Guenther Steiner has left the Haas Formula 1 team in a surprise announcement that's created another first-time F1 team boss.
Appointed by CEO Gene Haas, Steiner has guided the Haas F1 team ever since its F1 debut in 2016 but he's now left the team with immediate effect.
He's been replaced by former Haas trackside engineering director Ayao Komatsu.
But what does this mean for Haas? How big a loss is Steiner and where does it go from here?
Our writers give their initial verdicts:
Signs point to a sale soon
This is a crucial development, one which will decide ultimately if the team remains under Gene Haas' ownership or is bought out. I suspect the latter.
The unique model of this team, relying heavily on Ferrari and outside contractors, was Steiner's. He talked Gene Haas into it, but it seems Gene was unwilling to invest as heavily as Steiner reasoned was necessary to make the next step in competitiveness. This was brought to a head by last season's performances which were limited, Steiner believed, by the inadequate simulation tools available.
The team has enjoyed some real giantkilling performances in its time but any team must evolve. Any owner is perfectly entitled to hold onto it as an asset with a value and a view to selling, and is unlikely to want to invest more heavily if they are not intending to stay around long-term.
A colossal loss to the Haas brand
Haas F1 team in name only, this was really Steiner F1. And while that was initially critical to the foundation and running of the team, it accidentally became its biggest commercial asset too.
Steiner became a household name as the breakout personality on F1's Netflix docuseries Drive to Survive when its first season based on the 2018 season launched.
He was a colossal hit with fans and his sudden celebrity status morphed into permanent popularity.
That gave Haas, as a team, something to hang its hat on even when its on-track performance dropped. Steiner was key to deals like the Moneygram title partnership, and others.
He's even on the cover of the F1 Manager game, alongside his Mercedes and Red Bull counterparts. There's no other F1 environment where Haas holds such company.
With Steiner gone, Haas seriously risks becoming a bland, identity-less underachiever. That will be a big hit to the team. And it's a loss for F1 as well. It's akin to a sitcom losing one of its main, most popular cast members. And with all respect to Komatsu as an engineer, he is not going to fill that void.
Haas is an F1 team drifting
This change only serves to underscore the impression that Haas is a team that’s being allowed to drift at a time when it should be pushing on to make the most of the opportunity presented by the prevailing conditions in F1.
When COVID-19 struck, there was every chance that would have been the end of Haas F1.
Gene Haas was legitimately concerned about the financial model given the struggle to bring in sponsors and the vast costs, but the reduced cost cap and more equitable distribution of prize money meant he signed up to the new Concorde Agreement. And Steiner was key to weathering that difficult transition period and bringing in the cash to keep the team going.
Right now, there are two obvious directions for the team – either invest that little bit more to ensure it’s spending at the cost cap both in terms of operational and capital expenditure or realise the massive value of the team and sell either a stake or the whole thing. Haas appears to be content to do neither, which is bizarre for an asset valued by Forbes at $780million last year.
With Haas’s rivals all investing heavily, the concern is that this opportunity could just result in a team that should be pushing on stagnating at the back. So far, there’s no sign that the management shake-up is going to lead to any change in approach or strategy and that suggests that Gene Haas is happy for the team simply to be there.
He owns the team, so that’s his call and therefore he’s perfectly entitled to set its strategy. But it’s disappointing that having achieved the seemingly impossible by establishing itself in F1, Haas F1 isn’t being given the best chance to fulfil its potential at a time when the opportunity is there to do so with extra investment that might amount 'only' to $50-100million over the next few years.
Key appointments are now needed
Haas has had very inconsistent results in F1 over the years. There have been times when it seems to have turned a corner, but more often the team has found it difficult to improve its performance as the season progressed.
How Red Bull runs is the template. Yes, I know, it has the best chief technical officer in F1 in Adrian Newey and there are not many of him around, but he has 100% support from team principal Christian Horner. Others are capable and deserving of having the opportunity to do the same.
Haas had a top-class technical director in Simone Resta, who has now left, but the team is split between its British, American and Italian bases so that job of pulling everyone together becomes so much harder. You need a dedicated person for that and it's not necessarily the team principal. Appointing a new top-class technical director will be the next key step and it's good Haas has acknowledged that it will appoint a European-based COO to oversee "all non-competition matters and departments".
The big question is will things get any better with Ayao Komatsu taking over from Steiner?
The jury is out on this, but from my point of view unless Gene Haas makes a shrewd appointment for someone to run the business side of things and a definitive technical director looking after the engineering side of things, then Haas will always be weak in management and direction.
Time for Haas to sell up to Andretti
Haas looks like a team going nowhere at the moment, so unless Steiner was the one holding it back, which seems very unlikely, you have to ask what the point of this team is.
And if its ambition is just to exist towards the back of the grid, with no genuine aspirations to become something more, then sell to Andretti. If F1 is going to stick to its guns on the 'franchise model' and keep Andretti locked out, then it can't have one of those 10 franchise spots taken up by an entity that's perfectly happy to be treading water.
Andretti is the perfect candidate to take the slot, because it's willing to go it alone anyway. So the fact that Haas's Ferrari partnership means it lacks some of the resources and infrastructure of proper standalone teams isn't as much of an issue to Andretti as it would be to most people who'd want to buy an existing F1 team. Haas selling up solves F1's awkward problem of wanting to reject Andretti, and gets General Motors onto the grid as another major engine manufacturer.
If Gene Haas doesn't want anything more than to be plodding along pretty anonymously at the back of the F1 grid, why not do away with the headache of ownership and sell while F1 team values are high?
This won't help F1 entertain its new-found fans
Whether it’s the swearing, the breaking of his office door or the brutally direct answers to difficult questions, Guenther Steiner has become one of the stars of Formula 1 via the Drive to Survive series.
So is it time to panic if he’s leaving?
It certainly felt like fans were becoming a bit tired of DTS’s tried and tested format after season four and in need of something a bit more. After all, if you follow the fan progression, they watch DTS, become fans, then they want more than the same or similar thing on repeat that the series offers.
Steiner leaving is no doubt a new reason not to watch the series.
F1 can only ride the crest of the DTS wave for so long and losing some of the key characters the series has created can’t be a good thing.
Steiner’s not the single reason for the series' success but his popularity shows that he brought something different to the equation - something else the championship won’t be able to rely on when trying to satisfy its fans spawned from DTS.