Szafnauer One on One: Lawrence Stroll wouldn’t have an F1 team without me

Otmar Szafnauer Interview by Agnes Carlier at Silverstone 2022 British Grand Prix exclusiveGrandPrix247’s Agnes Carlier got the chance of an exclusive “One on One” interview with Alpine team boss Otmar Szafnauer over the weekend of the 2022 British Grand Prix. Here’s what she came back with.

Sunday, July 3, 2022

Q: Otmar Szafnauer – Who are you? Romania is miles away from Formula 1. What was your itinerary to come to F1?

Szafnauer: “Ultimately I am a big fan of motorsport. From a young age that started when I lived in Romania in the late 1960s, early 70s, until we moved to Detroit, but Romania was devoid of cars in the 60s. How many people had cars?

“But my father luckily, got his first Trabant in 1968, and we had a car that sparked my love of cars and ultimately motorsport.”

Q: And then after that it was Detroit, but not Detroit racing yet?

Szafnauer: “No, it was Detroit, growing up, because I was eight years old when we moved there. And I didn’t really start racing until after university, when I bought a Formula 2000 car and went to Jim Russell school of racing. I bought a Reynard and raced for five years.”

Q: So what do you consider the milestones in your career?

Szafnauer: “It’s a good question. In my Formula 1 career, probably meeting Adrian Reynard. Without that I wouldn’t be here, and my life would be totally different. And to meet Adrian Reynard, I had to start racing myself, and it just happened to buy one of his former 2000 cars.”

Q: So what did Adrian bring to you? Passion?

Szafnauer: “No… I think what he brought to me was the opportunity to leave Ford Motor Company and start in Formula 1. That opportunity only came from Adrian.”

Q: So talking about Formula 1, what are the big differences between working for Aston Martin and Alpine? For instance?

Szafnauer: “Well, they both start with “A”. Those are the similarities (laughs). But the big differences between Aston now and Alpine now – which is what I have to compare – is probably the corporate culture that’s driven by the ownership and senior leadership team.

“It’s different. The objectives of both teams are the same to do the best you can on track. It’s just how you go about achieving that. It’s totally different.”

Stroll micromanages, Rossi and Mallya more strategic

Otmar Szafnauer Interview by Agnes Carlier at Silverstone 2022 British Grand Prix exclusive

Q: And if I go a bit further, what are the differences between men like Vijay Mallya [Fromer Force India boss], Laurent Rossi [Alpine CEO], Lawrence Stroll [Aston Martin Chairman]?

Szafnauer: “So Laurent Rossi and Vijay are similar in the fact that they’re more strategic in their vision and thinking and they’re not… They don’t micromanage. They hire the right people and allow them to do their work.

“Again, they manage from a bigger picture and more strategy and pointing in the right direction, and then they give the resources to those that are tasked with doing the job.

“Lawrence Stroll is more of a micromanager. Yes, he does bring resource. But then, you know, wants to know every little detail. So those are the big differences.”

Q: Lawrence manages more like a businessman?

Szafnauer: “More of a businessman, yes may be. Although you know, Vijay was a businessman too; even though Vijay loved racing from a young age when he raced in India.”

Q: What have you learned since February 2022?

Szafnauer: “Since February, since March, when I started [with Alpine]. So, I’ve learned a lot about the personalities of the employees that work there, because ultimately, this is it’s all about the people, it’s a people game, and to get everyone pulling in the right direction, and to get the most out of a team, you have to understand everyone’s personalities, and what makes them tick because everybody’s different.

“So, the one thing that I am learning very quickly is the people.”

Szafnauer: Alpine results to my expectations

Otmar Szafnauer Interview by Agnes Carlier at Silverstone 2022 British Grand Prix exclusive

Q: And the results at Alpine, are they below or above your expectations?

Szafnauer: “Neither I think, on my expectations. I expected Alpine to be a very formidable challenger in the midfield, which is happening now. We’re a few points behind McLaren and a few points ahead of Alfa [Romeo].

“I think the new regulations has mixed it up a little bit, but Alpine are where I thought they could be. With a bit of luck, we would have been even higher, but you know, you have to work hard to make your own luck.”

Q: A day at the track for Otmar. What time does it start? What do you do?

Szafnauer: “Well, so for example, this morning, I started at seven o’clock when I woke up, I had coffee. At half past seven, I had a meeting with Laurent [Rossi] and somebody that we’re trying to recruit.

“Thereafter, I went home, got the car and came here. My first meeting here was with the FIA, started discussing some regulatory matters that are coming up.

“After the FIA, a team strategy meeting to start talking about the strategy we’re going to take today, and then after the strategy meeting, a conversation with one of my favourite journalists (laughs).”

Q: What is it like in the office?

Szafnauer: “In the office in Enstone. The day starts between 8:00am and 8:30am; and that’s a variety of things to do, from production issues, design issues, planning for the next upgrade, making sure the next upgrade comes, to hiring people that we need to enhance and bolster the team, to planning for the 2023 car and the 2026 car.

“Also, we’re working very closely with our partner in Viry [Renault power unit factory], to make sure that we’re very much making good trade-off decisions between powertrain and chassis to optimize. So all that happens at the factory.”

Q: How is Your French?

Szafnauer: “It is almost… yes… ‘Magnifique’? It’s almost non-existent (laughs). I’ve recently decided that the best way for me to learn French is; the few words that I know, I make sure that I pronounce them well, as opposed to trying to learn a bunch of them and not pronouncing well.

“So, I’m going to focus on a few words with good pronunciation, ‘Magnifique’, ‘Bonne soirée’, ‘Bonjour’ … (laughs).”

Q: Do you have a day for the family? How do you spend time with you family?

Szafnauer: “Oh, I do yes. So, I try to spend as much as I can with them, and now that we are racing 22 races this year, 24 races next year, it becomes harder.

“So, on the weekends where I’m not racing, or not at the office, I make sure I don’t go to Goodwood or watch my friends race at Silverstone.”

Q: It must have been a torture, last week, because Goodwood was last week…

Szafnauer: “I didn’t go. I’d enjoy it, but I made sure that I just spent that time with my family. I also used golf when I was younger.

“I don’t golf anymore, because you can’t do 24 races and on the weekend off, say to the wife: ‘I’ll see you later, I am going to the golf course’, so I try to spend the free time with them.”

World Champion F1 drivers are brilliant and similar

Q: And the drivers, the F1 drivers, how is it working with a World Champion?

Szafnauer: “I’ve worked with a few now. They are brilliant, you know. They all have some similarities, and the similarities are that, deep inside – I don’t know if it’s inborn or learnt – but that deep inside they want to win, and they do anything they can for them to be victorious.

“Fernando [Alonso] is like that, Sebastian [Vettel] is like that. I would imagine without it, you can’t be a World Champion.”

Q: Would do you speak most to in a race weekend?

Szafnauer: “In a racing weekend, probably the engineers.”

Q: And talking about F1, because you said you do a strategic meeting [with the FIA], do you think that F1 is taking the right direction now?

Szafnauer: “Well, if we weren’t taking the right direction, we should talk about changing. So yes, we believe we’re going in the right direction. But Formula 1, you know, it’s a tanker. You can’t turn corners overnight.

“So, you have to map out your direction and make sure that the plan is good, and you stay ‘on plan’ to implement it. And I think we’re doing that.”

Q: So, we spoke about the World Champions. What about the non-World Champions like Esteban Ocon?

Szafnauer: “So he’s a race winner. Esteban’s first year in Formula 1 was with me, so I know him very well and I chose him over other drivers.

“Since then, he’s matured, he’s gotten better, he’s won races, he understands the sport better. He’s improved, and he’s a great driver, and I’m really happy that Esteban is with us and he’s still young, so there’s more to come.”

Q: Of all the drivers you worked with who has astonished you or impressed you the most? Don’t tell me Ayrton Senna.

Szafnauer: “I didn’t work with him [Senna]. I started with Villeneuve [Jacques] and Zonta [Ricardo]. Villeneuve was one of the first two drivers that I worked with in F1.

“I never worked with Michael [Schumacher], and probably the two World Champions. You know, Fernando at his age, it’s amazing what he does.

“And Sebastian’s work ethic; I haven’t seen anything like that. So, for those two reasons, probably those two guys.”

Q: Do you like Sebastian’s new haircuts?

Szafnauer: “I’m happy that he’s able to grow that much hair (laughs).”

Q: Do you keep informed about younger talents, future drivers?

Szafnauer: “Yes, so we have an academy program, and we’ve got Academy for that.”

Q: Who runs that?

Szafnauer: “Davide Brivio who lives in Dubai is managing that, and he updates the entire team weekly on how it’s going and which talents we have coming up.

“But it’s been successful. You know, we’ve had Oscar [Piastri] come through who’s very good.”

Q: Who are your future horses?

Szafnauer: “Well, Oscar, is the next one, you know, and then the rest are a bit younger. I mean, we have Jack Doohan as well in Formula 2 , who’s doing quite well,  he’s talented, but you know, he need some results.”

Q: So of all the decisions you took in your career, which decision are you the most proud of?

Szafnauer: “Probably the one to leave Ford Motor Company and pickup Formula 1 racing.”

Q: Was that difficult?

Szafnauer: “It was really difficult because at the time, it was hard to predict the future, and predicting the future of Ford Motor Company was easier than leaving and predicting what would happen here.

“So that was a hard one, and I had to move continents and countries and cultures, and I did it.”

Q: If I show you the grid [starting], what are your feelings today?

Szafnauer: “A missed opportunity for Esteban [Ocon] today, he’s out of place. That’s my first thought. We had an issue with his power unit, nothing to do with the power unit itself, but we kind of made a mistake as to how we treated the power unit.

“Esteban should be up with Fernando, and Fernando should be a little bit higher, because – on a drying track – he didn’t get his last lap in.”

I should’ve negotiated a better deal with Stroll

Q: And what is the decision you were the least proud of in all your life or you would never take again? 

Szafnauer:  “The decision that I am the least proud of… So from a racing perspective, or total total?”

Q: Maybe both perspectives.

Szafnauer: “Total, total, I’m least proud of the fact that I studied electrical and computer engineering at a time where personal computers weren’t really a thing yet. They’re just on the cusp, and I didn’t have the foresight to take all my money and invest in Apple or Microsoft or Hewlett Packard, because had I done that I would have been owning a team, so I’m least proud of that. Missed opportunity.

“And probably in racing …it is when I kept the team together so Laurence Stroll could buy Force India for a small amount of money.

“I should have negotiated a better deal, again, to have a shareholding of a team, because without me, Lawrence stroll wouldn’t have that.”