As two of the world’s premier racing series, Formula 1 and NASCAR could not be more different. NASCAR’s stock cars racing primarily on ovals with a “rubbin’s racin'” attitude appears opposite to Formula 1’s circuit racing in intricately designed racing machines. Team owner Gene Haas has stakes in both series: with Stewart-Haas in NASCAR and Haas F1 in Formula 1. Recently, the team made it known that they intend to have Romain Grosjean make his debut in NASCAR sometime in the near future. Although this would not be the first time we have seen an F1 driver cross over into NASCAR, the multi-sport dynamic of Gene Haas’ ownership could open doors for drivers of each series.
From Jacques Villeneuve to Kimi Raikkonen, there have been a number of Formula 1 drivers to take on NASCAR. The results of these career changes have been mixed. Drivers like Nelson Piquet Jr. have found success in lower series such as the Camping World Truck Series and the Xfinity Series. Most notably, Juan Pablo Montoya raced for several years in NASCAR’s top level, the Sprint Cup Series, picking up two wins. However, Montoya’s wins were at the Sprint Cup Series’ road courses, Sonoma and Watkins Glen, with the circuit racing extraordinaire at an advantage. The trickiest element of NASCAR’s top series for Formula 1 drivers to get the hang of appears to be pack racing in ovals. What these drivers largely have in common, besides being Formula 1 drivers, is that they came into NASCAR with teams relatively unfamiliar to them. Not only this, but these teams had no connection to Formula 1, and therefore could not always adequately work with a driver to prepare them for the new experience of competitive stock car racing.
Ultimately, we have just not seen Grosjean behind the wheel of a NASCAR stock car yet. However, it is safe to guess that he would be at an advantage having an owner such as Gene Haas with such strong connections in both sports. Previously, Red Bull Racing Team competed in NASCAR to moderate success. Existing in the time that Sebastian Vettel was leading the Formula 1 Red Bull Racing to Formula 1 domination, focus was not on the NASCAR team and it fizzled out. With Haas, we are presented with the opposite situation: a successful NASCAR race team with links to Formula 1 through ownership. Haas F1 has already caused quite a stir in the way that it has approached Formula 1 as a buyer more so than as a developer of their own equipment. With this already being the norm in NASCAR, the chance of Haas developing a Formula 1 driver into a successful NASCAR driver is greater than it was with Red Bull. With greater experience as a team and with the retiring Tony Stewart as co-owner, Grosjean will have the best resources at his disposal as well as the best teachers. This opens the door for drivers of both series to make jumps between these series more than Red Bull, as the NASCAR team is already well-established and the Formula 1 team is up and coming. With Red Bull, the NASCAR team was new and struggling, while the F1 team was thriving. Therefore Red Bull was focusing more on signing established NASCAR drivers such as Brian Vickers and Kasey Kahne in order to build the team rather than acting as a bridge between series. With Haas F1 in development, it would be more enticing for Stewart-Haas drivers to make an attempt at Formula 1 with a familiar team. Likewise, Formula 1 drivers, such as Grosjean, would have an easier move into NASCAR.
One key element in the Haas bridge between Formula 1 and NASCAR is that although we have seen Formula 1 drivers come to NASCAR, we have not seen the opposite. There have been tests, such as the driver swaps between Juan Pablo Montoya and Jeff Gordon. Ultimately, this lead to a NASCAR career for Montoya, but not an F1 career for Gordon. More recently, there was the swap between Tony Stewart and Lewis Hamilton. This has more interesting implications now considering the birth of the Haas F1 team since this swap took place. With the performance of both Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart in the F1 cars, coupled with the new link between the sports via Haas, perhaps we could see a NASCAR driver attempt Formula 1 in the future. One issue here is the ladder into Formula 1 is a considerably tall and challenging one. Drivers can spend years in lower series such as GP2 and Super Formula trying to climb up to Formula 1 without ever seeing action in the series. With more relevant skills learned in these series as a basis for learning how to drive a Formula 1 car, it is unlikely that Formula 1 teams would begin to farm NASCAR drivers for their open seats. Therefore, for now, NASCAR drivers in F1 cars is more of a gimmick or a marketing strategy. Formula 1 drivers into NASCAR, however, is a genuine career move, especially considering the linkages opening between the series.
Romain Grosjean’s place in NASCAR is a waiting game at the moment. Although the move makes sense and Haas has the resources to make it happen, the Haas F1 team still has some building to do. After a shockingly successful start to the 2016 season, the team has hit a wall lately and haven’t impressed quite as much as they had in those key first Grand Prix events. The timing for Haas to announce that Grosjean could race in NASCAR is somewhat strange considering the state of the F1 team at the moment. Although drivers entering new series is always an eye-catching headline, perhaps it is best that Haas continues to develop his Formula 1 racing series before introducing those drivers to NASCAR. Grosjean is currently 30 years of age and has time remaining in F1 as long as he continues to be an asset in the team’s development. It is more likely that Grosjean would remain with Haas for the team to fully develop, before retiring from Formula 1 to move into a sporadic career in NASCAR. If Gene Haas has built a bridge between Formula 1 and NASCAR, then how he crosses that bridge is crucial for the possibility of more teams making their own.
FONTANA, CA – OCTOBER 08: Team owner Gene Haas sits on pit road during qualifying for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Pepsi Max 400 on October 8, 2010 in Fontana, California. (Photo by Rusty Jarrett/Getty Images for NASCAR)