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Otmar Szafnauer’s Rules of the Road

As Netflix cameras rolled, the former F1 team principal had wisdom to impart to Boardroom about what it really takes to build a winning team in the world’s biggest motorsports competition.

In the two-and-a-half months since the Alpine F1 team fired team principal Otmar Szafnauer following a disappointing start to the 2023 season, he hasn’t held back on sharing his thoughts on how the world’s biggest racing competition really works. On the last Friday in September, he had the chance to do so with Netflix’s Drive To Survive cameras rolling at Columbia University’s Sports Management Conference.

After a 30-minute panel, the 59-year-old Formula 1 stalwart was poised and direct in a chat with Boardroom while the Netflix cameras continued to capture Szafnauer’s every word and mannerism.

“It’s unfortunate that I was made some promises that they didn’t deliver on, including giving me 100 races to be competitive and win,” Szafnauer, who spent 18 months in his position, told Boardroom.

Instead, the Romania-born, Detroit-raised executive got just 33 races to build a contender despite the sport not being designed to enable such rapid success. After finishing fourth in the Constructors’ Championship standings last year, Alpine slipped to sixth and found itself stuck there as 2023 rolled on, leading to Szafnauer’s ouster on July 28. The French racing team remains in a distant sixth position heading into Oct. 22’s United States Grand Prix in Austin, more than 100 points behind rivals McLaren, who are dueling a resurgent Aston Martin team for fourth.

“I was 30 some races in, and to me, 30-something is not 100,” he continued. “And I’m a man of my word. When I give my word, it’s what you do, and integrity, which I learned from my father, is everything to me. But it seems like the whole world didn’t learn from him, so there was always ‘promise one thing, do another thing.'”

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Szafnauer points to the Dunning-Kruger effect to describe Alpine’s leadership team that prematurely let him go. The term is defined as a cognitive bias by which those with limited competence in a certain domain or subject matter overestimate their own abilities or expertise, while people with advanced competence underestimate their own abilities.

“When you suffer from that,” Szafnauer said, “you don’t make good decisions.”

While Alpine wants to win right away, Szafnauer sees that as impossible in Formula 1, and that the team is only going to get worse if it cannot be resolute in seeing things through. Drivers Esteban Ocon and Pierre Gasly are talented, but a team of 1,000 is made up of what the former Racing Point, Honda, Force India, and Aston Martin executive described as 998 technologists.

It takes more than talent, he said, to build a winning team.

It takes time to change a team’s culture and working practices to gain more knowledge in areas that greatly impact performance. And if a team’s culture doesn’t allow it to operate in lockstep in all its departments, you’re going to notice that on the grid.

There are shortcuts to building a team’s culture via hiring people from other successful teams, but there are significant roadblocks in F1 as it relates to poaching top talent. The most sought-after technical staffers on teams like Red Bull, Mercedes, and Ferrari, Szafnauer said, are on three-year contracts with their teams — you have to catch them in the last year of their deals before or while they’re negotiating new ones. Sometimes, you can only agree to terms with top talent when they still have as much as 18 months left on their current deals, making instant success at a team like Alpine even more difficult.

“That’s why it takes time,” Szafnauer said. “You can have a plan, but you can’t execute because we don’t have free agents or transfer windows on the aerodynamics, the technologists, or the tire engineers like you do for drivers when they’re out of contract. Ask [Red Bull team principal] Christian [Horner] how he’s done it and he’ll tell you: Continuity.”

Otmar Szafnauer ahead of the F1 Monaco Grand Prix on May 26, 2023 in Monte-Carlo (Eric Alonso/Getty Images)

While outside of F1 for the time being, Szafnauer is more than keeping himself busy. He’s the founder and owner of digital developer Soft Pauer, which developed the first Formula 1 timing app that’s used by various motorsports teams, brands, and events. Szafnauer is also speaking with a company innovating in 3D-printed batteries, which he said are cheaper than traditional batteries and can fit into spaces that other batteries can’t. He also has a son who plays golf at Dartmouth, so Otmar has been rooting for the Big Green along with a passing interest in the Detroit Lions and Red Wings from his days growing up in Michigan.

Szafnauer may not be occupying an F1 team’s big chair, but as the Netflix cameras rolled, he was content to share his guiding principles as a person and an executive — wherever the road may take him next.

“I learned this a while ago,” he said. “One, you treat people with respect for what they know. You don’t disrespect them for what they don’t know, because all of us know a little about some things. And also, have integrity and respect.”

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