F1 2022 analysis, silly season, contract rumours, Ferrari, McLaren, Sauber, Audi, Williams, Volkswagen

Sportem
Sportem
19 Min Read

If you thought this year’s driver market was wild, little did you know what was coming during the off-season for the team managers.

Formula 1 has never known team principal chaos like this. In an unprecedented two weeks, four team principals left their posts with varying degrees of autonomy. And in a hectic couple of hours this week, three positions were filled in a merry-go-round highly orchestrated between the teams.

Ferrari and McLaren, the sport’s oldest and grandest teams, have new principals. Audi has positioned itself for its 2026 debut with a new CEO. Williams, for so long last among the teams, finds itself still in the hunt for new management.

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With at least another three years of this regulation cycle still to come, which team has best positioned itself in an unpredictable team principal silly season?

FRÉDÉRIC VASSEUR TO FERRARI

Why it’ll work

Frédéric Vasseur will be the first Ferrari team principal to have been appointed from outside Maranello in 15 years. The last external recruitment was Jean Todt, who led the team to its golden age with what was then unprecedented levels of dominance in Formula 1 along with fellow outsiders Ross Brawn, Rory Byrne and Michael Schumacher. Whereas previous administrations cracked and warped with internal politics and external criticism, the Todt-led group of outsider managers formed an effective shield over the workforce, nurturing their adventurousness, leading to greatness.

Whether true or not, there’s a feeling that only a non-Italian, or at least someone who hasn’t spent their life inside the Ferrari machine, can bring out the best in a team that otherwise has all the ingredients for success.

Mattia Binotto tried to do the same, and while he deserved another year to prove himself, it’s true that the team faltered badly under the pressure of its unexpected title challenge, with strategic missteps the biggest tell, for which the criticism nationally and abroad was immense. He also suffered for not being the pick of the current executive, having been lined up by the late Sergio Marchionne before his death and then installed under new president John Elkann and managed by new CEO Benedetto Vigna.

Vasseur, on the other hand, is an outsider with a background as a successful engineer, and as a Frenchman with a F1 experience largely in German-speaking Switzerland, he arrives as a blank slate.

He’s also a proven talent in the area Ferrari is most lacking: man management. Ferrari has the resources and the personnel; it just needs someone to marshal them effectively. Vasseur’s dual role at Sauber as team principal and CEO meant he was responsible for organising the team to be as efficient as possible, maximising its strengths and minimising its weaknesses — that he left the team on extremely good terms is testament to how good a job he did.

In that sense he’s the perfect candidate to bring the final 10 per cent to Ferrari’s title challenge.

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Why it won’t

The Ferrari principalship is the hardest job in motorsport for a reason, and a change of executive and new leader isn’t about to change that.

The reverse side to the Jean Todt example was that he was able to successfully insulate the race team from the broader politics of the Ferrari business — no mean feat given it took him more than five years to win his first title for Maranello.

Vasseur’s success will likely correlate with his level of autonomy from the board, but already there are signs that might be a struggle.

Binotto’s official role was team principal and managing director. Vasseur has the less senior position of team principal and general manager, and there’s a suggestion that CEO Vigna could be set to play a more hands-on role inside the racing team despite his background in as a physicist specialising in semiconductors.

The last time Vasseur dealt with conflict in visions between levels of management was during his tenure as Renault team principal in 2016. He resigned after a single season as a victim of the team’s chaotic leadership structure.

Vigna’s increased involvement — if indeed that’s what’s shaping up here — doesn’t have to be a bad thing, but it is a point of concern given the team’s track record.

There’s also the fundamental question of Ferrari’s almost meme-like impatience with its team principals. Vasseur is the fifth man to take the helm in 10 years. Cultural change takes many years, and there’s every chance the team will need at least a season to settle into his new leadership. Will he last long enough for his efforts to turn into results?

Finally, it’s not too uncharitable to say Vasseur’s concrete achievements in Formula 1 are modest at best, certainly by Ferrari standards. At Sauber he scored a total of 186 points — less than the Scuderia scored this year alone — and a best championship finish of sixth. That’s partly down to a lack of sharpness in the race team specifically, which in recent years regularly failed to capitalise on its strongest days — a similar criticism to that levelled at Binotto.

Of course Sauber has almost never been more than a midfield team, limiting his potential in his five-year tenure, but it serves to underline that Ferrari is making an interpretation of its new team principal’s abilities rather than them being plain to see.

Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty ImagesSource: Getty Images

ANDREAS SEIDL TO SAUBER

Why it’ll work

Andreas Seidl arrived at McLaren in Formula 1 highly rated for his exploits with Porsche, which he guided to three Le Mans victories and three World Endurance Championship titles. He leaves McLaren with his reputation intact, having restructured the racing division after Ron Dennis’s late-stage management chaos and returned the team to a positive trajectory.

Those are exactly the strengths Audi is hoping to lean on as it beefs up perpetual midfielder Sauber as its works entry ahead of 2026.

It’s important to note here that Seidl will not be team principal but rather the CEO. Vasseur held both titles, but the Audi factory team will be big enough to warrant a division of responsibilities. His first job will be to recruit his top report.

Like Vasseur, the fact Seidl leaves McLaren on excellent terms — Zak Brown waved his gardening leave despite him being released several years early — is testament to the respect he’d earnt as a quality team manager.

And whereas McLaren has had to navigate financial and competitive crises during Seidl’s tenure, at Audi he’ll want for nothing. The team will be extremely well funded and will target the top operators in their fields when it comes to recruitment. And he has time on his side, with three years to prepare the team for the German marque’s fully fledged entry.

The transition will also be smooth given Seidl’s experience with fellow Volkswagen subsidiary Porsche as well as with BMW during its partnership with Sauber in the 2000s.

Why it won’t

Turning small teams into winners is extremely difficult in Formula 1, particularly in the equalisation era, with spending constrained by the cost cap. Consider the difficulties historically successful teams like Renault, now Alpine, and McLaren are having returning to the top — Sauber has finished higher than sixth just twice in its independent era, and even in its BMW days it won only one race.

Aston Martin is also a good example of the difficulties of transitioning from a lean midfield operation to a big-spending grandee. In its previous guise as Force India it had gradually climbed the ranks over a decade from equal last in 2008 to fourth in 2017. But it’s declined ever since the money arrived — it finished seventh last season and seventh again this year with even fewer points to its name.

While it won’t be for a lack of trying nor for a lack of ability on Seidl’s part, what looks like a perfect match on the tin is no guarantee of success.

Photo by Dan Mullan/Getty ImagesSource: Getty Images

ANDREA STELLA TO MCLAREN

Why it’ll work

Andrea Stella has one clear advantage over his fellow team-switching bosses in that he’s being promoted from within. Knowing all the key staff, the working practices, the drivers, the organisation’s strengths and weaknesses and so on will mean his transition will be practically seamless.

That also means there won’t be much expected of him in the sense of shaking up the team in the way a new boss from the outside might want to revitalise the operation. He’s the continuity candidate tasked with perpetuating the restructure put in place by his predecessor and CEO Brown.

He also clearly has the confidence of Brown. The chief executive said getting Stella to take the job was a key requirement to agreeing to let Seidl out of his contract three years early. He was Brown’s number one candidate, so much so that he’s been happy to put him in place effectively immediately.

The reason Stella has the team’s confidence is in his resume. The 51-year-old engineer has risen through the F1 ranks, starting as a performance engineer and then race engineer at Ferrari in the 2000s before becoming head of race operations at McLaren in 2015 and being rapidly promoted to performance director and then racing director.

Not only is it a decorated CV, but he’s progressively picked up many of the team principal’s responsibilities along the way such that it should be a straightforward next step for him.

Why it won’t

There’s no sugar-coating McLaren’s problems as it embarks on a journey back to the front. Its first car under the new regulations has underwhelmed and dropped it to fifth in the constructors standings, and while Daniel Ricciardo has owned his problems in the last two seasons, how much of the can the team must carry for being unable to extract the best from him remains an open question.

McLaren has also suffered financial problems in recent years, thanks in part to the pandemic, and has had to sell and lease back its factory. Covid also delayed the plan to upgrade the wind tunnel until next year, meaning 2024 will be the earliest it could have any influence, but there are rumours that this date will be delayed again.

Lando Norris is on a long-term deal, but one wonders whether he has any escape clauses in the event the team can’t progress — and even if he doesn’t, whether the team can do enough to keep him for another cycle. Oscar Piastri, though extremely highly rated based on his junior career, drove a modern Formula 1 car for the first time only a few weeks ago.

The short of it is that McLaren is in a moment of deep uncertainty. While Stella can at least count on the support of his board, he faces an extremely arduous task to plot a course for McLaren’s return to the front — a course that may well extend beyond the cycle of a team principal.

Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty ImagesSource: Getty Images

JOST CAPITO OUT OF WILLIAMS

Why it’ll work

Dorilton Capital knew its takeover of the troubled Williams team in 2020 was the beginning of a long, difficult and expensive road back to competitiveness. It therefore surely also knew that the 2022 change of regulations would not be an opportunity for the most chronically uncompetitive teams of the modern era to make a sudden leap. Instead the next regulatory change in 2026 would be the rational target for a move forward.

But 2026 is deceptively close for such a long-term project. There are only two years to put the foundations in place and then a third year, in 2025, to commit the hard work to the new rules in the hope of bursting from the blocks the following season.

If the team owners weren’t convinced of Jost Capito’s potential, then it’s best to turf him now, when there’s still time for a new team boss to get their feet under the desk and restructure the organisation for the challenge. The same goes for the technical director, François-Xavier Demaison.

Both Capito and Demaison arrived at Grove highly credentialed but with their successes in the rally sphere. The strategy was to shake up a team with a dated and dysfunctional culture by bringing in a pair of real outsiders.

But the risk is clearly that neither had the expertise to pull of such a monumental turnaround. Capito’s vision for the team was also reportedly divisive among the workforce, which undoubtedly would’ve influenced the decision.

This is no time to contemplate the sunk costs. Far better to move quickly towards 2026.

Why it won’t

Capito had had barely two years in a job both he and the board acknowledged was unlikely to bear fruit in less than five seasons. Turfing him just 24 months into the project just because results were not immediate is certainly hasty by Formula 1 standards.

And while a quick cutting of ties gives a new management team as much time as possible to commit to 2026, they’ll have two years fewer than Capito did. If Audi has a load of work to do to enter the sport competitively in 2026, imagine how much Williams has just to join the lower reaches of the midfield.

One wonders how tied Capito and Demaison were as a project item. Just because the technical director struggled to transfer his considerable design skills to grand prix racing — and there are rumours the 2023 car’s early signs are poor — doesn’t mean that the team principal ought to be thrown out with the bathwater.

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Then there’s the matter of succession. Capito was a surprisingly high-profile signing by the new owners considering the team’s standing in the championship. Can Williams possibly hope to find someone with similar credentials to replace him as the least attractive destination in Formula 1?

That’s a particularly pertinent question given Williams doesn’t appear to have anyone lined up despite apparently dismissing its two most senior managers suddenly. If this proves not to be a choice between doubted incumbents and some better option, then it can only be considered a reflexive gamble based on a first poor year under the rules, which rarely, if ever, leads to success.

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