“If you follow us, you can follow a comeback story” – the following is a full transcript of the interview we conducted with Guenther Steiner at the Haas F1 Team Facility in Banbury on 13 December 2023 while he was still in position as Team Principal of Haas, a team he played a crucial role in creating, and led from its inaugural season in 2016. On the 10 January he was let go by the team and replaced by Ayao Komatsu, a change that shocked many in the industry. 

There’s been an influx of a lot of new fans to F1, so imagine I’m a new F1 fan – why should I be excited about next season and why should I support Haas?

You should be excited about F1 because you never know what will happen in the next season. I think it’s a lot different to other sports, where you can go from one season to the next and everything stays the same. In F1, there’s always something new coming up, or somebody is performing better unexpectedly – this year we had McLaren performing unexpectedly well in the second half of the season. It could be anything at the beginning of next year, and I think that is what makes F1 so interesting – there is always something happening.

Next year, on the negative side, we don’t have any driver changes. But that doesn’t mean a lot, because it could be some other change that comes instead – there’s so many moving parts in F1.

And why should you be a Haas fan? Because hopefully we make a comeback. This year, we were not where we wanted to be, and next year we want to go back to where we were. We are working very hard on it, and hopefully, if you follow us, you can follow a comeback story.

You mentioned how the grid is the same from this year – we have pretty much the exact same grid apart from the De Vries/Ricciardo switch. This is really good for the current drivers who get another shot, especially for rookies who have only been here for one year. But for up-and-coming drivers, for example Théo Pourchaire, who won F2 this year, Ollie Bearman, who has done some FP sessions for you, or even Liam Lawson, who was in F1 replacing Ricciardo and then didn’t retain his seat, this could cause some problems for them in finding a seat. From a Team Principal’s point of view, do you see the grid changing much in the future, and do you see an opportunity for these drivers to get onto the grid soon?

Absolutely. Next year, [the grid] is the same, but at some point, you cannot stop ageing. If you age, as I well know, you get slower. At some stage, everybody finishes their career. If it isn’t next year, I think in 2025 there will be an opening for a lot of these young guys. We need to get them in – somebody will make the right decision; somebody will make the wrong decision. But I think, as much as it sounds now like a negative that we aren’t getting any new drivers next year, it will be a positive in the coming years, because we need new and young people. People will be retiring, some people will not be performing to the expectations, and so you need to replace them. 

Sometimes you need to take a risk – I think there’s a few good people out there now who hopefully are ready for F1. You never know if you are ready for F1 until you try it. You mentioned three of them [Pourchaire, Bearman and Lawson] – I think that in 2025, they have got a very good chance of being in an F1 car. Sometimes you have to wait a little bit – these are very young guys still. 

If you just go back 15-20 years (when you weren’t even born, maybe!) the drivers didn’t go to Formula 1 at 18 years old. That has only happened in the last 10 years that they come in so young. Before, you needed to have a lot of experience before you got a Formula 1 seat, and I think that is coming back a little bit.

In terms of driver profiles and driver recruitment: a few years ago, Haas had quite young drivers, and now you have two veteran, very experienced drivers. Was it a deliberate decision to move to a model of having two experienced drivers?

Absolutely. We had a very tough year in 2021 and we realised that we were not ready for young drivers at the time – we need to build the team up, because we are still the youngest team in Formula 1, and the only way to get experience is over time. So, we decided to bring in people with experience. Obviously, going forward, I think we face the same problem as explained before – although perhaps not even a problem, it could be an opportunity – that you need to have a young driver because there are no experienced ones out there anymore. We brought Magnussen back – he was not retired; he was driving somewhere else – and we brought Nico back who was not driving full time for three years. At some stage, we will run out of people we can take out of retirement! We need to go and take the next step, take somebody young, and just take the risk with that. Obviously, we have learnt a lot in the last few years, and by being there longer, we get more experience, and we can take on a young driver. At some stage, we will have no other way to do it.

So, your decision to move to two veterans is not a permanent decision, it was just fitting of the circumstances?

No – in the circumstances, it was the best decision at the time. Maybe it will be the best in one or two years to have a rookie driver, because we cannot keep our drivers forever, and as I said before, some of the drivers will retire. There will be quite a drastic influx of young drivers in the next three to five years. With Piastri, he came from F2, did one year as a reserve driver, came into Formula 1, and did very well. When you see something that’s actually working, you do it. Monkey see, monkey do. There’s a lot of it in life, and that’s what will happen.

As Team Principal, you are the manager of the team, and you have to deal with the people as well as the cars. In a season with such highs, lows, and challenges, how do you keep the morale of the team up, and how do you resolve any disputes between drivers, mechanics, and engineers, and keep everyone together?

Disputes are actually not as big as you think. It’s a very professional sport, a very mature sport, so you don’t have a lot of disputes. Otherwise, you just have to try to swap people around if you can see that somebody isn’t getting along, but normally once you get to F1, people are quite mature.

Keeping the morale up is sometimes not easy, but my thing is always to be honest and tell people what we can achieve. Never tell them something that is not achievable can be done. Say we are in a difficult position, and we need to do better, tell them what you are working on, give realistic targets and be honest about it. Just keep on working hard.

Never say something which is untrue or twisted to make them short-term happy. Short-term happiness doesn’t help you – you need to give them happiness in general. The best morale booster in racing is good results. In life it’s the best morale booster – whether you get good grades in school – it’s good morale. If you have bad grades, everything is negative. That’s what you try to do – obviously if you’re not having [good results], you need to try to explain to them how we can achieve them, in general as a company. 

An F1 team is a company with a lot of departments, and if one of the departments is not performing, the other ones are let down. You need people who are performing, you need to tell them that they are doing a good job, that they need to keep their heads down and keep doing what they’re doing, while you work on the departments which are not performing. We try to fix them, we better them, so as a whole team we come up again.

As aforementioned, there’s been an influx of a lot of new fans, some of which have come from Drive to Survive, which you and Haas have embraced along with other kinds of presences, such as social media. Was it a calculated decision to commit to new forms of media and, if so, what reasons did you have for making that decision? Did you think that your status as a bit of a celebrity in F1 with Drive to Survive has helped with marketing the team?

Drive to Survive was one of those things where, when you now look back, it has a lot of people who said, ‘I did this, I did that.’… It was a very good thing to happen, but when it was planned, did anyone have the vision that it would make such a big impact in acquiring new fans? I don’t think so. 

Obviously, now everybody will tell you “Yeah that’s why we did it!”, but I think Drive to Survive is very good because it shows people what actually happened in F1, whereas before it was the complete opposite – we always thought we were the most important thing, and we kept it for ourselves. Again, it’s hindsight. I didn’t know it would be so successful before, otherwise I would have done something about it, or I would have made loads of money out of it! It came out at the right time – obviously COVID was not a good time for society, but it was the right time for Drive to Survive – you need to see the positives. People were at home and didn’t know what to do, so watched it. The rise of streaming also – all of a sudden everybody was streaming. It was a good show in the end. Everybody tries to match it, but nobody gets there – it’s a good show, but it’s a good show because we gave it content. That content wasn’t out before. I think it was very good for F1 in general, just showing what we do. 

Did we embrace it intentionally? I could say now “yeahhh, we saw what was coming and we were this great visionary”. No! We just said, okay, let’s be part of it. A lot of teams were critical, they didn’t take part the first year. But the second year, they couldn’t wait to take part, because they saw how successful it was. We believed in it and said, ‘let’s give it a go.’ On the outside there was nothing to lose, because we were the newest team on the grid, so it was obviously a big opportunity for us – with nothing to lose you take it.

Has it helped commercially? I think so. Again, can I prove it? No. But I think it helps because people like to see people, they like to see a team which is present in social media and stuff like this. Obviously, our social media Stuart [Morrison] is the best and is the expert, and it was him that pushed social media. I think in general, Formula 1 before Liberty Media came didn’t embrace social media – it was under the old regime, and they couldn’t care less about social media. When Liberty came, they embraced it, obviously we jumped on the bandwagon – or we saw it as something that could help us – and we went for it. 

We are the youngest team, and with where we are now, I think we are actually better than we look on social media, because we were the last ones to start with it, whereas the other teams had maybe 10 years of advantage to us. It goes back to experience – it takes time to make it, and the only thing you cannot buy is time in life. I think we are doing pretty well – we need to do better, we need to perform better, we need to do better in everything – but in general, I think what is great at the moment in F1 is that we get a younger demographic – people like you. I guess you watch it? – I guess you wouldn’t be sitting here if you didn’t like it! It’s good for us, for us old people who have been doing this for more than 30 years, that some young people are interested in what we are doing. It’s what you want to do – you want to do something that people are interested in, because for us, racing for ourselves, which at some stage we thought we could, is not sustainable. We need to do it for the fans, because without the fans we are nothing.

Did you enjoy the process of doing Drive to Survive or did you find it quite intrusive sometimes?

I don’t really care about it, because, I mean, I put a mic on, and they do their stuff. Obviously, you have to do some of the sit-down interviews, but I do them anyway, like I’m doing now! It’s just part of my job. They get an hour from me every 3 or 4 months, not more. Yes, sometimes they do other things [more extended montages and scenes] like with Mattia but that’s actually fun – I try to do things which I personally enjoy – I do not do them for them, I do them for me and they film it. That is always my aim. So, I don’t think it’s intrusive to me.

When did you become aware that you had this (Stuart: say celebrity again, please – he hates it!) celebrity status?

It’s difficult to explain, because a lot of people try to achieve celebrity status, they achieve it, and then they are happy. So, I was not aware that this was happening. The first time I was aware that there was some kind of ‘wow’ effect was when I went to an F1 commission meeting, which is the team principals, the FIA president and the F1 CEO. It was in January of 2018, and all of them had seen one of the episodes the day before – I went in there and I hadn’t seen it. They all had to comment, and I was quite taken aback by it. I was like “whoa, what is happening?” They all went to me, “have you seen yourself in this?” “No, I haven’t”. It kept on going, and I was like “just leave me alone, have you not got anything better to do?”, But they kept on speaking about it! 

I realised there was something happening then – I obviously knew what was in there because I was part of it. I didn’t see it, but I could imagine what they showed after the comments, so you realise “Jesus, something happened here!” And then, that is when I decided not to watch it, not to get influenced by it.

Then we went to Australia – they released it just before Australia and people watched it on the plane. All of a sudden, everybody knows – or not everybody, it raises gradually – people get to know you. In the beginning it’s quite difficult, because people know you, but you don’t know them, which is something I never worked for or tried to achieve, so it was surprising, but after a while you get used to it. 

Not everybody who knows you, you know back. So, it’s not easy, because some of the people you know you think you don’t know so you embarrass yourself! It’s just one of those things – it just happens, and you have to deal with it. On the other hand, there are worse things than that.

Having worked in a variety of teams like Jaguar and Red Bull, how does Haas, a very new, independent, privateer team compare to working in the bigger organisations?

Formula 1 when I was at Jaguar or Red bull was not what it is now – it was a completely different sport. Haas started from nothing. The other teams were established – they were there, you just moved in as an employee. With Haas, I started going around finding an investor for it. So, it’s a completely different approach.

The sport has become a lot more professional. The people are much more trained, they are much more knowledgeable. They are not just ‘motorsport people’, there are a lot of very professional people in a lot of areas. It’s just more sophisticated than it was then.

Working for a small team, the advantage is that you are closer to everything that is happening. Some people like to work in a team like Haas because you know all the people. In a big team, you maybe know 10% of the people that work there. Some people like to be a small part in a big operation, some people like different things. I personally like something like this better – I am always direct to everybody. I have access to anything and anybody.

Haas is the only American team on the grid, and F1 is increasingly prominent in the USA in recent years, especially with more races in the USA. Is the team’s ‘Americanness’ something that you want to emphasise in its marketing and branding, or is that not so important?

When we started, it was not so important, because Haas Automation wanted to get global recognition. It was not so important at the time because Formula 1 in America wasn’t so prominent – obviously that has changed. On the other hand, Formula 1 is such a global sport that nobody puts pressure on Mercedes to be the German team because it’s actually an English team: it’s a global sport. Red Bull is running under an Austrian flag, but a lot of people think that because it’s based in England, it’s an English team. I think the only real national team is Ferrari, because it’s Ferrari, it’s an Italian team. 

Will we go more the American way in the future? Maybe, yes, because we have picked up so much more audience in the USA so it could be an advantage to represent it. But big sponsors normally come into Formula 1 to be global – they are not the national sponsor anymore. It’s brands that are global. MoneyGram, our title sponsor, for example, came to F1 an American company, and they like that we are American as well, but in the end (obviously they have a customer base in America) they are trying to expand their global business, and it’s the same with Haas Automation. It is important, and maybe it gets a bit more important now that we have a bigger audience in the USA, so we are doing a little bit more for America. Is it important? Yes, but is it crucial? No.

How much of your time is taken up by the more commercial side as opposed to the technical side? How do you go about creating these partnerships with sponsors?

Sometimes you take a lot of time for sponsors when you really push to find some – it takes a lot of time because you need to be involved. We try to have people that we like to be around and people that like to be around us. We have a good relationship with our partners. I take my time, but it depends. There is so much to do in an F1 team, so you can’t really say it’s 30% – sometimes it’s 70%, or maybe 5%. But in general, over the year, I would say I spend about 25% of my time on commercial sponsorships.

Do you think that the amount of money that F1 generates or consumes makes it more difficult for smaller, newer, and up-and-coming teams? Do you think that the prize money structure, with such huge gaps in financial rewards for each place gained in the constructors’ championship, creates a vicious cycle for smaller teams, where they constantly receive less money compared to their competitors?

It was like that. What you explained now – it was exactly like that until 5 years ago. It was a vicious cycle, that’s the best way to express it. If you were down, you couldn’t get back up because you couldn’t find the sponsors. 

It has changed since Liberty Media took over – the new concord agreement, the new financial regulations with the budget cap – there is now a maximum that anyone can spend. Obviously, the rich teams, the big teams, they can pick the best drivers because the driver salary is outside of the budget cap, and they can give some benefits outside of the budget cap to their people, so they attract better or the best people, but it’s very close now. Also with the new commercial agreement, which was signed in 2020 I think it was, the distribution of the prize money is much closer than it was before. Without those two regulations and commercial agreements, Formula 1 would be in a very difficult place. You would have three, four, maybe five teams that could participate, and the other ones would be just there until they went bankrupt because they couldn’t afford it. Then, the big teams spent three to four times what the small teams spent, and that’s just not sustainable. You could never have success. With the gap in between the prize money being so big at the time, you could never catch up, you could never make it there. 

I think this was partly fixed with the budget cap and better distribution. So now, you need to do a good job. It’s more down to talent and how you work to make it happen, but I think commercially we are in a good place. Not a perfect place – not everybody thinks every team is profitable – no, we are not – but it’s possible to get there.

Is there anything that you would change about the rules or the organisation of F1?

Yeah, that the smaller teams get more money than the big ones so they can catch up – that would be a good change!

Joking aside, at the moment I think we are in a pretty good place. I think we have to work a little bit on the sporting regulations, and make sure that we are not overcomplicating the sport for the viewer. We have a few rules in place where viewers would be like “I don’t really understand it”, like track limits, which confuses people. I mean, you guys laugh, and you’re entitled to laugh because I laugh about it too, but we need to fix these things because they are not good for the spectator. If the spectator doesn’t understand the sport, why would they watch it? It’s just one of those things we need to be clear about, and we need to do some work. 

Otherwise, on the financial side, economic side of it, I think the sport is in a good place. We just need to make sure that with the fanbase, the audience, we stabilise what we have got, and not just try to increase it more and more. We have a good audience now; we have attracted a lot of young people. We have to keep them happy before we try to grow it anymore.

One issue which comes up a lot in the media is the structure of a race weekend, especially the sprint weekends. The new sprint calendar for next year has just been announced – what are your thoughts on the sprint structure: how it is now, how it has changed, and what’s coming?

I think the sprint races are good for Formula 1. I wouldn’t like it if it was every race – I think it’s good if you’ve got 24 races, we have 6 sprint weekends, so people get variety in the sport. We now have completely different tracks to each other, and every time we have something to talk about when a race is on, about what is different. 

The structure – I think people like it how it is now, but people want to change it because some people think that if you qualify on Friday for Sunday, it confuses people a little bit. And then do we need to reverse the grid? They’re all talking points, but we haven’t found something so obvious that we need to change it. We keep on saying that we want to make changes to the weekend schedule, to change it around or maybe even introduce a points system for qualifying, but I think we haven’t thought it through enough and nobody has put enough brain power into it to say, this will definitely make it better. 

At some stage, we need to say, hey, let’s stabilise this if we can live with it, or do we need to do something different. We try to think about it a little bit, but the last meeting we had it was a little bit too confusing – we wanted too many things, and at the end we were like “what do we actually want to do?” Let’s take a step back, maybe, before making a change. Maybe we will do something next year, but in general, I am positive for the sprint weekends, for 6 of them a year.

In terms of when you’re making these decisions for the sport, how much interaction is there between the team principals on the grid, and how much do you discuss these ideas? Or are they very much isolated teams?

I think the collaboration is pretty good between all ten teams. We have got a good dialogue going on, and normally we find that we agree to something. I’ve not seen it like this before, where everybody sees the success we are having, and if we have success, it’s easier to agree on something than when it’s not successful. So, I think at the moment, it’s pretty positive.

Finally, looking forward to the 2024 season, what are the plans and ambitions for Haas, and what would count as a success? What should fans keep an eye out for?

Obviously, we want to get better than where we were this year – I think this year we didn’t start off badly, but we ended not so good. But we want to get better, we want to get into the midfield. We have two good drivers, we have a good team, and a success would be to be in the midfield again. That is what we are aiming for, we are working hard for it, and hopefully we can achieve it.

Our special thanks must go to Guenther Steiner, Stuart Morrison and Jessica Borrell for making this interview possible.