Otmar Szafnauer’s split with Aston Martin – effective immediately – marks the first F1 surprise story of 2022, even if hints of a split had long been there.
Here’s what our writers make of the team principal’s departure and how it could influence F1’s fastest-growing outfit.
Big loss – but there’s a plausible replacement
Szafnauer’s departure is a big loss for Aston Martin, regardless of the reasons. Not only was he a key part of the team’s underdog success back in the Force India days, but he’s also been central to the evolution of the Stroll-era team.
He has a huge amount of experience in F1, stretching back to coming in with BAR in 1999, and has a good balance of skillsets that are valuable when it comes to dealing with the technical, management and ownership sides of a grand prix team.
What has been clear was that Szafnauer was often left to fight the causes laid out for him by Lawrence Stroll and some of his public utterances seemed forced and out of character as a result. What’s more, it became clear the two haven’t been fully aligned when Szafnauer denied Aston Martin was looking to recruit a group CEO. Whitmarsh was announced five months later and those wheels had been in motion when Szafnauer denied it, but this wasn’t an attempt to hide the truth – simply a reflection of the fact that he had no idea this was happening.
Replacing Szafnauer’s experience and broad skillset is not easy. That’s especially true for a team like Aston Martin as the standards set by, and expectations of, ambitious, wealthy ownership can risk becoming unrealistic. Not only must Aston Martin’s team boss be able to run a rapidly-expanding F1 team well, they also have to ‘manage upwards’.
Szafnauer will find another role in F1 easily enough, he’s too valuable not to. But replacing him will not be easy. One suggestion has been an effective job swap with Marcin Budkowski, whose Alpine future is uncertain.
But while Budkowski does have some of the skillsets required, his team leadership experience isn’t as broad even though he has been de facto team principal at Alpine for the past year. However, if the role is more purely management, with Whitmarsh dealing with the other aspects, it’s possible that Budkowski, who comes from a technical background, could fit the bill in a revised team boss role more focused on the management side of the team.
So much has been done right in the Aston Martin project and the team has the potential to achieve its lofty ambitions of emerging as a championship-contending force. But in choosing a successor to Szafnauer it faces a key test, both in terms of the identity and the way the role is structured.
Whitmarsh joining spelled the end
I’m pretty sure Otmar’s position was in question since the arrival of Martin Whitmarsh. There is only room for one when it comes to overseeing the direction of a company like this, especially as it is now the face of Aston Martin. This is so similar to when Ford took over Stewart GP and turned it into Jaguar. It became all about satisfying people who have no idea what F1 is all about, and that is a very different challenge to designing a good car.
Lawrence Stroll doesn’t appear to be a patient man and his team’s performance in 2021 was way below his expectations. Whitmarsh will have arrived with all of his experience from McLaren – which is the complete opposite of the underdot team that Force India/Racing Point/Aston Martin has come from – and I’m sure he was only-too-eager to tell Stroll how it should be done.
It’s the old saying, ‘you can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear’ – well at least not overnight. But give it time and work on the direction slowly and it is possible but I don’t see Mr. Stroll accepting that. He wants results and he wants them now.
This shouldn’t be a trend
Turning around the fortunes of any F1 team is never the work of a moment, but I did wonder if the shortcut to success this team enjoyed as Racing Point in 2020 with its Mercedes clone would make the bump back down to earth as Aston Martin in 2021 harder to take.
We don’t know for certain if Szafnauer jumped or was pushed, although the instant departure at least means he didn’t work through a notice period before leaving. So did he pay the price for the team’s slump last year, or did he decide that he’d had enough of taking the heat (internally or externally) for the disappointment of 2021?
He certainly never looked particularly comfortable early in the year when constantly having to be the front man for Aston Martin’s futile complaints that it had been screwed over by the aerodynamic rule changes for last season. Mercedes going on to win the constructors’ championship with the same car concept makes all that fuss seem an even greater waste of time.
Aston Martin has put a lot of the right long-term pieces into place to become a top F1 team in the future. Perhaps in years to come, this change will be viewed as another of those smart moves – regardless of who instigated it.
But let’s hope this isn’t the start of a trend from the ownership to get trigger-happy every time expectations aren’t met.
Aston must nail this next appointment
This line in Aston Martin’s statement could be quite telling: “We are comfortable to take a little time to explore options before announcing a new team structure” sounds like ‘we don’t have a replacement lined up and need to find one.”
If true it means Aston Martin doesn’t have a ready-made replacement lined up. That wouldn’t necessarily tell us why Otmar left but it would mean Aston Martin’s in a period of contemplation and that wouldn’t be a huge surprise given no obvious candidates seem to just be waiting around.
Whoever comes next, their appointment is really important.
This project’s in a delicate phase, with key people either arriving or on their way and a weird holding period before there’s the new factory. You could see this as an easy time to come in and get up to speed – but over the next 18 months Aston Martin will be building up an organisation designed to win world championships.
That will be done in Stroll’s image but will be crucially defined by the team boss as well. So Aston Martin can’t afford someone who doesn’t ‘get it’. They must be someone with a longer-term vision to match the company’s and they need to be around for the long-term to see it through.
Then it depends on whether what Stroll is doing to achieve his ambitions for the team is correct, or flawed. Szafnauer’s successor will feed into that one way or another.
Big shake-up can be handy after 2021
Szafnauer has been a key cog at Force India/Racing Point/Aston Martin during some times of truly impressive achievement, and even if we were to assume that he doesn’t already have an Alpine spot lined up, he shouldn’t have too much trouble remaining in an F1 leadership role.
But there’s also no escaping that Aston Martin’s 2021 was just a really bad year, either one ruined by a surprisingly slow car or by a slightly slower car whose shortcomings were exacerbated by a seemingly downgraded driver line-up – following on from Aston’s decision to discard its quickest driver at the end of 2020.
Given the disappointment of 2021 and the continued influx of new names, stability doesn’t seem to be at a premium, and while it might be argued that this is why Szafnauer shouldn’t have been allowed to leave, my feeling is it might well be the perfect time to start fresh.
As a side note, if Szafnauer is Alpine-bound, it’s worth pondering whether this could nudge Davide Brivio back towards MotoGP after all.