Otmar Szafnauer sacking: A victim of McLaren and Aston Martin surge?

Thomas Maher
Alpine's Pierre Gasly at the Hungarian Grand Prix. Budapest, July 2023.

Alpine's Pierre Gasly at the Hungarian Grand Prix. Budapest, July 2023.

With Otmar Szafnauer fired from Alpine after 18 months in charge, was he given enough time to make sufficient change?

Following on from Alpine’s second disastrous Grand Prix in a row, in which both Pierre Gasly and Esteban Ocon were eliminated in an accident not their fault, team boss Szafnauer attempted to stave off any concerns about his future as he spoke to the media after the Hungarian Grand Prix.

Just days before, Renault had made the decision to step Alpine CEO Laurent Rossi aside, with Renault appointing Philippe Krief in his stead – Rossi been given the corporate version of ‘go play in the corner with crayons’ as he was put on ambiguously-worded “special projects” at the automaker.

Otmar Szafnauer in last tilt bid to save Alpine job

But Szafnauer wasn’t concerned for his own job as Alpine team principal, saying he felt he had the backing of Renault CEO Luca de Meo.

“Yes, [Laurent] did hire me, but Luca also hired me,” he said.

“It was Luca De Meo that ultimately sat down with me and convinced me to join his project – the Alpine project with a 100-race plan. We’re 30 some races into that, you know, 22 last year, 12 races this year.

“So we still have 60-something races to go. That’s another three years to just start winning. It takes time, it’s taken everybody time. I know Luca is a man of his word. He gave me his word on 100 races to start winning and sometimes you take a half step backwards to take two steps forward. So I’ve no concern that Luca will be true to his word and give me the 100 races time that’s required.”

Just five days after uttering these words, Szafnauer has been fired – he’ll fulfil his duties for the Belgian Grand Prix before heading off with Bruno Famin taking over for the second half of the season.

Had Szafnauer already seen the writing on the wall, and were his words a last-ditch effort to try guilting De Meo into keeping him in his role?

Along with Szafnauer, Alpine confirmed that stalwart sporting director Alan Permane is also out on his ear after over 30 years working with the Enstone-based squad, dating back to their days as Benetton.

Otmar Szafnauer’s brief 18 months at Alpine after switch from Racing Point

Szafnauer has fallen on his sword after just 18 months at Alpine, having been tempted away from Racing Point after Lawrence Stroll had sought to reduce his power as Martin Whitmarsh was appointed as CEO of Aston Martin’s Performance Technologies Group.

Szafnauer had been with Racing Point for some 13 years, dating back to their days as Force India, and took over as team boss following the departure of the late Bob Fernley and the ousting of Vijay Mallya as team owner.

But Stroll’s changes had Szafnauer feeling left high and dry, meaning he wanted a way out.

“It became clear that the management structure was going to be such that I didn’t have the influence that I thought I should have, with Martin coming in,” Szafnauer told media at the time.

“[Aston Martin] made it very clear to me that the responsibilities that I used to have before were never going to be given back.

“[At the Abu Dhabi GP], I was told, ‘You used to be able to run the team, but you’re not running it anymore’. I had a contract. So, had the responsibilities not been taken away from me, I would have stayed.”

But Szafnauer bought into the overtures of De Meo at Renault, taking on the senior role left vacant by Cyril Abiteboul’s departure.

Over the last 18 months, Alpine have shown little forward progress as part of the ‘100-race’ plan that Szafnauer mentioned. While last year’s A522 was quite a fast car, it was let down by multiple reliability issues – one recurring issue being that of a quality control problem with a third-party supplier – as well as operational errors.

Fourth place, scraping across the line ahead of the one-man McLaren team, just about saved Szafnauer’s blushes after his first year in charge, but it was the off-track dramas that really brought into sharp focus just how disorganised Alpine were compared to their main rivals.

Alpine chaos over last two years

Last summer was marred by driver market turmoil, following the retirement announcement by Sebastian Vettel at Aston Martin. Fernando Alonso, who was frustrated by the ongoing lack of a solid offer from Alpine who wanted to re-sign him on a short-term deal, jumped ship to Vettel’s vacant seat.

Alpine, caught on the hop, swiftly announced a promotion for their reserve and development driver Oscar Piastri – only for the Australian to drop the bombshell by calling the team out on Twitter for making a statement that wasn’t true. Alpine went to war with McLaren, who had signed the free and available Piastri, and lost out in court following arbitration by the Contract Recognition Board.

It was a hugely embarrassing ordeal for Alpine, and Renault, with the dramas revealing how Alpine had mismanaged both the situation with Alonso and, later, Piastri, Szafnauer had already blotted his copybook – although Alpine chose to fire Benedicte Mercer, the team’s director of legal affairs, rather than go higher.

But Szafnauer needed results, and to show signs of progress, as 2023 began. Unfortunately for him, the A523 has proven less competitive and, with precious few results, Rossi took to the media to publicly drag the team through the mud – a move that showed, with startling clarity, just how lacking in cohesion Alpine’s upper management was.

While there was some short-term reprieve as Esteban Ocon secured a tremendous third-place finish in Monaco, the writing was on the wall from that moment forth.

Rossi, who himself had shown his lack of professional foresight by berating the team in such a fashion, was moved aside for Krieff after the British Grand Prix – scene of another double-DNF for Alpine, with the moves to oust Szafnauer and Permane coming after Hungary and their first-lap double DNF.

This means that, in the past two years, plenty of high-profile names have cut ties with Alpine: Szafnauer, Permane, Alonso, Piastri, Fry, Abiteboul, as well as former executive director Marcin Budkowski and former non-executive director and advisor Alain Prost – the latter writing an astonishing scathing attack on his former team hours after the announcement.

“Laurent Rossi is the most beautiful example of the Dunning-Kruger effect, that of an incapable leader who thinks he can overcome his incompetence by his arrogance and lack of humanity towards his troops,” he said.

“The one who was Alpine’s boss for 18 months thought he understood everything from the start when he was totally mistaken. His management broke the momentum that had been put in place since 2016 to reach these podiums and this victory.

“It is to be hoped that the decision taken on Friday to change other heads will be a salutary electroshock for the stable.”

Tell us how you really feel, Alain…

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When was the decision to sack Otmar Szafnauer made?

Given the comments made by Szafnauer after Hungary, comments which the benefit of hindsight could possibly be viewed as a plea to De Meo, there was little reason to think Szafnauer was facing the chop only a few days ago.

While there had been mis-steps during the 18 months, there simply wasn’t any evidence that the main issue for Alpine’s performance lay at his feet. So, what changed in the course of the last four days? Astonishingly, Szafnauer’s replacement couldn’t really properly explain what had happened.

“We’ve been discussing for a while about what we needed to do for the timeline, for the evolution we required in our F1 team,” Bruno Famin confirmed to media including PlanetF1.com on Friday at Spa.

The Frenchman was appointed to a vice-presidency role at Alpine just two weeks ago, meaning he reported directly to De Meo and would have taken part in the discussions regarding whether or not to continue with the existing structure.

Famin, who has overseen Renault’s power unit division for the last three years, would have worked in parallel to Szafnauer in the organisation’s structure – did things get personal as the engine department drew some criticism last year? The timing of Famin’s appointment would suggest something changed in the background….

“At one stage, you realise that we are not on the same paths on this then we decide to split ways,” Famin said.

Pressed for details on how Alpine’s upper management differed in their views on the timeline to success compared to Szafnauer and Permane, Famin said: “We’re not talking about figures, I think we had a different view of the way of doing it and, of course, it is in terms of the timeline but we were not exactly the same in doing the things.

“What is important to us is the project. I think we have a clear objective and it’s not only the Formula 1 team that has a strategy, the full brand on both halves are totally linked.

“I’m confident that we will make it work. I don’t know what happened before. We are now launching phase two of the Alpine project, phase one started in 2021. We improved a lot of things in Enstone, in Viry, we are moving the team forward and we will continue doing that.

“We decided together, with Alan Permane, to split our ways. It’s a mutual agreement first.

“We’ve been discussing for a while about what we needed to do for the timeline for the evolution we require in Alpine F1 team and we discussed we’re confident it can make it. At that stage, we realised that we are not on the same path on this and then we decided to split ways.”

But, after more than 30 years, Permane’s loyalty to his Enstone colleagues can’t be called into question. What is it about the current Alpine team that has resulted in long-term employees like him crying enough? Why did Abiteboul have enough? Why were Alonso and Prost, both Renault World Champions, willing to cut and run?

For now, Famin’s appointment as team boss is an interim arrangement, but what might be the next step for Alpine? After all, in light of the turmoil of the past 18 months, a steady hand at the tiller is required. Someone with experience, and someone with main manufacturer experience. So what about Mattia Binotto, the currently unemployed former Ferrari team boss?

After all, given his relevant experience as the leader of a corporate team who apparently don’t understand the importance of stability, and his experience of leading a power unit operation, wouldn’t his hiring make complete sense?

“We’re not at that stage,” Famin said of the possibility.

“I think we are going to… I’m going to with all my direct report assets, about what is the situation and think about what are the priorities at Enstone to consolidate things on, we will define if we need a new structure or not and, when that will be done, we will see.”

What is clear about Alpine’s decision-making is that there was a fundamental disagreement about the length of time it would take to return Alpine to winning ways – an argument that Szafnauer and Permane probably started losing the instant Aston Martin took a huge step forward over the course of last winter.

Seeing a team that struggled so badly throughout 2022 launch themselves into multiple podiums and regular front-running ability must have rankled quite a lot and, with McLaren following suit with their mid-season upgrades, it underlined that teams of similar stature were able to make bigger jumps in shorter timespans.

Combine that with less-than-optimal race operations, and it’s perhaps not surprising that Alpine sought a new answer – but will it be the right one? Recent history suggests not…

Read More: Alpine boss rejects Otmar Szafnauer sack claim and provides replacement update