F1Zone.net Interview: Otmar Szafnauer

By on Sunday, September 15, 2013
Otmar Szafnauer with regular driver Adrian Suil

Otmar Szafnauer with regular driver Adrian Suil. Sahara Force India.

When Force India first entered Formula 1, their target was simply to beat Super Aguri, a backmarker team that scored 4 points during their entire time in the sport. Today, Force India is battling McLaren, one of the most successful teams in Formula 1 with 12 drivers' championship and 8 constructors' championship titles, for fifth place in the Constructors’ Championship. Prior to the Belgian Grand Prix, Force India was even leading McLaren by two points in the standings. They are now just five points behind them, with seven races left from the 2013 season.

F1Zone.net sat down with Force India’s Chief Operating Officer Otmar Szafnauer to find out the secret behind the team’s impressive development during just six seasons in Formula 1. "It’s not a secret. You just have to understand what areas of the car make it all work and put the limited resources that we have in those areas," says Szafnauer. "McLaren certainly has helped because we get our gearbox from them. Designing and building a gearbox does take a charge of effort, energy and resource and that effort, energy and resource we don’t need, we get that from McLaren," Szafnauer explained.

"The rest of the resources we have we can look to see where in those areas are differentiations, to make you faster than the others, and focus on those. Gearboxes today, because they are frozen in the design that you could do, makes no differentiations so you’ve got to look at the big areas. So we decided what those big areas were and then put all our resources in those areas and got into the point where we are now. No secret."

Last year, Force India lost sixth place in the Championship to Sauber and the team’s target at the beginning of this season was to get it back. There were no thoughts about ever being fifth, either because they didn’t expect their car to be that strong or just didn’t imagine McLaren to be that bad.

"If you look at all the teams, for us, with the amount of the people we have and the resources we have, to take out a top-five team is a difficult call."

The team's first test, as Force India, at the end of 2007

The team's first test, as Force India, at the end of 2007

"Even Williams has more resources than we do and I expect them in time to be challenging [us]. If you look three years ago, Williams beat us. They have a better tunnel than we do, they have probably 200 more people than we do and a bigger budget so if you look at those, sixth is a good target for us, to beat Sauber. Sauber is probably the same size as we are, even though they have better infrastructure, a better wind tunnel. Those are tools and if you have those better tools you will produce a better car," he added.

The team has its origins back in 1991. It was first Jordan, then Midland and Spyker. The team slipped back from contending for victories in 1999 to not scoring a single point in 2006. Szafnauer believes that instability was a key reason for the slip back. “I wasn’t there so it’s only a guess," he says. "One thing that does allow a team to produce better cars, to come up with a more competitive package is stability in management, employees. When you destabilise that, even with new management, new technical director, new employees, usually you take a little bit of a dip before you get better. And if you do that constantly, always changing, it’s always dips and you never come out of that. I think stability does work."

2010 was an improvement on-track but a challenge off of it

2010 was an improvement on-track but a challenge off of it

Force India needed 29 races before they achieved their first Formula 1 points courtesy of Giancarlo Fisichella’s second place finish in the 2009 Belgian GP. Judging by Szafnauer explanation the team is more stable now as it has been a solid midfield performer over the past few seasons and usually a contender for points. “I think so. I’ve been here for five years now, the technical director has been here for three years and we’ve put other people in place, others are now learning. All those help."

2010 wasn’t an easy year off-track for Force India as a number of senior personnel, including their technical director, chief designer, head of aerodynamics and commercial director, left the team during the season. Despite that Force India still managed to finish on a better position in the Championship than the previous year.

"At the time of their leaving I hired a few new people, not to take their jobs but to work alongside them. It was just lucky that when they left we had already some people in for about six months that could take their positions. When I first came in I thought where we were lacking and that I’d like to bring that person here and another one there. And we did bring them in and then they worked together and when they left and I just moved the others up," said Szafnauer.

Stability also stands in how a team copes with the financial situation and Szafnauer insists that Force India has few concerns at the current time.

"We have three income streams: commercial rights holder, share holders and sponsors. Because our share holders are financially calm I think we are probably better than some other teams."

"The commercial rights holder gives us a substantial amount of money, but I think people spend more than that and for us to compete we too have to spend more than that. We are OK for now, but you can always use more so if we get more sponsors, we’ll spend it out."

Szafnauer, alongside a basic pie chart scrawled out on a notebook, explained simply how the budget is split.

The team is currently sixth in the 2013 championship. Sahara Force India

The team is currently sixth in the 2013 championship. Sahara Force India

"We can split it in three equal parts: one for salaries and people, one for car and car parts, and the last one for logistic, travel, motorhome. Next year [car and car parts] will be more because it gets more expensive, so this might get to 40 percent and the other two will come down to 30. The engine itself will be half of it and all the rest the other half."

Before joining Force India in 2009, Szafnauer was an Operations Director at British American Racing. From there he went to Honda as a vice president of Honda Racing Development and then as a director of business and strategic planning at Honda Racing.

When asked what he brought new at Force India, Szafnauer explained he changed the focus in the team.

"When I came it had been Spyker and Midland for a while and I was used to working like Honda worked. I think probably the biggest thing that I brought to the team was to always focus on performance first. We’ll spend it on that first and then everything else is second. Whereas before I came, some of the resources that were being spread, the limited resources we had, were really focused on performance first and that made a hugely difference. As an example, we didn’t run the wind tunnel 24 hours a day 7 days a week, we only ran the wind tunnel 6 days a week before I got there. What’s that about? Why don’t we use it? So I changed that."

Szafnauer believes Force India’s current position is his biggest achievement and reckons there’s no reason why the Silverstone based team cannot be strong once again in 2014.

"Probably to get the team to a level where I feel confident we can compete at the top of the field," Szafnauer said when asked about his proudest achievement.

"So I mean to feel confident that this year we can compete there and to know that when next year’s car comes out, we will still be there."

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