Towards the end of 2014 Esteban Gutiérrez weighed up the options placed in front of him and plumped for the direction which few drivers would gladly take. He decided not to race. However, it’s now paid off, as through resilience he is back on the Formula 1 grid with Haas, as he prepares for a second chance in the sport.
Gutiérrez made his Formula 1 test bow with BMW-Sauber in 2009 and remained linked to the team throughout his time in GP3 and GP2, stepping up to a race seat in 2013 when compatriot Sergio Pérez departed for McLaren.
He was outclassed for much of the season by the highly-regarded Nico Hülkenberg, though claimed points in Japan and showed signs of improvement, as other strong drives in Singapore and Korea were unrewarded.
However, 2014 was a disastrous year for Sauber. Gutiérrez was lumbered with the outfit’s C33, an anaemic car for which every corner was an adventure, a predicament accentuated by Ferrari’s wildly inconsistent power unit. Sauber plummeted down the order to 10th and endured its first point-less Formula 1 campaign, just two years after it had amassed four podiums and 126 points.
Gutiérrez opted to shelve any plans to stay with Sauber and accepted a role to serve as Ferrari’s reserve driver, acting as understudy to Kimi Räikkönen and the incoming Sebastian Vettel, off the back of one of the squad’s worst seasons in the sport.
How big a gamble was that choice?
“Oh a very big gamble,” he says while sipping a hot drink in Haas’ hospitality suite.
“Imagine you go from a race seat, with the opportunity to race again and you say ‘okay no’, I decided to….”
Gutiérrez trails off as he reflects on his decision at the back end of 2014.
“It’s a negative cycle that somehow you need to grab your balls and make a bet on a different line. It’s not an easy decision, but I have no regrets at all.”
Gutiérrez describes his stint at Sauber as “a difficult time, there were many problems around, things that were not necessarily related to the sport, to racing, I guess it was a bad period,” but “the most important [thing] is the outcome.”
The outcome, of course, is a seat with Haas, which came off the back of a year as Ferrari’s reserve driver. Gutiérrez attended Grands Prix with the team but his representative track time was limited to two in-season test days and some promotional running. However, even that was not promised when he signed a contract at the end of 2014.
“There weren’t any guarantees at all [with Ferrari]. There wasn’t even testing, it was very much up to me to show my commitment with Ferrari, the team, and step by step I arrived one day and they told me ‘have you seen your new office?’ and I say ‘oh I have an office? Nice’, ‘yeah you have your own office, let us know what you want’, so I had an office.
“Then I arrived another day and they said ‘ah, go to Fiorano, we have a few cars for you to test’ and I said ‘ah thank you’ so I was there a lot doing my best, Maurizio [Arrivabene, team boss] called me [to say] that he wanted me to be very proactive, ask what I wanted and I started asking and with a lot of persistency, commitment, dedication I started to integrate very well with the team. They gave me the chance to test in Barcelona and they liked it, the feedback I gave, then they decided to give me also Austria, so everything came along step by step.”
Gutiérrez replies ‘yes’ when asked if he still has a connection with Ferrari but laughs – this is a common trait of his – when further details are requested; “I’m a race driver with Haas – the most important part!” Nonetheless, he speaks positively about his time as a reserve driver.
“It was a big step forward in many ways as I had the chance to get the reference from many good people, from a top team, for me that has good value,” he explains.
“It’s an important asset, based on your experience and knowledge, you combine everything with what you can see, what you perceive and it gave me a lot of motivation, there was a very good atmosphere, everybody was open, I was contributing, I was part of every meeting, so there was a lot of dialogue, so that gave me a lot of learning, and of course I had to be very patient, it’s not my favourite place to be as reserve driver but it came all together!”
Gutiérrez started talking with Haas in “June or July” last year as the embryonic squad evaluated its options.
“Gene [Haas] and Guenther [Steiner] - they showed an interest and then I had a meeting with them,” he recollects. “And then it developed from there.”
Aside from his maiden test in a BMW-supplied Sauber, Gutiérrez has utilised Ferrari’s engines throughout his Formula 1 career, and the Mexican reckons his connections with Maranello, which has developed a strong technical partnership with Haas, aided his return to the grid.
“It was important for them [Haas] to have a clear view of what options they had. I could offer very good experience with the Ferrari engine. On the engine side I have always been racing Ferrari engines from the start of my Formula 1 career, I’ve seen the development of the previous V8 engines to the V6, 2014 being a difficult year developing a lot the power unit, the guys that were at Ferrari, that were watching as well, was what gave me the chance to have the opportunity at Ferrari, then being at Ferrari gave me the opportunity to be with Haas. Everything went smoothly.”
With Haas the first new team in six years, what can be realistically achieved in 2016?
“It is a very ambitious target but it is very clear we want to achieve points. It’s ambitious as a new team but we will work very hard to achieve it!”
So does Gutiérrez expect to be fighting the likes of Manor and Sauber?
“I hope not,” is his instinctive reaction, before breaking out into laughter.
Gutiérrez has experienced the highs and lows of Formula 1 and has garnered substantial experience despite being only 24. After an abortive initial stint, he has a golden opportunity to prove his worth with Haas and embark upon a lengthy career in the sport.