A FORCE INDIA CURRY
Force India COO Otmar Szafnauer has the unenviable task of laying down the law to Formula 1’s spiciest driver pairing, Sergio Pérez and Esteban Ocon. We took him to Pérez’s favourite Indian restaurant for a (medium-hot) grilling…
How do you tame F1’s spiciest rivalry? We dine with Force India boss Otmar Szafnauer to find out
Few other words can convey so pithily last season’s developments at Force India, F1’s punchiest equipe. Retina-sizzling livery? Check. Owner fighting extradition to India? Check. Drivers not just at loggerheads in the garage but hitting one another on-track? Check.
As chief operating officer, Otmar Szafnauer straddles the line between business and engineering (he’s got qualifications in both); Vijay Mallya might own the team, but Otmar runs it day-to-day, having fulfilled that beat at Honda and British American Racing before that, with a brief interregnum during which he developed the forerunner of the official F1 app.
And as a resident these past 20 years of the affluent Northamptonshire locale drawn within easy reach of Silverstone, Szafnauer, like many members of the local motorsport community, is a regular diner at the venue for today’s lunch appointment: the Khushboo in Brackley.
An Indian restaurant like no other (apart from the speaker on the wall whispering soft hits of the 1980s into the convivial atmosphere), the Khushboo is a cauldron of motor racing fever and what Jilur, the proprietor, describes as “banter”. Its walls are lined with images of the sport, many of which have been playfully defaced by rivals. A large picture of a Red Bull F1 car, for instance, is peppered with stickers including a Mercedes three-pointed star and a Lotus logo, while a whiteboard bears autographs and a mocking directive to “eat at the chippy instead”.
A large Mexican flag is pinned to the ceiling and a spangly ten-gallon hat is perched behind the bar. Turns out that not only is Sergio Pérez a frequent visitor (team-mate Esteban Ocon isn’t; with furrowed brow, Jilur says “that boy needs some curry inside him”), he has his own selection of favourites enshrined within the menu as a shared meal, the ‘Checo’s Fiesta’.
Kicking off with poppadoms, accelerating through the Karun’s Special starter (think pizza with an Indian-spiced twist, the brainchild of ex-f1 driver Karun Chandhok) and then looping around pots of chicken bakara, chicken tikka masala and butter chicken served alongside sag paneer and tarka daal – with generous helpings of pilau rice, peshwari and plain naan to keep the sauce within track limits – this is not only a spicy culinary lap, but one after which you won’t take the chequered flag unstuffed.
No need to proceed further into the menu. This chicken-based choice swerves one of Otmar’s food foibles; not only is he averse to lamb, he claims to be able to detect it even in proportions so minute that they’d flummox a homeopath: “I once went to [technical director] Andy Green’s house for dinner. He’d made a lasagna with maybe five per cent lamb mince in there. I could still taste it!”
As the background music segues from Kajagoogoo’s Too Shy to Feargal Sharkey’s A Good Heart, we close our menus, loosen our belts, take a sip of Kingfisher, and prepare for the fiesta. Hopefully F1 Racing’s line of questioning won’t leave Otmar naan the wiser…
Throughout this team’s many identities – they began as Jordan in 1991 – Szafnauer and his predecessors have been presented with a very similiar menu of challenges.
Money, for one: the team have punched above their financial weight in recent years, but that’s partly a dividend from building prudent technical partnerships (such as taking an engine and gearbox from Mercedes), partly a consequence of rivals underperforming. Wisely recognising that this latter variable can’t be relied upon to fall in their favour, the team announced an investment programme last year with the aim of consolidating their grip on fourth in the constructors’ championship, and – whisper it – possibly gunning for third.
In essence this involves increasing headcount and investing in the obsolete ex-jordan windtunnel to bring it up to date, rather than operating a satellite aero team at Toyota’s facility in Germany. It won’t involve a huge recruiting spree – more a gentle inflation from around 400 to a figure Otmar describes as “the right size for our operation”, about 425. But it won’t be happening as soon as had been anticipated.
“The plans are in place but there are a couple of things that have to happen before we can bring them to fruition,” says Otmar. “And before that, we have to build a car and go racing. As
you know, we have a limited amount of financial resource and budget, and at this time of year we spend quite a bit of that – all of the cashflow we get in is going towards the car and development. I don’t think we’ll be able to implement the plan until the latter half of this year.”
This is an oblique reference to the sport’s unusual commercial structure, under which teams receive their contracted share of the revenues in ten monthly instalments from March onwards, leaving the less well-funded teams close to the edge for at least two months in the year – just as spending on new-car development spikes. In previous seasons Force India have had to secure cash advances – in effect payday loans, albeit without a usurious rate of interest, one hopes – from former FOM chief Bernie Ecclestone, and as recently as 2015 they ran so short of cash that the car build was delayed and they missed the beginning of testing.
This season they passed the crash tests and hit the track on schedule – helped by the new car being mostly carried over from last year’s, which was 95 per cent new – but in the post-bernie era they’ve had to go without the advance.
“Well, for whatever reason, that $10million advance we used to get didn’t happen this year. Which makes it even more… challenging, but we’ll figure it out. And the fact that we didn’t get that advance means we’ll be better off throughout the rest of the year.”
Szafnauer’s declamation is interrupted by Jilur as he manifests himself with a plate bearing the Karun’s Special starter, announcing: “This is the spiciest thing you’ll eat today.”
“Even if it’s good, we can’t tell Chandhok,” says Otmar in a stage whisper. Jilur hoots with laughter and withdraws to the kitchen.
Let’s broach the spiciest topic on the menu: how Otmar plans to keep Pérez and Ocon in check, for they squandered at least one podium finish last year by hitting one another, building to a rancorous peak in Belgium with a shunt that caused Ocon to receive death threats from angry Mexican fans. Team press attaché Will Hings coughs and his eyes bulge as if he’s inhaled a chunk of lime pickle.
“What happened was we were quite soft at the beginning,” says
Otmar, “quite civilised in telling them, and when softly-softly didn’t work, we had to be a little more…” He forks a corner of Karun’s Special and chews it ruminatively.
“…brutal about the boundaries. Once we’d got to that point, and there was absolutely no racing between the two, we relaxed it a bit. So what we’re going to do is start the season as we ended last year, because that seemed to work. When you start off like that you can relax it, whereas it’s harder to go the other way.
“Everyone wants to see the drivers racing. But as I say to our drivers, there are 18 other guys out there – don’t worry about one guy, beat the other ones. I get it that drivers are judged on how well they did against their team-mate, because they’re the only other guy with the same equipment. And if both drivers are similarly competent, they’re going to be close on track. But the team comes first. You get zero money for where the drivers finish in the championship. Nothing.”
There’s nothing left on the plates, either, but Jilur whisks away the spent crockery and returns bearing metal pots bubbling with a rainbow of spicy-looking emulsions. “Checo doesn’t like really hot curries,” he says, reassuringly. “But his father likes them nuclear strength!”
An apt description for what happened in spite of team management’s best efforts during 2017, as low-level aggravation between Pérez and Ocon (such as a squabble over track position behind Daniel Ricciardo’s Red Bull in Canada, played out over team radio but broadcast on TV) escalated into full-on combat. Ocon put Pérez in the wall in Baku, and the two barely spoke to one another until Belgium, where they hit one another again – not once, but twice. You have to wonder what sort of conversations incidents such as these generate – not only between the two collisions but afterwards.
“Spa was the straw that broke the camel’s back,” says Otmar, gently pursuing the remnants of butter chicken with the tail end of his naan. “We were very clear with them that this could never happen again, ever. And that we have a plethora of ways that we can ensure it doesn’t happen – and all those ways are detrimental to the driver. We spelled out the ways we were going to do it and they understood.
“There are contractual means, but also ways of separating them on-track that are completely under our control. If they keep crashing into one another at the start because they’re qualifying next to one another, we’ll just cut the gearbox seal on one of them and he’ll go five places back. Nobody wants to do that, but the communication of that as a potential action was effective. Once the drivers had realised their silliness after Belgium, it was fine and we didn’t have to go there.”
Otmar’s tone suggests that he will have no compunction in going ‘there’ if he has to, during the new season. And if he’s that firm when thoroughly replete – well, let no one be in doubt about the consequences of any argy-bhaji…
“EVERYONE WANTS TO SEE THE DRIVERS RACING. BUT AS I SAY TO OUR DRIVERS, THERE ARE 18 OTHER GUYS OUT THERE – DON’T WORRY ABOUT ONE GUY, BEAT THE OTHER ONES”
Ocon and Pérez, just before one of their two contretemps in Belgium
The Khushboo, the venue for Szafnauer’s grilling, is well-known amongst the local F1 fraternity
Otmar signs on the Khushboo’s famous whiteboard wall...