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What's next for Alpine after Otmar Szafnauer?

Jim K 8/15/2023
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Otmar Szafnauer leaves Alpine in another change at the top.

Image: Alpine Renault

When you think of how to find success in Formula One, you immediately look at Red Bull Racing or Mercedes for the blueprint to reach the top. Both constructors represent the dominant F1 forces over recent years, with no world championships outside these two powerhouses since Brawn GP's 2009 triumph — a team that morphed into Mercedes. Consistency in management and direction has seen the two operations win over 200 races and 26 combined titles since 2010 on their way to becoming the dominant forces they are today.

Things could hardly be more different for Alpine. Renault, the manufacturer behind the Alpine brand, has again waved goodbye to a Team Principal after trying and failing to reach the heights of Red Bull and Mercedes to start another round of perpetual frustration. Otmar Szafnauer left the French outfit "by mutual consent" after just 18 months at its helm in the culmination of yet another mad year for Alpine. His departure leaves more questions than answers.

Everything about Szafnauer and Alpine parting ways seems to get messier the further you look into it. The bizarre timing, for example, had the world finding out that the Romanian-born engineer would leave midway through the 2023 Belgian Grand Prix weekend. Szafnauer would remain in place for the remaining sessions — including a Sprint Race and Shootout. It wouldn't be unusual for a high-level company employee to know they're on borrowed time while lower-ranking employees don't. Yet Alpine cultivated the appearance of a rudderless ship by announcing the news with four competitive sessions still to come.

Otmar Szafnauer leaves Alpine in another change at the top.

Image: Alpine Renault

Furthermore, Szafnaur was only one part of the announced changes, with F1 veteran Alan Permane also leaving once the Belgian weekend was through. Permane spent over three decades working for the Enstone-based team, most recently as the Sporting Director. Even with the heavy hitters of Szafnauer and Permane heading off, the pair only represented two-thirds of the day's departure announcements, with news breaking that Pat Fry would head from Alpine to Williams coming just moments before. Three high-level staff leaving in one morning with four competitive race sessions over the subsequent 72 hours — utter madness.

The management chaos exemplifies everything Alpine seems to have done over recent years, with the upper positions seemingly permanently in turmoil as Renault tries to create a championship-contending team. Cyril Abiteboul fell at the end of 2020 before Laurent Rossi came in as a leader for the entire Alpine project but not a Team Principal. Then Szafnaur picked up the poisoned chalice of Team Principal in 2022 underneath Rossi, who, in turn, left earlier this year to be replaced by Bruno Famin, an engineer who had no F1 ties before his Alpine appointment last year to lead engine development. Famin now sits on top of the Alpine project and is the interim Team Principal despite his F1 inexperience.

If you'd like to see a graph of the chronology, boil some spaghetti, throw it out of your window, and finally stamp on any pasta strips that you later find outside, and you'll be mostly there. Simply put, it's incredibly messy and doesn't create any confidence that whatever comes next will fare any better.

Otmar Szafnauer leaves Alpine in another change at the top.

Image: Alpine Renault

Prost suggested the best approach for Alpine would be to remove the corporate interference and run the team as an F1 project around a top-level F1 driver. Having too many chefs reporting to one another and across the car division and F1 team hasn't worked in several incarnations, so Prost's suggestion isn't outlandish. Looking elsewhere, it's actually the winning formula.

Consider how Red Bull and Mercedes operate — they're precisely what Prost believes is better, with Christian Horner overseeing everything in the F1 world at Red Bull and Toto Wolff doing the same at Mercedes. When something goes right or wrong, Horner and Wolff are the ones to take the blame or plaudits, not a committee of senior staff that seldom come to a race. Additionally, each team has a superstar driver with Max Verstappen and Lewis Hamilton, and they have built their entire operation around creating success with that structure.

Otmar Szafnauer leaves Alpine in another change at the top.

Image: Alpine Renault

Cast your mind back 18 years, the same format was in place at Renault, too. Fernando Alonso took two World Drivers' Championships with the French team in 2005 and 2006, and they became the World Constructors' Champions because of his excellence. Flavio Briatore demanded the level of respect in the pit lane that Horner and Wolff do today, and everyone knew he called the shots about everything that happened with Alonso and Renault.

Fast forward to 2023, and contrast what that Renault name has in modern F1. Pierre Gasly and Esteban Ocon, both decent drivers but hardly at the level of Alonso, Verstappen, or Hamilton, do what Szafnauer tells them, but only when Szafnauer checks with the powers that be at Renault that the broader organization is okay with the plan.

The sad irony of the situation is how close to achieving their goal they might've been with a more patient approach. Alonso repeatedly shows he's still an exceptional driver with his age-defying drives for Aston Martin. Meanwhile, Oscar Piastri's performances suggest he could be the next Verstappen or Hamilton if he continues his incredible form. Alpine had both under their control, but the drivers' lack of faith in the project saw them go elsewhere.

Otmar Szafnauer leaves Alpine in another change at the top.

Image: Alpine Renault


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