If I’d said to you in the week after the Miami Grand Prix that Otmar Szafnauer wouldn’t be the team principal of Alpine by the summer break, you probably wouldn’t have been all that surprised. You might not have agreed with the decision, but following Laurent Rossi’s outburst in Florida, the prospects of that relationship surviving did not look good.
But a lot has happened since Miami, and it’s difficult to ignore just how much upheaval there had been prior to the announcement of Szafnauer and Alan Permane’s departures.
The outlook appeared to keep changing, as Bruno Famin – a candidate Rossi was understood to be considering as a future team principal – was given the role of Vice President of Alpine Motorsports, adding another layer between the CEO and Szafnauer. That wasn’t a great omen, as Szafnauer had left Aston Martin in part because he felt he wasn’t going to get the autonomy he required following Martin Whitmarsh’s arrival.
But then Rossi himself was moved aside, with Philippe Krief being named as the new CEO on July 20. A chance for a fresh start, perhaps, and a signal that Rossi’s vision wasn’t being shared by all involved?
Whether that was true or not, it only changed things for the worse for Szafnauer. Unhappy at the demands from his Renault bosses to shorten the timeline to success, he stood his ground and insisted longer was going to be needed than the French manufacturer wanted. There was only ever going to be one outcome.
And that outcome played out on Friday in Belgium, where Pat Fry’s future move to Williams triggered interest in Alpine that soon exposed bigger moves afoot. Both Szafnauer and the Enstone mainstay as sporting director Permane were to leave after the race weekend.
It was certainly odd timing. All the announcement did was make for awkward questions and the less-than-ideal scenario of a team being run by two people who knew they were walking away afterwards. Not that either’s level of professionalism changed – and Alpine delivered a very strong weekend with Pierre Gasly third on Saturday and Esteban Ocon climbing to eighth on – but it created a state of limbo where there was a chance authority might not have been respected in high-pressure situations.
For Szafnauer it wasn’t a problem at all, because the announcement then allowed him to put his side of the story across during the remainder of the weekend and focus on ensuring the narrative wasn’t that he had been sacked. Ask him if “mutual agreement” was the right term, and he’d agree.
But for Alpine itself, publishing such news after the weekend was over would have been preferable, ensuring it wasn’t amplified by the ongoing race weekend and with far fewer media having direct access to the departing personnel.
Sometimes circumstances take over and the ideal timing isn’t possible, so when Famin was in the Friday press conference he was at least able to deliver Alpine’s perspective first.
“At Alpine we have a fascinating project, Alpine as a brand,” Famin said. “Two weeks ago we launched phase two of that project with a very ambitious plan for new road cars, for expansion and so on. What is really super-interesting for all of us is that project is based on motorsport programs.
“The key one, of course, is Formula 1 – not only that, but that’s (key). It’s really a great challenge to be part of this project. So, after phase two of the brand, we are going to phase two of the Formula 1 project. We have ambition as well, and we have decided to make some changes in order to go faster to reach the level of performance we are aiming for.”
Again, if we focus on the timing, it feels a strange time to be making such a change, but then sometimes you have to move quickly to get what you want. While the likes of Ferrari, McLaren, Alfa Romeo and Williams all made moves in the off-season, a mid-season change could be down to the person Alpine has in mind to lead this phase two.
Except, that’s not what Famin has suggested…
“I’ve just been appointed two weeks ago as a vice president of motorsport at Alpine,” he said. “Of course, we have been discussing that topic with the top management for weeks and now I will really assess with the whole team what is the real situation and what will be the plan then. I will take the necessary time to do this assessment, and we will decide later on.”
It was a point he backed up when I spoke to him on Saturday evening, when he stated the search for a replacement would start on Sunday night.
Now, none of this is to say that it’s the wrong move for Alpine and Szafnauer to part ways, especially if they did not agree on the future direction of the team. But it does paint a picture of a brand that doesn’t know what it wants from F1.
Actually, that’s unfair. It wants to fight for podiums and wins, but it doesn’t know how it wants to get there, or who it wants to deliver that success.
An F1 team is made up of hundreds and hundreds of personnel, ranging into the thousands if we include those within the power unit departments. A few figureheads at the top set the direction and the culture, but so much more of the ingredients for success come from the hard work of those at the coalface.
After seeing the likes of Alfa Romeo attract Audi backing, Williams investing in James Vowles and now Fry, McLaren restructuring with rapid success under Andreas Stella, Aston Martin expanding under new leadership, and even AlphaTauri line-up Laurent Mekies and Peter Bayer taking the team forward, Alpine personnel can look longingly at half the grid attempting to build towards something.
They deserve the same from their top management. From Cyril Abiteboul to Marcin Budkowski to Otmar Szafnauer – and a number of names in other positions – whoever is in overall charge has chopped and changed far too often since the start of 2021. Whether it’s down to Famin or Krief, the next team principal needs time, and at the very least a clear succession plan in place for if it doesn’t work out again.
Because if there isn’t one, the Alpine project almost certainly won’t work out at all