Prior to the stunning reveal that Lewis Hamilton was leaving Mercedes at the end of the 2024 Formula 1 season to join Ferrari on a “multi-year deal,” the biggest personnel news in the F1 world this off-season was the shocking departure of Guenther Steiner. The only Team Principal the team had ever known was out, replaced by Ayao Komatsu.
The incoming team boss has some huge shoes to fill, both personality-wise, and performance-wise. Steiner grew into a household name due to his star turn on the Netflix docuseries Drive to Survive, and while it might take time for Komatsu to grow into that kind of role, the more pressing issue is how he can blaze a path ahead for Haas on the track.
The team finished in last place a year ago, and while the VF-23 was impressive at times with its one-lap pace — leading to some impressive qualifying results such as Nico Hülkenberg’s performance at the Canadian Grand Prix — the car struggled with its race pace. Haas brought a big upgrade to the United States Grand Prix late in the season, but as Komatsu noted in a Q&A provided to the media, including SB Nation, that delayed their work on the VF-24.
As a result, Komatsu expects the team to be on the back foot to start the year.
“Out of the gates in Bahrain, like I said, I still think we’re going to be towards the back of the grid, if not last. Since I’ve become Team Principal, I’ve spent a lot of time talking to managers – both in the UK and Italy – and they’re excited because it’s an opportunity to improve and there are areas of improvement everywhere,” said Komatsu.
“The reason our launch-spec car is not going to be quick enough in Bahrain is not because of the quality of the people we have here, but it’s because we started late and then we stopped for two months to do the Austin upgrade,” added the Haas boss. “It really diverted resource, so we lost time there, but the team is finding good gains in the wind tunnel so that’s positive and in terms of characteristics, it’s going in the right direction.”
Komatsu also outlined what the team’s focus will be during pre-season testing.
“The focus is to have a good test program for Bahrain so that we come away from the test having quality data for the team to analyze and understand which direction to develop the car,” said the Haas Team Principal. “This means understanding the strength and weakness of the VF-24 accurately, then put a coherent plan together to produce updates on the car, which hasn’t happened previously.”
Helping that process of understanding? A pair of veteran drivers in Hülkenberg and Kevin Magnussen. Haas retained both drivers for the 2024 campaign, and Komatsu will turn to them for their insight on the VF-24 and the upgrade process.
“Drivers will play a stronger role too. Last year, in terms of subjective feedback from drivers, their understanding of what the weakness of the car was clear, however, we weren’t then able to reflect that in our car development program,” added Komatsu. “With the changes we made in the team, we aim to address this issue with our drivers more in the loop of development paths so that nothing gets lost. As engineers we have all the data from many sensors, but the one thing we can’t do is drive the car and feel what’s going on. So, we’ve got to be able to understand and react to drivers’ feedback better.”
Haas also made a number of additions on the technical team, moves that Komatsu believes put them on stronger footing to upgrade the car during the course of the season. That has been a thorn in the team’s side these past few years, with the challenger starting strong but fading over the course of the season as Haas sees their competitors bring upgrades to the track each week.
With the additions put in place, Komatsu believes the team can close that in-season gap.
“This is why we’re making changes to the organizational structure on the technical side to ensure that whatever we’re finding out on the track translates into car development,” added Komatsu.
“If you look at the organizational structure previously, there isn’t a clear path to close the loop on that side. Everything that’s found trackside, there’s now a closed loop going into the aero, wind tunnel and CFD departments. Now, at least even if there’s a disagreement, everyone is clear about why we’re developing the car in a certain way,” added the new boss at Haas. “That’s one key reason as to why we haven’t been able to put upgrades on the car and fall back in the season. We’re now already working in that way and there’s much better transparency, openness, and communication. Therefore, I believe we have a much better chance of upgrading the car properly this year.”
Komatsu then highlighted the additions to the team.
“Our new Technical Director is Andrea De Zordo. He was the Chief Designer previously and is a very technical person. His communication is good, he’s very engaged and he listens to people, so I’m very happy about that appointment. We are now recruiting for our Chief Designer, but I believe we have good internal candidates, so we’ll look to promote internally,” outlined Komatsu.
“Another key position is the Performance Director, this is a position that wasn’t there before, but we’ve created it putting Damien Brayshaw, previously the Head of Vehicle Performance Group, into the role. He will oversee and drive the direction for the upgrades together with the aero department and all the other functions that analyze the full-scale car, which is trackside engineering, the Vehicle Performance Group, Tire Group etc,” continued the Haas boss. “They’re the key changes – we’re getting everyone on board, talking together, and be a part of steering the ship.”
Still, beyond questions regarding the VF-24, the biggest question facing Haas this season might be Komatsu himself. As just the second Team Principal in Haas history, how he handles the transition might ultimately tell the story of the next generation at Haas.
So, how is he handling the move?
“Obviously it’s been busy, but it’s been really positive. Everyone I speak to sees this as an opportunity to improve. I think many people were feeling the same thing – not knowing where this team was going, how it’s going to improve,” said Komatsu when asked about his new role. “We need a clear target, vision and communication, and to remove certain barriers that didn’t need to be there. Everyone needs to understand what they’re dealing with, how this team is moving forward, and our approach towards how we’re going racing.
“I’m spending a lot of time talking with as many people as I can, sharing that approach and getting feedback. Obviously, I’m not trying to do this on my own, quite the opposite. We’ve got good people, so my job is providing an environment that they can flourish in and get the best out of them. Everyone is so helpful, motivated, and positive, it’s great.”