Formula 1's 2024 launch season was kicked off in earnest by the team that the least is expected of.
Haas's 2023 was generally a downward-trending season, and the exits of both its face-of-the-franchise team boss Guenther Steiner and tech director Simone Resta relatively close to the start of the 2024 season mean there's a lot of uncertainty over the squad's current shape.
So do the signs point to a season of the VF-24 spinning its wheels - or could the team that had a surprise or two up its sleeve in the past cause an upset again? And, either way, will it get itself on the right track longer-term?
New team boss Ayao Komatsu has already played down expectations ("we'll be towards the back of the grid, if not last"). But what do our F1 writers think?
It looks like a lost cause
It’s difficult to see how Haas breaks out of its doom cycle simply by shedding key staff and promoting from within.
The low-hanging fruit Haas was able to grab a hold of in its early years in F1 is now gradually moving out of reach as other teams invest heavily in their infrastructure and staff.
Of the teams in Haas’s immediate vicinity, I can see RB breaking free of that lower midfield group completely in 2024, thanks to the aero direction set in the second half of 2023 and that ever-closer technical partnership with the parent team.
Pat Fry will inevitably further enhance upwardly-mobile Williams, while James Vowles has lobbied hard for extra capital expenditure allowance in the budget cap, so this team really means business again. Alex Albon is driving superbly, so if Logan Sargeant gets his act together Williams won’t be an easy target for Haas either.
Stake might suffer for being in its Audi transition phase, financially speaking, but that 2023 Alfa looked good when it could be set up properly - so if James Key’s technical team has been able to tweak that aero/ride height map in the right direction over the winter then there’s every chance that team kicks on in terms of points scoring and consistency.
Haas clearly also has a fast car fundamentally, and two decent drivers to make use of it, but as the rest of the grid gains strength in depth Haas increasingly looks outmoded - particularly in terms of simulation and in-season development.
With the financial taps turned off, I feel Haas is going to need a helping hand from rivals messing up - much less likely in year three of a rules set - if it’s going to have any real chance of climbing off the bottom of the championship table, especially when the new team boss is already warning the early-spec 2024 car isn’t likely to be much good.
Needs cash and big hires
Haas’s driver line-up of Kevin Magnussen and Nico Hulkenberg is solid, but the team is on the back foot, and therefore set to finish ninth or 10th in the 2024 constructors’ championship. As things stand, following seasons could be just as tough.
Komatsu has plenty of experience in a technical setting but Williams and RB have forged ahead in the infrastructure stakes.
The latter's intention to compete is evident with recent hires of Tim Goss – formerly of the FIA and McLaren – plus former Red Bull aerodynamicist Guillaume Cattelani and ex-Renault and Alpine sporting director Alan Permane. Laurent Mekies’ arrival will only add more firepower to the Faenza team.
Having fallen behind other teams in 2023 as rivals made considerable progress in the second year of the new ground-effect era, Haas is already playing catch-up for 2024. With regulations set to remain stable over the next couple of years, the American team needs a considerable injection of resources and an established technical team to surmount the bottom rung.
A better season is still possible
The long-term outlook for Haas is bad, given it will surely fall behind as its direct rivals invest and expand. But that expectation doesn’t in itself mean that 2024 will be a miserable year.
If Komatsu’s leadership can have a galvanising effect, if the technical team has understood the root cause of its tyre-chewing troubles last year, if the car concept switched to last year has evolved to work as intended and if the car responds well to development efforts then there’s no reason why Haas can’t have a better season. That doesn’t mean anything extraordinary, but there is the possibility that it isn’t doomed to finishing last in the constructors’ championship.
That is obviously a lot of ifs and there’s every chance Haas won’t answer enough of those positively to do better than last year. But the point is that it is conceivably possible and doesn’t necessarily mean a season of Q1 exits and lower-midfield finishes.
And even if the worst happens on track, there are ways to alleviate any results-based misery if the team can deliver on Komatsu’s desire to show it understands its weaknesses and tackle them. Its trend is important given the die will have long since been cast on the start-of-season car when Gene Haas opted to make changes at the top.
It's all about making the most of what you’ve got in F1 and, for now, Haas still has enough potential to be respectable. The trouble is whether it can get anywhere near close to exploiting that.
A window of opportunity (is closing)
At the moment – with Williams and Sauber still evolving – there probably remains a bubble of opportunity for Haas if it has corrected its car’s unhealthy appetite for rubber.
With the Ferrari facilities and some loaned personnel, it last created a car at least a match for those teams in raw speed. So, if everything aligns well (and part of that is out of Haas’ hands) it might realistically target eighth place in the constructors rather than the 10th place Gene Haas says he has had enough of.
But even this small achievement may soon be out of the reach of Haas in its current state of development and without the capital investment in simulation tools required for the longer term.
As heavy investments are made everywhere else, that bubble of opportunity is steadily moving its way down the constructors championship and a repeat of Haas’ fifth place of 2018 already looks like an unrealistic dream.
Setting up a 2025 loan is key
There are too many red flags around Haas to be confident of a better 2024, not least previous comments from new team boss Komatsu that the late-2023 car changes took up a lot of budget and focus. It's quite possible the early version of the 2024 Haas will not be as well-advanced as necessary. And with a change in technical leadership, who knows if this is even the car Haas really wants to be developing?
Chances are high it will be left treading water, making 2024 much more about setting itself up as best it can for 2025 and beyond.
Beyond whatever technical/structural changes are required, I suspect that will leave Haas with one obvious target for this season: land Ollie Bearman.
Haas does look like Bearman's most obvious route into F1, assuming he does a good job in his sophomore F2 season. He impressed the team in his outings in 2023, especially Komatsu, and Ferrari will want him on the grid in 2025 somewhere.
Finding 'any port in a storm' is not the ideal scenario for a top team like Ferrari to be loaning a highly-rated protege, though, so Haas needs to make sure it is offering enough to convince Ferrari that it is a good place for Bearman to be. So far, things are pointing that way, with Bearman confirmed as Haas' 2024 reserve and set to receive six FP1 outings with the team.
I suspect Haas will need at least one new driver by the end of 2024, and getting Bearman has to be the priority. That would give it a silver lining if the season does turn out to be as difficult as many expect.
Fresh management could help
Having finished 10th last year, things can’t get any worse for Haas, which has struggled through the Rich Energy and Mazepin sagas in recent years to find itself once more bottom of the standings. Though its all-time best finish of fifth in 2018 might feel a long time ago now, at its core Haas is still a solid team capable of good results.
The team’s main rival will likely remain Sauber, albeit in its latest incarnation as Stake. Haas’ four top 10 finishes in 2023, with a best of seventh from Nico Hulkenberg in Australia, was only four fewer than Alfa achieved, and they were just four points shy of the Hinwil-based outfit - not an enormous margin.
With former McLaren boss Key having taken over as Alfa’s technical director in September, it is likely to prove a fierce competition at the back of the field, but on balance, the driver pairing of Kevin Magnussen and Hulkenberg likely pips Bottas and Zhou.
It’s also important to remember that showing willingness to change is the first step in improving, and new leadership can often prove a vital breath of fresh air for teams.
Take a look at the National Hockey League’s Vancouver Canucks: the team was running at an 18-25-3 (win-loss-overtime win) record for the 2022-23 season when coach Bruce Boudreau was fired almost exactly a year ago.
Replaced by Rick Tocchet, the team immediately bounced back, with an 17-11-4 record to end the season, and currently sits top of the league on a run of 33-11-5 so far in 2023-24 - a huge departure from last season’s woes. Notable roster changes aside, it’s clear that a fresh outlook at the top has had an effect throughout the team - and that’s what Komatsu will be hoping to bring to Haas heading into the 2024 season.
A competitive last may be the best it can hope for
Two things will definitely happen this season. One team is going to win the constructors' championship and another is going to finish last.
The championship contenders are Red Bull, Mercedes and Ferrari. The order is not guaranteed, but based on Red Bull's performances over the last few seasons, it is the favourite.
Finishing last is just as difficult to predict. Haas, Stake, Williams and what was AlphaTauri are the contenders.
In reverse of that order, AlphaTauri has strengthened its organisation with both increased manpower and a closer relationship with Red Bull. Williams, with James Vowles leading the team and Fry overseeing the technical side, has now got solid leadership and purpose, Stake has got Key, who can do a solid job on the technical side and a bright future to build towards when it becomes Audi's works team in 2026.
That leaves Haas. The late management changes will have done little to strengthen the organisation. Having the car out first means that when it sits on the ground it is already out of date and that means a solid development plan will be required, which is something Haas has not been good at since coming into F1. To cap it all, they would have to do that without any extra budget.
So unless someone else screws up or Haas finds that magic bullet, the best it can hope for is a competitive 10th in the constructors' championship.
For the sake of everyone in the team, I hope I’m wrong. But I'm not seeing anything management or structural-wise that would improve its performance.