The ‘difficult decision’ facing Haas’ F1 hierarchy

The greatest intrigue in Formula 1’s silly season is now falling on its newest team. Several teams – most notably Mercedes, Ferrari, Renault and McLaren – have already locked down their 2020 line-ups. Others, such as Red Bull, Toro Rosso and Alfa Romeo, are likely to keep their decisions among the in-house pool of contracted drivers. Haas F1 has Kevin Magnussen under lock and key for 2020 but it is in the final stages of evaluating whether to retain Romain Grosjean or recruit Nico Hulkenberg

The intrigue lies in that whichever driver is overlooked is likely to find themselves facing a future outside of Formula 1 – perhaps forever. With Ocon re-joining the grid, simple mathematics dictates that one of the current drivers will not have a 2020 seat.

There are similarities between Grosjean and Hulkenberg. Now well into their early 30s they were once anointed as potential future Formula 1 champions on account of their track record in junior single-seater racing. The pair both racked up victories and titles in prominent series such as Formula 3 and GP2, Hulkenberg securing a Formula 1 seat in 2010, and Grosjean making a full-time comeback in 2012, three years after an abortive Renault stint.

Grosjean racked up 10 podiums during a four-year spell at Lotus (prior to its transition into Renault), opting to leave for Haas F1 upon its entry in Formula 1 in 2016, but never managed to make the breakthrough of standing atop the Formula 1 rostrum. His career has been characterised by the ability to put in a stunning turn of pace that marked him out as a future champion, while equally blighted by a spate of accidents and silly incidents, giving critics plenty of ammunition with which to criticise his standing in Formula 1. In 2018 a series of clashes left him on the brink but Haas kept faith for another year. He is the only driver on the grid to have been banned for causing a collision. 

Hulkenberg has flitted between midfield Formula 1 teams – Williams, Force India, Sauber, back to Force India, Renault – and has allowed several opportunities to slip through his fingers. Often the midfield’s leading driver, when a chance of a freak result has presented itself it has not been Hulkenberg to pick it up. Sometimes that is on him, sometimes that has been on his team. For example, in the rain-hit German Grand Prix he agonisingly slid out of fourth place – while running behind the Mercedes drivers, who subsequently went off – but he was not forewarned by his race engineer that others had met their end at that perilous penultimate corner. Nonetheless, the list of near-misses is sufficient that it cannot be written off as mere misfortune. No driver has started more races without a podium finish than Hulkenberg. He has sat on the starting grid 170 times, and 170 times he has come home without a trophy. He came agonisingly close to a Ferrari seat for 2014, though Kimi Raikkonen was eventually preferred, while Renault has now elected to recruit Esteban Ocon for the next stage of its long-term plan, just as it looks as if progress is on the horizon. 

Both have been victims of ill-timed career moves, missed opportunities, as well as the global picture of an ill-balanced championship in which the top three teams are dominant atop the points table. Now one of them is likely to find their top-tier career at a close. 

Haas F1 has already ruled out taking a younger driver while the third initial candidate – Ocon – has already been tied down to Renault for two years. It is Grosjean vs Hulkenberg. The choice also depends on the team’s short- and long-term ambitions. Haas has endured a difficult campaign with its VF-19, a car which has shown strong pace in qualifying but struggled to replicate that in race trim, leaving the team perplexed for several months. Upon the suggestion of Grosjean, whose loathing of the updates brought to May’s Spanish Grand Prix was immediately apparent, Haas split its car specification for rounds in Britain, Germany and Hungary. Work evaluated thereafter gave Haas a direction for the rest of the year, even if it currently remains glued to an uncompetitive ninth in the Constructors’ Championship. It is on course to endure its worst season. 

“We know Romain pretty well, we know his strengths, and if he has one bad weekend it doesn’t mean the next one isn’t fantastic,” explained Haas boss Guenther Steiner. “We know that one, but we need to now make the decision for the team where we want to go next. What is better, stay with what you know, or go for something new?  That is the bigger decision to be made at the moment and that takes a little bit of time. It is very difficult to decide what is better to do, therefore it takes a little bit longer, it’s not ‘is he good or is he not good’. We know Romain pretty well but I can see what Hulkenberg has done. But it’s about what is fitting better in the bigger scheme of things in the team going forwards.”

Magnussen is regarded as a stable benchmark, capable of delivering consistent results, with the peakier Grosjean extracting more but sometimes prone to producing less. The pair of Haas F1 drivers have also converged on track more than once, costing the team points, though Magnussen and Hulkenberg have previously clashed. Their ‘beef’ was sufficient for Netflix’s producers to zero in on their animosity in Drive To Survive, though both drivers have moved to downplay the situation. “It’s incredible we’re still talking about one incident,” said Magnussen recently. “There’s no issues between us.” Added Hulkenberg: “A team-mate is a team-mate. You kind of have to accept him. Some you get on but you don’t have to get on, maybe it’s better I don’t know. I don’t think it would be a deal-breaker for me.”

On pure statistics Magnussen has had the edge in 2019, out-qualifying Grosjean 9-5 (a turnaround from his early woeful one-lap form in 2017) and has scored 18 points to eight. That, though, overlooks Grosjean missing several big results this year through no fault of his own. On race pace alone they have been similarly matched. Hulkenberg, meanwhile, has been largely shaded by Daniel Ricciardo, though the Australian is a standout multiple race-winner, and the German previously had the edge on several team-mates. 

Does Haas F1 stick with a driver who has been part of its journey since the beginning, or twist for a driver who can bring in different insight and a slightly altered skillset? Does stability bring confidence through continuity or risk stagnation? Does a different driver represent an unnecessary gamble or a justified change to address declining fortunes? Such thoughts will influence Haas’ 2020 prospects. The jury is out.

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Written by: Phillip Horton

Phillip uses trains, planes and automobiles to travel the world, exploring far-flung reaches of society, while taking a look at the history and culture of a country. Oh, and he also visits the F1 race in said country and writes about fast cars.