There was almost exactly a year between Cyril Abiteboul and Marcin Budkowski being announced as leaving Alpine. The two statements were 367 days apart, and on the surface they would hint at a concerning trend.
It certainly doesn’t point to stability when you see two senior managers leaving with such regularity, but these were not team members that Alpine CEO Laurent Rossi hired. Rossi himself replaced Abiteboul – who had been set for the CEO role originally – and then Budkowski departed at the end of his first full year in the job.
It would be a lot easier to sit here and explain why it might actually not be such a bad sign that there has been such disruption if it wasn’t for the comments from Alain Prost following his departure as an advisor on Monday.
“Laurent Rossi wanted all the light,” the four-time world champion told L’Equipe.
“Laurent Rossi’s desire is to be alone, not to be polluted by anyone… He told me he no longer needed advice. There is a real desire to put a lot of people on the sidelines.”
Prost even went as far as to claim “there was a lot of jealousy” that played a part in his departure; the four-time world champion having been offered a contract extension at the end of 2021 but turning it down.
Whether those comments are a reflection of the wider feeling within Alpine or Prost’s experience alone, it doesn’t paint a picture of a settled team one year after a lot of upheaval. But just because there was a lot of change instigated 12 months ago doesn’t mean all of the work was done there and then.
In fact, amid the recent change,s my mind goes back to an interview I was part of with Rossi in Austin last year that didn’t really stand out as especially significant at the time. Now the actions have followed the words that has changed, because he addressed how much Alpine had in place to be able to be successful with the new generation of F1 car.
“It’s never all in place, especially not at the beginning of the era,” Rossi said. “I’ve been assessing, diagnosing the team, making some changes… And I’ll carry on making changes, I know for a fact I’m going to carry on making changes as we go.
“The timing of the changes also depends on whether or not you interrupt something that’s ongoing, and as you know we’re working very hard on putting together a brand-new car, with a rather new engine – if not a brand-new engine – for 2022, so you don’t make seismic changes right now.
“But I’m still looking at places where we can reinforce, strengthen, correct things for the future, and I want to build muscles for the team to be able to constantly make progress, go up and up and up.
“In that respect we’re not entirely there yet, we need to add more things, but the team and the base is interestingly strong at the moment. Over the past few years it has grown, we’ve added things (in 2021), we’ve changed a bit of the configurations and the way we work. It’s not just the people and the organization, it’s also the operating model. The culture as well a little bit, which is normal – a new brand, new people, you change the culture.
“We’re well-positioned to grow even more and get where we want to be, I think. My task among others was to contend for podiums by 2024 and 2025, the end of the era – whenever that’s going to be – and by that I mean winning races and potentially championships. Nine months later, I feel like that’s still feasible, we’re still on track for that. It’s not like suddenly we hit a wall.
“I think the team has a lot of strengths, savviness, know-how, expertise that we can build on. We can add things, but we have identified them and we’re on a good trajectory.”
Well, he certainly wasn’t lying about making changes and trying to time them properly. Major departures in the off-season are less disruptive than during a hectic schedule, and Rossi clearly has a vision in mind.
Whether that vision is the correct one remains to be seen, but in fairness to him, this is an Alpine team that had been underperforming as Renault for some time, and – despite the highlights of Esteban Ocon’s win in Hungary and Fernando Alonso’s podium in Qatar – does little to convince you it will make the leap forward to be a frontrunner again in 2022.
And that alone should be a big enough red flag that change is needed in certain positions. Renault has not delivered a truly competitive power unit in the hybrid era, and good cars have rarely been great. Both need to come together to make Alpine a challenger, and Rossi – as tough to work with as he may be, based on Prost’s comments – is clearly well aware of that.
I took Otmar Szafnauer’s links pretty lightly over the past few months, having been told it was actually Szafnauer looking for a way out of Aston Martin that had led to him seeking talks with Alpine. At the time it made little sense, with Alpine featuring many senior personnel and a convoluted (from the outside at least) management structure that would not offer the greater control Szafnauer was seeking.
But now that picture has changed, and it shouldn’t be forgotten that Szafnauer was a key component in one of the most efficient teams on the grid at Force India and Racing Point, before it got such deep pockets. He has become a good fit for a team that is going to need to represent value for money for Renault, despite the parent company now representing a niche car brand.
Whether Szafnauer ends up at Enstone or not, it’s clear significant change is afoot under Rossi’s stewardship. And after a third consecutive season finishing fifth in the constructors’ championship – 2021 yielding 26 fewer points than 2020 despite there being five more races – it does feel like a team needing a clear direction.
Rossi is unproven when it comes to F1 management so there’s no guarantee of success, but his shake-up could kickstart what has the potential to be a very formidable team if it clicks. It certainly doesn’t come down to one person or a single aspect, but without the recent disruption, there was a real sense that more of the same was going to be on the cards. And more of the same wouldn’t be good enough.