Formula 1: Otmar Szafnauer’s departure exposes Alpine’s biggest problem

Esteban Ocon and Pierre Gasly, Alpine, Formula 1 (Photo by Qian Jun/MB Media/Getty Images)
Esteban Ocon and Pierre Gasly, Alpine, Formula 1 (Photo by Qian Jun/MB Media/Getty Images) /

If there is one word to perfectly describe Alpine since they re-joined Formula 1 as Renault in 2016, it would be mediocrity. That still holds true in 2023.

In their seven-and-a-half years back in Formula 1, Alpine have scored finishes of ninth, sixth, fourth, fifth (three times), and fourth again in the constructor championship. Just past the midway point of the 2023 season, the Enstone operation sit in sixth — equally distant from fifth and seventh — with just 57 points.

Aside from the takeover and subsequent rebrand in 2016, the team have finished in the top five in five out of seven years and had relative success.

Since 2016, the team have scored multiple podiums with the likes of Esteban Ocon, Fernando Alonso and Daniel Ricciardo, and they even scored a monumental victory with Ocon in the 2021 Hungarian Grand Prix.

That may sound good from the outside. Aside from Red Bull and Mercedes, Alpine have been arguably the only team not to build a subjectively bad car and fall miles down the order like Ferrari, McLaren, and Aston Martin all have at different points in recent years.

But in the amount of time those teams have built bad cars relative to expectations, they have all managed to flip the script and build podium-contending, or even race-winning, cars again, even amid a 2023 season of Red Bull dominance.

In that same timeframe, Alpine have stayed stuck in the middle of the pack. Their lack of progress as a works constructor has seen them almost always operating as good team, rather than a great team.

With a huge budget from parent company Renault and their 100-race plan long past its expiry date, many are left scratching their heads, including Alpine themselves.

Alpine announced a wave of key management dismissals from their Formula 1 team ahead of this past weekend’s Belgian Grand Prix.

Management re-shuffling in the Formula 1 paddock is nothing new. However, having multiple key members of your team’s management either leave or be sacked just days before the summer break is quite uncommon.

Just one week after CEO Laurent Rossi was axed, team principal Otmar Szafnauer was let go less than two years into his tenure with the team, despite his success last year and his great reputation. He was joined by longtime Enstone sporting director Alan Permane, while chief technical officer Pat Fry left to join Williams.

Unfortunately, turnover has been quite a theme in recent years for Alpine. Since 2016, they have had four team principal and eight drivers. In fact, the team made at least one change to their driver lineup every year from 2016 to 2021, before changing it again for 2023.

In a cutthroat sport like Formula 1, where the world’s largest car manufacturers have invested hundreds of millions of dollars, people are expected to perform. When expectations aren’t met, the hammer comes down hard — and fast.

But when a team such as Alpine, one that have been far from awful, have had so much turnover, there are certainly some underlying issues, a lot of which can be supported with clear evidence.

Through all of the team’s various departures over the last few years, not all of them have actually come down to decisions from Alpine themselves.

During Renault’s rise up the grid, Ricciardo jumped ship from the front-running Red Bull stable for 2019, only to sign with McLaren for 2021 before the 2020 season even started.

This past season, Alonso made the shocking switch to Aston Martin for 2023, despite their horrible form at that point in time compared to Alpine.

Then there is Oscar Piastri. After being a member of the Alpine Academy for years and logging thousands of test laps for the team, he publicly denied his promotion to a full-time ride and instead signed with McLaren. Much like Alonso’s move to Aston Martin, Piastri’s switch to McLaren was also seen as a big step down the grid at the time.

Even former team principal Frederic Vasseur and former executive director Marcin Budkowski recently left the team on their own accord.

So why have so many high-profile personalities left the team, and sometimes even chosen seemingly less desirable destinations instead?

Alpine have a major culture problem wreaking havoc throughout the organization.

Of course, the team’s constant underachieving is playing a part in some individuals’ decisions to leave. Why would you stick around if there is no reason to believe the team will reach the successes for which they are aiming?

The problem with that, though, is that there are still reasons to believe.

The team’s branding, budget, and overall infrastructure is nothing to scoff at. Alpine have high ambitions and have shown they can score good results. That was seemingly enough to lure Pierre Gasly away from the Red Bull family for 2023.

With that, all of their turnover points to how everything is run internally. There is something inside the team that either turns people away or gets them fired for not following through.

Rossi’s harsh comments on the entire team’s performance before the Monaco Grand Prix this year, which he labelled as “amateurish”, were a strong indicator of that.

Alpine’s former special advisor and Formula 1 legend Alain Prost, who had worked with the team since 2017, left Alpine on his own accord before the 2022 season. He accused the team of having “no respect.”

Following Friday’s announcement of Szafnauer’s sudden dismissal, Prost did not hold back any of his strongest feelings towards Rossi, and the culture he fostered for the entire operation.

"“If you look at the great successes of the last thirty years, you will find a simple structure, detached from an industrial organization chart, built around three or four strong personalities, coupled with a champion driver.“Laurent Rossi is the most beautiful example of the Dunning-Kruger effect, that of an incapable leader who thinks he can overcome his incompetence by his arrogance and lack of humanity towards his troops.“The one who was Alpine’s boss for 18 months thought he understood everything from the start when he was totally mistaken. His management broke the momentum that had been put in place since 2016 to reach these podiums and this victory."

Prost implied that Rossi adopted a culture of blame, scapegoating, and fear, rather than taking reasonable measures to work with the personnel to improve.

Ahead of the Belgian Grand Prix, which marked Szafnauer’s final weekend at the helm, the words of the former Aston Martin boss echoed a similar tune.

"“The reality is that changes take time. I signed some good people from other teams, but they are still stuck in their contracts, and won’t come until 2024 or 2025. You can’t really push development if people aren’t there. It takes time for people to come and it takes time for people to work together correctly. I always say, you can’t get nine women pregnant and hope you have a baby in a month.”"

Employee morale is a serious matter, and not just on the competition side. It is very important to foster a positive work environment in which everyone from the top down can work efficiently and be both happy and motivated. It helps keep people around, and it helps attract new people to the system.

Toxic work cultures and the subsequent turnover has never been a recipe for success in Formula 1. Mercedes and Red Bull have been as successful as they are because of stability from the top, right down to the very bottom.

With Rossi having been replaced by Phillipe Krief as CEO and his man for the job in Szafnauer having been sacked, Alpine’s latest management shuffle at least demonstrates that they are looking for a fresh start to rebuild a tarnished reputation.

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A stable workplace will do a world of good for a team like Alpine to finally reach the front of the pack.