LONG READ: Otmar Szafnauer on taking the reins at Alpine, the team’s 100-race success plan and his Aston Martin departure
Otmar Szafnauer doesn’t change Formula 1 teams lightly. In his 24 years in the sport, Szafnauer has effectively only been part of three squads: British American Racing, which then became Honda; Force India, which then became Racing Point, which then became Aston Martin; and now Alpine.
Szafnauer was announced as Team Principal of the Anglo-French squad in February, following his abrupt departure from Aston Martin, confirmed on January 5 of this year – and after a restructuring at Alpine that saw Marcin Budkowski leave the role of Executive Director, as four-time champion Alain Prost departed as Non-Executive Director.
His job is now to be the guy who executes Alpine CEO Laurent Rossi’s highly-publicised 100-race plan – announced in October of last year – to turn Alpine into serial podium-takers, winners and, ultimately, champions.
Before that though, Szafnauer is very much getting “the lay of the land”, as he tells me when we speak in Alpine’s hospitality area at the Jeddah Corniche Circuit.
“I'm getting more and more settled… the blue suits me, it matches my eyes!” Szafnauer jokes when I ask him how he was faring in his new role at Alpine. “I'm getting to know the different people here, the personalities and how the team works, the interactions of the different groups.
“It will take time, like anything; it's a big team, 800-plus people, so it takes time to learn who everybody is, how they interact and how we go about things. But it's an important part of getting to be part of the team. The first step in team-building.
“You have to get a lay of the land to have a good understanding,” adds Szafnauer. “If people come and ask me for decisions or advice or direction, if you don't have a good lay of the land, the decisions, the advice, the directions that you point people in, might not be the right thing. You have to have a deep understanding before you make critical decisions. And I've always said that.
“There are a lot of people that come into jobs, not just in Formula 1 but at senior levels, and just make change for the sake of change, so that they can show they're doing something. But if that's the case, the change you make could be in the wrong direction. So you have to have a good understanding before.”
Szafnauer’s new job is made harder by the fact that Alpine are split between their UK factory in Enstone and their French power unit site in Viry-Chatillon, near Paris. And although Szafnauer admits that his French is “non-existent” (he is fluent in German and Romanian, however), developing a relationship with Viry, and new engine boss Bruno Famin, will be a key part of his orientation.
“My initial focus has been on Enstone,” he says. “Viry also has a new person [Famin] in charge; I will definitely go to Viry, we work closely with them here at the track… and I've been thinking about programmes that we can embark on that will help both organisations and tie them closely together.
“So Viry is a very, very important part of the plan, and it's great that we have Viry, so we can make those trade-off decisions for on-track performance where some of the other teams can't. We're [a team] that work hand-in-hand with our engine partner and have a free rein as to what we do.”
For those who don’t know, Szafnauer’s background is one of the more interesting in the F1 paddock. Having dovetailed a junior racing career with working as a Ford executive in his younger days – his mother also worked at the Ford plant in Detroit after the family emigrated from Romania, where Szafnauer was born, in 1972 – a meeting with engineer Adrian Reynard while working on a road car project led to Szafnauer joining the fledgling British American Racing squad as their first Operations Director in 1998.
He later helped oversee Honda’s takeover of BAR, before a move to Force India as Chief Operating Officer – working under colourful Team Principal Vijay Mallya – eventually becoming team principal himself after a Lawrence Stroll-led consortium bought out the squad midway through 2018, and they became Racing Point.
From the outside, everything appeared rosy as Szafnauer then helped guide Racing Point through the transition into Aston Martin. But the arrival of former McLaren team boss Martin Whitmarsh as Group CEO of Aston Martin Performance Technologies appeared to rock the boat. Which brings us up to Szafnauer's recent decamping to Alpine.
Back in November 2021, Szafnauer publicly distanced himself from rumours linking him with a move to the team – and he doubles down on that rebuttal when I ask him when talks with Alpine began.
“The serious talks began this year, in the new year and that's only after it was clear to me that it was the best thing to do – to depart Aston Martin,” he says. “That's when I started looking elsewhere, and it was just a match at Alpine.”
The split with Aston Martin also led Szafnauer to tell the media in March of this year: “The Catholic Church only has one pope – and when you have two popes, it's just not right. So I think it was time to leave, and leave Aston Martin to their one pope.”
And although at the time some took the comments as being targeted at Aston Martin owner Lawrence Stroll, Szafnauer takes pains to clarify what he meant when I bring up the remark.
“People ask me who that pope was – well you know, it wasn't Lawrence, because everyone has a boss,” says Szafnauer. “I have one here [at Alpine] as well and that's in place everywhere.
“But once they brought in Martin Whitmarsh, that's the other pope that I was talking about. For both of us to sit in the same space and try to do the same thing, just doesn't really work. But it wasn't about Lawrence. Lawrence is still the owner and the boss over there. I have a boss here, Laurent, and that's all understood and clear, and that's how it should be.”
It’s never a hugely comfortable experience sitting in a team’s hospitality area, interviewing one of their team members, drinking their coffee, the team’s PR close at hand... and then spending protracted amounts of time talking about another team.
I steer the conversation back to Alpine. How was Szafnauer coping with the move to the team, given that it was the first time he’s had to up sticks in 13 years?
“The funny thing is… because others moved around and I moved around a little, I've come here and I know loads of people that I've worked with before, which is helpful,” says Szafnauer.
“That helps me get the lay of the land quicker. And also, the experiences that I've had in 24 years, I think I'm probably one of the most experienced team principals, and one that has had a variety of roles within Formula 1 teams. Seven and a half years of working for an engine manufacturer [Honda] that took over a team, so at the beginning, I focused on engines quite a bit, then on managing the takeover.
“At British American Racing, I was the Operations Director, the first one that they had, which meant a lot of programme management, all the manufacturing under me, quality control, factory builds. So three years of understanding operations, which goes a long way in helping to make decisions now.
“And then as well at Force India, as Chief Operating Officer; I wasn't team principal because Vijay was, so Vijay did the team principal role at the races, but he rarely came to the factory, so the entire factory, I ran. So I think those experiences will help me here especially to shortcut the process of getting better, such that in 100 races, we are regularly challenging for wins and championships.”
Key to executing that 100-race plan will obviously be the driver line-up – and in joining Alpine, Szafnauer has inherited an undoubtedly good one, in the form of Fernando Alonso and Esteban Ocon, the latter signed up to drive with the team until the end of 2024, while Alonso’s contract is set to expire at the end of this year.
First, Alonso. I ask Szafnauer, who’s worked with the likes of Jacques Villeneuve and Sebastian Vettel before, how impressed he’d been by the two-time champion.
“He's at the top, amongst the best that I've worked with,” says Szafnauer without hesitation. “He's really, really quick at learning tracks, giving good feedback and adapting to different scenarios, situations on track.
“And he's also an amazing competitor, like some of the others I've worked with – no stone unturned. He wants every bit of performance that we can eke out of the car and himself, and that's just because if you do those things, you've got a better chance on track. He's very similar to Sebastian in that way.
“I think he motivates people differently than Seb does,” adds Szafnauer. “But everyone's got their own personality, technique. As long as we can be devoid of taking any blame and just working on the problem and fixing the problem collectively, that's really what it's about.”
Meanwhile, Szafnauer has a more personal connection with Ocon, having played a key part in giving the Frenchman his first full-time F1 drive with Force India back in 2017. Ocon would go on to be collateral damage in the Force India buy-out in 2018, making way for Lawrence Stroll’s son Lance at the team the following year (Lance and Esteban remain good friends, by the way).
So, was there a personal element of satisfaction in linking up with Ocon again at Alpine?
“I've always liked Esteban,” says Szafnauer. “I count myself as one of the instrumental people in his life that helped him to get to Formula 1. I had a lot of pressure from Toto [Wolff, Mercedes Team Principal] at the time to take [Pascal] Wehrlein and I chose to take Esteban.
“That's not to say Esteban wouldn't have gotten another drive, because it's never a controlled experiment, but for sure I put him in the car and then the rest of it was up to him. And he showed how good he was; he was very good against the drivers he went up against, and I think because of it, he ended up with another drive, and I was happy about that.
“A similar thing happened to Sergio [Perez]. He was out of a drive for a bit and then he ended up at Red Bull, and I was happy about that too.”
My time is running down with the affable Szafnauer, as another journalist sits waiting to take my spot. So as a final question, I ask him about that 100-race plan that he’s taken on by joining Alpine. Did he think it was a reasonable one?
“Sitting here today, it's a stretch target,” says Szafnauer. “It's not unreasonable. We have to be realistic that everybody has that type of target. The people who are winning races now, the top three who on any given Sunday can win a race, they're not going to plan to not be winning races in 100 races' time. And the closer you get to the top, the harder it is to displace them.
“We talked about Aston – they had a five-year plan last year to win, so by this year, it's four years. They're doing the same, and if you probably ask McLaren, they're going to say, 'Hey, we want to win too!'
“So it's not easy, and there's only going to be one real winner in the championship. But although it's a stretch objective, it's one that's achievable. We have enough time to put the right elements in place to win. We have our own powertrain, which is one of the big elements. We're free to choose the best drivers that we can get a hold of, that's another big element.
“And then doing a great job on the chassis, aerodynamics, understanding the tyres, all those important things, we're working hard on those. So yeah, I think the ingredients are here, we just have to now work with the ingredients – and bake a very tasty cake!”