Haas Automation’s well-established reputation as a manufacturer of cutting-edge manufacturing technology has long been accompanied by its increasing prominence in motorsports. Now it is set to make its debut as a Formula One team, and it will do so right here at the Australian Grand Prix. By Mike Arning.

After working for three years as an industrial programmer, Gene Haas founded Proturn Engineering in 1978. It was a small contract machine shop in Sun Valley, California, where Haas worked side-by-side with two employees, machining parts for the electronics and aerospace industries. During this time Haas developed a fully-programmable 5C collet indexer to boost productivity in his own shop. The Haas 5C was the industry’s first device to automatically reposition parts accurately for machining by simply pressing a button, as opposed to having to reposition the material by hand – a cumbersome and time-consuming process.

The machine-tool industry received the economical and reliable Haas 5C Indexer with enthusiasm and, in 1983 Haas Automation Inc. was born. The company started with three employees in a 465sqm facility. During the next four years, Haas expanded his product line to include a wide selection of fully-programmable rotary tables, indexers and machine-tool accessories. Haas Automation quickly became the leader in fourth- and fifth-axis parts positioning.

In 1987, Haas took what he learned from the 5C Indexer and designed and developed his first vertical machining centre – the VF-1. The prototype was introduced to the manufacturing world in 1988 at the International Machine Tool Show (IMTS) in Chicago. Haas listed the machine at the unheard of price of $49,900; industry experts were sceptical that a US company could manufacture and sell a machine tool for less than $50,000. Haas Automation silenced the doubters. The new product was a success and, today, virtually every manufacturer of vertical machining centres worldwide produce a similar machine in the $50,000 price range.

A winning Formula

A hands-on approach to development, where Haas constantly strives to make his CNC machine tools better and more efficient, is evident in his company’s best and biggest marketing platform – motorsports.

From the humble origins of Haas CNC Racing in 2002, Haas now co-owns a four-car championship-winning NASCAR Sprint Cup Series team. After partnering with two-time Sprint Cup champion Tony Stewart in 2009, Stewart-Haas Racing (SHR) has earned two Sprint Cup titles and won more than 30 races. The championships secured with Stewart in 2011 and Kevin Harvick in 2014 placed Haas in elite status among the likes of such stalwart NASCAR owners as Rick Hendrick, Roger Penske, Richard Childress and Joe Gibbs.

However, Haas, whose worldwide footprint with Haas Automation encompasses more than 60 countries, wants more for his machine tool company, which eclipsed $1bn in sales in 2014. “The best way to grow our business and elevate Haas Automation to a premium, global brand is with Formula One,” he says.

This is why the industrialist from Youngstown, Ohio, has decided to go one step further than his counterparts in NASCAR by creating Haas F1 Team, the first American-led Formula One team in 30 years.

“From an international standpoint, Formula One is the highest echelon of racing, and Haas Automation builds the highest-quality machine tools,” Haas said. “When you hear ‘F1’ you know exactly what it is – a global racing series that showcases the latest technology and attracts the best talent in engineering and design. Haas Automation has an excellent reputation in the United States and I want that reputation to grow worldwide. Connecting Haas Automation with F1 in name and in practice is the best way to grow our business and elevate Haas Automation to a premium, global brand.”

Haas first began exploring the possibilities of Formula One in 2012 when he trekked to Austin, Texas, for the inaugural United States Grand Prix at Circuit of the Americas (COTA). There he met with Bernie Ecclestone, CEO of Formula One Management and the de facto ruler of the globe-trotting, open-wheel racing series. Ecclestone laid out the massive challenges that come with creating and then running a Formula One team, but Haas was undeterred. Just as he does every day from Haas Automation’s headquarters in Oxnard, California, Gene Haas went to work.

In late 2013, Haas filed the necessary paperwork to obtain a Formula One entry. After a lengthy approval process where all aspects of Haas’ Formula One plans were scrutinised, his license was granted in April 2014. Then the real work began. Employees were secured. Partnerships were formed. Buildings were constructed. Most importantly, drivers were hired and cars were built.

Now, nearly three-and-a-half years since Haas’s meeting with Ecclestone at COTA, Haas F1 Team is on the racetrack.

Haas F1 Team’s two drivers, Romain Grosjean and Esteban Gutierrez, were happy to find out on 8 January that their racecar had passed the stringent FIA crash test. Two pre-season tests on 22-25 February and 1-4 March at Circuit de Catalunya in Barcelona will prepare the team for its debut at the Formula One season opener, the Australian Grand Prix in Melbourne on 20 March.

“I think when Gene decided to do this, he wanted to be efficient,” said Guenther Steiner, a Formula One veteran who is now team principal of Haas F1 Team. “He has done all these projects, but never just by buying it. He’s very determined that he’s going to get this done.

“He’s got his own work ethic, and it’s incredibly strong. In everything he’s done, he’s asked, ‘How can we do this different and not just different, but more efficient?’ It’s incredible what Gene has achieved. And with this endeavour into Formula One, he’s doing it differently, but he’s also doing it smartly. Our technical partnership with Ferrari is proof of that.”

Scuderia Ferrari, the most successful team in the history of Formula One with 16 constructors’ titles and 15 drivers’ championships, will provide Haas F1 Team with its power unit, gearbox and overall technical support. The multi-year agreement forms a strong collaboration between the two organisations that will allow Haas F1 Team to be competitive in its inaugural season and in the years following.

“There is no team in Formula One more accomplished than Scuderia Ferrari, and no team with more history. They’ve been a part of Formula One from the beginning, and now they’ll be a part of Haas F1 Team’s beginning,” Haas said. “Aligning Haas F1 Team with such a tenured and successful company in Scuderia Ferrari provides our team with the greatest opportunity for success in 2016 and beyond.”

Australia marks the starting line                                                                                                                                      

All Haas’ preparations will come to a head when it makes its competitive debut on 20 March, at the Australian Grand Prix in Melbourne. For George Buhagiar, Managing Director of Alfex CNC Australia, whose Haas Factory Outlet division represents Haas in this country, the launch of Haas F1 Team is particularly exciting as it will take place so close to home. And as a keen motorsports fan himself, Buhagiar is looking forward to race-day.

“F1 is the elite,” says Buhagiar. “And as much as I like our Australian F1 driver Daniel Ricciardo, we’ll be pushing for the Haas team to be on the podium. But maybe one day Ricciardo will be driving for Haas. You never know.”

The high-speed thrills of motor racing may seem a long way from the serious work of the modern machining shop. But as Buhagiar stresses, Haas’ entry into Formula One, and its involvement in motorsports overall, are all aimed at highlighting the company’s achievements as a developer of advanced, high-performance technology.

“Haas machines have proved themselves,” he adds. “The current generation of machines is up there with the best, doing really high-tech, highly accurate work. Motorsport is synonymous with high performance, and that’s the message they want to send out there.”