The evolving championship rivalry — or, perhaps unkindly, lack thereof — between Mercedes and Ferrari has captured attention in the early part of the 2019 Formula One season, but the midfield, as close as ever, certainly warrants a mention of its own.
With the obvious exception of Williams, the sport’s sole lonely backmarker this season, points finishes have been meted out almost evenly, and only 14 points separate McLaren in an impressive fourth place from Toro Rosso in ninth.
It’s a tight field, but it could even be tighter. Renault and Toro Rosso in seventh and ninth respectively have cause to believe their positions should be higher up the order, for example, the former for its embarrassing reliability record and the latter for its lack of clean weekends. Both are confident results are around the corner.
But such plucky midfield confidence has deserted Haas. One of the midfield’s standout performers since its 2016 debut, the American team is struggling early in the season and at a loss as to how to recapture what it knows to be its rightful form.
Haas have struggled. (AP Photo/Rick Rycroft)
Only Kevin Magnussen’s sixth-place finish all the way back in Australia is propping up the team’s points tally, with a trio of retirements and 13th places and single P11 comprising the rest of its results.
Baffling, however, is that its Saturday form has been right on the money, with the team competing in the top-ten shootout every weekend bar the disrupted qualifying for the Azerbaijan Grand Prix, where the Baku streets tend to make peculiar requirements of cars anyway.
Clearly the car has potential, but unlocking it is proving a substantial challenge.
“It looks like that we didn’t manage the tyres in a good way,” team principal Guenther Steiner explained after the issue first presented itself in Bahrain. “if you fall into a perfect window with the tyre, you can be very fast — or very slow, like us. Obviously it goes both ways.”
Then Steiner was still optimistic — a two-day post-race test in Sakhir allowed the team time to analyse and rectify its problems — but after two more races plagued by the same issues in the race, the Italian’s patience has been ground down.
“It’s very serious,” he said. “You go into the graining phase, and then when we go into the graining phase we cannot get out of it anymore because our tyre then gets too cold and then we are done. Then we slide around.”
Indeed his frustrations boiled over into criticism of the entire Formula One tyre situation, which he labelled as contrary to the principles of the sport.
“We shouldn’t always be talking about whether a tyre works or not,” he said. “It’s interesting but it’s not Formula One in my opinion.
“‘Did you get the tyre to work?’ ‘Yes — oh, then I’m fast.’ ‘My tyre didn’t work so then I’m slow’.
“We spend millions and millions to develop these cars and then you’re out of the window and we cannot get going.”
Lunging straight for Pirelli is a popular F1 pastime. On the one hand it could be considered understandable — teams have no real control over the characteristics of the tyre, and no F1 engineer enjoys an uncontrollable variable — but on the other hand Pirelli in this situation is really only a proxy for not overcoming problems actually within the team’s remit.
An array of seemingly small regulatory changes this season are working together to present a major challenge to the teams.
For example, changes to the aerodynamics rules have had a substantial impact to set-up, shifting the balance of the car away from the new lower-downforce front wings towards the larger rear ones and subsequently affecting how best to manage the tyres.
Further, the tyres themselves have changed construction. The tread has been reduced by 0.4 millimetres to reduce overheating, and the compounds themselves have higher working ranges. Tyre blankets in 2019 are also being operated at a lower temperature, putting great onus on the teams compared to years past to maintain tyre temperature.
It’s little wonder, then, that Haas’s principal issue is getting heat into the tyres on circuits that lack high-energy corners. Indeed its cars are suffering graining borne of tyres sliding along the track, and it’s so severe neither driver can manage their way through it, as evidenced by their race-long pace decline.
There amount to significant changes, but then all of Haas’s midfield rivals have mostly managed to work their way through them without any great hassle. The American team stands alone in its struggles.
How the team arrived in this situation is speculative, but given its unique constructor model, it could be that it isn’t resourced in a way that lends itself to this sort of problem-solving — though Steiner disagrees with the notion.
“It’s not the amount [of people], it’s the quality,” he said. “If you have both, for sure you’re better, but I think we can overcome it. We overcame a lot of things.”
However, even Steiner admitted that his team “didn’t have time to react” after diagnosing the problem in the post-Bahrain Test at the height of the opening flyaway races, and he conceded his team was suffering particularly badly.
“Other people can get it to work so we need to get it to work,” Steiner conceded. “We are absolutely the worst one to get it to work. I’m very conscious about that one.”
Whatever’s causing the problem, it’s clear unlocking the tyres is key to unlocking the Haas VF-19’s potential — just don’t blame Pirelli.