Predicting Haas' 2016 Formula 1 Driver Lineup

Oliver Harden@@OllieHardenFeatured ColumnistAugust 7, 2015

Predicting Haas' 2016 Formula 1 Driver Lineup

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    They have never scored a world championship point or completed a single flying lap, but Haas could play an instrumental role in this season's driver market.

    Formula One's latest team, the first U.S.-owned team for 30 years, are finally set to arrive on the grid in time for the 2016 season, almost two years after being granted entry to the pinnacle of motorsport.

    And they're hoping to make an instant, and lasting, impression.

    Owned by Gene Haas, the NASCAR team boss, the outfit have big plans for their debut campaign, having purchased Marussia's factory in Banbury, England, attracted established F1 personnel and secured a technical alliance with Ferrari, the most successful team in the sport's history.

    According to BBC Sport's Andrew Benson, the agreement means Haas only have to design a "monocoque and aerodynamic surfaces" for their own car, increasing their prospects of being competitive from the very beginning of 2016.

    At the time of writing, however, the team do not have any drivers to sit in those cars.

    As a brand-new team, Haas cannot show potential drivers a list of race and championship results to encourage them to sign up. They cannot rely upon their history and they may not even be able to show the drivers how their car is progressing.

    But they can sell them a dream—an American dream.

    From Nico Hulkenberg to Esteban Gutierrez, we assess the contenders who may buy into that dream and predict who will be lining up on the grid for Haas at the beginning of 2016.

Esteban Gutierrez

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    Esteban Gutierrez joined Ferrari as reserve driver at the end of 2014 in a move that seemed like the act of someone desperately trying to keep their Formula One career alive.

    The Prancing Horse's addition of three Mexican sponsors just 24 hours after their signing of Gutierrez only strengthened that theory, but since arriving at Ferrari, the 23-year-old has given the impression that his presence at the back of the garage is part of a much wider plan.

    Gutierrez told ESPN F1's Nate Saunders how he took "quite a big risk" in stepping away from full-time racing for 2015 but did so "with a purpose and with a vision" that is now "opening new opportunities."

    And it is almost certain a return to the grid with Haas for 2016 will be among those opportunities.

    According to BBC Sport's Andrew Benson, Ferrari had been "facing pressure" from their Mexican partners to replace 2007 world champion Kimi Raikkonen with Gutierrez for next season.

    But Gutierrez—who has been spotted chatting to the Haas hierarchy in the paddock—is far more likely to find himself at the Ferrari sister team, with the presence of a Mexican driver in an American team perfectly suiting Ferrari's marketing strategy.

    In 2013, Marco Mattiacci, the former Ferrari North America CEO and ex-team boss of the F1 operation, told Forbes' Hannah Elliott how "Mexico is the next China," confirming the Italian manufacturer had identified Mexico as a prime location to sell luxury road cars.

    Gutierrez's anonymous two-season spell at Sauber—he claimed just one points finish in 38 starts between 2013 and '14—was unflattering for a driver who, as driver coach Rob Wilson told The Racer's Edge, is "very, very quick" and "gifted" performer and "constantly working on his craft."

    Having a spent a season working closely alongside a man as dedicated to his profession as four-time world champion Sebastian Vettel, Gutierrez should be a far more mature driver upon his return to the grid.

    For marketing and performance-related reasons, he is the overwhelming favourite for a Haas seat.

Jean-Eric Vergne

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    Like Gutierrez, Jean-Eric Vergne found refuge at Ferrari after losing his race seat at the end of last season.

    But while the Mexican earned a defined role with the Prancing Horse for 2015, attending grands prix as a member of the team and ready to jump in the car should Raikkonen or Vettel be unavailable, Vergne lives very much within the shadows at Ferrari, and his responsibility is unclear.

    As the Frenchman told Italian newspaper La Gazzetta dello Sport (h/t GPUpdate.net), his job involves "working in the simulator," but while Vergne feels it is an "important task"—one that has a direct impact on the team's on-track success this season—his role has had the unfortunate effect of portraying him as a peripheral figure within Ferrari.

    It is difficult to understand exactly what, if anything, Ferrari have planned for Vergne and his decision to compete in the Formula E series since being released by Scuderia Toro Rosso was not a move you would expect of a Ferrari-contracted driver.

    As reported by Motorsport.com's Sam Smith, Vergne is set to continue with the Andretti team for the 2015-16 season of the all-electric series, although any deal would allow the 25-year-old to join Haas should the opportunity arise.

    Vergne, having performed well alongside three-time race winner Daniel Ricciardo in 2012 and '13, deserves another shot in F1. And while his position under the Ferrari umbrella means Vergne will be in contention for a Haas seat until the very end, it is doubtful he will return to the grid with the American outfit in 2016.

    Gunther Steiner, the team principal, told Germany's Motorsport-Total (h/t GPUpdate.net) of his reluctance to see Haas become a Ferrari B-team, which suggests they would, if possible, prefer to make just one Ferrari-affiliated signing.

    And should the race for one of the Haas seats come down to a straight fight between Vergne and Gutierrez, there will be only one winner.

Nico Hulkenberg

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    Gene Haas has adopted an adventurous strategy in his search for drivers, telling USA Today's Jeff Gluck of his eagerness to lure those who have grown frustrated with their current teams and whose career progress has stagnated.

    Considering that his career seems to have been on hold since the end of his rookie campaign in 2010, Nico Hulkenberg is the perfect candidate for the team.

    Haas recently told FoxSports.com of his interest in signing the German from Force India but, per Motorsport.com's Charles Bradley, has accepted that Hulkenberg may be apprehensive about joining a brand-new outfit.

    Depending on the futures of Kimi Raikkonen and Valtteri Bottas, Hulkenberg—who despite producing strong performances for midfield teams has never landed an opportunity with a leading outfit—could find himself at Ferrari or Williams for 2016.

    Yet should he once again be overlooked by a team who can offer podiums and grand prix wins, a move to Haas could suddenly become a very real possibility.

    While Hulkenberg's current employers, Force India, are on course to secure their best-ever finish in the constructors' standings for the second successive season, the outfit's "cash-flow issues"—as deputy team principal Bob Fernley told Sky Sports' Pete Gill in pre-season—may force them to change their driver line-up.

    Hulkenberg's inability to provide substantial sponsorship funds to the team may prove to be his downfall, and he could be tempted by the extra security provided by Haas, even if the American outfit won't necessarily be as competitive as Force India.

    There is, of course, a risk that a move to Haas could see Hulkenberg head in the same direction of the likes of Timo Glock and Heikki Kovalainen, who joined the exciting new Virgin and Lotus projects for 2010 only to be left uncompetitive, disillusioned and, soon enough, ejected from F1.

    But joining Haas would theoretically keep Hulkenberg on Ferrari's radar and put him in a position to join the Prancing Horse should a seat finally become available at the Italian team, particularly if they keep Raikkonen for one more season.

    A driver of his quality shouldn't be forced to take a gamble of this magnitude, but Hulkenberg is the one to watch.

Sergio Perez

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    Hulkenberg's Force India team-mate, Sergio Perez, is another driver who may be questioning just where his career his heading at the moment.

    Since his bruising experience at McLaren in 2013, which ended with him being dropped in favour of a rookie, the Mexican has repaired his reputation, securing Force India's first podium finish in five years in the 2014 Bahrain Grand Prix and producing a number of excellent, composed performances.

    But despite exceeding expectations alongside Hulkenberg since last season, can you imagine Perez ever receiving another opportunity with a top team?

    Probably not, and that may just encourage the 25-year-old to roll the dice, to try something a little different and to avoid becoming just another grand prix driver.

    A move to Haas would see Perez return to the Ferrari setup he joined in 2010 and was so quick to depart when McLaren offered him the chance to replace Lewis Hamilton at the end of 2012, perhaps providing him with a clear target to strive toward.

    One potential obstacle for Perez, however, may be Ferrari's priorities.

    Despite the company's desire to conquer Mexico, would Ferrari be willing to allow—or rather, would they need—their B team to have an all-Mexican lineup of Gutierrez and Perez, despite the latter's higher profile? 

    While the gamble may be worth taking, Perez—who since making his debut in 2011 has never remained with a team for longer than two seasons—would benefit from the stability of staying at Force India, where he could grow into the role of team leader if Hulkenberg departs.

Romain Grosjean

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    If Hulkenberg and Perez are worried about the trajectory of their careers, Romain Grosjean must wonder what ever has happened to his.

    Just two years ago, the Frenchman was supposedly a world champion in waiting after a run of four podium finishes in the final six races of 2013. The Lotus team's sad decline since the introduction of the V6 turbo regulations, however, has seen Grosjean become F1's forgotten man.

    But while Lotus' lacklustre campaign with a delayed chassis and a troublesome Renault power unit was almost excusable in 2014, their failure to make the most of this year's Mercedes-powered E23 car has raised doubts regarding their current competence as a racing operation.

    Having waited as late as last November to commit to Lotus, there is a sense that Grosjean may have been surprised to have received such little interest from the likes of Ferrari and McLaren-Honda, who went on to sign Sebastian Vettel and Fernando Alonso, respectively.

    It is probable that Grosjean would have considered another move away this year, but Renault's proposed takeover of Lotus—as reported by F1i.com's Phillip van Osten—is exactly what the 29-year-old needs to restart his career.

    Grosjean told ESPN F1's Laurence Edmondson of his excitement over the potential deal, discussing how "nice" it would be to front a full-scale works team.

    It would certainly be more pleasant than leading a B-team in their first season in F1, although Grosjean must hope Renault will forgive and forget his criticism of their engine in 2014.

Kevin Magnussen

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    Kevin Magnussen took the safe option when he settled for a reserve role with McLaren for 2015, despite losing his race seat to Fernando Alonso.

    His hope, of course, would have been to spend a year patiently waiting in the background before replacing his 2014 team-mate, Jenson Button, for 2016.

    Yet Button's credible performances this season, along with Stoffel Vandoorne's dominant displays in GP2, means Magnussen, the only McLaren driver to stand on a podium since 2012, is now third in line to partner Alonso next season.

    Magnussen's plight reflects poorly on a McLaren young-driver program that once gifted Lewis Hamilton to Formula One, and it will be a measure of the team's respect not only for the Dane but themselves if McLaren accept the reality of the situation and let the 22-year-old explore other possibilities.

    After all, Kimi Raikkonen being regarded as a future Ferrari star didn't stop McLaren from poaching the Finn from Sauber for 2002, with the team also stealing Sergio Perez from under the nose of the Prancing Horse for 2013.

    The chance to drive for Haas would offer Magnussen the luxury of adjusting to F1 at his own pace and without real pressure rather than being burdened by a bunch of serial underachievers, as was the case for much of 2014.

    Magnussen is very much an outsider, yet it would be a huge shame if Haas don't even attempt to rescue him from McLaren.

Adrian Sutil

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    We thought we'd seen the last of Adrian Sutil in Formula One when he completed his final race for Sauber at the end of 2014.

    Yet it took just two races for him to return to the paddock, with the German appearing in Malaysia wearing Williams attire as the team did anything to avoid putting Susie Wolff in one of their cars.

    Sutil's signing as Williams' reserve driver was proof that he will never go away, and it wouldn't be a surprise if he is working on a full-time return to the grid in 2016.

    While he would be the most unimaginative choice by far, Sutil is exactly what a new team such as Haas would need, having made 128 grand prix starts over the course of seven full seasons with Spyker, Force India and Sauber.

    His experience with the V6 turbo machinery will also come in handy, and although he is approaching his 33rd birthday, there will be few concerns over his ability to re-adjust to F1 after his relatively successful return to the sport in 2013 after missing the 2012 campaign.

    Last December, Sutil expressed his admiration for Haas, telling Autosport's Ben Anderson how the American team is an "interesting project," soon after Steiner told German website Speed Week (h/t Motorsport.com) that the German could be an option for the team.

    It would be foolish to write Sutil off. Again.

Alexander Rossi

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    The sentimental choice, Alexander Rossi is the standout American driver in the junior formulae.

    Rossi has been knocking on the door of Formula One for a number of years, holding reserve roles at Caterham and Marussia, where he was cruelly prevented from making his debut at last season's Belgian Grand Prix.

    Upon the confirmation of his team's entry to F1 in April 2014, Gene Haas, per F1 Fanatic's Keith Collantine, said it would be "an ideal situation" if the outfit could attract a "young American driver." And at the age of 23, Rossi fits the profile.

    However, Steiner cast doubt over the team's plans late last year, telling Autoweek how Haas "want, above all, an experienced driver," adding that the outfit were not prepared to "take too many risks" by offering a seat to a driver based on their nationality alone.

    Despite failing to win a GP2 race since 2013, Rossi would hardly be considered a risk having established himself as one of the classiest, dependable performers in the field.

    The California native appears incredibly conscious of his possible opportunity with Haas, telling Crash.net's Chris Medland of his admiration for his potential future boss and admitting to holding discussions over a drive with the team.

    While the signing of an American driver would, of course, be regarded as a marketing ploy by an American team, Rossi is deserving of a place in F1.

    It seems he will be involved in some capacity.

Raffaele Marciello

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    Sauber's decision to re-sign Felipe Nasr and Marcus Ericsson for 2016 may have come as a shock to Raffaele Marciello.

    The latest star of Ferrari's young-driver scheme joined the Swiss team as a reserve driver for this season, participating in practice sessions in Malaysia, Spain and Britain.

    It looked for all the world as though the Italian was being groomed for a seat with Sauber—like Kimi Raikkonen, Felipe Massa and Sergio Perez before him—and that he would play a role in the driver market.

    In truth, the 20-year-old's results in GP2 in 2015 suggest he is not yet ready to compete in F1, but it will be interesting to see if Ferrari—now with more seats to play with due to the entry of Haas—increase their efforts to put Marciello on the 2016 grid.

    Like Vergne, Marciello—another man who has been found chatting to Steiner—could suffer from Haas' desire to keep their distance to the Prancing Horse.

    But it will reveal much about Ferrari's influence over the team if they can pressurise the American outfit into signing the youngster.

Who's It Going to Be?

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    Haas' choice of drivers for their debut season will reveal much about their seriousness in Formula One and whether the American team will become the next Sauber and become part of the furniture or follow in the footsteps of HRT and Caterham and fade away within years.

    With Gutierrez set to become the team's welcome gift from Ferrari, Haas have the opportunity to be a little creative in their search for a No. 2 driver.

    Partnering the Mexican with either Vergne or Magnussen would arguably be the favoured outcome for F1, offering a second chance to young, exciting talents who were failed by the sport during their initial, and all too brief, experiences on the grid.

    It would see Haas immediately become servants to F1 and would certainly be more realistic than trying to tempt existing drivers in reasonably competitive teams to join a brand-new outfit, who despite their Ferrari links would surely, for now at least, be viewed as a last resort.

    For some drivers, though, Haas may be the only chance to enter the pinnacle of motorsport.

    And it would not be a surprise if the latest American team continued the work of the failed U.S. F1 project of 2010 and signed an American driver at a time when the United States Grand Prix is among the highlights of the Formula One calendar.

    Alex Rossi's wait for an F1 break should finally come to an end.