The 2018 Haas F1 car is not a ‘Ferrari clone’ but neither is it in the spirit of Formula 1. And that is where the problem lies as the issue of undefined technology partnerships rears its head once more.
The pace of Romain Grosjean and Kevin Magnussen during the recent Australian Grand Prix raised eyebrows and hackles in equal measure. Accusations were leveled that the Haas is nothing but a Ferrari replica mated to a current-spec Ferrari engine.
Haas isn’t playing in the spirit of F1
The insinuation from rivals teams in the ‘best of the rest’ category that the Haas approach is not in keeping with F1’s spirit of competition. That it is a customer car in everything but designation.
Italian racing car specialist Dallara designs and builds what is known as the Haas VF-18. And it just happens to use Ferrari’s windtunnel in the process.
That is the first black mark against the American team in the eyes of independent constructors like McLaren and Force India who are leading calls for an investigation into the Ferrari/Haas technical relationship.
Focusing limited budget on enhancing, not building
Secondly the Haas team makes use of F1’s new rules on buying in components to the limit. Sourcing gearboxes from Ferrari for example and reducing the need for research and development investment.
Without its own design teams, engine department, gearbox and drivetrain specialists the Haas outfit operates on a reputed $120m per season budget. Pocket change when considered against the reported spends by F1’s top 3 teams – Mercedes, Ferrari and Red Bull Racing – each in excess of $400m.
The sporting model used by Haas allows them to focus their limited budget on enhancing rather than designing and building their car. Instead of investing in the design and manufacturing of a chassis and key components from the ground up, they are using what they have far more efficiently.
A similar approach for Sauber or Force India would be akin to doubling their working budget and human resources almost overnight.
For F1’s commercial owners Liberty Media, any continuation in the striking performances by Haas will present a problem. Teams outside the big 3 will begin to ask fundamental questions.
Chiefly is it worth designing our own cars and components anymore? Why play by the spirit of F1 competition that (used to) encourage innovation and engineering ingenuity?
Is the Haas a clone or a customer car?
Whether the FIA, Liberty Media or teams themselves wish to admit it, customer cars have re-entered Formula 1 by stealth. Pandora’s box has been opened and it will prove very difficult to close again without consequences.
If F1 deems the Haas to be a customer car in all but name then the American team will almost certainly leave the sport. A traditional model of F1 participation would be financial suicide for Gene Haas, the eponymous team owner.
But it would shut the door on customer cars coming in by the rear entrance and put the focus back on the groundbreaking innovation that gave us ground-effect, active suspension and double diffusers.
Decide the Haas model is appropriate – and perhaps economically essential for the sport’s survival – and independents like Force India, Sauber and Williams will look closely at running their own stealth customer cars.
A difficult question with a difficult answer
Within a short period of time we could be looking at an F1 grid made up of cars from less than half a dozen chassis manufacturers and powered by three engine suppliers. A scenario that would mean Liberty and F1 is even more at mercy of a select few than it already is.
This is not what Liberty had been hoping to look at in 2018. It wanted to focus on arresting declining TV viewing figures, improving spectator engagement, rolling out new broadcast platforms and dealing with fairly processional racing.
Instead they will be trying to decide whether to chase away their newest team (and in effect close the door on new entrants) or keep the peace with those that have been through thick and (increasingly) thin.
Undoubtedly they will be keeping their fingers crossed that Melbourne was just a flash in the pan for Haas F1 and the normal pecking order, as defined by budget, is restored for the rest of the season.