Formula 1 2016 Head-to-Head: Romain Grosjean vs. Esteban Gutierrez at Haas

Neil James@NeilosJamesFeatured ColumnistFebruary 15, 2016

KANNAPOLIS, NC - SEPTEMBER 29:  (L-R) Gunther Steiner, team principal of Haas F1 Team, Romain Grosjean of France, and Gene Haas, owner of Haas F1 Team, pose for a photo opportunity after Haas F1 Team announced Grosjean as their driver for the upcoming 2016 Formula 1 season on September 29, 2015 in Kannapolis, North Carolina.  (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Stewart-Haas Racing via Getty Images)
Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images

Formula One's newest team, Haas, will launch their first-ever car on February 22 at the Circuit de Catalunya ahead of the start of winter testing.

The pit-lane unveiling will be a low-key affair, but the team have been anything but quiet in the run-up to their debut.

New teams rarely start off with top-level drivers, but Haas grabbed the attention of the F1 world with their capture of Romain Grosjean from Lotus. The highly rated Frenchman will be joined by Ferrari-backed Esteban Gutierrez in one of the few all-new lineups on the 2016 grid.

Haas have taken an unusual route to F1, opting to contract out much of the design work on their chassis to Italian company Dallara. The team will also work very closely with Ferrari, buying in as many parts from the Scuderia as the regulations permit.

They will be hoping this approach, along with the blend of proven ability and potential in their driver lineup, will give them at least half a chance of achieving their target of points on their debut.

But the aims of Grosjean and Gutierrez will extend beyond the walls of the Haas garage, because a far greater prize than an occasional top-10 finish could be up for grabs at the end of the year.

Esteban Gutierrez on the Ferrari pit wall.
Esteban Gutierrez on the Ferrari pit wall.Dan Istitene/Getty Images

Grosjean's performances between 2013 and 2015 transformed his career; prior to that time, he didn't appear to be going anywhere fast.

The Frenchman's first foray into F1as a mid-season replacement for Nelson Piquet Jr. at Renault in 2009was something of a disaster, with Grosjean failing to score a point and gaining a reputation for being accident prone.

He was dropped at the end of the year but, after two seasons of racing in sports cars, Auto GP and GP2winning titles in both Auto GP and GP2he was hired by Lotus to partner Kimi Raikkonen in 2012.

It was a rare second chance, and initially it appeared that he was going to blow it.

His tendency to get involved in accidents had not gone away and, following a particularly spectacular crash at the start of the Belgian Grand Prix, he became the first driver to be banned from a race since Michael Schumacher in 1994.

Romain Grosjean's car flies through the air after he caused a first-corner crash at Spa.
Romain Grosjean's car flies through the air after he caused a first-corner crash at Spa.Mark Thompson/Getty Images

Despite scoring three podiums, Grosjean's inconsistency and frequent poor judgement meant he scored just 96 points to Raikkonen's 203. His F1 career could have been over at the end of the seasonand he probably wouldn't have been missed.

However, Lotus kept faith in their man and the Frenchman, recognising that he needed to change his approach, worked with a psychologist to get on top of his issues. He later revealed to Autosport's Lawrence Baretto:

I wanted to see my psychologist, I needed some help. I didn't understand what was going on.

If you work in the right way you realise, you understand and you put it in action and then you see that it was better and then you take the next step and then you get more and more.

It's like having a tool box containing only a screwdriver and you add another tool. When a situation comes there's always a tool in front of you and you can take the right one, whereas before you only had one and then you screw up.

The Grosjean of 2013 was a far more formidable competitor; though outclassed by Raikkonen in the early races, by the end of the season he was on a par with and often ahead of the Finnand he's been getting better ever since.

Lotus were uncompetitive in 2014, but Grosjean still impressed, and in 2015 he continued his good form. A podium at Spascene of the crash that spurred him to properly harness his talentwas the highlight of a season in which he made team-mate Pastor Maldonado look very ordinary indeed.

The 29-year-old could have stayed at Enstone for 2016, and the prospect of driving for a works Renault team held a lot of appeal. But the French manufacturer dragged its heels completing the takeover of Lotus, and Grosjeanwith one eye on a future seat at Ferrariaccepted an offer from the new Haas team.

Grosjean celebrating on the Spa podium.
Grosjean celebrating on the Spa podium.ANDREJ ISAKOVIC/Getty Images

Gutierrez, like Grosjean, has been given a second chance to make his mark in F1.

The Mexican had a fairly good junior career, including titles in Formula BMW Europe in 2008 and GP3 in 2010. After two seasons in GP2where he was third in the 2012 seasonhe made his debut for Sauber at the 2013 Australian Grand Prix.

His record counted for something, but, per BBC Sport's Andrew Benson, the main reason he got the seat was the financial backing he brought from his homeland. That he failed to impress was unsurprising, but few expected he would be quite as poor as he appeared to be.

More-experienced team-mate Nico Hulkenberg outqualified Gutierrez 18 times from 19 races, finished ahead 12 times to the Mexican's three and scored an impressive 51 points from a string of top-10 finishes. Driving the same car, Gutierrez only managed six pointsall scored at the Japanese Grand Prix.

Esteban Gutierrez on his way to seventh at the 2013 Japanese Grand Prix.
Esteban Gutierrez on his way to seventh at the 2013 Japanese Grand Prix.Clive Mason/Getty Images

Gutierrez retained his seat for the following season, and though Sauber scored no points at all, he did at least fare better against new team-mate Adrian Sutil. The pair were evenly matched in qualifying and the races, but the team opted to replace both at the end of the season.

It looked like Gutierrez would become just the latest in a string of drivers whose F1 careers ended in their mid-20s. There were no race seats available even for a driver with financial support, and his record over the previous two seasons did little to inspire confidence in his abilities.

However, Ferrari clearly saw something in him that many others did not, and in mid-December 2014, Gutierrez was announced as their test and reserve driver for the following year.

One day later, a second tweet was issued by the teamand a cynical personality wasn't needed to imagine there might be more to the deal than talent alone.

But while even Ferrari wouldn't say no to a bit of extra cash from a wealthy sponsor, they would never sign a driver for purely commercial reasons. Gutierrez was, after all, the inaugural GP3 champion, and he hadn't looked out of his depth in 2014.

Perhaps with the right nurturing and in a supportive environment, he would grow into a useful contender.

Gutierrez spent 2015 working with Ferrari and appears to have made the right impression. It had long been expected that the new Haas team's close partnership with the Scuderia would lead to them taking a Ferrari-linked driver, and in October it was confirmed Gutierrez would be joining Grosjean in 2016.

Gutierrez at his official confirmation as a Haas driver—dressed like a Ferrari driver.
Gutierrez at his official confirmation as a Haas driver—dressed like a Ferrari driver.Andrew Hone/Getty Images

To a degree, the dynamic between the two Haas drivers will be similar to that between Max Verstappen and Carlos Sainz Jr. at Toro Rosso. Both Grosjean and Gutierrez will enter 2016 looking to prove they are worthy of promotion to a larger teamin this case, Ferrari.

Grosjean has been professional about his switch to the American outfit, playing down talk of him using the drive as a springboard to Maranello.

However, he hasn't denied an interest in one day driving for the Italian teamand he knows doing well for Haas could further his cause.

The close partnership between the two squads means Ferrari will have access to far more data on Grosjean's driving than they otherwise would, something he feels could work to his advantage.

In an interview with Motorsport.com's Jonathan Noble, he said:

They [Ferrari] are certainly going to get all the data, and all the feedback from the engineers. The best I can do is to do my best and do my job. I didn't go to Haas to go to Ferrari. That is not the point.

I went to Haas because I like the project. I think it can be successful. It is an American team so there is a big market that will be nice for F1.

Of course the dream is [always] to go to Ferrari. Ferrari wants good drivers, and if you be the best you can be, then you have a chance.

Speaking to Sky Sports' Mike Wise ahead of August's Belgian Grand Prix, Grosjean indicated he had some form of discussions with Ferrari about replacing Raikkonen in 2016, so he appears to be on their radar.

In the end they opted to retain the Finn, but unless his performance dramatically improves in the season ahead, he won't be sticking around for 2017.

A good season with Haas should put Grosjean in the running again, and the certainty provided by access to his data could tip the balance in his favour.

A potential future Ferrari team?
A potential future Ferrari team?Darron Cummings/Associated Press

Gutierrez will also be racing to impress Ferrari, though there's very little chance he will outperform Grosjean in 2016. Everything in their respective histories suggests the Frenchman is the superior driver, and he now has the experience and temperament to operate consistently at a high level.

Gene Haas has even stated that Grosjean will be the team's lead drivera rarity in modern F1, and not a comment a team owner would make were he expecting a close battle between his two drivers.

But he could be forgiven for saying it. When we last saw Gutierrez in F1, he was trailing around near the rear of the field in an uncompetitive car that gave him few opportunities to shine. Prior to that, he had spent a year failing to regularly score in a car more than capable of pointsas proved by Hulkenberg.

Perhaps the most memorable moment of Gutierrez's career to date—his encounter with Pastor Maldonado in Bahrain.
Perhaps the most memorable moment of Gutierrez's career to date—his encounter with Pastor Maldonado in Bahrain.MARWAN NAAMANI/Getty Images

His record of one points finish in 38 races doesn't look good, but the statistics perhaps don't tell the whole story. An underfunded team with an uncompetitive car and no simulator on which to learn the tracks is not the best place for any rookie to start his career.

Of course, other drivers did just fine in similar circumstancessuch as Felipe Nasr in 2015.

But still, Ferrari see something in Gutierrez, and as engine suppliers to the Swiss team while he was racing, they have more of an idea than most about his capabilities.

Haas certainly believes he could have a future at the Scuderia; speaking to Autosport's Ian Parkes, he revealed:

Ferrari is like a top-notch university, and if you go to that university then you have good credentials. If anything, most of it is the fact Ferrari said, 'Here's a driver you should consider and we would like to have him in your car.'

Ferrari was interested in Esteban driving. Part of it is they would like to try him out so that they can evaluate him for a Ferrari drive down the road.

I don't know what Ferrari's personal point of view is, but my point of view would be is they put talent in cars that they think have a potential to be their future drivers.

It's just as likely that Ferrari have placed the 24-year-old in the team for primarily commercial purposes. Latin America is a large and increasingly important market; a Spanish-speaking driver at a Ferrari-linked, North American team is a useful promotional asset.

The extra pennies from Carlos Slim's Claro, which will remain a sponsor of the team, won't hurt either.

Gutierrez at a Ferrari event in Mexico.
Gutierrez at a Ferrari event in Mexico.YURI CORTEZ/Getty Images

But he shouldn't be written off entirely as a future Ferrari drivereven if he does, as is expected, come up short against Grosjean.

Ferrari's lineups since Michael Schumacher arrived in 1996 have almost without exception been geared toward supporting a single lead driver. Only in 2008 and 2009, when Raikkonen went off the boil, did the team find themselves without a clear No. 1.

With this in mind, the idea that Gutierrez could be the chosen one becomes a little more believable. If Ferrari want someone to nip at Vettel's heels and maybe even create a Mercedes-like atmosphere of competition in 2017 and beyond, Grosjean looks better placed to put his name into the mix.

But if they want a clear No. 2, perhaps Gutierrez will fit the bill. If he can prove he is a consistent, reliable finisher, he could be just what Ferrari need.

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