Haas F1 yesterday confirmed that they will run Ferrari engines when they enter the sport in 2016.
The deal has been an open secret for months now. Rumours began shortly after the project was announced, while team owner Gene Haas became a Ferrari sponsor through his Haas Automation business in July. Choosing another engine supplier would have been plain weird.
With the technical side coming together its natural to start thinking about who will drive the team’s cars. Haas has already made his dream lineup clear: one experienced F1 racer to guide them forward, and one American to ensure maximum exposure back home.
The identity of the experienced driver remains a mystery, as it will likely be someone left without a seat at the conclusion of 2014. Jean-Eric Vergne and Kamui Kobayashi fit the profile, but there is no guarantee that a better option won’t appear before then. It would also make sense - but not be essential - to run someone with Ferrari links. As it stands, no judgement can be made.
But the identity of their American driver looks increasingly clear. California-born Alexander Rossi, who nearly made his F1 debut at Spa, now looks a shoo-in for the seat. He fits the team’s requirements perfectly: he is young, has several seasons’ experience in the European junior series, and has some F1 seat-time.
And the fact that Rossi is, as his name suggests, of Italian heritage, could also play a big part in securing him the job.
North America is a key market for Ferrari and motor racing is seen as a strong platform from which to sell sportscars. Ferrari already invest money in a GT squad, which includes ex-F1 star Giancarlo Fisichella and competes in the United SportsCar Championship.
Agreeing to supply Haas’ engines is also part of their North American marketing effort. Team boss Marco Mattiacci said as much in the press release confirming the deal: he called the link up with Haas an “important strategic partnership” and said “the United States continues to be one of the most important markets for Ferrari.”
But what baring does this have on Haas’ driver lineup?
Ferrari will want to leverage their engine deal with Haas to get their young drivers into F1. Red Bull have done it for years with Toro Rosso, while Mercedes currently have Valtteri Bottas in a Williams powered by one of their engines.
The Scuderia’s top young talent is Raffaele Maricello, but the Italian doesn’t fit at Haas. It is far more likely that he will take Jules Bianchi’s spot at Marussia when the Frenchman is called up to the senior squad, a move that looks increasingly likely following an excellent season for the 25-year-old.
So while Ferrari may not be able to place their driver in the team they will nevertheless look favourably on someone who can work for the commercially. That is where Rossi steps in. The marketing potential of a young American driver with Italian heritage should have the Maranello outfit very excited. It is the perfect combination.
And remember, the U.S public already consider Italian-Americans to be synonymous with motorsport. Mario Andretti’s exploits in Formula 1 and domestic series such as IndyCar made his name a by-word for speed, and his son Michael and now grandson Marco have kept that tradition alive. If promoted properly, an American kid with a California accent and an Italian surname would make sense to the public at large. They will support Rossi the same as they would if his surname was Roberts.
There is a potential snag. Rossi is clearly hunting a Marussia seat for 2015, as evidenced by his debut-that-never-was at Spa, meaning he could be otherwise-employed. However even if he does take that ride the contract is likely to be for just one year. And, with a season under his belt, he would be even more attractive to Haas.
If the team sticks to its guns and runs an American in 2016 Rossi is undoubtedly the favourite for the gig. No other contender for the seat has his experience, and nor do they make sense to Ferrari in the way he does. If it all works out, he will have the hopes of American F1 fans coast to coast squarely on his shoulders. No pressure, Alex.