The Machines That Changed The World of Motorsport
Italian machine tool and manufacturing journalist Edoardo Oldrati recently paid a visit to the homes of the Haas F1 Team and Stewart-Haas Racing, in Kannapolis, North Carolina. In both HQs – adjacent to one another on Haas Way, he discovered a common-sense approach to sourcing and developing engines and technology, a determination to ultimately make as many parts as possible in-house, and, of course, workshops full of busy Haas CNC machine tools.
All eyes were on Haas F1 Team when it took its place on the starting grid for the 2016 Formula 1 World Championship, the first American F1 team to do so in 30-years. What many may not have known at the time – certainly more so on the European side of The Atlantic – is that before entering F1, Haas Automation founder, Gene Haas, had already enjoyed a long and illustrious career as a team owner in NASCAR, the spectacular, fast-and-furious, US-based stock-car series, famous for its wheel-to-wheel racing on mostly oval, banked circuits.
The Stewart-Haas Racing (SHR) NASCAR team, and Haas F1 Team, are headquartered in Kannapolis, North Carolina – a city rich in the knowledge, expertise and technologies that go toward designing and building 200+ mph (320 km/h) race machines. SHR is one of the top teams in the NASCAR Sprint Cup championship, and can boast a long list of victories and poles. At the time of writing, SHR driver Kevin Harvick is leading this year’s championship, with teammate Kurt Busch in 8th place. If Harvick wins, it will be his second championship for the team since he won in 2014.
A team owner moving from NASCAR to F1 is unprecedented. Many can be forgiven for thinking the plan, when it was announced, was overly ambitious by nature, all motor racing disciplines are infamously unforgiving, none more so than the one that claims to be the sport’s pinnacle. But, the US team’s impressive debut at the first grand prix of the season, in Melbourne, Australia, silenced many of the skeptics. Haas F1’s French driver, Romain Grosjean, came in sixth, winning points on his inaugural outing. To put this extraordinary feat into perspective, it was in 2002 that a new Formula 1 team last achieved points in its first race of the year.
Haas F1 is still punching above its weight. However, “We must remember that we’re debutants,” warns Guenther Steiner, the Team Principal – the man charged with the ominous responsibility of delivering on Gene Haas’ vision. “This is a very technologically challenging championship, so it isn’t easy to consistently achieve the same level as other teams that have been racing for years.”
Guenther Steiner and Edoardo Oldrati pose for a picture as they discuss the role of Haas CNCs at Haas F1 Team.
To compete at this level, Haas F1 has applied a similar strategy used by Gene Haas to great effect in the world of NASCAR: building relationships with advanced technology partners and buying-in critical parts, as allowed by F1 regulations. The Haas VF-16 uses power units and gearboxes supplied by Ferrari, while the carbon fiber, monocoque chassis was made by Haas F1 Team in partnership with Dallara, another well-known Italian company. Haas F1 Team also makes plenty of its own parts, machined in-house.
“In our workshop we make racetrack equipment and parts for the wind tunnel tests,” explains Steiner. “In the future, however, we want to increase the number of components we make, perhaps even becoming a parts supplier to Ferrari!”
An ambitious aim, especially considering the complexity of some of the components used in Formula 1 cars. “In production terms we already have an excellent set of machine tools at our disposal, but we need to nurture technicians and operators in order to develop the necessary know-how,” says Steiner. “It takes time.”
“We’re learning a lot,” adds Brad Harris, CNC Operations Manager of Haas F1. “Developing effective work cycles to make parts for the wind tunnel has been a major challenge, particularly as we’re competing with the production departments of other teams, which are already operating to the highest standards.”
According to Harris, the main difficulty lies in identifying the right process to make these parts: “In particular, we’re focusing on reducing the number of set-ups needed, thus increasing production efficiency. Moving forward, we can turn our attention to the more advanced and complex components needed for the racing cars themselves.”
While Haas F1 continues to establish itself and build on its solid start, the NASCAR team is setting the benchmark. The NASCAR workshop at Kannapolis is full of Haas CNC vertical machining centers and CNC lathes, including VF-6TRs with trunnion rotary tables, Mini Mills, VF-2s, and VF-4s with HRT210 rotary tables.
“Compared with other motor racing championships, NASCAR requires the team to manage a much greater number of cars,” explains Stewart-Haas Racing Shop Foreman, Todd Frazier. “We have 16 cars for each driver, including specific models for some races, such as Daytona, and new evolutions with greater performance. With four drivers at SHR, this means as many as 64 cars per season.”
The cars are under continuous and very rapid development; for this reason output is a steady flow of small batches. Manufacturing technology plays a fundamental role in allowing the evolution process to take place.
“I’m convinced that machine tools and cars evolve hand-in-hand: to make more ‘evolved’ cars we need better performing machines,” says Frazier. “In particular, we need to implement the ideas of designers in a shorter timeframe, and this is where Haas machine tools can help, with their versatility, simplicity and reliability.”
One of the team’s main suppliers is Hendrick Motorsports, located less than 6 miles (10km) south of SHR (Hendrick is an institution in the NASCAR world, with 30 years of experience, and innumerable wins to boast of). With the growth of SHR, the collaboration has transformed into a strong technical partnership, which currently means Hendrick Motorsports supply’s the chassis and engines for SHR cars.
The collaboration with Hendrick is a two-way street. For 8 hours a day, lines of Haas CNC machining centers create a noise worthy of a NASCAR team. “The first Haas machine arrived in 1996, says Jim Wall, Hendrick Motorsports Engine Development Manager. “Today we have 47!”
Hendrick has two main workshops: engine and car production. “Initially, we focused more on engines, but as many other requests for components started to arrive, we achieved a fairly balanced split between engine construction and vehicle production,” explains Wall.
To give some sense of the workload, around 900 finished race-engines will leave the Hendrick production plant this year alone, all machined in-house from forgings, destined for the team’s own cars, as well as many other cars on the NASCAR grid.
Amazingly, the shops at Hendrick only work a single shift: “So, we need to carry out many processes in a way that doesn’t require night-time supervision,” says Wall. “For this reason, the reliability that Haas machines guarantee is fundamental. Furthermore, they are user-friendly and highly versatile – characteristics that allow us to process a wide range of parts. It’s also important to be able to count on a partner like Haas for support, given their ability to act quickly, and ensure that spare parts are available immediately.”
Haas Automation’s commitment to motor racing will remain a vital part of its business strategy for as long as Gene Haas has his sights set on a championship – somewhere in the world. The company’s story, including its racing activities is unique and inspires hundreds of thousands of its machine tool customers and users. Now, thanks to the global reach of F1, perhaps millions of young people will better understand the inexorable link between manufacturing technology and the motor sport they enjoy every weekend of the season. Amongst them will be F1 team owners of the future – or maybe just aspiring machine shop owners who will always remember the name Haas.