From Detroit to F1: Otmar Szafnauer is quietly making his label as COO of Force India

Source:   —  April 10, 2016, at 9:23 PM

Title an American who was born in Romania, educated on the streets and classrooms of metro Detroit and has held several high-ranking positions with Formula One teams since two thousand nine.

From Detroit to F1: Otmar Szafnauer is quietly making his label as COO of Force India

From Romania to Detroit to competing with the huge boys in Formula One

Fast quiz time. Title an American who was born in Romania, educated on the streets and classrooms of metro Detroit and has held several high-ranking positions with Formula One teams since two thousand nine.

No, it’s not Gene Haas. He’s only just arrived.

Give up?

Well, even the name mightn't assistance you much because not many people exterior the F1 paddock have ever heard of Otmar Szafnauer.

Why's he not better known?

“I believe in letting the performance on-track do the talking,” Szafnauer says. “You don’t expound on what you think you're going to do, you just do it. I tend to shy far from talking a lot.”

The 51-year-old Szafnauer’s journey to Formula One is nearly as remarkable as his rise to becoming Sahara Force India Formula One team’s COO.

About two hundred years ago, three German brothers headed E to create their fortunes in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. A descendant decided to attempt his luck in the United States as a blacksmith in Pennsylvania, but one son went back to Europe and settled in the city of Semlac in Romania.

Thus, George Szafnauer, a Romanian-American, found himself stuck behind the Iron Curtain in the one thousand nine hundred fifty. It was the Freezing War, and the Romanian government refused to recognize his U. S. citizenship, so he wasn't allowed to leave. He attempted to escape, was caught and keep in prison.

Fortunately, soon afterward, an agreement was reached to normalize relations between Romania and the United States. George was released and given his U. S. passport. Three months later the family moved to Warren, Michigan.

Kids adapt quickly and George’s son, Romanian-born Otmar, attended high school in Sterling Heights, Michigan, before going on to study electrical engineering at Wayne State University.

Detroit was his town, and when F1 visited in one thousand nine hundred eighty-second, Otmar, then eighteen, went to look John Watson win the inaugural Detroit Grand Prix—and caught the racing bug.

After earning an MBA at the Univ of Detroit, he landed a work with Ford Motor Co. With cash in his pocket, he attended the Jim Russell Racing School and started racing Formula Fords.

“It was a hobby and it was excellent fun,” says Szafnauer, who currently resides in the United Kingdom, “but my ambition was to do the best I could with my career in Ford.”

His interest in motorsport led to him being appointed Ford Racing program manager in one thousand nine hundred ninety-third, running the company’s involvement in the Jr formulae. His own racing career stalled when he destroyed his car at Indianapolis Raceway Park.

In one thousand nine hundred ninety-sixth, he was portion of the team put
together to create a concept car called the Ford Indigo. It was supposed to be a road car highlighting the company’s Indy-car technology. Reynard Motorsport was going to construct the composite chassis, but it was a vanity project and Ford needed the money elsewhere

It was axed. Adrian Reynard went off to start his own F1 team in league with British American Tobacco, and, in one thousand nine hundred ninety-eighth, he asked the talented Ford engineer he'd known to become British American Racing’s operations director.

“When I'd the opportunity to swap from a huge company to go into F1, I said to myself, ‘If I’m going to do this, I'm going to do it to the best of my skill and look how distant I can get.’”

Three years later, another elderly acquaintance, Bobby Rahal, offered Szafnauer Jaguar Racing’s chief operating officer position. A week before Szafnauer joined, Rahal left the program. Szafnauer was left in the lurch, but it wasn't long before
former BAR partner Honda took him on as Honda Racing Development vice president. The company acquired BAR, and it became the Honda F1 team.

After Honda quit the sport in two thousand-eighth, Szafnauer set up his own business for a while, creating an iPhone app for F1 timing. Then Force India called and offered him the COO post. The team had a smaller budget than many rivals. Szafnauer’s strategy was to attain success by being more clever than the large spenders.

“I learned a long time ago, and not in F1, that the key to success when you don't have all the resources of the huge boys is to outsmart them,” he says. “You create sure you've competent people in the areas that create the most difference.
We'd a core of elderly Jordan people and we added excellent people, and brought some elderly Jordan guys back. For the small money we spend, we've done a excellent work collecting points every year.”

Team owner Vijay Mallya believes it's best to hear to his people.

“I cannot think of a single strategic decision that we advised him to do which he went against,” Szafnauer says. “He goes with what we recommend.”

The first step was creating technical alliances, notably with McLaren, but then an opportunity arose: changing the engine rules from V8s to hybrid V6s. In two thousand-ninth, the team switched from Ferrari power to Mercedes.

“We had to determine who was going to do the better job,” Szafnauer says. “We predicted that it'd be Mercedes and we got it right. That was key to where we're now. Had we chosen Renault or Ferrari, it'd be different.”

The team continues to sub-contract. It works in Toyota’s Cologne, Germany, wind tunnel and buys many components.

“The money we spend with Toyota could be spent on our own wind tunnel, but this was a excellent way to obtain a fast improvement,” Szafnauer says. “When it comes to manufacturing, you can bring developments to the car quicker if you do the work in-house, but it's not a enormous difference. It might be one race later, but that’s about it. It hurts you in the winter, when the large teams purchase all the production capacity, but you catch up.”

Some things have to be done in-house, though.

“When I joined the team, CFD (computational fluid dynamics—virtual wind tunnels) was outsourced and it was a mess,” he says.

Presently they've their own FD capability.

“It is these things that all add up and before you know it, you're performing at a decent level.”

Force India’s rise in the F1 Constructors’ Championship has been steady. The team was tenth in two thousand-eighth, ninth after the engine switch in two thousand-ninth. After sixth-place finishes in two thousand-eleventh, two thousand thirteen and two thousand fourteen, Force India moved up to a franchise-best fifth in 2015.

Meanwhile, the noiseless kid from Detroit continues to let the team’s performance do the talking.

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