The United States Grand Prix earmarked the arrival of Haas introducing its eagerly-anticipated upgrade package – but the modifications to the VF-23 failed to inspire a happy homecoming, leaving the American outfit on the brink of slumping to the bottom of the Constructors’ Championship.

Haas arrived back on home soil for the second of three scheduled rounds in the States as a team desperately in need of a strong result, having only amassed a solitary point across the previous eight rounds.

Consequently, the team’s stagnant progress had opened the door for fellow Ferrari engine customer Alfa Romeo to leapfrog Haas in the order with a double points haul in Qatar.

But, unlike its closest rivals, Haas had the promise of a highly revised car on the way.

Courtesy of its close technical collaboration with Ferrari, Haas persisted with the ‘bathtub’ sidepod concept into this year. But an aerodynamic imbalance saw Ferrari abandon the philosophy earlier in the campaign, culminating in the Italian marque returning to winning ways in Singapore last month.

After accompanying Ferrari in refusing to plough further resources into an idea that had reached its development ceiling, Haas rented a workshop in Austin ahead of the weekend to ensure it could deliver the changes that would ensure it became the final team on the grid to converge to the downwash sidepod solution pioneered successfully by World Champions Red Bull.

The VF-23, sporting a tweaked US-themed livery for Austin, brought improvements to the floor, engine cover, sidepod inlet, sidepods, quarter panel and padding gills.

The alterations were primarily targeted at rectifying Haas’ long-standing tyre degradation woes, which have repeatedly stymied the team from converting promising grid positions into regular points scores.

Although Kevin Magnussen wound up fifth in the sole practice hour ahead of qualifying at the Circuit of the Americas on Friday, the Dane then failed to advance to Q3. Meanwhile, team-mate Nico Hulkenberg, usually a one-lap specialist, couldn’t even escape elimination from the first segment.

Kevin Magnussen (DEN) Haas VF-23. 20.10.2023. Formula 1 World Championship, Rd 19, United States Grand Prix, Austin, Texas, USA, Qualifying Day

Nevertheless, Magnussen remained optimistic about the Kannapolis-based squad’s weekend prospects at that stage, insisting that he retained the pace to reach the top 10, adding that the race would determine the true extent of the progress Haas had made with its latest developments.

“The real question is whether the car is better on the tyres, if the performance is better there,” Magnussen assessed post-qualifying. “That’s what we’re really looking for. Not really whether we’re a little bit better on one lap or not, that’s not the question.”

Fast forward a day and Magnussen’s pre-weekend excitement had dissipated into overwhelming concern. The 19-lap Sprint encounter on Saturday evening exposed a familiar tale of the sight of both Haas drivers being powerless to prevent their plight once tyre wear became a factor in race trim.

“It didn’t look too good, honestly. But we’ll investigate and see what we think,” Magnussen explained. “It’s just frustrating. [The tyre struggles] looked a little bit similar [to before]. The pace dropped off a lot.

“I got a decent start and a decent first lap, then stayed there for a few laps before the well-known cycle of getting overtaken and the tyres dropping off started.”

However, Hulkenberg remained slightly more upbeat about Haas’ unsettling predicament, citing how the Sprint format had afforded the team only one practice session to optimise its heavily transformative package before parc ferme regulations were enforced.

The German driver added: “First glimpse, obviously not a transformation, unfortunately. But it feels like it was the first real session, with this car, with this package.

“There’s more to explore, more to unlock, probably also to readjust the set-up. But we need time and track time and we didn’t quite have that yet. But it was expected to be tricky to bring an update of that magnitude and hit it on the head the first time.”

Nico Hulkenberg (GER) Haas VF-23. 21.10.2023. Formula 1 World Championship, Rd 19, United States Grand Prix, Austin, Texas, USA, Sprint Day.

Subsequently, Haas elected to withdraw both cars from the starting grid to the pitlane ahead of Sunday’s grand prix, allowing the team to conduct further set-up changes.

Ultimately, the gamble would not yield a return to points-scoring ways, as Hulkenberg was pipped by Logan Sargeant in the closing stages for what transpired to be 10th place, with Magnussen trailing behind in 14th.

But Team Principal Guenther Steiner maintained that Haas made the correct choice in sacrificing its qualifying result to experiment further with its new package, leaving the side better placed ahead of the remaining four rounds of the season.

“I mean, today was better than yesterday,” he admitted. “Thank God we made the decision to go out of the pit lane with the changed aero set-up. Obviously, we now need to look at data and stuff like this to have a better starting position in Mexico with the setup.

“We were a little bit behind, knowing that we only had one hour. It’s not like saying that we did a bad job, it was just very tight, such a big upgrade, and going in here.

“But we knew the risk, and we took the race, but I think we know for sure a lot more now than we did before. And hopefully we can put it into performance in Mexico.”

Unfortunately for Haas, its turn to unveil radical upgrades failed to deliver the sort of instant, fruitful gains that McLaren profited from earlier in the year, with Lando Norris recording a fourth consecutive podium.

Whereas McLaren’s resurgence continued as the Woking camp displaced Aston Martin for fourth position in the Constructors’ table, Haas’ dire run continued. The ongoing rut for America’s sole F1 entry was compounded by a selection of its rivals taking advantage to make up ground in the points standings.

AlphaTauri managed to sneak into the top 10, stealing the fastest lap with a late dash, before Yuki Tsunoda was promoted to eighth once Lewis Hamilton and Charles Leclerc were disqualified when post-race checks discovered that their cars didn’t comply with the regulations governing plank wear.

Kevin Magnussen (DEN) Haas VF-23 and Yuki Tsunoda (JPN) AlphaTauri AT04 battle for position. 21.10.2023. Formula 1 World Championship, Rd 19, United States Grand Prix, Austin, Texas, USA, Sprint Day.

Meanwhile, their misfortune also elevated Williams into the top half with both cars – including granting Logan Sargeant’s first-ever F1 point to cement its hold on seventh place.

But more pertinently, AlphaTauri’s five-point haul marked its best return of the season to date and brought the Italian entity to within only two points of the struggling Haas side.

The Faenza squad were boosted by an amended floor for the US GP weekend, which supported the Red Bull-inspired upgrade it bolted onto the AT04 in Singapore. Since then, AlphaTauri has been a much-improved force in comparison to its lacklustre start and will also be backed by an increased synergy with the senior team from next year.

Tsunoda continued his quietly impressive campaign with another strong drive, while experienced eight-time grand prix winner Daniel Ricciardo is certain to contribute to the team’s endeavours once he overcomes the race rust that was evident in his return appearance from a broken hand injury.

On current form, Haas are the favourites for the F1 equivalent of the wooden spoon, which would entitle it to the lowest amount of prize money from the available pot. However, it would also be a sizeable blow to a team that effectively sacrificed the entirety of 2021, the last season under the previous regulations, to commence this latest technical cycle from a promising base.

But despite Haas being required to hit the reset button again, Steiner is convinced that Haas is now heading in the right direction towards a brighter future once more.

“I don’t know how good it is [the upgrades] yet,” the Italian added. “At least both drivers could race some people today, because the last five [races] we were just being overtaken, and at least we could overtake some people today. Are we good enough? No. We need to get more out of it. At least we’re moving in the right direction,” he concluded.

In the short term, the upgrades failed to reignite Haas’ torrid season and has positioned it at risk of bringing up the rear in 2023. But the true test of its latest overhaul will be whether the team can avoid its current slide from becoming another prolonged period rooted to the bottom.

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