Craig Murto: America’s in the F1 game

Craig Murto

The season-opening Formula One Australian Grand Prix proved that for the first time in decades, America is in the game.

It’s been since the mid-’80s that a United States-based f1 team made the starting grid. When industrialist Gene Haas started Haas F1 a littler more than 18 months ago, many were skeptical. But with Ferrari power and construction by Dallara, the new team successfully debuted at Albert Park in Melbourne, Australia.

New qualifying procedures caught the team out and they started near the rear of the field, Romain Grosjean 19th and Easteban Gutierrez 20th. The qualifying results were disappointing, but did not represent the speed the car had on track during practice for the race or in preseason practice weeks earlier in Spain.

The team was certainly motivated, especially after some preseason verbal jousts with F1 head Bernie Ecclestone, who publicly said the team would never see the light of day without a sponsor. Team owner and chairman Haas responded by providing the team a sponsor, Haas Automation, his company and one of the largest CNC tool builders in the world.

If the name Gene Haas sounds familiar, it should: He is the founder and co-owner with Tony Stewart of the Stewart-Haas NASCAR Sprint Cup team.

But F1 is a different game; nothing else in sports is as expensive or complex. It was 2002 the last time a team scored points in its first race. But when the checkered flag flew on the first race of the 2016 F1 championship, Grosjean finished in sixth, well within the 10 points-paying positions.

The fortunate outcome was due in part by the misfortune of Grosjean’s teammate, Gutiérrez, who was taken out of the race in a spectacular accident involving McLaren driver Fernando Alonso. On lap 17 while entering Turn 3 of the 3.295-mile, 16-turn circuit, Alonso moved to the outside of Gutiérrez in an attempt to overtake. Alonso appeared to misjudge his closing speed, and his right-front wheel touched Gutiérrez’s left-rear wheel. The impact launched Alonso into the air and sent Gutiérrez spinning into the gravel trap. Alonso clipped the outside retaining wall and then sailed over the gravel trap. His battered car ended up on its side against another wall. Alonso quickly exited his car, to the relief of those who saw the accident. Gutiérrez came to check on his fellow driver, and the two walked away unscathed from the horrific scene.

With debris littering the track, officials displayed the red flag. The field came to pit lane where the cars were stopped, and the only work teams could do to their cars was change tires.

This is where opportunity knocked for the Haas F1 Team, and they knew enough to answer.

Teams must use both tire compounds provided during the course of a race. After starting the race on the Pirelli P Zero Yellow softs, the team took advantage of the red flag and changed Grosjean’s tires to the Pirelli P Zero White mediums. While the mediums did not have nearly as much grip as the softs, they also did not wear out as fast. When the race went back to green, Grosjean was good to go the distance without pitting. His strategy was to outlast and outrun as many of his counterparts as possible. The sixth-place finish was worth eight points, placing Haas F1 fifth in the constructor standings after its first event.

“A lot of people have contributed to this, so we have to thank all the people, starting with Guenther Steiner (team principal) who put all this together and kept pushing me to go out and try this,” said Haas before heading home from the race.

Grosjean certainly was happy that the team, based in Kannapolis, N.C., became a reality.

“A very good day at the office,” Grosjean said. “This feels like a win. For all the guys who worked so hard over the last few weeks, this is unbelievable. The guys did an amazing job and I told them, this is like a win for all of us. First race and here we are, P6. A happy day.”

A happy day, indeed. As Haas said, “There’s a new F1 team on the block and it’s an American F1 team, so we’re real proud of that.”

Veteran motorsports columnist Craig Murto is a Linden resident.