For a debut team in the world’s largest racing series, the Haas F1 Team made quite the splash in Formula 1 during Sunday’s Australian Grand Prix.
Positives, negatives and a truly special outcome led the team through their first Grand Prix weekend, but it all began with realistic expectations and a glimmer of potential following the two days of on-track progress at the Albert Park Grand Prix Circuit.
Starting with a wet FP1 session on Friday, the Haas duo of Esteban Gutiérrez and Romain Grosjean took to the track, with assurance in their minds as they didn’t want to damage their VF-16 chassis..
A 1:41.780-second lap for Gutiérrez and a 1:43.443 for Grosjean in the opening session were slowed by a few tenths as the rain persisted into FP2.
“The thing we don’t want to take is risk,” team principal Guenther Steiner said of the practice sessions.
Those words, unfortunately, came unwrapped at the very start of FP3 as Grosjean made contact with rookie driver Rio Haryanto in the pit lane – contact which resulted in the team replacing the floor on the No. 8 car in time for qualifying.
The dry session saw solid lap times of 1:28.284 for Gutierrez and 1:28.292 for Grosjean – once again giving the advantage to Gutiérrez in terms of leading the team in times.
With the trouble settled, the first attempt at the new elimination-style qualifying format would be put into place. With no shortage of confusion in regards to the 90-second elimination clock, both Haas drivers were unable to complete their much-improved lap times as the clock ran dry during their runs.
Qualifying 19th, Grosjean didn’t sugarcoat his disappointment following the troublesome session.
“I don’t like the new qualifying format,” he said of the now-ditched format.
“You’re 1.8 seconds ahead of your lap time – I think it would’ve put me P4 in Q1 and suddenly, you’re out and you don’t even get a chance to go to the end. That’s annoying because the car was good. Our baseline is good and in terms of performance, we were clearly able to go through [to Q2].”
For Gutiérrez, a 20th-place starting spot was far beneath what the Mexican driver wanted to see.
“It is very frustrating because – to know what is the lap time and not to be able to see it there on the results is very frustrating,” he said.
“The difference was not very much across the line. But this is how it is. We have to learn as a team, to do a quick turnaround, to improve on that side and try to get things better. We know the performance and the potential is there.”
Indeed, if there was one word to take before the lights went out on race day, ‘potential’ would fit perfectly.
“I’m happy, because if we look at our times in the second attempt they aren’t bad,” Steiner said. “So if somebody analyses them we are pretty good.”
With the build-up now in the mirrors, the start of the race was now underway. And finally, the beginning of Haas’ journey in F1.
It didn’t last long before there was concern developing in the Haas pit lane as Gutiérrez reported engine trouble after just three laps on track. The No. 21 car continuing on without stoppage, and further up the track, teammate Grosjean was able to stay in touch with the Sauber of Felipe Nasr as they raced for the 16th position.
As the season opener progressed, the early run for Gutiérrez soon turned terrifying as a massive accident occurred on Lap 17 when he collided with Fernando Alonso, causing the McLaren-Honda driver to flip wildly into the sand trap while Gutiérrez looped to a stop.
Climbing out of the damaged Haas chassis and hurrying to the assistance of Alonso, both drivers were released from medical care. Gutiérrez was visibly shaken following the accident, saying he was thankful for Alonso’s well-being.
“The most important [thing] is that Fernando is fine,” Gutiérrez said. “It was very scary to see and to live that moment. That was not very pleasant. I was relieved to see to see that Fernando was OK when I came out of the car, he came out pretty quickly.
The pressure was now on the shoulders of Grosjean. The red flag proved to be a massive benefit for the Frenchman – who hadn’t yet made his first pit stop – as the team was able to put medium tyres on the No. 8 before the field went back to racing on Lap 20. Changing tyres during the suspension gave Grosjean a free pit stop and no net loss of position.
Restarting in ninth spot, this was a true test of pace for the VF-16 as the Force India of Nico Hülkenburg, Williams of Valtteri Bottas and both Toro Rosso drivers of Max Verstappen and Carlos Sainz Jr. were, at one point, right on the back of Grosjean for position.
As the run carried on, the Ferrari of Kimi Räikkönen suffered an engine problem while running third. The issue advanced Grosjean to sixth spot with 34 laps to go.
Remarkably, Grosjean kept the advantage over the trailing competitors, bringing Haas to a sixth-placed finish on debut – exclaiming “This is a win for us!” over the radio as he finished the event.
“A bit lucky with the red flag in the race,” Grosjean admitted. “But nonetheless we had a good car. Here we are, P6 in the end. I told the guys that this is a win for you. This is a win for the whole team for all the work that has been done in the last few weeks, few months. They haven’t slept much. They made it possible and this is incredible.”
With eight points already in the bank for 2016, the team will ride on a wave of momentum into the next race at Bahrain.
“There is a lot of potential,” Grosjean said. “A new team, American, coming to Formula 1, scoring points. This is good for all of us. This shows that it is possible.”
Images via George Hitchens Photography