MELBOURNE, Australia — Story by Race Chaser Online Managing Editor Jacob Seelman — Sam Bloxham/LAT for Haas F1 photo —
For the first time in 30 years, American motorsports fans had cause for celebration when Formula One cars rolled to the grid for the season-opening Australian Grand Prix Sunday at Albert Park.
The Stars and Stripes were back on the grid as respected U.S. businessman and NASCAR team owner Gene Haas brought Haas F1 Team into the sport, marking the first time the country would take to F1 competition since the unrelated Haas Lola team competed in the 1985 and 1986 World Championship seasons. Questions had been swirling for months leading into the opener as to whether the outfit would be any semblance of competitive, as well as if they would be able to carve out a long-term place on the grid.
By the time the race was over, not only were those questions answered, but the country was picking its respective jaws up off the floor after a thrilling and shock run for French veteran and Haas lead driver Romain Grosjean.
Grosjean drove a masterful race, charging from 19th to finish sixth in the 57-lap event. The effort scored eight points and made Haas the first team to score points in their Grand Prix debut since the 2002 season-opener in Melbourne, when Mika Salo also finished sixth for Panasonic Toyota Racing.
However — ironically enough — the stellar result for Grosjean came in part due to massive misfortune for his teammate, Esteban Gutiérrez.
Working the 17th circuit and entering turn three of 16 around the the 3.295-mile Albert Park course, Alonso moved to the outside of Gutiérrez as he looked to overtake the 24-year-old native of Mexico. When he did, however, disaster struck as the right-front wheel of the McLaren speared the left rear of the Haas machine, launching Alonso into the air and sending Gutiérrez spinning into the gravel trap.
Alonso hit the outside wall before flying over the gravel trap and flipping end over end in mid-air, with his mangled car coming to rest in a nearly-unrecognizable heap against the wall in the runoff area. He climbed out under his own power as Gutiérrez came to check on his fellow driver, and the pair walked away unscathed from the massive shunt.
“It’s not the race I was hoping for,” Gutiérrez said. “However, the most important thing is that Fernando and I are both okay. The car was handling well and the results show we can be very competitive. … I’m now looking ahead and focusing on Bahrain. I can’t wait to get back out racing.”
Race stewards displayed the red flag to clean up debris from the incident, and Grosjean was able to save a pit stop when the call was made to allow drivers a new set of Pirelli tires under the stoppage. As such, the team bolted on the white medium-compound tires, hoping for the Frenchman to be able to go the remaining 39 laps without making another stop.
In the end, that hope worked out to perfection. Grosjean managed his tires over the course of the longest run of the day, ultimately holding off Williams’ Valtteri Bottas and Force India’s Nico Hulkenberg for the top-10 finish. The run was his 36th points-scoring result in 84 career F1 Grands Prix.
“(Sunday) was a very good day at the office. This feels like a win,” Grosjean said. “For all the guys who worked so hard over the last few weeks, this is unbelievable. We were unlucky yesterday, but got a bit lucky today with the red flag. Still, we were able to hold off the Williams (Valtteri Bottas) and the Force India (Hulkenberg). We didn’t have much set-up (time) on the car. It was a case of, off you go and see what happens, and it worked in our favor.”
“This is an unbelievable feeling. The guys did an amazing job and I told them, this is like a win for all of us. It’s the first race and here we are, P6. A happy day.”
Team Founder and Chairman Gene Haas was equally as pleased with the result for the burgeoning team, citing the “heart” that went into the team effort as a key to their big day.
“There’s a new F-1 team on the block and it’s an American F-1 team, so we’re real proud of that. But these other teams are pretty dang good at what they do. I wouldn’t sit here and say we’re going to be in front of them all the time, but today was a good day,” Haas said. “Grosjean had a heck of a challenge there. They made the decision to go on the mediums for 39 laps, so that was really pushing it. He basically didn’t chew up his tires initially, so he was able to get 39 laps out of them. I think near the end he was starting to pick up time on the person behind him. Tire strategy, saving your tires, those are the kinds of things that make a driver a legend.”
“Grosjean just drove his heart out and did everything he could to keep it up there and it worked out. When Hulkenberg was behind him I thought he might catch him, but he held him off and we actually started to make some time. He was saving fuel near the end, so I think once we got to the last few laps and we started to push a little harder, the car really responded.”
However, Haas was quick to admit that while one good result does build confidence, he knows there will likely be struggles involved in making Sunday’s performance the norm for the American team.
“This is racing. It’s what we do for a living and, you know, it’s cool. But I’ll tell you, there’ll be some bad days too, so we’ll enjoy this one.”
The 2016 Formula One World Championship season continues April 1-3, with the Bahrain Grand Prix at Bahrain International Circuit in Sakhir. Lewis Hamilton is the two-time defending winner of the event for Mercedes AMG Petronas.
Haas F1 Team contributed to this report.
About the Writer
Jacob Seelman is the Managing Editor of Race Chaser Online and creator of the Motorsports Madness radio show, airing at 7 p.m. Eastern every Monday on the Performance Motorsports Network. Seelman grew up in the sport, watching his grandparents co-own the RaDiUs Motorsports NASCAR Cup Series team in the 1990s.
The 22-year-old is currently studying Broadcast Journalism at Winthrop University in Rock Hill, S.C., and is also serving as the full-time tour announcer for both the United Sprint Car Series and the Must See Racing Sprint Car Series.
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