Gene Haas was in Montreal two weeks ago, visiting the paddock and looking for an engine to power his new Formula One team's car.
Although Haas originally said that Dallara would likely build the team's first chassis, the news came last week, from Autosport's Jonathan Noble, that he has decided not to hire the Italian company after all. Maybe someone showed him HRT's 2010 results.
Haas told Autosport that the "list of parts we can buy, as it increases, we want to be the team that takes advantage of that rule and try to buy as much as we can. It just costs too much to make all these intricate little detailed parts."
The American owner also reconfirmed that his eventual goal is to build the entire chassis at his factory in North Carolina.
All of this may sound good—start off buying what you can and slowly build production capacity and engineering expertise—but it is not a recipe for success.
We need not look any further than this year's grid for an illustration of the advantages of being a constructor rather than a customer (although this example involves engines rather than chassis).
For 2014, Mercedes designed an innovative power unit that is clearly better than Ferrari's and Renault's efforts. Yet, despite the advantage of that power unit, Mercedes customers—Force India, McLaren and Williams—are trailing Ferrari and Red Bull (Renault's most important customer) in the Constructors' Championship.
Buying pieces of a car, even a successful one, does not mean you will have the same success with them. The designer and builder always have more time to integrate the pieces into their car and, obviously, each piece is custom-built to their specifications. Customers take what they are given.
The real path to success in F1, as has been ably demonstrated by Red Bull and Mercedes over the last five years, is to spend a ton of cash to hire the best engineers and give them a virtually unlimited budget.
Caterham and Marussia, the two most recent teams to start from scratch in F1, have tried to compete on shoestring budgets and have had, at best, limited success. Marussia just scored its first points at the Monaco Grand Prix, after more than four years of racing. Caterham has yet to have even one car finish a race in the top 10.
It is difficult to get a read on how realistic Haas is about his team's chances for success. In early June, speaking of his decision to start racing in 2016 rather than next year, he said, "The first year is always going to be tough but I think that by waiting a year we will probably only have six months of it being really tough because we will be better prepared," per Christian Sylt of Forbes (via ESPN F1).
A week later, the American was more conservative, telling the official F1 website that, "It will take time, because of course you don’t come in here and beat those guys straightaway. My guess is that you have to spend three, four or five years at the back—learning the ropes."
Based on the experiences of Caterham and Marussia, the latter projection is much more likely. That's especially true since Haas also said, in the F1.com interview, that, "Our plan is not to spend hundreds of millions to be successful. I think we can show people that you don’t have to go on such a spending spree to be successful."
Good luck. Mercedes, Red Bull, Ferrari and McLaren are engaged in an all-out arms race, and none of them are afraid to spend whatever it takes to win.
In 2009, Richard Branson, owner of Virgin Racing (which would later become Marussia) said, "The new era is seeing the costs of entry come down. This will be the lowest-budget team in Formula One. ... Money's not everything," according to The Guardian.
That sounds very similar to what Haas is saying, but will the American be content with similar results?
Trying to win while spending the least amount of money possible is certainly a worthy goal. But until the FIA steps in and imposes a cost cap, it is not a very realistic one.
If Haas spends like a back-marker—especially if that money is used to buy as much of a car as possible from another team—he will be racing with the back-markers. If he spends like a front-runner, he will have a chance to race with the front-runners (although even that is not a guarantee: cf. McLaren over the last two years and Toyota's entire F1 misadventure).
In F1, as in real life, you generally get what you pay for. It may take Haas a few seasons to realise that, but he will. When he sees the results, he will have no choice.
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