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Esteban Gutierrez and Haas: A gamble vindicated

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For Esteban Gutierrez, this season at Haas is vindication of the riskiest decision of his career. After two uninspiring seasons at Sauber and then one spent entirely on the sidelines at Ferrari as reserve driver, Gutierrez finds himself spearheading America's return to the grid as one of Gene Haas' two drivers for 2016.

It's been a dramatic turnaround for the Mexican driver. The 2013 and 2014 seasons were contrasting for Sauber but followed a similar, unfortunate theme for Gutierrez, GP3's inaugural champion. In 2013, he scored just six points to the 51 of team-mate Nico Hulkenberg, one of the stars of the second half of that campaign. The following year the C33 failed to register a single point in one of Sauber's worst seasons in Formula One.

F1 can be an unforgiving environment for young drivers who do not instantly deliver -- just ask the likes of Jean-Eric Vergne or Jaime Alguersuari. When the door closes behind a young driver in F1 there is no guarantee another will open somewhere else along the grid. But Gutierrez was willing to take that gamble.

Asked if he feared for his career when he left Sauber for Ferrari's reserve role at the end of 2014, Gutierrez tells ESPN: "Yes, but at that moment I had the vision to pursue a different line. I had to do something to break the negative line I was on at that moment in my career."

Another season at Sauber was an option for the Mexican at that time. Knowing that now makes his decision to join Ferrari all the more remarkable -- F1 drivers are not usually in the habit of picking a role with no promises of even testing a car over a full-time race seat. But Gutirrez feared for his career trajectory at Sauber, fears no doubt compounded by the wayward C33 and Ferrari's inconsistent 2014 power unit.

Though he would end 2015 with a promotional run and two test outings for Ferrari he joined not knowing if he would get any time behind the wheel at all.

"Nothing was guaranteed. At that time I had to take a very risky decision to leave Sauber and take the opportunity Ferrari was giving to me, which I feel very grateful for. It opened a lot of opportunities for the future. My commitment, my dedication, and showing them I was capable of doing the job was very important [to getting chances to drive]. I feel fortunate to now be in this position and also contributing to a new team."

He's right about opening opportunities. His role at Ferrari soon led to speculation about a seat at Haas, a team happy to utilise everything it could from the relationship with its Italian partners. Add to that Gutierrez's Mexican heritage and his home nation's popular return to the calendar last season and he suddenly became an obvious choice to partner Romain Grosjean. However, Gutierrez admits the North Carolina team was an afterthought when he first switched to Ferrari.

"It was more about changing the path," Gutierrez says slowly, with the endearing thoughtfulness and stoicism with which he gives every question he is asked. "At that time I was in a negative cycle and I needed to change something, pursue a different line. I took the risk -- I have a big debt on this line and so far it's working. There were no guarantees of anything at Ferrari, let alone at another team. I wasn't even sure I would get the chance to test with Ferrari -- at that stage I just had to make a change."

The negative situation he left behind has been unfortunately easy to spot in the weeks leading up to the 2016 opener in Melbourne. Paying its staff late in February and late in launching its latest car, Sauber's financial struggles are no secret in Formula One. Having experienced life at F1's most famous team and now life at F1's newest team, Gutierrez can now properly reflect on the situation he left behind in 2014.

"It's two different levels, two different approaches. At Sauber a lot was about just surviving as a team. There were a lot of issues, financial problems, negative things that were not very helpful as a young driver. It was a difficult time. When there is a lot happening away from the track it's tough.

"Then you arrive in a new team with new projects, with growth, positive mind, positive attitude -- it changes the whole environment for a driver. That's a good start. The approach the team has from the beginning, to start from zero, the way they have done it is a very new approach to Formula One. I have faith it will work very successfully."

His elevation to Haas is well timed with Mexico's return to the calendar. Last year Gutierrez was a keen but ultimately uninvolved observer from the Ferrari garage at Autódromo Hermanos Rodríguez. Not so this year, when he will join Force India's Sergio Perez as one of the local heroes of the weekend. Over a year after potentially gambling his F1 future away, Gutierrez finds himself, a Mexican driver, in a North American team -- the first to grace a Formula One grid since 1986 -- knowing a popular homecoming awaits him in October.

Asked if he had spent much time reflecting on that situation over the winter, Gutierrez says: "You always focus on the most important things, which will take you there. Then you suddenly realise 'wow, it's a great position to be in'. Now it's just about making the most of this opportunity. I think it is important because having an American team after more than 30 years will bring the American people closer to Formula One. I feel proud and honoured to be representing an American team after so many years."

While Gutierrez's Ferrari link eventually made him an unsurprising addition to Haas, team-mate Grosjean's switch from Lotus seemed to come out of the blue. Like Gutierrez, the 2010 GP3 champion, Grosjean enjoyed early title success in one of F1's feeder categories. Unlike Gutierrez, he has had time to overcome his own difficult start to life in F1, becoming a prized commodity for America's newest team in the process.

Gutierrez is undaunted by the challenge, however, and is relishing the chance to measure himself against a man rated as highly around the grid as he is within the Haas team itself.

"The most important thing when you have a competitive team-mate is it gives you the best reference. Romain is quick, he has achieved good results and has a lot of experience. I think together we can do a great job for the team, first of all. Secondly, for me to have that reference and to do my best will be very important. He will be a good benchmark. That's the most important thing for me against Romain, to compete and be competitive."

Competitive was a big buzzword in the Haas hospitality centre over winter testing, with every man put in front of the media asked the same question -- how competitive will the team really be this year? It's a fair question: extensive use of Ferrari's wind tunnel and a power unit which may challenge Mercedes outright this year is hardly a bad package for your first F1 season.

When the same question is put to him again, Gutierrez says: "The Ferrari link is very important. The expectations are high. Obviously it is very ambitious to say that we will achieve points in the first year of the team but it is quite clearly our target, and we will do our best to achieve that. Ferrari has done a very good job in terms of power unit, engine and gearbox, which helps us a lot with aerodynamics, mainly at the back of the car. It's a very good package and a good baseline to start working with..."

The Mexican driver then pauses, thinks for a moment before smiling again, as if stopping himself from saying something he will later regret.

"We'll just have to wait and see."