“There’ll be no more fok-smash, I’ll tell the children.”
It took a little while (Like, a whole week), but Motorsport decided that the second week of 2024 would be when it’s all decided to kick off. Three big stories in the last couple of days, from a big shake-up at Haas to AI usage at Mahindra, to AJ Foyt’s roundabout of talent in IndyCar. Let’s try to make some sense of it all, via The Newswipe. (Man, I haven’t used that series name in a while!)
Never thought I’d see the day on this one. I cannot understate the level of influence Gunther Steiner has had within Haas from Day 1. It was his business plan that got the team off the ground in the first place, off the embers of USF1. His pitch to Gene Haas, Bernie Ecclestone and others is what got Haas on the grid. But after 10 years as team principal of the Stiener F1 team in all but name, he’s out.
Now, there’s talk from the big journos that it was a fallout over philosophy that led to Gene taking drastic action. Gunther’s wanted Gene to get the chequebook out and invest in his team and Gene seems reluctant to want to do that. And in my opinion, it’s hard to argue with Gunther here. Haas are all over the place. Spread thin between Banbury, the States and Maranello with outsourcing on their chassis, power unit, and much of the “bits off the shelf” that make up their car. They also have the smallest staffing of any F1 team around, at only 250 or so employees. Williams, a team that nearly died during the pandemic and had collapsed multiple times since Haas’ inception, has 900 and has overtaken again them in terms of development.
Ultimately, I don’t think Haas’ infrastructure is a coordinated way to run a successful F1 team. And this isn’t the sport where you can afford to be cheap and coast and expect to have any kind of long-term success. You have to spend money to make it in this space, and if Gene isn’t prepared to do that, it doesn’t matter who your team boss is. And trust me, I didn’t miss the scathing remarks in the press release when they announced long-standing director of engineering Ayao Komatsu was taking over.
“We fundamentally have engineering at the heart of our management.” Given Gunther was hardly inexperienced in Motorsport, from running NASCAR’s Red Bull team to his time at Jaguar’s F1 team and his rallying background, that read like a thinly veiled jab. Maybe at Gunther’s unexpected stardom, becoming one of the unlikely stars of F1’s popularity boom at the hands of Drive to Survive.
I know what many of you are thinking, but Gene shot down any possibility of cashing out and selling to Andretti Global as they try to convince F1 of a place on the grid. They’ve had outside investment offer money to them and have turned it down. Haas wants to succeed on its own two feet. That’s admirable, but what does the future of this team look like? A sale to Andretti might be a convenient solution for all parties. Gene can cash out from his lost money, Andretti can inherit what he needs in terms of staff and infrastructure within Europe (as well as America given they’re building a big news base in Indiana), and FOM doesn’t have to sweat about an 11th spot on the grid. Everyone wins?
Bottom line, Haas hasn’t been out of the Bottom 3 since 2018. They’ve not spent up to the cost cap since its inception. This still sounds like a team whose main aim is survival, more than Gene’s claims about not wanting to finish in 10th anymore. Haas sounds like it’s at a crossroads. And the big man himself better know what he’s doing, because none of Haas’ recent performances, or actions come across as reassuring.
PS: On a personal level, I was lucky enough to meet Gunther Steiner in 2023. I know a lot of people have taken DTS as gospel when it comes to who they think he is. But let me reassure you that he was brilliant to work with, a kind, caring individual who was funny, engaging, and always willing to stick his neck out for people. Meeting him was a personal highlight of my time at WTF1 and I think he’ll be missed in F1’s paddock. I wish him all the best.
A couple of days ago, Mahindra’s Formula E team announced they had buddied up with “Ava Rose” an AI-created influencer to give behind-the-scenes content of the Formula E paddock and serve as a “artificial intelligence ambassador”, whatever the hell that means.
They got hammered on social media and I couldn’t agree more with it. I read Elizabeth Blackstock’s critique on Jalopnik, as well as Hazel Southwell, Ash Vandelay and Noelle Flamingo, brilliant journalists and commentators who rightly condemned the actions as misogynistic and sexist. I got to meet some of the people involved in Mahindra last year as part of my time at WTF1 and I know there are many brilliant women in their ranks who worked in communications. Were they consulted on this? Because this thoroughly sounds like a decision that an ignorant man would make.
It says a lot about the state of Motorsport’s space where large businesses would rather spend money and resources on crafting an AI that looks like a conventionally attractive woman pretending to be an influencer than just hire an actual woman to do it. It’s every macho stereotype made about Motorsport and the way it’s covered personified. All dressed up in the 2024 velvet bag of AI, an entity and technology that only seems more and more certain to take away from human jobs.
I’m glad Mahindra this morning announced that they were ending that partnership. It was a good and honest walkback from Frederic Bertrand, the CEO and Team Principal for their Formula E team. And if it’s true in their statement that our comments hold “tremendous value”, I sincerely hope they can reflect upon this decision and realise why doing so was so harmful. Mahindra’s a genuinely brilliant underdog story of competing against the biggest hitters in cars and Motorsport.
They have brilliant women from diverse backgrounds already making up their team and many potential fans who could have played the role of Ava, brilliantly. Formula E has poured more resources into the rise of the influencer than any other in global Motorsport. This was a massive opportunity gone begging for the team and now it has to clean up its mess from within.
Let the record show that I’m not completely against AI. I agree with Fred, Motorsport is about innovation, and new technology should be explored and experimented on, where we can decide how it could be used in the right ways to enhance humanity, not limit it. This was not the right way. In any case, I hope lessons were learned.
Because nothing ever goes smoothly in the house of IndyCar’s AJ Foyt Racing.
A couple of weeks ago, it was announced that former Dale Coyne driver Sting Ray Robb was joining the Foyt team in a revamped #41 car, the former #55 car that belonged to Benjamin Pedersen, whom the team signed on a multi-year contract last season. Pedersen responded to that with a rather brash Instagram comment:
Now that says to me that Pedersen took that in one of two ways. Either blissful naivety that his contract was iron-clad and he was just going to move over to the #14 car and crack on, or it was another thinly veiled jab at a team signing a driver to what was his seat.
I think we now know the answer, with Santino Ferrucci returning to the #14 car for the full 2024 season announced yesterday by the team. We don’t know how Foyt was able to wriggle out from under Pedersen’s contract yet, but it’ll be something to keep an eye out for.
The whole thing is messy and speaks to the issues that Foyt has as a team. It’s no secret that SRR has significant extra funding which likely swayed the team given their poor results in recent years. As a driver, Pedersen was poor in 2023, but Robb wasn’t much better, even if his resume was stronger in the lower classes. The difference in actual skill here seems negligible.
Keeping Ferrucci onboard does make sense. His 3rd at the 2023 Indy 500 was exceptional and his oval prowess is a tool a team like Foyt’s could use. Not many teams at their level have someone like that. But off the back of a new Penske technical alliance, I have to ask… is this the best you can do?
Callum Illot was out there after being unceremoniously dumped by Juncos in November. Christian Rasmussen and Louis Foster were top-tier Indy NXT prospects that were out there too, but was funding the main drawback? In any case, it feels like Foyt’s leaving skill on the table while languishing at the back of the IndyCar field. And that makes me sad.