Otmar Szafnauer explains why ‘two popes’ does work with Laurent Rossi at Alpine

Michelle Foster
Alpine team principal Otmar Szafnauer. Austria July 2022.

Otmar Szafnauer surveys the grid in front of the Alpine of Esteban Ocon. Austria July 2022.

Walking away from Aston Martin having declared that “two popes” don’t work, Otmar Szafnauer isn’t finding it a problem at Alpine as Laurent Rossi is “really easy” to work with.

Just over one year after Martin Whitmarsh joined Aston Martin in the new role of Group Chief Executive Officer of Performance Technologies, Szafnauer left the team.

Speaking shortly after, he told the media that “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 I’m going to go try to help Alpine to the best of my ability.”

But even at Alpine he doesn’t had full autonomy as he reports to Alpine CEO Rossi, who is in charge of not only the road car division but also the Formula 1 team.

Szafnauer, however, says with Rossi the “two popes” structure works.

“Working with Laurent is really easy,” the 58-year-old told Autosport, “because we’re like popes of separate churches. He’s CEO of Alpine, the car company, and I report to him.

“One of the pillars of the Alpine car company is a F1 team, or one of the entities underneath him. So I just report to him there.

“He’s got all sorts of other direct reports, to sell cars, design cars, manufacture cars, market the cars, all that stuff. It’s kind of like Toto [Wolff] reporting to Ola Kallenius.”

According to Szafnauer, who complained that at Aston Martin he “didn’t have the influence that I thought I should have”, there is now a clear divide between his responsibilities at Alpine and Rossi’s.

“The last thing you want when you first come in is to have underlap,” he said.

“Overlap means I do this and you do this, so we overlap on this stuff. Underlap is I don’t do it, and you don’t do it. And it just falls through the cracks so that’s worse.

“At the beginning, there was some overlap. And then [it becomes] I’ll do this, you do this, then you get it so there’s no underlap, there’s no overlap, I do this stuff, you do this stuff. And we’re at that spot now.”

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That meant when Alpine began looking for a new driver to replace the Aston Martin-bound Fernando Alonso, Szafnauer led the charge.

He revealed he initially spoke with AlphaTauri team boss Franz Tost about Pierre Gasly with the Austrian adamant his driver wasn’t available.

But even after Tost’s no, he went onto contact Red Bull motorsport advisor Helmut Marko and set the ball in motion for Gasly to join Alpine.

Szafnauer says he kept Rossi informed as the process went along.

“I called Franz to say can you release him and Franz said no,” he said. “And so I said, ‘well, great. I’m glad you said that’.

“Because the last thing I wanted to hear was, yeah, I can’t wait to get rid of this guy! He said, no, I need him, he’s a great driver. I don’t want to lose him.

“I said ‘thank you, with all due respect, do you mind if I call Helmut? He might have a different perspective’.

“I called Helmut. But at the same time, when I got to certain milestones, I would call Laurent and say, look, this is what I’ve done. This how far I’ve gotten. I now have to go to America and talk to Bryan Herta about a release [for Colton Herta].

“And I did that bit of it bit too. I went and had lunch with Bryan and Colton. Because the release was conditional upon Red Bull finding a replacement that they were happy with. Otherwise they wouldn’t have released him.”