It was the Romanian-born American’s determination to keep the then-Force India outfit on the grid that carried the team through a crisis in the summer of 2018, and saw it emerge under the ownership of Lawrence Stroll and with the new Racing Point identity.
He subsequently oversaw the expansion process and the transition to the Aston Martin name in 2021.
Those were denied at the time of course, but on Wednesday came the announcement that he had left the team, and that a management reorganisation was under way.
The full circumstances behind Szafnauer’s departure and the confirmation of his future plans will emerge in time. But what did he achieve at his former home, and how important was he to the team’s survival?
Otmar Szafnauer, Team Principal and CEO, Aston Martin F1
Photo by: Glenn Dunbar / Motorsport Images
From automotive to F1
Szafnauer had worked for the Ford Motor Company in his adopted home city of Detroit before he first became established on the F1 scene in a management role with British American Racing, joining as it was being set up in 1998.
He switched to Honda in 2001, a few years before the Japanese manufacturer bought and renamed BAR. After Honda’s shock F1 withdrawal at the end of 2008, Szafnauer was left without a job – and that’s when he first had contact with Force India.
The former Jordan, Midland and Spyker team had just finished its first year under its latest name and the ownership of Vijay Mallya, and was set to switch from Ferrari to Mercedes power for its second season.
However, there was no role for Szafnauer for 2009. The team had a gearbox supply contract with McLaren, and as part of the deal Simon Roberts was seconded from the Woking outfit to be Force India’s chief operating officer.
Roberts did a good job of helping the team to reorganise its processes and so on, but he was never going to be onboard for the long term. When in late 2009 it became apparent that he would return to McLaren, Szafnauer was on Mallya’s radar as his replacement.
“It came to September,” Szafnauer explained at the time. “And they said, ‘Simon will probably go back to McLaren and we will have to replace him with somebody. And we like your experience. Can you come to Monza and meet Vijay?’
“So I met Vijay in Monza for the first time. And we had a chat across the table. Working that closely at that level there’s more than just experience that counts, it’s sometimes personality and chemistry and all those things. Vijay said let’s discuss it further. We did that, and then we shook hands.”
He officially took over the COO role just a few weeks later, shortly before the Brazilian GP. His task was to have an overview of all areas of the team, which was much more compact than Honda had been.
“It’s different than where I was before, the size is different,” he noted at Interlagos. “The job is the same, you have to go racing, you have to be competitive, you have to design a car, you have to build a car, you need quality control, you need a marketing group. You have to do all the same tasks, with less people.
“So that means the people you have do more. I think you also get satisfaction from performance when your involvement is bigger. I like that. When we had everybody together for this announcement of Simon finishing his secondment and me coming in, we fitted everybody into one room in the factory.
“I hadn’t seen that for eight years, when you can get everyone together like that! That was nice. With that comes the fact that you’ll be able to know more intimately every individual, which I think is a very important point when you are building a team.
“It is about personalities and understanding who everybody is, making sure they work together, and go in the same direction.”
Dr. Vijay Mallya, Sahara Force India Team Owner, Otmar Szafnauer, Sahara Force India F1 Chief Operating Officer
Photo by: Sutton Images
A team principal in all but name
Szafnauer didn’t have the team principal title, which belonged to Mallya, but he took on many of the day-to-day responsibilities that are usually associated with the job. He worked alongside deputy team principal Bob Fernley, who was Mallya’s eyes and ears on site, and who represented Force India in FIA meetings and so on.
On Szafnauer’s watch the team made startling progress. From ninth in the championship in 2009 it moved up to seventh in 2010 and then sixth in 2011, before hovering around that position for a few seasons.
In the hybrid V6 era, helped by the strong early form of the Mercedes power unit, there was a further improvement. The team achieved fifth place in 2015, and then fourth in each of the following two seasons. There was a great atmosphere in the camp, and everyone enjoyed being part of an organisation that clearly punched above its weight.
“My whole management philosophy was how do you attract good people to a place like Force India where you don’t have the resources of other teams?” Szafnauer noted later. “The way I did that was it’s got to be the best place on the grid to work.
“I worked really hard at making sure that I led with empathy and made everybody feel that their self-worth was high, and they had a major role to play. That allowed me to attract really good talent even though we weren’t Red Bull or Mercedes.”
Andrew Green (GBR) Force India F1 Technical Director, Nikita Mazepin (RUS) Force India F1, Esteban Ocon (FRA) Force India F1, Sergio Perez (MEX) Force India and Otmar Szafnauer (USA) Force India Formula One Team Chief Operating Officer
Photo by: Mark Sutton
A great disturbance in the Force (India)
It all looked good, but there was a catch. The generic Force India name was always a hard sell, and the cars carried relatively little in the way of sponsorship outside the brands associated with Mallya and his partner and shareholder, Subrata Roy of the Sahara Group.
In addition, the team owner faced financial problems back home, mainly a legacy of the failure of his Kingfisher Airline, while Sahara also had legal issues. As time went by, so the funding began to dry up, and every penny spent had to be justified.
Szafnauer had long been juggling a tight budget, and doing a lot with a little, yet somehow he managed the cash flow and kept things going. Then in early 2018, and with Mallya mired in worsening legal problems, a crisis point was reached. The team’s very future was under threat.
Szafnauer knew there was no way forward with Mallya still at the helm – new investors or new owners had to be found, and in double quick time. His sole aim was to find a way to keep the team on the grid, and the employees in jobs.
Then a winding up petition launched by an unpaid technical supplier threatened to trigger insolvency. It could have been game over in the middle of the 2018 season.
The way to avoid insolvency was to put the company into administration, a process that would buy time, allow the team to continue to operate and, crucially, get to the races. It would also hand the tricky job of finding a buyer to the administrators, taking Mallya out of the loop.
“The process was triggered only because we were marching towards insolvency, which was going to happen within weeks,” Szafnauer explained at the time. “So the whole thing shuts down. So the three choices were insolvency, administration, or sell.
“And the sell option, which I know the shareholders were working on, was just taking too long. And we were going to hit a road block of insolvency, and then the whole thing stops.”
An administration process was commenced just before the summer break as a direct result of action by team driver Sergio Perez, who was owed a substantial sum.
“Administration trumps a winding up order, because all judges and legal entities want the thing to survive, first and foremost,” said Szafnauer. “There are a few ways of putting it into administration, including the shareholders doing it voluntarily. But that didn’t happen. The team can’t put the thing into administration, a creditor has to. So somebody had to do it.
“Checo had been between a rock and a hard place. He didn’t want to do this but imagine you’re in Checo’s shoes. If in three weeks’ time it’s insolvency, you don’t have a drive, these 400 people don’t have jobs… Do you really have a choice?”
Otmar Szafnauer, Team Principal and CEO, Racing Point, and Sergio Perez, Racing Point
Photo by: Glenn Dunbar / Motorsport Images
There was no guarantee that the team would survive the summer break and make it to the next race at Spa. As captured in a remarkable factory scene in the first series of Drive to Survive, Szafnauer kept the morale up back at base, promising his understandably concerned staff that there was a future.
“Uncertainty is stressful,” he admitted that week. “If you don’t know what tomorrow brings, you’re stressed. And this is uncertain. However, as more time goes on, it will become more certain and less stressful.
“The good news is we’re different than other teams that have gone into administration, because we are a valuable team.
“We’re valuable in that we perform well with a low budget, with good sponsors, and we make good money from the FOM Group. And that makes us different and valuable, and when you’re valuable, you get people that come and buy. It’s that simple. That’s why I’m not as worried as I would have been if I were a Manor or Caterham.”
A complex process ensued with several interested parties involved, including Dmitry Mazepin and Uralkali. However, Stroll proved to be the successful bidder – much to Mazepin’s frustration.
In an unprecedented arrangement brokered by the administrators the Canadian and his partners bought the cars and the physical assets of the team, but not the actual entry. With time pressing before the next race at Spa he had to set up a new company in order to make a clean break from the Mallya legal quagmire.
No struggling team had previously been saved in such a manner, because the survival of the company owning the entry had always been sacrosanct. However, everything was done with the agreement of F1, the FIA and engine partner Mercedes, and a key element was that Stroll would take on the debts of the original Force India company and ensure that everyone was paid.
Chase Carey, Chairman, Formula 1, and Otmar Szafnauer, Team Principal and CEO, Racing Point
Photo by: Andy Hone / Motorsport Images
A (Racing) Point to be proved
When the team reappeared at the Belgian GP it had a new identity as Racing Point and made a fresh start in the world championship on zero points. Nothing else had changed except that Mallya and Fernley were both gone, and Szafnauer had been named team principal.
That was proof that Stroll rated Szafnauer highly, and had decided that he was the right man to lead the team forward. The new job was also a reward for Szafnauer for keeping the team together during those stressful weeks – he had promised his staff members that there was light at the end of the tunnel, and that they should hold on. And everyone did just that.
Having navigated the summer crisis Szafnauer’s new role was to steer the team through the rebuilding process as Stroll’s investment flowed in.
In essence the strategy involved a rapid ramping up of staff levels and resources, as well as formulating plans for a brand new facility to be built alongside the old one, which had long been outgrown.
Stroll’s clear ambition was to create a winning team, and that took on a new dimension when he bought Aston Martin and announced that he would take the name into F1, with all the expectations that would inevitably bring.
Under Stroll’s direction, Szafnauer has been at the heart of the team’s growth and rebuilding, drawing on the experience accumulated working with Ford and Honda – both big organisations. He was involved with management hires, including key technical people, and played a role in getting Sebastian Vettel on board for 2021.
Racing Point won a race in 2020, the team’s first success since the Jordan days. But this year, as Aston Martin, it took a step back in terms of competitiveness, in large part because aero changes imposed by the FIA for 2021 hit its car harder than those of rivals.
Otmar Szafnauer, Racing Point Force India Team Principal and Lawrence Stroll, Racing Point Force India F1 Team Owner
Photo by: Mark Sutton / Motorsport Images
Clearly there was pressure on Szafnauer as team boss, and Vettel’s exclusion from a priceless second place in Hungary certainly didn’t help. The bigger picture was getting ready for the rules reboot in 2022, and a fresh start.
Then, late in the season, came the surprise news that Stroll had hired former McLaren boss Martin Whitmarsh as Group CEO of Aston Martin Performance Technologies. It was made clear that the new arrival would have an overview of the whole business and would not be running the F1 team on a hands-on basis.
But it wasn’t a stretch to assume that Szafnauer’s position had been compromised, although the man himself insisted that Whitmarsh’s experience was a plus for the organisation.
“He’s still getting his feet under the table, so to speak, and learning who we are,” Szafnauer said after Whitmarsh appeared at the US GP. “There’s 600 of us now. And he spent a lot of time in the last few weeks just getting to know all the senior members of the leadership team, having long meetings with them.
“And he’s there to help us. Strategically, there’s a lot for us to do, including building a campus now, hiring people, putting processes in place that perhaps a small team wouldn’t have really needed, but a big team will need. And he’s come from a big team.
“When he was at McLaren it was one of the biggest teams, and when I was at Honda, it was a big team. There are things that as a small team that we didn’t have in place, and we need to quickly put those things in place as we grow. So there’s plenty to do.”
Just a few months later we have the confirmation that Szafnauer won’t be part of Aston’s future after all.
Photo by: Steve Etherington / Motorsport Images
What comes next?
How well prepared the team was for his departure, and how much he will be missed after playing such a key role in its day-to-day operations for over 12 years, remains to be seen.
He’s still being linked with a future role at Alpine, but wherever he lands he can draw on the management skills he outlined the week that he joined Force India back in 2009.
“My philosophy is before you make any changes, you have to understand what you have, otherwise you get lost,” he told Autosport. “My short-term next steps are to deeply understand how the team works, maybe what areas could require more resource, with the goal always of improving performance. I need to understand things first before I can really answer that question.
“There have been a lot of people in industry who come in as a new management team and they make change because they think that’s the right thing to do.
“I’ve seen it in F1 teams, where a big company that’s maybe the parent puts a new management team in, and for them to show the parent they’re doing something, they change. Sometimes that works, but for me that’s like closing your eyes and throwing a dart!
“Sometimes you hit the dartboard, but not always. You should see where it is before you throw. To me that’s the right thing to do.”
Otmar Szafnauer, Team Principal and CEO, Aston Martin F1, is interviewed
Photo by: Glenn Dunbar / Motorsport Images