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…

F1 Racing (UK) - - CONTENTS -

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…


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...

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