It is now up to new team principal Ayao Komatsu to lead Haas into its Guenther Steiner-less era, in what is the most senior role of the 48-year-old’s career.
Team owner Gene Haas allowed Steiner to remain in charge of the on-track product for eight years, despite the fact that the team has yet to produce even one podium finish.
Since 2019, Haas has finished ninth, ninth, tenth, eighth and tenth in the 10-team F1 Constructors' Standings.
The Haas F1 Team, which began racing in Formula 1 in 2016, once again slipped to last in the 2023 F1 Constructors' Standings—a result team owner Gene Haas called “embarrassing."
This season, the Haas team owner has replaced original team principal Guenther Steiner with Ayao Komatsu. Kamatsu's hire is an internal promotion and the question begs: Is there any evidence to suggest Komatsu lead the American team out of the cellar in at least back into the sport's midfield?
New-Look Management Team
The exit of Steiner leaves an enormous hole within the Haas organization and the wider Formula 1 paddock. Steiner’s idiosyncratic style, combined with his atypical accent, made him an unlikely breakout star of the Netflix series Drive to Survive—but Steiner was no idiot.
It was Steiner who convinced Gene Haas in 2014 on the merits of entering Formula 1 with his own team, and he was a hard taskmaster who would take no fools. While team owner Haas shied the limelight and the F1 media, it was Steiner front-and-center, as its de facto figurehead.
It is now up to Komatsu to lead Haas into its Steiner-less era, in what is the most senior role of the 48-year-old’s career. Komatsu entered Formula 1 with BAR in the early 2000s. He was aided by compatriot and former F1 driver and Indianapolis 500 winner Takuma Sato after they struck up a friendship, before moving across to Renault/Lotus. There, he worked alongside Romain Grosjean and joined the Frenchman in moving across to start-up Haas in 2016, becoming chief race engineer, before taking on the role of director of engineering.
It will be Komatsu’s responsibility to empower the workforce, and provide a structure, within the same financial framework and organizational landscape that Steiner oversaw, and in which owner Gene Haas still believes.
It is telling that Haas is in the process of hiring a European-based chief operating officer to manage non-competition matters and departments. That will free Komatsu to focus purely on the race team and performance without being overwhelmed by external matters.
“Obviously certain areas I am more familiar with, such as the technical side, certain areas I’m less familiar with, such as the commercial side and marketing side,” said Komatsu during a small media roundtable at Haas’ factory last month. “When I was given this opportunity I just made it clear to Gene: ‘You know my expertise, there’s no point in me trying to focus on the marketing side and trying to get sponsorship because that’s not where my skillset is.
“This team means a lot to me because I was here since day one. I know what potential this team has got, so in certain areas I can see ‘Oh maybe you can look at doing things in a different way’ etc. So in that sense, we’re not short of ideas, if you like, so there’s plenty of areas that we can take a look to improve the team.”
Komatsu, who does share a liking for a profanity with his predecessor, was keen to stress that “I’m not trying to be Guenther Steiner. He’s a very different person. Gene knows that and if Gene wanted a Guenther Steiner replacement in that way, he would have appointed somebody else. So I understand that Gene wants something different and I will try to be the best version of myself rather than trying to be somebody else.”
Reacting to a Changing Landscape
When Haas entered Formula 1 in 2016 its model of doing the bare minimum to qualify as a constructor while aligning itself with Ferrari was laudable.
It finished in eighth place, showing the benefits of the approach, especially in a landscape where one team—Manor—collapsed, while other teams were battling crumbling infrastructure and financial limitations.
Haas improved to a startling fifth in 2018, but that proved to be a standout anomaly rather than the platform from which to strengthen. In the five seasons since its peak, Haas’ rivals have all developed to leave the squad looking outdated and out-of-fashion.
McLaren and Aston Martin (then Force India)—which Haas beat in 2018—have since been transformed by management changes, huge investment (a new factory in Aston Martin’s case), and now operate in a different league.
Their respective nadirs coincided with Haas’ peak—making them something of an unfair comparison—but the team’s trio of 2023 opponents at the rear of the grid are either readying for new partnerships or investing in fresh infrastructure.
Dorilton Capital has invested heavily in Williams since acquiring the team mid-2020 and have placed trust in James Vowles to set its focus long-term.
RB is forging a closer partnership with parent Red Bull, and having outgrown its existing UK facility in Bicester, where the lease is up, is set to relocate to Milton Keynes.
Sauber endured a fairly lackluster season, and its rebranding as Stake is hardly enthralling, but it at least has the carrot of Audi’s takeover from 2026 and is building toward that milestone.
Haas’ planned recruitment of a COO is a positive step, but overall Haas’ approach is that the equipment and infrastructure is there and it is up to the team to become more effective in its utilization.
Haas has its U.K. base in Banbury. It's a modest home compared to some rivals, while its design office is in a part of Maranello segmented from Ferrari’s factory. There is also chassis builder Dallara, in Parma, as well as the organization’s actual overall headquarters in Kannapolis, N.C.
Even Komatsu concedes that it is hardly an ideal approach, but it is his task to oblige to Gene Haas’ demand to find more performance.
“Of course, if you’re setting up on a blank sheet of paper, you’re not going to set up an F1 team with two separate factories in the UK and Italy, but that’s how we started and that was very beneficial in ’16, ’17, ’18 to get off the ground,” Komatsu says. “Then of course the landscape changes, certain regulation changes happen, so the team needs to develop. So again, those kind of things we need to assess continuously. But again, if you ask me is that ideal, having a UK office here and an Italy office there? No. But is that a main constraint? No. Can we do better? Absolutely yes. So that’s what I’m focused on.”
Komatsu is keen not to discredit the work of his predecessor but believes there are elements that can be refined.
— MoneyGram Haas F1 Team (@HaasF1Team) February 2, 2024
“You’ve got short-term vision, medium-term vision, long-term vision, of course you’ve got to have all of those,” says Komatsu. “But then at the same time, in the short term, there are plenty of things we can do better. Then I’d like to see once we do that how far we can get there. Then there will be a parallel discussion going OK, you need to get to the next stage, what area needs to improve, investment, etc. But before we get to that stage, there are plenty of things to do. I haven’t seen the ceiling yet with what we’ve currently got.”
There have already been changes, with former chief designer Andrea de Zordo taking on the role of technical director, vacated by the departed Simona Resta. Haas is still in the process of finding a replacement in that chief designer role and is set to promote from within.
The team has also created the role of Performance director. Former head of vehicle Performance Damien Brayshaw will fulfil that role.
The Technical and Development Side
Haas has always been dreadful at in-season development though 2023 was a new low point. It could not get on top of its chronic tire issues in race spec and its update package did nothing to assist its cause.
Nico Hulkenberg—a spiky character at the best of times—was insistent that the old-spec car was faster, not quite throwing the team under the bus, but hardly concealing his irritation with the situation.
Kevin Magnussen was more constructive but did so behind the noble shield of accepting his own role in the 2023 setbacks, having been largely outperformed by Hulkenberg, amid struggles getting comfortable with the VF-23.
“I don't think we understand everything,” says Komatsu on the tire issues. “I think we understand a significant part of it. But then again, the only proof is if we can produce a car that can deal with that problem. So I don't like to sit here (in January) and say that we understand it 100 per cent. We have a decent idea why and where we need to focus on.”
Komatsu is sure that the VF-24, which will make its on-track debut at a shakedown at Silverstone on February, will be a more competitive beast than its predecessor but was bluntly honest about Haas’ early-season prospects.
“Out of the gates in Bahrain, I still think we’re going to be towards the back of the grid, if not last,” said Komatsu, cautioning that the launch-spec VF-24 was impacted by the resources Haas poured into the VF-23’s Austin upgrade.
“To understand the problem of the VF-23, creating the updated car in Austin was pretty useful. Mainly because when we split the cars and Nico went back to the previous spec while Kevin continued with the new, we could see the performance differences in varying speeds of corner. We got a lot of data from that, and that confirmed where we needed to concentrate our development for the VF-24.
“It was a big exercise to do, and it did delay our VF-24 development, but if we hadn’t done it and then had a huge surprise come pre-season testing, it would’ve hurt us immensely. It was a difficult balance, and doing the Austin package means the VF-24 launch car may not be as advanced as it could be, but at the same time we have better confidence in what we’re putting out on track now. We’re all realistic that our launch car in Bahrain will not necessarily turn heads, but our concentration and focus is to work with the VF-24, understand the car, and then define the correct pathway to upgrade the car.
“The team is recovering well, but you have to be realistic because our competitors are smart and they’re finding performance as well. We know how much we’ve gained since the end of the 2023 season, but I expect everyone else to be finding at least the same amount of gain. At least we should have a better base in the VF-24. With a better cohesion within the team to find performance, we can aim to bring upgrades relatively early on in the season.”
That in-season development, and addressing its weaknesses, also manifested itself way before 2023, with Haas’ 2019 car unpredictable and poorly developed. Haas then wrote off in-season updates in 2020 and 2021, amid the pandemic, while it started F1’s new regulations in 2022 encouragingly before fading.
“From ’19 to '23, the problem is very different - it may look the same, but the problem is very different,” Komatsu says. “But the working practice is the core, right? And then as we alluded to, if we're not working in a very integrated manner, communicating properly between, let's say, the aero department in Italy, and let's say the tire department in UK, that’s a problem, right?
“So, again, that working culture, practice as you mentioned, that’s something I am really focused on improving. So again, move as one. We’ve got a real car issue, accept it, and then communicate, and then discuss it openly with all the relevant people.”
Boss Change Shows Haas’ Commitment
Gene Haas’ commitment to Formula 1 has been questioned amid Haas’ slump and his relatively low-key profile. After all, Haas allowed Steiner to remain in charge of the on-track product for eight years, despite the fact that the team has yet to produce so much as one podium finish.
Haas has insisted he is not interested in selling, which of course could simply be a bargaining tactic, and Komatsu believes the changes prove the team owner is fully onboard with Formula 1 as the team creeps towards its second decade.
“Obviously you saw and heard how unhappy Gene was,” Komatsu said. “Of course, who’s going to be happy competing in last place? It is embarrassing, it really is embarrassing.
“I think it’s positive that Gene is unhappy where we are. If the people in the team think ‘OK, we’re last, and we’re not sure where we’re going, Gene doesn’t say anything,’ then OK, is Gene happy just making up numbers and being P10? That’s clearly not the case. So that’s actually motivating for everyone here: OK, Gene is serious, he wants to improve the team, so let’s do it together.
“He's definitely committed. Otherwise, he doesn't have to do this move, change direction. It's a huge thing for him as well. You know, Guenther was instrumental in getting the team off the ground. So for him to do what he did, the decision he's taken, if he wasn't committed, why would you do it?”
Formula 1 has never been closer—even accounting for the runaway Max Verstappen train —and Haas wound up as the best worst team in history last year. In the worst car Hulkenberg qualified eighth at the last race in Abu Dhabi, ahead of a Red Bull, a Mercedes and a Ferrari. That is a world away from some of the hopeless tail-end Charlies of years gone by.
The bigger question is what the goal is long-term for Haas.
Establishing itself as a credible Formula 1 outfit was a huge success, as was marked by the team's fifth-place finish in only its third year. However, since 2019, its season finishes in the points have been ninth, ninth, tenth, eighth and tenth.
There’s little compelling evidence to bet against a third season in four at the rear, and already the 2026 regulatory overhaul looms on the horizon.