Haas F1 Team Principal Guenther Steiner Ready NASCAR TV Challenge
Former F1 champions Kimi Raikkonen and Jenson Button taking part in this Sunday’s NASCAR Cup event at Circuit of the Americas in Austin, Texas.
Haas F1 team principal Guenther Steiner will serve as a guest analyst for FOX Sports’ telecast.
Working for Haas F1, he had a lot of previous exposure with both Kimi and Jenson, but he’s also no stranger to the NASCAR Cup world.
When you spend nearly half the year on the road, attending Formula 1 races, testing and more, a rare weekend off is usually meant to be enjoyed, pretty much doing nothing.
But that won’t be the case Sunday for Haas F1 team principal Guenther Steiner. Instead of hanging around his suburban Charlotte, N.C. home, Steiner is back on the road again—but with a distinct twist.
With former F1 champions Kimi Raikkonen and Jenson Button taking part in this Sunday’s NASCAR Cup event at Circuit of the Americas in Austin, Texas, Steiner will serve as a guest analyst for FOX Sports’ telecast.
Steiner is looking forward to what he calls a “new challenge,” but it’s not really all that new, per se. During his time with the Haas organization, while his F1 duties have been his primary role, he also spent a period of time with Haas’ and Tony Stewart’s joint NASCAR Cup operation, as well.
“Sometimes in life, you have to do something new, a challenge, and therefore I did it,” the 57-year-old Steiner, who has been involved in motorsports for more than 35 years, told Autoweek in an exclusive interview.
When it was confirmed that Raikkonen and Button would be in this weekend’s race at COTA, Fox approached Steiner in January about being a guest analyst in the TV booth with regulars Mike Joy and Clint Bowyer, as well as another guest analyst, Kurt Busch. He liked the challenge of it, and quickly agreed.
“I don’t know what I was thinking, I should be doing nothing but instead I’m going to another race,” Steiner said with a laugh. “I looked at the calendar and said, ‘How do I explain this to my wife?’”
But that actually wound up being the easiest part: “just have her come along with me.”
So while in Austin, Steiner and wife Gertraud will be enjoying some great Texas food and entertainment, will watch what promises to be an exciting race (although rain is in the forecast), and then instead of returning to Charlotte, they’ll continue their journey after Austin with a stopover in Los Angeles before heading to Australia for next weekend’s F1 race in Melbourne.
“I'm not nervous at all,” Steiner said. “Now, obviously, (there is some nervousness) when you go into this, but that is part of the challenge, right? You need something to challenge you, something you haven't done.
“When I get there in the booth, I've never done (color commentary and analysis) but I’ve done interviews and all the all the other stuff. For sure, there will be a little bit of, I don’t know, if the butterflies are coming in. But I like that feeling of doing something new.”
A native of Italy, Steiner and his wife have lived in Charlotte for nearly 17 years. Working for Haas F1, he had a lot of previous exposure with both Kimi and Jenson, but he’s also no stranger to the NASCAR Cup world.
His game plan for Sunday is simple: just relax, do advance preparation and homework on drivers on other teams, and make it seem like it’s just a few guys getting together, talking racing.
"You need to concentrate and you need to focus,” Steiner said. “I don't think it will be difficult, but then when you realize what you're doing, it will be a little bit of nervousness, but I'm sure it will go away pretty quick. You know, it's not too difficult for me. I'm not losing any sleep over that, I can tell you that.”
Much of Steiner’s focus Sunday will be on how Raikkonen and Button perform. While they are both accomplished and winning road course drivers, piloting a sleek F1 open-wheel racer vs. a Cup car that typically weighs about 1,700 more pounds—and without power steering and other steering assistance—will definitely be a test for the two former F1 champs.
Raikkonen already has two NASCAR starts under his belt, a 27th-place finish in a 2011 Xfinity Series race at Charlotte, and wrecked out halfway through last year’s Cup race at Watkins Glen, finishing 37th.
But this will be a totally new experience for Button.
“Kimi knows what he’s getting into,” Steiner said. “But I think I can explain a little bit to the spectators how they're feeling because the cars are so very different. And also, the (F1 vs. NASCAR) atmosphere is different, the whole build up. I worked in NASCAR for one and a half years, so I know it pretty well, both sides of it, to explain it from outside not sitting in a car. It's not better or worse. It's just different.
“And I think if the NASCAR guys like Clint and Kurt ask or have some questions, why (Kimi and Jensen) are doing things like this, I maybe can explain to them why they're doing it, because they are used a different way of racing. Again, I'm not saying it's better or worse, it's just different. And I think I know the two differences pretty well, from both standpoints.”
One thing Busch and Bowyer are likely to ask Steiner before the race, how does he see the two former F1 stars matching up with their NASCAR counterparts and where they potentially may finish when the checkered flag falls?
“That’s very difficult,” Steiner said. “They shouldn’t underestimate the talent you need to win in NASCAR. Just because Jensen is a world champion or Kimi is a world champion, it doesn't mean that all of a sudden you can win a NASCAR race.
“I mean, it's very difficult to do and you need more than one race to do that. I would say they could call it a success if they end up in the top 10. That will be very successful, but winning will be very difficult because these are completely different machines and completely different events. Obviously, they are very talented drivers, but the machinery they are using, it's very different.
“It would be the same like saying, why a NASCAR champion cannot go straight into an F1 car and win a race. It's the same thing. (They are both) very specialized series and pretty far apart from each other. Still, I think it's pretty cool that they are taking this challenge.”
Steiner has paid close attention to how a number of former F1 drivers have come to the U.S. to race in IndyCar, including defending Indianapolis 500 champion Marcus Ericsson, Romain Grosjean and 2016 Indy 500 winner Alexander Rossi.
But IndyCar drivers aside, Steiner was asked about the chance of success for NASCAR drivers trying their luck in F1?
“No, NASCAR is a completely different ballpark,” Steiner said. “You need to make a big step backwards to move forward to NASCAR. And it's a big risk for an F1 driver or European single-seater driver to come to NASCAR because it is very different. I think what Kimi and Jensen are doing is brave and nice, but to make a career out of it, I think it's very difficult because the level of driving (in F1) is very high.
“And if you look, a lot of these drivers, they come from sprint cars, dirt cars, modifieds, and all that stuff, whereas you go from F4 to F3 to F2 to F1. I wouldn't say it's impossible (to go from NASCAR to F1), but it's a big step in the other direction. You’d need to be a brave man to do that.”
One thing Raikkonen and Button will get to do Sunday that they never were be able to do in F1 is beatin’ and bangin’ fenders with their rivals.
“They’re going to enjoy that,” Steiner said. "They can’t do that in F1. That is why they come here. They know that (Cup cars trading paint) is part of it and you need to live with that. It's something when you have done F1 cars for so long, you cannot do that because those cars break, but not like in NASCAR, where (beating and banging) is part of the game. They know that and I think they will quite like it. That is one of the reasons why they have come here.”
Follow Autoweek contributor Jerry Bonkowski on Twitter @JerryBonkowski