Guenther Steiner interview: What makes star of Drive to Survive tick?

Guenther Steiner spoke exclusively to The Independent ahead of the 2023 F1 season  (Getty Images)
Guenther Steiner spoke exclusively to The Independent ahead of the 2023 F1 season (Getty Images)

When Netflix first premiered Drive to Survive in 2019, an attempt by Formula 1’s new owners Liberty to broaden the sport’s murky horizon, the onus was on your Hamiltons, your Vettels and your Verstappens to haul in that untapped audience. Like any serial drama, you need a protagonist. But there can only be one star of the show.

Little did people think it’d be Guenther Steiner.

“It’s all about the underdog story,” the 57-year-old tells The Independent, when asked why the Haas-centred episodes have the viewers at peak excitement upon the release of each show. A show, he is eager to add, he does not watch.

“I’m not good at acting, I just do my job and if they film it all that’s fine. It’s all very transparent. We sometimes make a meal of things but very rarely. It’s real – and we can do that because our owner [Gene Haas] lets us do it. I think the fact he’s American means he’s more open. I think people like the honesty too.”

Four years on from Drive to Survive first hitting the screens and Steiner’s face adorns t-shirts accompanied with memorable lines of his from previous seasons. A “we’re a f****** bunch of w******” here and a “you do not f** smash my door” there. Uncensored passion. No holds barred. The net result? A fame which has skyrocketed.

“People call your name in the paddock and I think ‘oh do I know this person’”, he says. “But then you realise they know you, I don’t know them! It is very strange but sport without fans cannot survive.

“We need to give something in return, we cannot be arrogant about it. I’m very conscious of that. If somebody wants a selfie, I never say no! I don’t want to change – and that’s one of the reasons I don’t watch Drive to Survive myself.

“Yet when you see people wearing a t-shirt of you, I do think ‘when would I have ever thought somebody would buy a t-shirt with my ugly face on it?!’ I must have achieved something…”

It is a summation which Steiner regularly refers to in season five of the hit fly-on-the-wall docu-series, out last Friday. Complimented on his “great TV personality” in the paddock in Saudi Arabia, Steiner responds: “At least I have a career when I f*** this one up!”

Such is his stardom, in fact, that it’s not just Guenther thrusted into the limelight. After growing up in the northern Italian province of South Tyrol, Steiner now resides in North Carolina with his wife Gertraud and daughter Greta. Scenes in season five include jet-skiing with Greta and sunbathing alongside Gertraud, who is even in the hotseat describing the stress her husband takes on as “like carrying a backpack which is getting heavier… like a donkey.”

“They were both keen to be part of it,” he says. “When anyone asked my daughter four years ago if she knew me, she said no! She’s 13 now so she’s used to it, it’s just part of our lives now.”

But beyond all his eccentricities are two sides to the Italian-American, who is now the fourth-longest serving team principal on the grid. Because delve deeper than all the laughs, swearing and quotes which have become iconic in their own right, Steiner’s role as team principal at Haas has been littered with obstacles varying in significance since the team’s debut in 2016.

Some performance-based and some of an altogether more serious nature. None more so than a year ago, in the immediate aftermath of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine.

Russian driver Nikita Mazepin occupied one of the team’s seats and his father, oligarch Dmitry, was an overwhelming presence not just due to his son but also due to his fertiliser company’s title sponsorship of the team. Funds, post-Covid, that Haas needed in order to stay afloat.

Fast-forward a year and the 2023 season opener this Sunday in Bahrain falls exactly 12 months after Haas terminated Mazepin’s contract and Uralkali’s title sponsorship. Steiner and his team were widely praised for taking affirmative action so quickly.

“That situation wasn’t easy but I knew what we had to do” he recalls. “At that stage, there were not a lot of options, you could not take half the [Uralkali] stickers off the car. This was an invasion, we had to break it off.

“We didn’t hesitate and we had to just take the bull by the horns. Once we decided, it was all pretty quick and with the lawyers we did it all in a day. Half the battle then was getting people to understand it and when we explained our reasoning, most people agreed.”

Steiner terminated Mazepin’s (right) contract last year and Mick Schumacher (left) is now also not a driver with Haas (Getty Images)
Steiner terminated Mazepin’s (right) contract last year and Mick Schumacher (left) is now also not a driver with Haas (Getty Images)

Given his clear-cut decision making, what does he make of the current debate brewing regarding Russians competing in sport on a worldwide scale, particularly ahead of next year’s Olympics in Paris? He does have a theory.

“If it’s tennis players, they don’t get anything from Russia to play tennis so they should be able to play as they’re professional sportsmen,” he begins. “But most of the athletes at the Olympics are semi-amateur and they’re also employed by the army or police. Those close to the regime in that way shouldn’t participate.

“I’m not an expert but I think this principle doesn’t sound completely wrong to me. They need to look at how close athletes actually are to the regime.”

In Drive to Survive – released coincidentally on the one-year anniversary of the invasion – Steiner describes the Mazepin situation with a forthrightness so telling in the circumstances. In Haas’ motorhome, he rages: “F****** hell, I don’t need any of this. No more Russians. I’m done with Russians until I go from this planet.”

Nonetheless he does not regret signing Mazepin, who failed to score a point for the team in his one and only season in F1. “We had a plan. We would’ve worked towards that plan if the invasion hadn’t happened because even thought it’d been difficult, you cannot just give up because of one difficulty.”

Giving up is not in Steiner’s nature. Persistence, bravery and resilience are attributes which crop up regularly. Whether it be jumping his academic ship to become a mechanic in the World Rally Championship in Belgium and pursuing a career in motorsport to meeting Gene Haas at an American steakhouse and launching a Formula 1 team from scratch, interviewing every team member in the process.

“It was so exciting” he says of the venture into the unknown. “I’m very proud to get it off the ground. If I said wasn’t proud of it, you’d say I was arrogant. And when you think of all the new F1 teams in the last 20 years, they’re all gone. We’re still here and here to stay.”

Haas in Formula 1

2016 - 8th (Romain Grosjean and Esteban Gutierrez)

2017 - 8th (Grosjean and Kevin Magnussen)

2018 - 5th (Grosjean and Magnussen)

2019 - 9th (Grosjean and Magnussen)

2020 - 9th (Grosjean and Magnussen)

2021 - 10th (Mick Schumacher and Nikita Mazepin)

2022 - 8th (Kevin Magnussen and Mick Schumacher)

2023 - ? (Kevin Magnussen and Nico Hulkenberg)

Not that Steiner and Haas haven’t had their issues in the past seven seasons. After scoring in race one in Australia, the team entered the midfield and finished an impressive fifth in 2018. But uncertainty brought about by the pandemic in 2020 impacted their finances and resources.

The arrival of Mazepin and Mick Schumacher, a pair of rookies, in 2021 represented a new low. Two cars, 22 races, zero points.

“It didn’t come out of the blue,” Steiner says now. “We stopped everything in 2020. We said ‘forget 2021, focus on 2022’ so that kept my morale up. We finished fifth in 2018 and we hadn’t gone completely stupid in two years.

“Giving up is not an option in life, you just have to keep pushing.”

But how random can the stars align? Mazepin’s exit resulted in Kevin Magnussen’s renaissance at Haas and a stunning fifth-place finish in Bahrain last year was bettered as the team’s moment of the season by a brilliantly-crafted pole position at the penultimate meet in Brazil. In Steiner’s words, it was the perfect end to “the comeback season.”

So to 2023 and after giving Schumacher ample opportunity to prove his worth, Steiner showed a ruthlessness not immediately associated with his character in axing the German, replacing him with the experienced Nico Hulkenberg. It makes for a formidable driver pairing as Haas look to cement a midfield spot.

How Steiner manages two drivers who’ve infamously fallen out in the past will be a sub-plot of the season. Yet despite the rigours of a record 23-race season ahead, the Haas boss does not lose sight of the bigger picture and the privileged lifestyle he leads.

Steiner is full of energy ahead of his eighth season in F1 with Haas (Getty Images)
Steiner is full of energy ahead of his eighth season in F1 with Haas (Getty Images)

“I get pretty upset sometimes but it goes away quickly – I don’t hold grudges for long,” he says in a fascinating self-assessment of his own approach to life. “I always try to enjoy what I do. Do I all the time? For sure not.

“But at least it’s all natural. I can be very serious in a business meeting and then half-an-hour later be joking.

“Motor racing is not essential. We are not NHS workers, they’re essential. We race cars.”

A star of the screen, Steiner is making moves in other forms of entertainment too. His book detailing his journey in 2022 with Haas is released next month, aptly called Surviving to Drive. His celebrity seems to have no boundaries except, perhaps, for the man himself – who has more energy than ever as he enters his eighth season.

“I’ve got a mission to finish at Haas which is to get the team in a good place, I don’t want to go anywhere else,” he says.

“When you start a team from zero, the attachment is higher than when you just join a team. I’m very happy here. Nobody on a keyboard can say I’m doing a bad job. It’s easy for them sitting on their sofa.”

There’ll be no coasting, though. “Being in Formula 1 just to have a job? I don’t want to do that. You cannot bail out.”

Article originally published on 1 March 2023