This year has seen a remarkable turn of form for the Haas F1 team. They finished eighth in the Constructors' Championship last season, a good distance from fifth place Williams, nevermind the Force Indias in fourth.
The US team are sat in sixth place in the standings following another strong showing in Spain at the weekend. They would be even better placed had they not lost a double points finish in Australia due to wheel gun problems. They have frequently looked like the "best of the rest" behind the big three of Mercedes, Ferrari, and Red Bull, a position Kevin Magnussen feels they can make their own this year. "This is where we should be fighting," he said. "This weekend we have been very strong, we’ve been the fourth best car and I think we should be somewhere around there every weekend."
"We need to make sure we score the points – so it’s really nice to get there this weekend. Hopefully we can keep it up. The team have done an amazing job this weekend, I know we can do it – we just have to get it done."
Magnussen has done his upmost to maximise the potential of the Haas package this year. His sixth-place finish in Spain was his second top-six result of the year, and while he has come in for some criticism due to his aggressive style, the results are there for the young Dane, who sits a career-best ninth in the Drivers' Championship.
The problem for Haas' push to fourth place is their other driver, the enigmatic Romain Grosjean.
The career of Romain Grosjean has been one of crashes, reckless mistakes, and the occasional good result. During his time with Lotus, Grosjean served a one-race ban after causing a spectacular and dangerous crash at the first corner in Spa, but he also converted the potential of the car into several podium finishes. His aggression and positivity made him a favourite among fans but a black sheep in the paddock. He calmed down after two years of havoc, but the reputation of recklessness is hard to shift, especially when the accidents pile up again.
The last two races have ended in extremely disappointing fashion for Romain Grosjean. He had an accident all by himself under the safety car while in sixth place in Baku, and then he got too wide at Turn Three last weekend and ended up spinning back across the track, taking out the Renault of Nico Hulkenberg and the Toro Rosso of Pierre Gasly on the first lap.
At 32, the inconsistencies and problems should be behind him. When the Haas team barely sniffed points and were outside the Top Ten, it wasn't too damaging if Grosjean had a poor weekend. Now their package can compete for points, his inability to finish the race becomes a serious and expensive problem.
This is the final year of Romain's three-year deal, meaning his sub-par performances could be even more costly for him. The odds of an in-season change are low, as unlike Red Bull, the American team does not have a young driver program overflowing with talent. There are, however, a few potential options should they get desperate.
Robert Kubica, who is test driving for Williams, has been consistently impressive every time he has jumped in the car, regularly outperforming Lance Stroll and Sergey Sirotkin, the latter who joins Grosjean as the only drivers without points this year.
Giving Kubica a race seat would be a wildly popular move, but there are other options such as Formula E championship leader Jean-Eric Vergne who already has Formula 1 experience.
The start of the European season is an important period for Haas. As the development race really kicks in they could see their performance edge disappear. McLaren bought a new front wing design to Spain, and that will just be the start of the war for an extra tenth per lap.
As F1 heads to Monaco and Canada next, the potential for disaster in Grosjean's seat only increases, as will the pressure on the team. McLaren will like their chances to challenge the top six in Monaco, and Force India's Mercedes power unit will make them quick in Canada. If Haas head to the French Grand Prix at the end of June even further adrift in the race for fourth place, and the gulf between Magnussen and Grosjean has not reduced their hand may well be forced.
At this point in his career Romain Grosjean cannot survive a sustained period of bad form. The competition for 2019 race seats is too strong, especially given the turnover that is expected to come at the front of the grid. There are too many talented young drivers champing at the bit in the junior formulae. If he cannot turn things around soon, it may well be time for Haas to cut their losses and find Kevin Magnussen a new teammate.
Should Hass stick with Grosjean? Or is the Frenchman becoming a liability? We would love to hear your views!