has been one of the cult characters and standout stars from Netflix documentary Drive to Survive, showcased his confrontations with drivers such as Kevin Magnussen and Nikita Mazepin.

Steiner's interactions with the latter, especially, were one of the standout points of the most recent DTS season - after a terse exchange between Mazepin and his engineer in one episode, Steiner is caught saying "F--- him. That's why people f------ hate you". It was just one example from a list of his standout quotes from the show. Steiner parlayed his huge popularity into a book, released last year, titled Surviving to Drive. His personality and openness to just about any question posed to him will be missed in the paddock this year.

But the comedic image Steiner cultivated for himself does a disservice to the job he has done at Haas and how valuable he has been. Steiner was the man Gene Haas turned to when first looking at the logistics for a potential F1 team in 2014 and 2015. With previous experience from Jaguar and Red Bull Steiner had experience with start-up F1 teams, while Haas, by his own admission, was an outsider with his racing knowledge mainly limited to NASCAR. It has been said behind the scenes that the Haas team as we know it today would not exist without the Italian and that seems like a fair assessment -- while Gene Haas' name has been on the equipment, Steiner has very much been the face of the outfit since 2016 and has overseen most aspects of the day-to-day operation since.

Steiner has been hugely popular within the team thanks to his frank and no-nonsense attitude. Magnussen, occasionally on the receiving end of Steiner's verbal vollies, once said he appreciates always knowing exactly where the Italian stands on an issue, for better or for worse. That bluntness and willingness to push for a cause he feels passionate about happens whether he is in public and behind closed doors. The lack of a Steiner quote in Haas' release on Wednesday suggested there have been some blunt conversations behind closed doors in recent days and weeks.

In that release last year's poor results, which saw Haas finish last, was cited as the main reason Gene Haas moved on from Steiner, which is supported by the fact technical director Simone Resta has also left his role. Lately there has been a growing tension over the issue of resources and investment -- or the lack thereof -- within the team. Bar a surprising fifth-place finish in 2018, Haas has been eighth, ninth or tenth in every other season it has competed in.

Haas was one of the teams facing ruin when COVID hit in early 2020 and it prompted a radical approach from Steiner for the following season to stay afloat: minimse on-track upgrades while maximising the money coming into the team. That led to the signing of Russian driver Nikita Mazepin and his father's company, Uralkali, and Mick Schumacher on a relatively cheap rookie deal. The hope was that injection of funds would provide the financial footing needed to eventually become a solid midfield team. That never happened -- Haas split from Uralkali and the Mazepins at the onset of Russia's invasion of Ukraine in early 2022.

That policy bore some fruit in early 2022, when the returning Magnussen scored some great top-six results but save for the Danish driver's popular pole position at the Brazilian Grand Prix towards the end of the year Haas once again slipped back relative to the rest. Then came last season, when it quickly became clear something was not quite right at the heart of the American team's whole operation. While the arrival of new title partner MoneyGram has been significant, a lack of incremental investment from above has hurt the team. Much of the equipment it takes to races is older than what its rivals are using, while its factory in Banbury, just west of the Silverstone circuit, is in dire need of upgrading, as is the paddock hospitality centre often used to woo potential partners. Add to that an aerodynamic department still split between the UK and a sectioned-off area of Ferrari's HQ in Italy and you start to see a list of deeper issues forming.

Haas was the anomaly to the rest in 2023. While other teams had moments of real promise, or upgrades which clearly propelled them up a rung or two up the competitive order, Haas laboured away through the season until October's U.S. Grand Prix and a long-awaited upgrade of their own. As 2023 upgrades went, it was not good -- Nico Hulkenberg went quicker after reverting to the old-spec car. All of this is not to say Steiner should bear no blame for Haas' stagnation in recent seasons, as F1 remains a results-driven business, but often it has felt like the team has been fighting with one arm tied behind its back.

That leads to wider point: one question about America's F1 team been getting louder and louder in the paddock recently and the departure of Steiner, the biggest proponent for increased investment and new facilities, means it will be front and center again in 2024.

What is Gene Haas' endgame?

For a while there has been a feeling among F1 insiders that Gene Haas doesn't quite get Formula One. Wednesday's announcement only deepens that idea. Replacing Steiner with a relative unknown outside of the small confines of the paddock in Komatsu, for starters, is a head-scratcher. In Tuesday's press release, Haas said the move "truly reflects my desire to compete properly in Formula One" but that desire is difficult to see during a time a smaller team like Haas could be thriving in Formula One.

When Haas joined in 2016 there was no financial control in F1 like the current budget cap, which limits year-to-year spend at around $135 million per season. Back then huge investment risked barely causing a ripple in terms of on-track results and Haas himself said publicly those conditions had made him consider whether it was worth continuing in F1 longer term. That's all changed now. The cap was introduced in 2021 with the purpose of bringing the field closer together and making progress more tangible for any team. Add into the mix the increase in revenues, which are split evenly among the teams, and there's never been a better economic foundation for F1 teams wanting to spend money and be successful. Yet, ironically for the sport's newest team, Haas seems to be stuck in the more conservative mindset of the past.

Just look at what Haas' direct rivals have been doing lately, or plan to do. AlphaTauri is moving some of its F1 operation to Red Bull's Milton Keynes facility. Sauber -- previously Alfa Romeo, now set to compete for two seasons as Stake -- will become a works Audi team from 2026 onwards. Williams is making slow but steady progress with the backing of Dorilton Capital.

Teams higher up the order are embracing the new reality of F1 too. Last year Alpine welcomed high-profile investment while Aston Martin owner Lawrence Stroll has made a huge splash with a new state-of-the-art facility at Silverstone. McLaren has just completed a new windtunnel and reigning world champions Red Bull plan to upgrade their current facility, which boss Christian Horner recently likened to a relic from the Cold War.

For Gene Haas, it is quite clear similar is required to ensure his team does not become the grid's castaway team. If he is unwilling to accept that new reality of F1 then another obvious scenario lays in front of him. Alpine sold 24 percent of its team last year to an investor group for just over $218 million, valuing Renault's F1 team at around $900 million. A Forbes article soon afterwards estimated Haas' value in the region of $780million. That might be a lofty number and it is an educated guess largely based on what investors were willing to pay for a chunk of Alpine, but clearly owning an F1 team is a more lucrative prospect than it has been in a long time. If F1 does block Andretti and Cadillac's bid to join as an 11th team, the value of any team's entry will be even stronger and it's not crazy to imagine a motivated buyer paying lofty sums to take Haas' place were he inclined to sell.

What next for Haas and Steiner?

Steiner's next move is hard to predict at this stage. He will be one of the few people out of work with "F1 team principal" on his resume, but sources have indicated a return to that kind of role seems unlikely. At Haas he had almost full control of everything and it is hard to see another team where he would not be sucked into dealing with the behind the scenes politics he dislikes. Sources have suggested to ESPN he might be more inclined to move into media, or move to another team in a wider, more hands-off role.

The appointment of Komatsu, who has risen from being Romain Grosjean's race engineer at Lotus, to trackside engineering director, and now team boss at Gene Haas' team will give the team some continuity going forward. It's a bold choice with the likes of ex-Ferrari boss Mattia Binotto available, although the Italian may have been just as outspoken as his friend Steiner on what is needed for the team to thrive. Haas plans to appoint a COO to take some of the load away from Komatsu and this might be a perfect opportunity to add some F1 experience to the equation. ESPN understands ex-Alpine boss Otmar Szafnauer should be available by mid-year, for example, and the American has displayed a willingness to remain in F1 when he is able to move elsewhere.

Whatever happens, Komatsu's performance will be scrutinised heavily throughout 2024, as will Gene Haas' motivations for continuing with his big-money asset.