Interview: Szafnauer on the reinvention of Force India

Image by Dunbar/LAT

Interview: Szafnauer on the reinvention of Force India

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Interview: Szafnauer on the reinvention of Force India

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If there were one team’s workforce you felt needed a break over the Christmas and New Year period more than any other, it would probably be those who are part of what is currently called Racing Point.

It still seems strange calling it by its holding name – Racing Point will be replaced by a new identity ahead of the 2019 season – but the old Force India team’s current title is a sign of just how significant the changes have been at Silverstone this year.

In the summer, along came administration. Out went Vijay Mallya and Bob Fernley, and in came Lawrence Stroll and his consortium. Officially, out went Force India, and in came Racing Point Force India in its place.

The stable hand at the top throughout all of the turmoil? Otmar Szafnauer.

From chief operating officer to team principal, Szafnauer was privy to plenty relating to the change in ownership. You’d think his workload would have tripled overnight, but having already been so hands-on in his previous role, he insists the change in title had a smaller impact than you’d imagine.

“I don’t think it’s a huge difference to what I was doing before,” Szafnauer tells RACER. “You know, maybe a little bit of an extra burden on my time, but not much. So, I’m just going to continue doing what I did before, making sure that we stay efficient, we focus on performance, and add performance where we can with the extra funding that we have.

“If we do those things, if we keep the level of efficiency with the extra funding, we will just add performance to the car. And we should be able to see that out on track.”

Szafnauer is looking to capitalize on the new investment in Force India (or Racing Point, or whatever it’s called) without undermining the team’s existing strengths. Image by Hone/LAT

One of the items on Szafnauer’s agenda towards the end of the season related to Haas protesting the legality of his cars as part of a wider complaint about prize money. Essentially, as a new entrant accepted by the FIA in August, Haas felt Racing Point Force India should be restricted by the same rules the American team was when it entered the sport in 2016, which means a delay before receiving a share of F1’s revenues.

Szafnauer admits it’s a situation he’s had to spend a lot of time on, but it has not hindered plans for the future.

“It has been a distraction like to me for example, but I think to the technical guys, not really,” he insists. “They just keep doing what they’re doing.

“We’ll see in the future, but so far we’ve been getting [the funds] … the money has been forthcoming.”

And money’s a hot topic when a team has been under financial pressure. Prior to administration, Force India gained a reputation for being one of the most efficient teams on the grid, conjuring an extremely competitive car from the budget it had available over the past three seasons.

While eyes are lighting up at the prospect of increased funds – Sergio Perez, for one, is openly admitting his excitement – Szafnauer says one of his biggest tasks will not be spending the extra money, but ensuring it doesn’t inadvertently have a detrimental impact on the team’s strengths.

“It’s very important we stay efficient, very critical that we don’t lose that,” he says. “And the other thing that’s really, really important is that we’re going to be making a lot of changes in areas that are more aesthetic and less performance.

“We’ve got to make sure that we don’t take our eye of the performance ball in order to bring new garage panels or a new motorhome, or all those types of things that are needed, because we’ve had a period of less than ideal amount of capex investments, so now we’ve got to do those things.

“But those things take time, and it’s usually the guys who focus on performance [who] also have to define workflows for a new factory, for example. And you can’t do both. You can do one or the other, and we’ve got to make sure that we continue to be as efficient as before, and more importantly, to focus on performance. That’ll be my job, to make sure we do that.”

Easier said than done. The fact that other teams with much bigger budgets can struggle for performance highlights the lack of a guarantee that money means a faster car. To that end, Szafnauer has been careful about where he has committed investment so far, making only small changes to how the team was working previously.

“We’re now buying more quality control equipment to make sure that the parts are what we think they are,” he says. “That means measuring the wind tunnel model more, but nothing more significant than that.

“Another thing we’ve invested in is more shifts on the weekend, so we run both the machine shop and carbon manufacturing shop full-time over the weekend. So that just helps bring parts out quicker, and also control the quality, because we do it ourselves. That’s about it.”

Szafnauer expects a tough fight to be “best of the rest” in 2019. Image by Etherington/LAT

The evolutionary approach is a sensible one, given the team’s recent history. Fourth in the constructors’ championship in 2016 and 2017, last year’s combined points total – from before and after administration – would have been 111. That would have left it 11 points adrift of fourth-placed Renault, an admirable achievement in a season with so many off-track concerns.

Given the sustained level the team has operated at, Szafnauer has only one target for 2019: “We’ve got to be fourth next year.

“That’s not easy. I think Renault are going to be tough. Nothing against Carlos Sainz, but they’ve got maybe an improved driver line-up. They’ll have a strong driver line-up next year anyway. And I’m sure McLaren will sort themselves out.

“Toro Rosso and Red Bull said they’re going to collaborate much more so than they have in the past. They’ve got the same powertrain, which will allow that collaboration, and I worked with Honda; I know they will work tirelessly and without any financial bounds to produce the best powertrain in F1. They’ll continue until they do it. So I don’t know when that’s coming, but they’re going to be tough competition. I can see Toro Rosso taking a step up because of it. So fourth place will be a challenge.”

The difference between the past and now is that Szafnauer can look ahead with increased confidence. No longer is there the same uncertainty over funding and the team’s future that he was faced with on so many occasions. He might be keeping the changes at the team on the small side, but that isn’t stopping him from targeting much bigger results in future.

“After next year, you know we want to do even better than fourth over the next couple of years, just reduce that gap to third, or maybe even fight for third. That’s what we should be doing, and that’s what we’re focused on.”

 

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