Otmar Szafnauer, Team Principal and CEO of Aston Martin Cognizant Formula One team, appears on my laptop over Microsoft Teams. He asks me if I’ve watched Drive to Survive, Netflix’s series about Formula One, a series so popular that, shortly after the release of it’s third season in March, it became Netflix’s most popular show globally. As Otmar points out, this means that “the show has introduced Formula One to a much wider audience”. I’m here to pick his brains on just what this new audience should know about Aston Martin and Formula One.
Drive to Survive has created a culture of personality around Team Principals, as they are now much more recognisable to fans than before. When asked how he feels about this, Otmar humbly says, “I don’t think I’m a recognisable celebrity on par with the drivers, but I pretend to be when I’m talking to my kids”.
However, like all reality television, Drive to Survive is not always an entirely accurate representation of paddock events.
Because you know what reality is, and you watch it, and you think ‘oh the editor used a bit too much poetic license in shaping reality into something that isn’t real’.
Amongst the Formula One community this has become something of an inside joke, with many people taking to Twitter after the Imola Grand Prix to discuss how Bottas and Russell’s crash will be dramatised, particularly as Russell is waiting in the wings for a seat at Mercedes. Both drivers blamed the other after the incident and everyone has their own opinion on where to place the responsibility. However, as Otmar points out,
At 340kmph in the wet, you know, you are a little bit busy and it’s hard to move over just a couple of centimetres and get it right… It’s incredible the talent they have.
In fact, as successful as Drive to Survive is, and as enjoyable as watching the races on television are, it repeatedly comes up as we talk that neither compares to witnessing a race in person.
As much as you now think you like Formula One due to Drive to Survive, you actually have to go to a race in person and then you appreciate the skill of a driver.
Aston Martin returns to the Formula One paddock at a time of change. A new generation of drivers are coming to the fore. Not only is Max Verstappen challenging Lewis Hamilton for the World Championship, but Charles Leclerc, George Russell, Lando Norris and Aston Martin’s own Lance Stroll are all one’s to watch. The new guard is shaking things up on track, but there is change off track too. Formula One today is a far cry from the Formula One depicted in films such as Rush and the drug-taking, liquor-drinking activities of womanising drivers such as James Hunt but it remains a predominantly white, male-dominated sport. Last year, the We Race as One initiative was brought in to promote and encourage diversity within Formula One. Though there is still much work to be done, Rome wasn’t built in a day and it seems that, from my conversation with Otmar, the Aston Martin ethos is representative of the future of Formula One teams. In fact, under their previous guise of Force India in 2019, they were the only Formula One team to have a gender pay gap below the United Kingdom’s national average of 18%.
The only thing we care about is your ability to do the job, because of that… our pay is based on the job you do and how well you do it, not on anything else.
The environment is another crucial issue amongst globally conscious Formula One fans. As a sport that involves driving twenty cars around a track and flying all over the world, it is not the most environmentally friendly. Nevertheless, efforts are being made to change that. Efforts that are, in part, led by Aston Martin driver Sebastian Vettel.
Seb himself cares tremendously about the environment… for a Formula One driver of Seb’s age, I don’t know of anybody that cares as much as he does.
In fact, Vettel was instrumental in introducing the use of biofuel in the flyovers that often occur on race-weekends in order to make them more environmentally friendly. Whilst Formula One teams try to make improvements where possible, Formula E, the electric version of Formula One, has been hailed as the environmentally friendly future of the sport. However, it has its sceptics, whose arguments were strengthened by events in Valencia last weekend.
Formula One to me is very popular because it’s an entertaining show and it’s the pinnacle of motorsport. Will Formula E ever become as entertaining and the pinnacle? I don’t know, but I can tell you, in the short term, I don’t think so.
Amidst all the changes, it’s not been the smoothest of starts to Aston Martin’s return to the Formula One paddock. Vettel is yet to finish in the top 10 after placing 15th in Bahrain and retiring on the last lap of the Imola Grand Prix due to gearbox issues which also affected his teammate Lance Stroll. This is not the first time that Otmar has worked with a previous World Champion and extremely talented driver at a team without a championship winning history, as he worked with Jacques Villeneuve at British American Racing between 1999 and 2003. When asked whether there were any parallels, Otmar highlights that “they’re totally different characters”.
Vettel is certainly not the only driver that is still settling into his car – both Sergio Perez at Red Bull and Daniel Ricciardo at McLaren have said that they too are still adjusting – but Otmar assures me that “Seb feels comfortable at the team”.
I am confident that in a few more races Seb will be through his learning curve and then he’ll be on it.
He points out that Aston Martin’s car is considerably different to the cars Vettel drove at both Red Bull and Ferrari, “so significantly so that he needs seat time to be able to adjust his driving style to compliment the way our car drives”. Within Formula One, the teams create new cars according to any regulation changes each year, with the aim to improve on the previous season. Throughout the year there is then further opportunity to modify the cars, inside certain constraints. This naturally leads to engineering differences between the teams. One such difference is that, like the Mercedes, Aston Martin’s car has low rake. As a result, the team has been adversely affected by aerodynamic rule changes brought in for 2021, rule changes that specifically affect lower rake cars. Some believe that this was a deliberate move to lessen Mercedes’ gap of seven consecutive Constructor’s Championship wins to the rest of the grid, and, in the words of Toto Wolff, a rule change that subsequently collected Aston Martin as ‘collateral damage’. The FIA’s formal justification for the change was concern that the Pirelli tyres would be unable to cope with the increase in downforce likely to occur as a natural part of car development.
Given Aston Martin’s somewhat turbulent start to the season and the incoming significant regulation changes in 2022, the question remains of how much effort you continue to put into the development of your 2021 car versus, and potentially to the detriment of, your 2022 car. Otmar isn’t able to give me specifics, after all, such valuable information cannot fall into the hands of one’s competitors, but he does reassure me;
We haven’t given up on the ’21 car.
With 21 races left this season, and the teams racing at Portimao this weekend, it is all still to play for.
Aston Martin advertise all vacancies on their LinkedIn page: Aston Martin F1 Team: Jobs | LinkedIn Within the next month or so, a brand new careers portal will be launching where applicants can sign up to receive recruitment updates (including new vacancies) and from September 2021 they will begin to advertise their 12 month student placement vacancies.