Thursday, January 13, 2022

OPINION: Haas F1 Team at a Crossroads Entering 2022

PHOTO: Beyond The Flag

by Ben Schneider Guest Contributor

As America’s lone Formula 1 team prepares for their seventh season, how do we grade the underdog Haas F1 Team’s performance and accomplishments since their 2016 debut?

If I were writing this three years ago, in the months immediately preceding the 2019 season, it would likely be a resounding A. Haas came into the sport with immediate success as Romain Grosjean scored points on the team’s debut race in Australia with a P6 finish. Grosjean immediately followed this up by finishing 5th in Bahrain and would add three more points finishes by the end of the season, including a P10 in the team’s home United States Grand Prix. While teammate Esteban GutiĆ©rrez failed to score a point in 2016, Grosjean’s 29 total points were enough to give Haas an eighth-place finish in the Constructors’ Championship.

Haas followed this up with another P8 Constructors’ finish in 2017, as Grosjean and new driver Kevin Magnussen combined for 47 points throughout the season. Haas truly broke through in 2018, improving to fifth in the Constructors’, highlighted by both Grosjean and Magnussen finishing inside the top-five in Austria. For a brand new team to jump straight into the midfield and even flirt with the podium within their first three years is unheard of in modern Formula 1, and speaks volumes about the team’s desire to come into the sport and be competitive.

However, I am writing this in the present day, in the months immediately preceding the 2022 season. As such, it’s hard to justify that grade being anything better than an F. Recent bias aside, the lifetime grade would likely average out somewhere in the C or D range, but it’s hard to fathom just how far Haas has fallen in only three years.

The 2019 season began with high hopes as Haas signed Rich Energy as the team’s title sponsor. They even went so far as to contend that they could fight Red Bull “on and off the track.”

This did not happen. In fact, neither Haas nor Rich Energy came particularly close. Rich Energy became an entrenched source of controversy regarding brand legitimacy, copyright infringement, and their contentious CEO William Storey. By July, the brand’s Twitter account appeared to signal a termination of their contract with Haas, and while these reports were initially denied by Rich Energy shareholders, Haas announced the end of their partnership in September before the Italian Grand Prix.

Haas, on the other hand, also took a massive step backwards. To be fair, the Rich Energy saga certainly could not have helped matters, but the team scored only 28 total points as they fell all the way to P9 in the Constructors’, beating only a Williams team that missed the beginning of preseason testing. They also only managed a single point with one of the worst cars in the Grove-based team’s history.

In 2020, Haas managed only three points on their way to another P9 Constructors’ finish. Both Grosjean and Magnussen departed following the season, and in 2021, Haas was faced with an all-rookie lineup of Mick Schumacher and Nikita Mazepin. Both drivers struggled to adapt to a car that Haas elected not to upgrade throughout the season, while Mazepin in particular underperformed compared to Schumacher and found himself in off-track controversy before the season even began. For the first time, the team failed to score a single point throughout the entire 22-race season.

In theory, Haas’ decision to stop development of their 2021 car should increase their resources and strengthen their 2022 challenger. And with the biggest regulation changes since the introduction of the V6 Turbo Hybrid engines on the horizon, many believe 2022 could be an opportunity for the small teams to close the gap to the likes of Mercedes, Red Bull, Ferrari, and McLaren.

In the case of Haas in particular, this season may very well be make or break for the American team. Gene Haas has said on multiple occasions that it makes little sense to remain in Formula 1 long-term if there is no clear path towards competing at the front of the field. After three disappointing seasons in a row, how much longer will he be willing to invest millions of dollars into his team?

Only time will tell.

Sunday, January 9, 2022

ARCA MIDWEST: Braison Bennett exits early in Dixieland 250

PHOTO: Ricky Bassman via Facebook

by William Soquet Staff Writer

Braison Bennett picked up the second last-place finish of his ARCA Midwest Series career in Tuesday’s Gandrud Auto Group Dixieland 250 at Wisconsin International Raceway when his #9 PMF Landscape Supply / Bennett’s Auto, Inc. Toyota retired from the race after completing 25 of the race’s 250 laps.

The finish was Bennett’s first since the May 29 race at Jefferson, three races prior.

Braison Bennett is the third generation of an illustrious family of Wisconsin racing drivers. His grandfather, Bob Bennett, was a pioneer in the Northeast Wisconsin circle track racing scene in the mid-1900s. Braison’s father Lowell is an incredibly accomplished super late model racer who won the Slinger Nationals five times and made seven Busch Series starts in the early 2000s. 

Braison cut his teeth in the local pavement ranks at Wisconsin International, following the tire tracks of his father and grandfather, but also spent some time in the local IMCA dirt scene. However, after some years, Bennett decided to fully turn his attention to pavement racing, running in both the late model and super late model divisions at WIR. Until 2021, all of Bennett’s racing had been done with himself at the helm with his trademark #9 machines. However, at the end of 2020, local team Chase Motorsports parted ways with Casey Johnson, who won the ARCA Midwest Tour title in 2019 and 2020. For local shows, Chase turned to Braison Bennett; the team’s traveling endeavors were mostly put on hold for 2021.

The Dixieland race has a decades-long penchant for drawing big names; currently, it bills itself as “Wisconsin’s richest one-day race”. The guest list this year included NASCAR Cup competitors William Byron and Aric Almirola (who said that it was his first super late model race in a decade), ARCA Menards Series East champion Sammy Smith, late model barnstormer Casey Roderick, NASCAR Truck Series driver Derek Kraus and Toyota development driver Jesse Love. Bubba Pollard, after using a promoter’s provisional to make the show last year, did not make the trip up to make another attempt.

Ty Majeski, the former Roush-Fenway Racing development driver who grew up about a half hour from WIR in Seymour, Wisconsin, paced the qualifying session with a lap of 18.7 seconds. The top 16 qualified in on time trials with WIR local Jesse Oudenhoven the last of those. Bennett clocked in 32nd, and anchoring the charts in 34th was Andrew Brockers, a Midwest Tour regular who ran a lap of 20.2 seconds. Brockers consistently lacked pace in the last chance qualifier, and eventually retired early from the race, the only entry to do so. Travis Sauter, brother of NASCAR Truck Series driver Johnny Sauter, won the last chance race. Bennett finished 15th in a race that took ten cars to the feature, but secured a provisional due to his high point standing within WIR’s weekly racing.

The other local provisional (the Midwest Tour granted two for this event) was granted to Sawyer Effertz, who secured the 30th and last starting spot on the grid. The last-place battle, however, cycled through several different drivers in the early goings. On Lap 6, local driver Bobby Kendall assumed control of the last position, followed by Levon Van Der Geest, Bennett and Dillon Hammond in the next few laps. Hammond qualified in on time and avoided the last chance race, but struggled with handling during the feature event, eventually finishing eight laps down in 16th position. The #75 machine was lapped on Lap 19 and was the last-place runner until Lap 26. At that point, Bennett’s #9B machine made a quiet exit on to the pit lane. As his pit stall was on the backstretch, activity was hidden from the fans, and the car never made it back out on track. When non-crew members were allowed in the infield after the race, Bennett’s hauler was already on its way out of the track, the driver at the helm of the dually.

Next to retire was Jeff Holmgren Jr., who ran decently until the first competition caution on Lap 56, but did not return to the race after pitting. The WIR local was busy putting the car away after signing autographs and taking pictures after the race, but I did manage to catch a word with one of his crew members. “We have three cars and this one just doesn’t run right. Jeff has two checkered flags here in the past month, there’s no reason we should be lapped by lap 50,” the crew member told me. The team parked the entry; photos later showed that flames were emanating from the car for a fair amount of the opening section of the race.

The 2011 ARCA Midwest Tour champion Andrew Morrissey met a similar quiet end to his race. His #19 Toyota made it just past the competition caution before making an inauspicious exit on Lap 59. Things were a little more hectic for Carson Kvapil, the 27th-place finisher. The son of former NASCAR Cup racer Travis Kvapil skipped on the first day of his junior year in high school to run the Dixieland and showed off in time trials, clocking in eighth on the charts. The #35 machine was a solid contender until Lap 65, when the car slowed considerably in turns one and two. Kvapil pitted in an attempt to fix the issue, but made only a few more laps before permanently retiring from the race. “I was just driving it as hard as I could to keep up without burning the right rear off,” Kvapil told me after the race. “We broke the left-front hub, broke the A-frame. We had really good speed, just didn’t get to show it.”

A similar fate befell Love, who rounded out the Bottom Five. The ARCA Menards Series West champion was fastest in final practice and was sixth in time trials while driving for Chris Wimmer Development, headed by the namesake, the former Xfinity Series driver. Approaching Lap 90, Love’s car lost a good amount of pace and fell through the field, eventually spinning Aric Almirola on Lap 93 to draw a caution. The ensuing pit stop stretched into a retirement for the #21 car, which was later revealed to have also broken a hub. “About Lap 60, I felt a really bad vibration, felt like the power steering,” commented the driver. “Got progressively worse and worse and then after that caution got really really bad… I finally found a hole to get down to the pit road, and before I was going to make that cut, it broke the right-front hub. It landed on the splitter and went straight, and you can’t do anything at that point.”

Almirola emerged from the spin unscathed and finished the race in eleventh position on the lead lap.

30) #9B-Braison Bennett / 25 laps / mechanical
29) #5H-Brett Holmgren Jr. / 56 laps / carburetor
28) #19M-Andrew Morrissey / 58 laps / unknown
27) #35K-Carson Kvapil / 69 laps / hub
26) #21L-Jesse Love Jr. / 95 laps / hub