How a key signing last year impacted Szafnauer's Aston Martin exit
Szafnauer's departure marks the first high profile exit from Aston Martin, but a key signing may be a clue as to why, and what happens next.
Aston Martin's Team Principal Otmar Szafnauer exits the team with immediate effect, it's been announced today.
Szafnauer's departure marks the first high profile exit from the former Jordan, Midland, Spyker, Force India and Racing Point team since the consortium of investors led by Lawrence Stroll purchased the Force India team in its administration period in mid-2018.
For the following season the team was renamed after Stroll's consortium 'Racing Point' - albeit a name promised to be a placeholder.
It would soon be confirmed that Stroll had purchased a majority stake in the road car manufacturing giant Aston Martin, and would bring the historic name back to Formula 1 to coincide with the key transition period for the F1 team.
Szafnauer departs the team he has been instrumental in leading for over 12 years. Image: Aston Martin
Throughout each of the team's guises right up until its final seasons as Force India, the Silverstone-based outfit was always thought of as the absolute example of how to be a successful underdog team.
Taking into account the team's dwindling budget - one in which couldn't even afford to put paper in the factory printers at one time - the outfit was a great success, regularly reaching the podium spots when frontrunners got into trouble.
2020 would see the Racing Point team take a controversial gamble with a self-confessed clone of the 2019 championship winning Mercedes which, although grabbed many a headline in pre-season testing and once the season eventually got underway, worked wonders for the team in the short term and led to a victory for Perez in the Sakhir GP.
Since the acquisition of the Aston Martin name and branding in 2021 the team has not enjoyed the successes of 2020, even if you counted Vettel's spectacular Hungary drive to 2nd place before his disqualification.
The emergency technical regulation changes introduced to reduce the load induced through the tyres by the exponentially increasing downforce levels severely impacted Mercedes and Aston Martin's low rake packages.
Lance Stroll, son of Lawrence, will once again partner Sebastian Vettel in 2022. Image: Formula 1
What was fairly obvious in the early season interviews of 2020, and throughout 2021 as Aston Martin struggled in the midfield pack, was that Team Principal Otmar Szafnauer was on more than one occasion left to his own devices in handling the often tricky situations in which he had next-to-no involvement with in the first place.
The 'Pink Mercedes' saga came to a head at Silverstone in 2020 where in every interview Szafnauer would rightly recite the statement of the team's innocence and compliance with the FIA, before "extremely angry" Stroll himself made a bombshell public statement that vigorously defended the "integrity" of the team and called out rivals.
Szafnauer, who's experience in the team can be traced back to its 2009 Force India days and in F1 all the way back to BAR and Honda, and Lawrence Stroll never seemed to be fully on the same page politically.
Although admittedly it's rare for an Investor to be absolutely parallel in priorities to a Team Principal or Technical Officer, Stroll looks to have his eyes set on short term success and leading the knowledge gained from that into a campaign successful in the long term. Szafnauer seems to favour placing future proof and stable building blocks in the right areas to boost a team's long term prospects.
Neither direction is correct or incorrect, there's no one way of leading a Formula 1 team, but the two ways are very different from one another and don't work in tandem.
A signing which threw a spanner in the works
Arguably the biggest of Stroll's signings to date has been former McLaren Racing CEO and Team Principal of McLaren Mercedes Martin Whitmarsh as Aston Martin Performance Technologies Group's CEO in October last year.
Whitmarsh became one of the sport's biggest figures in his 25 years with McLaren, succeeding Ron Dennis as Team Principal in 2008, and across his tenure in F1 working with the likes of Ayrton Senna, Mika Hakkinen and Lewis Hamilton.
When he was announced at the team in September Stroll said: "Martin will enjoy senior leadership responsibility and will assist and support me in setting the new strategic direction... including the crucial objective of leading the transformation of Aston Martin into a championship winning organisation within the next four to five years."
Image: Aston Martin
At the time Szafnauer added that "Martin's arrival will allow me to put 100 per cent of my energies into making Aston Martin a winning machine."
However the fact that Szafnauer denied that Stroll was searching for a group CEO right up until the confirmation of Whitmarsh's arrival suggests he genuinely had no idea it was happening and that Stroll planned for Whitmarsh to succeed Szafnauer.
Of course this is speculation. No official announcement of a replacement has been made, but if you had one of the most successful, experienced and respected Team Principals in your armoury, wouldn't you promote them?
Stroll is an ambitious leader and that "four to five year" road to winning the championship will be over sooner than anyone realises. Martin Whitmarsh would be the perfect person to oversee the ingredients put in place to achieve the standards set by Stroll.
An outfit which genuinely sees itself as a future championship contender but which has never achieved those heights before won't have the knowledge to reach them. But employing those who have and placing them strategically in your team is surely the right thing to do.
Aston Martin's statement on today's announcement noted that they are "comfortable to take a little time to explore options before announcing a new team structure."
The Alpine name completed its first season in Formula 1 with a 5th place in the Constructors' Championship. Image: Formula 1
The emphasis on options within its structure could support Whitmarsh's case to succeed Szafnauer but options outside, including Alpine's Marcin Budkowski, will be traversed.
Alpine are reportedly also amidst an internal restructure, and Budkowski's recent experience with Alpine as de-facto leader absolutely puts him in the frame, even though his technically minded nature makes him potentially better suited to a role in the technical arena.
The entire Aston Martin plan is in a delicate chapter, as multiple key signings begin to arrive whilst the staff structure is heavily reshuffled. Couple this to the impending completion of the brand new factory at its Silverstone base, the team is soon set to be quite unrecognisable to its Jordan era.