Once the dust settled on the shock news of Guenther Steiner’s departure from Haas — if indeed it has settled yet — the new team principal is helping clear up some of the debris left in the aftermath.
Ayao Komatsu has been tasked with proving that the current Haas model can work, or at the very least that it is operating far from its current potential and that he is the man who can get the most out of it.
As I’ve previously written, there are much bigger issues that Haas faces as a team than a simple change of team principal can overcome due to the way Formula 1 has evolved. But that doesn’t mean change can’t have a positive impact within those existing limitations.
Komatsu was willing to discuss what he thinks Haas needs to be better at when he invited media to the team’s Banbury facility in the United Kingdom this week. At the same time, he says he hasn’t got big shoes to fill, because the Japanese engineer views himself as a very different character.
“Of course, I’m not trying to be Guenther Steiner,” Komatsu said. “He’s a very different person. We got on, honestly, really, really well. We respect each other, we respect each other’s positions and job roles during work and off work as well. We used to go to dinner quite a lot as well over a race weekend — again, not to talk about work but because we got on pretty well.
“But I’m not here to replace Guenther Steiner as a character. He’s a very different character, as you know, and he has got very different strengths and weaknesses to me. I’m not trying to be someone else and Gene [Haas] knows that. 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.”
Komatsu’s F1 career started at BAR in the early 2000s and he then moved to Renault, where he became Romain Grosjean’s race engineer in 2012. He had already taken on the role of chief race engineer by the time he followed the Frenchman to Haas in 2016, before this off-season’s big promotion.
The nature of Steiner’s replacement during the winter means there has been no transition period between the two team principals, and Komatsu says he would have liked to have had a handover spell and the chance to speak to his former boss.
“I worked very closely with Guenther, of course not on the team principal side, but I really enjoyed working with him and he was a good person and a good human being,” he said. “From my personal relationship, we got on really well and off work we had a really good relationship. So I’m a bit sad how it ended, if you like, but I haven’t spoken to him yet.”
RACER understands the timeline between Steiner being made aware of his departure and Komatsu being given the job made such a transition impossible, and the 47-year-old will now have to rely on his own managerial approach as he takes on a team principal role for the first time.
“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,” he says.
“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 skill set is. In that field I need someone else who is an expert in that area to run it, then I can focus on the technical side, trying to get an organization that we can improve the technical side of the team.’
Komatsu says he’s made it clear to Gene Haas that he intends to play to his strengths in the role of new Haas team principal, and let someone else handle areas such as marketing and sponsorship acquisition. Andy Hone/Motorsport Images
“So yeah, it’s a very different responsibility, but at the same time, any job I’ve done — I used to be in the vehicle dynamics, performance engineer, race engineer, chief race engineer — when you do your current job you always try your best in the job you are doing, but you also look at, ‘OK, what are the other constraints? If certain things are improved, how can I do a better job?’ You always think about that, even when I was doing the previous job.
“Of course 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.”
While there is a slight change to the team structure in that Haas will hire a chief operating officer to manage all non-competition matters and departments and relieve those duties from Komatsu, the major investment that other teams are making is not part of the short-term plan at Haas.
To that end, the immediate task at hand is going to be about people-management and the way Komatsu can get the same personnel to operate more effectively in the coming seasons.
“I’m focused on improvement, obviously,” he says. “I’d like to think I’m correct enough and I like to think I am bright enough, I am reasonably direct, I think, and then transparency, honesty…
“I don’t do politics. OK, there will be team politics and you say, ‘Are you ready for this?’ but that’s not something I’m focused on. I believe that if you have the right intention and your motivation is clear to get the best out of the team, I think it will get through to people and then you try to empower people and bring them together. That’s my management style.”
Whether that will be enough to navigate the cutthroat world of F1 team principals who will vehemently defend their own corner in such a competitive industry remains to be seen.
“I don’t know; I’ll find out, I guess!” Komatsu says. “The good thing is [I know] other team managers, because I guess I’ve been doing this for 20 years in a few different teams. I know James [Vowles] from my BAR Honda days, I know Laurent [Mekies] from his Ferrari days, I know Alessandro [Alunni Bravi] from his Lotus days.
“So I know some guys. That I guess helps a little bit. But I don’t know what I don’t know, right? I’m not going to sit here and pretend that, ‘Yeah, yeah, I can deal with all of that.’ I don’t know. But I’ll tackle it as best I can.”
And he’ll tackle it all while trying not to be Guenther Steiner. Save for one admitted similarity…
“This is not something I’m proud to say — my language is not great. I swear way too much, but, again, I’ll try not to do that…”