Romain Grosjean is cautiously optimistic that Haas’s leap up the field during preseason testing is real after he set the sixth-fastest time in free practice two at the Australian Grand Prix.
Haas marked itself as the dark horse of the season during winter testing, when some quick laps by Kevin Magnussen on middle-compound tyres paired with competitive long-run pace suggested it could compete at the front of the field.
Though talk of joining the top three alongside Ferrari, which supplies Haas with engines and a substantial number of other parts, were always going to be fanciful considering their disparate budgets, Grosjean’s practice pace as placed the team at the head of the midfield in the so-called ‘best of the rest’ position.
“It’s been a good day,” said the Frenchman. “We managed to do most of our programme, which is pretty amazing for a first day of the season.
“The baseline was good in Barcelona and we were looking forward to coming here to see [on] the different conditions, the different track layouts, if that was real.”
The times indicated that it was indeed real. Grosjean’s best time of the day — a one minute 24.648 seconds — was good enough for sixth, just 0.717 seconds slower than Lewis Hamilton’s benchmark time.
“It’s very encouraging that we’re not too far from the Ferraris, which is a good benchmark for us,” he said. “But, again, I think it’s pretty tight behind us as well, so it will be interesting, and I think the midfield fight is going to be all year long.”
There are important caveats to his time, however. A red flag at the 45-minute mark of the 90-minute sessions forced a number of drivers to abort their low-fuel qualifying simulation runs, including Red Bull Racing’s Daniel Ricciardo, who finished marginally behind the Haas driver in seventh.
“The main thing is to do our own work and focus on what we can do on our side of the garage,” Grosjean said. “Of course you always want to see where you are compared to others, but that’s the best way to get lost, so we’re really focussing on getting the best out of our car.
“There are still a few things we can improve — it’s never going to be perfect in FP2 — so a few bits and pieces for tomorrow and hopefully even faster.”
Although it’s still early in the season, Haas’s performance, if representative of real qualifying and race conditions, would place it clear of the midfield but beyond the tail of the frontrunners, leaving it in the bittersweet position of fourth but with no-one to race and no real prospect of moving forward by the end of the year.
Grosjean says he isn’t concerned by the prospect, however.
“No-man’s-land is not ideal, but on the other hand Force India was pretty happy last year!” he said. “We need to see if it’s really a no-man’s-land and what has happened to the other teams.
“If we can end up in that position, it would be amazing, but, again, we are fighting big teams — McLaren, Renault, Force India — and they have got a lot of experience and they have got a lot resource as well, so it’s going to be a very interesting fight. Hopefully we can stay clear of them.”
With qualifying on Saturday evening forecast to be wet, there may be no clear answer to Haas’s pace until round two in Bahrain.