F1 teams must get reshuffles right — or face years of catching up

“F1 relies on creativity for success, and people can’t be afraid to fail”

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The new season will begin with new team principals at two of the major teams. Aston Martin and Otmar Szafnauer have parted, as have Alpine and Marcin Budkowski. In both cases such big changes come at a crucial time of opportunity and peril as the new technical regulations effectively wipe the competitive slate clean, cancelling out the cumulative knowledge advantage established by Mercedes and Red Bull. Getting it wrong at this point could take years of catching up to correct. Get it right and a team could be on a path which will pay back for a long time to come.

Szafnauer did a great job in steering the ship of the Silverstone-based team long before it became Aston Martin. He joined what was then Force India in 2009 just as it was about to encounter very rocky financial waters as its owner Vijay Mallya became embroiled in the bankruptcy of his airline and consequences which involved the Indian authorities. Szafnauer – who had previously served as part of the management board of the Honda F1 programme – effectively ran the team as Mallya was otherwise engaged. It was a tightrope walk trying to keep the core of the technical team together while resources were squeezed from all directions – but it was one which Szafnauer navigated extremely well. He had the loyalty and trust of the crucial people when it would have been very easy for them to have sought more secure employment elsewhere. He’s got a nice way with people and his engineering background (in automotive at Ford USA) gave him the back-up of respect.

During this time the team invariably punched above its weight, culminating in consecutive fourth places in the constructors’ championship in 2016 and ’17. But mid-way through 2018 the financial edifice finally came tumbling down and the team was put into receivership, at which point it was purchased by Lawrence Stroll. Here was an interesting contrast in characters: the laid-back, calming Otmar and the bull-aggressive Lawrence, the hugely successful businessman who wants success and wants it quick. Transitioning a small team of around 250 employees into a big one which will nudge right up against the limits of the cost cap is never going to be an entirely straightforward exercise. That and the ’21 regulation change which hurt the low-rake concept of the Mercedes-inspired Aston Martin meant a very low-key season after the highs of 2020 when the team’s car (the Racing Point, aka pink Mercedes) was often the third-fastest in the field. It’s easy to imagine at this point Lawrence’s impatience conflicting with Otmar’s relaxed demeanour.

Into the breach steps Mike Krack, recruited from BMW Motorsport but with a background at Porsche where he served under current McLaren team principal Andreas Seidl. Way before then he was Felipe Massa’s race engineer at Sauber. He has a great reputation and he starts with a clean slate. Among those he will be overseeing will be Dan Fallows (joining in April after 16 years in Red Bull’s aero department) and Eric Blandin (former chief aerodynamicist at Mercedes). It’s an ambitious, aggressive recruitment programme and it will be fascinating to see how it gels.

“Prost was scathing in his assessment of Alpine boss Laurent Rossi”

The dynamic at Alpine is not so clear-cut. As well as parting with team principal Budkowski it has also split with Alain Prost who has been scathing in his assessment of Alpine boss Laurent Rossi. That’s not necessarily damning in itself – there are two sides to every story – but it’s another illustration that this is not a happy ship at the moment. Budkowsi – formerly the technical chief – had stepped up to the role of team principal in the wake of Cyril Abiteboul’s surprise departure a year ago. But Rossi has maintained a watching brief in his first year in the role before then ringing the changes. As this is written, no replacement for Budkowski has been announced but it has long been rumoured – even before his split with Aston – that Szafnauer has been recruited for the role. Davide Brivio, who joined from MotoGP last year, does not seem to have flourished in this environment and seems set to be heading back to MotoGP. Prost mentioned also that the all-new power unit has suffered disappointing reliability on the Viry dynos.

The Enstone team was in a bad way after years of lack of investment when Renault repurchased it in 2017. The facilities were built up, and the big investments have been in place for a couple of years now. But there has been little sign of the creative spark that used to characterise the team in its heyday. Creativity is often as much about the environment and the feeling of not being afraid to fail in trying to advance as it is about the people.

Rossi clearly has his own vision of how he wants things to be, but F1 relies very heavily on creativity for success. Does he have the right people for creativity in the right places, and if so does the team have the sort of environment for them to flourish? If he is hiring Szafnauer, it could be he has already recognised that requirement.

Meantime Aston has recruited plenty of creative talent with great records. The main job for Stroll’s lieutenant Martin Whitmarsh – and one for which he’s well suited – will be providing that calm environment without losing the driving force of Stroll Sr. F1 success is about more than just design and engineering.

Since he began covering grand prix racing in 2000, Mark Hughes has forged a reputation as the finest Formula 1 analyst of his generation
Follow Mark on Twitter @SportmphMark