Feature F1 Unlocked
EXCLUSIVE: ‘There will be consequences’ – Furious Rossi demands Alpine improve fast after stuttering start to 2023
Alpine’s development rate in 2022 was aggressive, relentless and efficient – and that helped see off the challenge of McLaren to snatch P4 in the constructors’ championship. That was one place better than the previous campaign and positioned the French manufacturer as the best-placed team to challenge the mighty top-three of Red Bull, Ferrari and Mercedes.
Fourth followed fifth in 2021 and put them a step closer to achieving their target of becoming regular podium contenders within four years. The Oscar Piastri saga was behind them. Race winner Pierre Gasly had joined and Esteban Ocon had played a big role in the team taking that P4. It felt like a page had been turned. Renault CEO Luca de Meo and Alpine CEO Laurent Rossi were happy with the progress. The plan, it seemed, was working.
Over the winter, noises coming out of their Enstone HQ were positive. Sources suggest they were targeting an ambitious two-second per lap improvement. But when the car hit the track, it became immediately clear they’d missed that goal – and in a big way.
Five races into the season, rather than closing the gap to the top three, they’ve skidded backwards to sit sixth with just 14 points. Rather than two seconds quicker, the gain was closer to 0.6s.
Worse still, one of their greatest recent strengths (operations) has become their Achilles' heel, with a catalogue of errors blighting their season so far. Esteban Ocon had not one, not two but three time penalties in the season-opening Bahrain Grand Prix, while Pierre Gasly was bumped out of Q1. It was unacceptable.
Their performance in Saudi Arabia was average and while there was an upturn in Australia, a collision between the two drivers meant they ended up pointless. Then last time out in Baku (which came after a three-week break), they endured a shambolic Friday, where they got the set-up all wrong on an upgraded car and were blighted by a slew of problems – including assembly issues. This did not go down well with senior management.
They bounced back with two cars in the low end of the points in Miami – but it’s still well below their expectations.
The trend is clear, Alpine have gone backwards. That Aston Martin have managed a huge jump from seventh to second in the constructors’ so far has rubbed salt in the wounds. Sure, such a step forward is rare in F1 – but it does prove that it’s possible.
Explaining why you can’t match a rival’s step to your board is a difficult task. It’s no wonder Rossi and De Meo are furious. It was no coincidence that both were in town at race five in Miami – and made themselves very visible.
“We started the season behind development targets,” says Rossi, when we spoke exclusively over the weekend. “We were lacking performance compared to where we wanted to be to cement P4. We have made a lot of mistakes, too many mistakes, over the weekend. When you compound that relatively lower performance and lack of operational excellence you end up in a difficult position.
“It makes for a difficult year ahead. The season is still young. I don’t want to give up, but a couple of things need to change. We need to continue reinforcing the team to get the performance back. One of the things that needs to change, as it’s largely the same team as last year, is mindset. It is something that needs to change for people in the team now and new people we are going to add.
“It starts with owning up to your mistakes, to not repeat the mistakes, to learn from your mistakes. It’s okay to make mistakes, it’s not okay to make them twice because it means you didn’t learn. This year, there is a lot of excuses, which lead to poor performance and a lack of operational excellence.
“I need to tackle this, I need the right people to tackle this. I need the team to be aware they need to do that as it’s not up to me – it’s up to them, they have to do it. It’s their responsibility. I hope they make the same diagnosis. I will make it clear to them that this is the diagnosis and they need to fix that.”
It is clear the Frenchman is irritated by the situation. Having come in and restructured the team, and playing a very hands-on role for more than a year, Rossi recruited Otmar Szafnauer from Aston Martin as Team Principal and stepped back to do his day job of running Alpine Cars, of which F1 is one strand and features only two of his 18 direct reports.
It was now up to Szafnauer – with his wealth of experience that includes 13 years at Force India/Racing Point/Aston Martin – to utilise his extensive F1 experience and continue Alpine’s upward trajectory. So, does that mean Szafnauer is responsible for Alpine’s poor start to 2023?
“He is responsible for the performance of the team – that’s his job,” says Rossi. “There is no hiding here. Otmar was brought in to steer the team, through the season and the next seasons towards the objectives that we have, which is to constantly make progress, as we did in the first two years – fifth and fourth – and to get to the podiums and therefore, this is his mission to turn this team around and bring it to the performance that we want.
“We had a team that performed reasonably well last year, got the fourth position which is the best improvement we had in a long time. It showed a lot of promise. It’s more of less the same people so I don’t accept that we are not capable of maintaining that. Yes, it is Otmar and the rest of his team as Otmar alone doesn’t do everything, but the buck stops with Otmar. It’s Otmar’s responsibility, yes.”
Trust is an important element of a successful relationship between a CEO and his direct report. Does that still exist between Rossi and Szafnauer after just over a year together? “Trust is something that increases with good results and erodes with bad results,” says Rossi.
"Everyone starts with a capital of trust and then you manage it. There are only so many setbacks you can take in a sport, in a competition world, because basically it shows. Everyone can tell whether or not you’re going in the right direction. It directly impacts your capital of trust. I would say Otmar is very capable, but he has a big task on his hands.”
You get the sense that Rossi and De Meo need, or rather demand, change fast. They know how long it takes to climb the F1 tree. A bad year could set their plan to hit the front back years. This is not an option. Rossi believes the senior leadership team have “certainly used a lot of time already” in turning things around and he fully believes it is still possible to reach their four-year target. “I know you can get there if you put your mind to it,” says Rossi. “People need to realise we are not where we should be.”
For Rossi, their struggles are not down to a lack of resources. Yes, they do not have the kind of facilities, hardware and software to rival Red Bull, Mercedes and Ferrari – but Alpine have invested heavily in all of those areas in recent years and are continuing to do so. A new simulator – along with a new Head of Simulation – is set to come online in eighteen months to two years. They have also committed to providing the F1 team with enough money to push the limit of the cost cap for the next decade.
“Enstone has never had as much resources at their disposal for a continuous number of years,” says Rossi. “The runway here is 10 years. There will never be a time where the team will be short.”
But with financial support comes expectation. If you were to crunch the numbers, Renault are dropping a cool half a billion euros on F1, split across the F1 chassis and engine project. It’s no wonder they want a return on that investment. Especially when they will have seen Aston Martin’s rapid rise.
“Aston have less engineers than us, as far as I know,” he says. “They don’t have their own wind tunnel yet, they don’t have their plant running at the moment. They hyper-charged development by having the right people joining them. It shows that it’s down to creativity and efficiency. It’s the rule of the game, we know that. So no, I’m sorry, I don’t buy the resource excuse.”
And he doesn’t think it’s down to the drivers either. Gasly and Ocon have both made a few mistakes this year, but they have owned up to them and are doing the best with what they have. “They are doing their share of the job, we owe to them and Alpine a higher level of performance,” says Rossi. And he knows that Alpine need to prove they can deliver good cars year after year if they are to “be attractive” and land big ticket drivers in the future to help them take the next step.
The tone suggests Rossi believes that some senior people in the team are not trying hard enough and are lacking motivation. “Especially when the stakes are so high, you managed to get a nice result (P4 last year), you should be motivated to keep it, you should be fighting for nothing less but fourth – and you should therefore avoid every kind of mistake,” he adds.
Such frustration could lead to suggestions that Alpine – and the Renault Group – might just pull the plug on the F1 project if results don’t deliver, but I haven’t even finished asking the question and Rossi says: “No, there zero risk. There is zero risk. The commitment is extremely strong. We knew there would be bumps along the way. I said it back then when there were good times, like victory in Hungary, fourth in the constructors’ last year.
“We knew there would be bumps. We are having bumps. And there will be plenty of others. Frankly, this is the life of teams – Mercedes and Ferrari have had ups and downs in the past two years, one weekend they are heroes, one weekend they are zeros. We’re operating at a lower level, which is annoying me, but we have the same ebbs and flows.
“We need to steady the course. There is zero doubt we will be here 10 years from now. The team will change, as every other team does, the point is to reinforce the team to get there as fast possible.”
For now, Rossi is sticking to his guns and not changing the target of retaining P4 in the constructors’ championship, despite it looking very unlikely they will be able to achieve it based on the current pecking order. “It’s too early to do that – and I don’t want to give people the comfort,” he says. “I don’t enter a competition and reset my objective because it’s easier. The team managed to get fourth. They have the means to get fourth, more so than others. I want them to be fourth. If they don’t, it’s going to be a failure.
“If they fail by giving 500% best and turning this ship around, there will be extenuating circumstances and it bodes well for the future. If not, it’s the rule of business, there’s going to be consequences. And I won’t wait until the end of the year. The trajectory is not good. We need to fix the mindset of the team ASAP.”
That is a very punchy statement – but Rossi means it. In his short time in Formula 1, he has not been afraid to make big decisions and big changes. He also does not like to lose and has been no stranger to success in his previous roles outside of the sport. So expect this shot across the bow of his team to be the first step of Rossi’s strategy to course correct the ship.