KANNAPOLIS, N.C. (AP) — Gene Haas initially talked of hiring an American driver for his new Formula One team.
The reality, Haas found, is that signing a driver based solely on his nationality was not going to help him build a credible race team. That realization led Haas F1 to name veteran Romain Grosjean as its lead driver on Tuesday.
The 29-year-old Frenchman has been with Lotus for the last five years. He has competed in 78 Formula One races and has 10 podium finishes.
"We got a lot of pressure to hire an American driver," Haas admitted at its North Carolina race shop.
But he said he wasn't comfortable adding a rookie driver to a new team because "the goal is we want to compete in the most competitive car racing series in the world," Haas said. "We are not here to do it the American way, but to do whatever it takes to get that car on the grid with the right people."
Haas F1 will make its official debut at the Australian Grand Prix on April 3. The team has yet to name its second driver, but it will likely be a pilot recommended by Ferrari. Haas has developed a technical relationship with Ferrari to get his team launched, and Ferrari reserve driver Esteban Gutierrez is the favorite for the second seat.
Haas said he was surprised that Grosjean was both available and interested in joining what will become the first American-led Formula One team since 1986.
"He has scored points every season, and that's really our primary goal — to score points," Haas said. "He's going to be a lead driver and help us with our strategy with the car, the race tracks and the whole learning process."
Grosjean explored other options because Lotus has severe financial problems and is in ongoing takeover talks. The financial problems meant the team's freight arrived late for last weekend's Japanese Grand Prix.
Grosjean said the Haas alliance with Ferrari was also enticing.
"I felt (Haas) was a different approach than one a normal new F1 team would do, and I think the approach can be successful," he said. "I like the idea of the partnership with Ferrari."
Grosjean's first time driving for Haas will be during the March 1-4 preseason test at Circuit de Catalunya in Barcelona. A second test will be held March 15-18 at Barcelona.
"In addition to being an experienced Formula One driver, Romain is very technically minded," said Guenther Steiner, Haas F1 team principal. "He gives strong, specific feedback as to how the car performs. As we develop our car in testing and throughout the season, his insight will be crucial."
Haas is an American businessman and co-owner of NASCAR's Stewart-Haas Racing. He's entering F1 to take his CNC machine tool manufacturing company global with the hope of doubling his annual sales to $2 billion.
Haas has been undeterred by skeptics of his F1 aspirations. The FIA granted entry to an American team in 2009 — the USF1 team — but it failed to hit the grid in 2010 and Haas had feared that botched effort could hurt his application process. But he convinced the FIA he was serious about Formula One and the hiring of a proven driver in Grosjean shows he isn't taking the easy route.
"What Gene Haas and everyone at Haas F1 Team is building is impressive, and I'm very proud to be a part of it," Grosjean said. "This is a new opportunity with a new team that is taking a very different approach to Formula One. I believe in their approach and they believe in me."