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Analysis
Formula 1 Belgian GP

Is Alpine’s plan to fast-track F1 success a pipe dream?

Alpine’s shock move in sweeping out its senior Formula 1 management was prompted by it wanting to fast-track success. 

Esteban Ocon, Alpine A523

While former team principal Otmar Szafnauer and sporting director Alan Permane both reckoned that it would realistically take a few more years for the Enstone-based squad to hit its victory targets, the French car manufacturer’s senior management believed it could be done quicker. 

It was this disconnect of timeline and ambition that ultimately saw Alpine pull the trigger and part ways with both men after the Belgian Grand Prix. 

But while Alpine may feel there is potential to get to the front by 2024, or 2025 at the latest, rivals are more sceptical about teams being able to make that kind of performance transformation so quickly. 

For however much Aston Martin was able to make a leap last winter, and McLaren deliver an impressive jump during this season, the reality is that the evolution of those changes goes back at least two or three years. 

At Aston Martin, it was the arrival of Lawrence Stroll in delivering ambition and vision that set in motion the aggressive investment and recruitment that has helped haul it towards the front of the grid. 

And McLaren has undergone some pretty extensive changes too, as CEO Zak Brown tasked current team principal Andrea Stella several years ago to put in place a technical organisation that played to the strengths of the current regulations. 

While Alpine has just got rid of its top staff, the common theme to Aston Martin and McLaren is of strong leaders getting their elbows and chequebooks out, empowering the F1 team to get on and do its job; and then not meddling because outside company ambitions were not aligned. 

Cyril Abiteboul, Team principal Hyundai World Rally Team

Cyril Abiteboul, Team principal Hyundai World Rally Team

Photo by: Romain Thuillier / Hyundai Motorsport

Former Renault team boss Cyril Abiteboul, who currently heads Hyundai’s motorsport operations, thinks the key to success is leadership with this absolute focus on delivering F1 success – even if it sometimes does not fit in with corporate processes. 

“I think what it takes somewhere very high in the organisation is the willingness of someone to win at any cost - and almost outside of any form of corporate structure,” he told Motorsport.com

“Red Bull has had that with [Dietrich] Mateschitz and obviously the legacy keeps on going. Stroll has that and brings that in Aston Martin, Ferrari had that and has that. And Mercedes has been able, despite the corporate environment of Mercedes, to build a set-up that gives that to the management of Mercedes F1. So, I think that's what is needed.  

"It's not carmakers against non-car makers. It's someone somewhere being able to say, we want to win, whatever it's going to take. And I think that's what it needs to be successful in particular in Formula 1.” 

Abiteboul believes vision and reassurance from above can help trigger the very culture of success that teams strive for, as individuals do then not spend their time worrying about a step out of line costing them their jobs. 

“It takes someone who's going to tell the race teams, go for it, whatever you need, you will get it from me and I will be protecting you,” he said. 

“If that takes some form of connection to the manufacturer, why not, but someone needs to be basically providing that safety net to the race team. 

“Don't underestimate the connection there is between Mercedes' race team's organisation, and Mercedes corporate. But there is a framework that's been built, and that works and is stable, so that they can focus on what they need to do, which is to win races.” 

This empowerment of team figures seems to be in complete contrast to what Alpine did in splitting with Szafnauer and Permane – a move which cannot but help have had a negative effect on morale with Alpine. 

A look up and down the grid shows another important element of success is getting rid of a blame culture at teams that can trigger a circle of hiring and firing. Instead, it is essential that senior management has the strength to stand up and take the blame if things go wrong. 

Laurent Rossi, CEO, Alpine F1, attends the Press Conference

Laurent Rossi, CEO, Alpine F1, attends the Press Conference

Photo by: Glenn Dunbar / Motorsport Images

Mercedes boss Toto Wolff thinks that for F1 teams to triumph, they have to focus on processes rather than individuals – and completely do away with a blame culture for the inevitable mistakes that happen. 

“I think it's human reaction that always, when something goes wrong, you want to say it's [someone else’s] fault, because that allows us to get pressure off us,” he said. “It's something that we actively debate.  

“Clearly, when things are rosy, then you can live up to those standards. But sometimes it goes terribly wrong, which happened to us last year, and also in some instances this year.  

“So, you just need to remind yourself constantly about that mindset and those values, that we blame the problem and not the person.  

“Fundamentally, it is all my fault: If we have a bad pit stop, it's not because a mechanic has just underperformed, it is because his equipment is not up to the job, or the training hasn't been good enough, or our wheel nuts are not how they should be.  

“In the end, you can always retrace where the problem is. And generally, it is up to us to develop the person so the person can perform best in the role. And we have stuck to it.” 

Wolff’s management culture has certainly rubbed off on new Williams team principal James Vowles, who is perhaps best placed to understand the challenges and timeframes involved in turning around an F1 team's operations. 

And central to everything, Vowles believes, is having the right culture in place. 

“I really believe that culture eats strategy for breakfast,” he said. “It doesn't matter what strategy you do. There is a sort of one week to maybe a year, if you're lucky, on a strategy. But your culture is your powerhouse behind that and that changes the organisation.” 

And just like infrastructure and car design takes a while to be changed, so too is it impossible to get that right culture in place in an instant. 

Vowles says, based on his estimations for a squad like Williams, it is a three-year process to get the right tools sorted. Changing the spirit within a squad does not happen any quicker. 

“Culture doesn't appear overnight,” he said. “In my experience, for about 800 people, it's three years to change a culture with an organisation. That's a made-up number by me, but I've been through this enough times in the sport to see it.” 

 A three-year time period for Alpine would mean everything being in place for success in 2026 – the very timeframe that Szafnauer reckoned was realistic for the changes he has made to take effect.  

 With Alpine convinced it can be achieved much quicker, it will be fascinating to see then what it plans to do differently to break the F1 mould and deliver.

Pierre Gasly, Alpine A523

Pierre Gasly, Alpine A523

Photo by: Jake Grant / Motorsport Images

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