Formula 1 is as fast-moving off-track as it is on it, and there have been some very high-profile firings and resignations over the years. Here are some of the most shocking ones that came out of the blue…
Guenther Steiner’s shock parting of the ways with Haas after nearly a decade together came as a shock earlier this week, and it led to a conversation in the PlanetF1.com offices about the most ‘out-of-the-blue’ firings and departures over the years.
To that end, we’ve put together a list of 10 that we viewed as the most shocking (and no, Ferrari team bosses being replaced don’t feature – too easy!). For the sake of this list, we’ve kept the list to post-2000.
Guenther Steiner ousted from Haas after years of treading water
Having spent 10 years overseeing the Haas F1 team – right from the early days of their burgeoning effort to get on the grid – Steiner became more than just the public face of Haas. Given the small, family feel of the American team, Steiner was Haas.
But, unfortunately for Steiner, he didn’t control the financial side of things, and, with his team lacking the infrastructure and facilities many of the bigger teams have, his efforts to propel Haas forward came to naught.
Having finished last in the Constructors’ Championship in 2021 as he focused all the team’s efforts and resources on kicking off well with the new regulation cycle for 2022, this tactic initially looked to have worked as the VF-22 proved reasonably competitive and scored some decent points finishes.
But a much less competitive VF-23, non-existent developments, and a B-spec car that arguably made the car worse were the final straw. How much of the team’s underperformance was down to resources, and how much was down to Steiner?
It’s a question team owner Gene Haas is determined to find out the answer to, and Steiner is the one who loses out as a result.
Out of nowhere, the announcement came just before the 2024 season kicked off – Steiner and Haas had parted ways, with engineer Ayao Komatsu taking over to lead the team forward.
Otmar Szafnauer and Alpine split over success timeline disagreement
Having spent years extracting competitive results from a cash-strapped Force India and Racing Point team, Otmar Szafnauer failed to gel well with the new structure at Aston Martin under Lawrence Stroll and Martin Whitmarsh.
Seeking pastures new, he jumped ship to Alpine for 2022 under CEO Laurent Rossi. Having been promised a couple of years to help mould Alpine in his image, Szafnauer made public the idea of a 100-race plan to slowly but surely make the team frontrunners.
But, midway through 2023, ahead of the Belgian Grand Prix, Alpine and Szafnauer parted ways ‘on mutual terms’ as the two sides failed to continue to agree on the timeline to success.
With Luca de Meo and Groupe Renault restructuring the organisation, including Alpine CEO Laurent Rossi being removed from his post, Szafnauer later revealed that he felt there was a breach of integrity on the part of Renault as he only got to serve a third of the time he was promised to help bring success.
“It’s unfortunate that I was made some promises that they didn’t deliver on, including giving me 100 races to be competitive and win,” Szafnauer told US publication Boardroom.
“I was 30 some races in, and to me, 30-something is not 100. I’m a man of my word. When I give my word, it’s what I do, and integrity, which I learned from my father, is everything to me. But it seems like the whole world didn’t learn from him, so there was always ‘promise one thing, do another thing.’”
Juan Pablo Montoya and McLaren’s uneasy partnership suddenly ends
One of the most exciting drivers of the early 2000s, and perhaps ever, Juan Pablo Montoya never really gelled with McLaren under Ron Dennis. Switching to Woking for 2005 from Williams, Montoya didn’t hit the ground running very well.
Suffering a shoulder injury ‘playing tennis’ in early 2005, Montoya only occasionally had an answer for Kimi Raikkonen during that season – could the Colombian turn things around for 2006?
The problem for Montoya was that, over the winter break, McLaren opted to sign and publicly announce Fernando Alonso for 2007. At that time, with Raikkonen’s switch to Ferrari still up in the air, it pitted the two McLaren drivers against each other at a time when Raikkonen was very much the darling of McLaren and Dennis.
The 2006 car ended up being far less competitive than the ’05 machine and, after some early mistakes, the writing appeared to be on the wall for Montoya after he triggered a multi-car pile-up at Indianapolis – that started from him hitting Raikkonen.
A few days later – not one to ever be in full control of his emotions – Montoya announced he was off to NASCAR to race with Chip Ganassi in 2007. It led to a ‘mutual agreement’ that Montoya would immediately step out of the MP4/21 in order to better prepare for that switch and, just like that, the Colombian’s F1 career ended.
“I know that it will be a tough transition but I’m really excited about the opportunity to move into the NASCAR championship,” Montoya said in a press release.
“I have enjoyed most of my time in Formula 1 and I’m grateful for this opportunity to settle my personal life and concentrate on my future career.”
Bernie Ecclestone’s departure from F1
Having ruled F1 with an iron fist for decades, the nature of Ecclestone’s departure was quite unusual.
First, Ecclestone stepped down from his position on the board of management after being indicted in Germany on bribery charges.
While he stepped down from the board and relinquished the duties and responsibilities of that position as a result, Ecclestone continued to run the business of F1 on a day-to-day basis – albeit with “increased monitoring and control” from the board.
With CVC selling the sport to Liberty Media in late 2016, Ecclestone was removed – although, officially, resigned – from his position as CEO of the Formula 1 Group in early 2017 as Chase Carey was appointed to the position.
Ecclestone was given the role of chairman emeritus – which he wasn’t enamoured with.
‘I was deposed today. This is official, I do not run the company anymore. My position has been taken over by Chase Carey,’ Ecclestone told German publication Auto Motor und Sport.
His title as an honorific chairman expired in January 2020, which F1 pointed out in a press release later that year following controversial comments made by Ecclestone.
Daniel Ricciardo quits Red Bull for Renault
Racing for Red Bull alongside Max Verstappen in 2018 – a position he now dreams about having again – Daniel Ricciardo opted to try cutting loose from Red Bull for the first time in his F1 career by signing with engine suppliers Renault.
There was logic to his madness. With Renault, while not the most competitive engine or car on the grid, Ricciardo would be the undisputed number one – unlike at Red Bull where Verstappen was assuming control.
With Red Bull swapping to Honda power for 2019, the Japanese manufacturer’s horrible years with McLaren gave plenty of legitimate reason for concern about the level of competitiveness Red Bull would have.
“It was probably one of the most difficult decisions to take in my career so far,” said Ricciardo after deciding to cut loose and sign for Renault – a move that had Christian Horner shaking his head in disbelief as RBR and Renault weren’t on the best of terms at that point.
“But I thought that it was time for me to take on a fresh and new challenge. I realise that there is a lot ahead in order to allow Renault to reach their target of competing at the highest level but I have been impressed by their progression in only two years, and I know that each time Renault has been in the sport they eventually won. I hope to be able to help them in this journey and contribute on and off track.”
With Ricciardo’s move to Renault starting to bear fruit by the end of 2020, the Australian made another surprise move by jumping ship in a sideways slide into McLaren. That move did not work out, and led to Ricciardo losing his seat at the end of 2022 before Red Bull signed him as a reserve and eventual replacement for Nyck de Vries at AlphaTauri.
“Daniel is a great guy, who was very badly advised earlier in his career,” Horner told the Eff Won podcast.
“Everybody f***s up at some point and I think he recognised that he made a mistake [in leaving Red Bull], he didn’t have good advice around him at the point he left us and he could see that Max was growing, and probably didn’t realise just how good he was going to be.
“It was obvious at that stage that Max was coming and you could just see the raw talent, it just needed polishing a bit, so we gave Max a contract at the beginning of 2018 to secure his future.
“I remember Daniel being upset at the time, and suddenly felt that he didn’t want to be the support act, and he got a lot of noise in his ear about money on the table.”
Honda quits F1 (twice!), right as their team and engine comes good
Honda’s own factory team didn’t do particularly well immediately after taking over the former British American Racing (B.A.R.) entry in the mid-2000s. In fact, it was an outright disastrous venture on occasion, with a lack of performance and a lack of reliability.
Honda opted to pull out of F1 ahead of 2009, citing economic factors as the manufacturers started to run scared in light of global recession. They sold the team to Ross Brawn, who named the squad after himself, lumped a Mercedes engine into the back of the Honda-designed car, and promptly won both titles with it at the first time of asking before immediately selling it all to Mercedes.
Having watched on, aghast, from the sidelines, as the fruits of their labour and money resulted in the Brawn fairytale, Honda did basically the exact same thing 10 years later.
Returning to F1 as an engine supplier with McLaren in 2015, they had a shocking renewal of vows that completely failed to recapture the magic of their 1980s partnership. With Red Bull cornered into a partnership with Honda, the Japanese manufacturer became winners again in 2019 with Max Verstappen taking victory at the Austrian Grand Prix.
But occasional victories weren’t enough for Honda, and they announced in late 2020 they would leave F1 at the end of 2021 as they cited a desire to improve next-generation road car technology.
Almost immediately, Red Bull-Honda became title contenders and, in their very last race as official engine suppliers, Verstappen won the title to become the first Honda-powered driver since Ayrton Senna to win the title.
Clearly wanting to backtrack from their second withdrawal in a decade, Honda agreed to continue supplying power units to Red Bull up until 2026 – an agreement reached after an engine freeze on research and development was agreed in order to focus resources on the next engine regulations coming.
Honda has since announced an official return to F1 (again), as they’ll supply Aston Martin from 2026 – their ultra-successful partnership with Red Bull, with minimal Honda marketing, having to come to an end as RBR set up their own engine department due to Honda’s failure to commit.
Ron Dennis’ legacy at McLaren comes to an end
As one of F1’s most successful team bosses, and orchestrator of the dream McLaren-Honda reunion, Ron Dennis’ time at the top came to a shuddering and ignominious end in 2017.
After overseeing four decades of glory, and turning McLaren into an F1 behemoth, Dennis was put on gardening leave in November 2016 after disagreements with majority shareholders TAG and Mumtalakat.
He fought it hard, taking them to the High Court in London in a bid to prevent it, saying that his management style had never changed and was one that had grown McLaren into a huge automotive and technological giant.
“Ultimately it has become clear to me through this process that neither TAG nor Mumtalakat share my vision for McLaren and its true growth potential,” Dennis said.
“But my first concern is to the business I have built and to its 3,500 employees. I will continue to use my significant shareholding in both companies and my seats on both boards to protect the interests and value of McLaren and help shape its future.”
However, a few months later, Dennis released a statement saying he had “been required to relinquish his duties as chairman and chief executive of McLaren Technology Group (MTG)”.
He sold his 25 per cent of McLaren’s shares, marking the official end of his near-40-year tenure at Woking. The McLaren board had appointed Zak Brown as CEO in late 2016, a role he holds to this day.
“I am very pleased to have reached an agreement with my fellow McLaren shareholders,” Dennis said as he walked away.
“It represents a fitting end to my time at McLaren and will enable me to focus on my other interests. I have always said that my 37 years at Woking should be considered as a chapter in the McLaren book, and I wish McLaren every success as it takes the story forward.”
Andy Cowell quits Mercedes in 2020
Long-time managing director of Mercedes’ High-Performance Powertrains in Brixworth, Cowell had been instrumental in developing the incredible hybrid power units that were so key to Mercedes’ years of domination between 2014 and ’20.
But, midway through 2020, Cowell decided he’d had enough and handed in his notice – he was succeeded by Hywel Thomas.
The simple reason for Cowell’s departure was that he wanted a new challenge, something he realised was the right move for him after working on ‘Project Pitlane’ at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.
All seven UK-based F1 teams put their engineering brains together to help come up with ways to fight against the virus, and it was this work that convinced Cowell he’d made the right choice to hand in his notice at Mercedes.
“[Project Pitlane] helped confirm that my decision was the correct one,” Cowell told the Beyond the Grid podcast in mid-2020. “I handed my notice in in January and Project Pitlane popped up in March.
“I do class myself as having one of the best jobs on the planet at the moment. A lot of my friends, and especially my Mum, think I’m as mad as a box of frogs to hand my notice in. Everybody’s saying, ‘Well, what are you going to do next?’ and I’m not 100 percent certain yet, but hopefully it will give me a nice big challenge, and hopefully I can help companies and organisations and, ultimately, people.
“It’s time for a change. Mercedes is a company that I’m hugely proud to have worked for. The people here are an incredible group of people and I’ll miss them.
“[But] 16 years feels like a long period of time doing largely the same thing. I enjoy the ‘clean sheet of paper’ challenge of design. I think my personality likes the thrill of being dropped into something that’s challenging and scary.”
Cowell is yet to pop back up in Formula 1, if he ever does again…
Sad circumstances as James Allison quits Ferrari in 2016
Before James Allison became associated with Mercedes, he spent a large portion of his career at Ferrari. Having been with the Scuderia as a lead aerodynamicist between 2000 and 2004, he returned to Maranello in 2013 after spending the interim with Renault/Lotus at Enstone.
Allison, as technical director, oversaw the design of the truculent and truck-like F14T before the much more competitive designs for 2015 and ’16.
But, midway through 2016, Allison and Ferrari parted ways – not for reasons of competition and sport but, rather, sad personal circumstances for Allison.
His wife, Rebecca, passed away from bacterial meningitis after the season opener in Australia, and Allison had already tried to spend as much time in the UK to be with his family over the intervening months.
Allison, who had been rumoured as a possible full-on team boss at Ferrari, quietly left to return home from Italy and, from 2017, has become synonymous with Mercedes’ dominant designs over the following years.
“During the years I spent at Ferrari, at two different stages and covering different roles, I could get to know and appreciate the value of the team and of the people, women and men, which are part of it,” Allison said upon his departure.
“I want to thank them all for the great professional and human experience we shared. I wish everybody a happy future with lots of success.”
Nico Rosberg wins the 2016 title and promptly quits
Having been a leading driver for several years, and a mainstay of the midfield before that, Nico Rosberg threw in the towel just two days after the conclusion of the 2016 championship in which he won the title.
Rosberg had had to contend with the arrival of Lewis Hamilton at Mercedes in 2013, with the British driver slowly but surely taking the team as his own after a thrilling championship battle with Rosberg in 2014 before trouncing him in ’15.
But Rosberg dug deep for ’16, stretching the limits of his abilities to their absolute limit in what became a hugely acrimonious title fight. The German driver made every sacrifice and compromise in his life that he felt he needed to make to beat Hamilton.
These sacrifices included finding weight reductions everywhere he could – including stopping a cycling regime just to lose a few grams of leg muscle that he felt enabled him to take pole position at Suzuka – and even stripping the paint from his helmet for a few grams more.
On top of that, Rosberg’s wife Vivian took on the hard work of raising their one-year-old baby and, after all that, Rosberg wanted to live a more normal life with his young family.
Stepping out of his Mercedes W07 after defeating Hamilton in the 2016 title battle, Rosberg’s shock retirement announcement came just two days later. To this day, he has yet to get back behind the wheel of an F1 car in any capacity – his next appearance in a single-seater was when he demonstrated a Formula E Gen2 car in Berlin in 2018.