The departure of a team lifer shows the “pain and trouble” at Alpine

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Almost 10 years ago, Alan Permane briefly attained notoriety for a sharp radio exchange with one of Formula 1’s most famous figures.

Back when the team now known as Alpine raced as Lotus, Kimi Raikkonen was struggling with grip in an ultra-long stint during the Indian Grand Prix. As a result, he got in the way of team mate Romain Grosjean, who was forced off the track as he tried to pass.

“Kimi, get out of the fucking way,” demanded Permane in his ear. Raikkonen, naturally, gave back as good as he got, and team principal Eric Boullier had to apologise for the brusque exchange between the pair.

At that point, Permane had already been with the squad for over 20 years. The outfit has been through so many changes of name it tends to be referred to as ‘team Enstone’, yet Permane joined them even before they moved to their Oxfordshire base.

Permane and Szafnauer have been shown the door at Alpine
Such was his longevity it was hard to ever imagine him leaving. Yet that extraordinary development came to pass at Spa-Francorchamps.

In a shock announcement, Alpine dispensed with not only Permane but team principal Otmar Szafnauer. At the same time, chief technical officer Pat Fry jumped ship to take up the same role at Williams.

It leaves Alpine rather bare. The team announced that Bruno Famin, vice president of Alpine Motorsports, will take over as interim team principal from the Dutch Grand Prix and Julian Rouse, who previously headed up its young driver academy, the interim sporting director. Back at base in Enstone, Matt Harman will lead the technical team and report directly to Famin.

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Szafnauer had only been with Alpine 18 months following his departure from Aston Martin. His leaving the team was less of a surprise given the replacement of Laurent Rossi as CEO of Alpine a few weeks earlier. A change of direction was clearly coming.

‘Team Enstone’ changed identities again after Crashgate controversy
However the loss of a team lifer in Permane reflects how seismic the changes truly are at Alpine. Nicknamed ‘Bat’ from his early years in the sport due to his propensity for working into the small hours, his departure feels like the teams’ foundations have been shaken.

What we now call Alpine began its F1 life as Toleman, 42 years and six names ago. After being taken over by Benetton, the rise of Michael Schumacher led to championship success in the mid-nineties. That was repeated a decade later, now under Renault’s ownership, with Fernando Alonso.

In the wake of the notorious Crashgate episode, Renault offloaded the team to Genii Capital in 2009, who rebranded it as Lotus. However within six years Renault had decided to re-establish its works team, and in 2021 it was rebranded after its performance division Alpine.

Permane has been a constant throughout almost all of that. He walked through the doors of Benetton in 1989 at the age of 22 and remained as a succession of drivers, team bosses and identities came and went.

In the first two years of its current identity the team rose from fifth in the championship to fourth. Its target for this year was not to go one better but close on the top three. Yet after Spa it lies sixth in the constructors’ championship, 46 points off McLaren in fifth and a massive 446 off leaders Red Bull.

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According to Famin, the reason for the ousting of both Szafnauer and Permane was that they did not share the top management’s expectations of the team’s rate of progress.

Report: “The competitors improved”: Alpine’s new boss explains latest change at the top
“We didn’t take away anybody,” Famin stated after being asked why they decided to drop Szafnauer and Permane. “We have just chosen to go a different route because we were not fully aligned.

“When I say I had never lost confidence in Otmar it’s because I know his skills, I know his background, I know like Alan, they are very good professionals of Formula 1. But we need to be on the same line and we were not.”

Williams team principal James Vowles, who pounced on the opportunity to lure Pat Fry away from Alpine, said it is clear all is not well at the team.

“In their position, they’re clearly in a lot of pain and trouble and through a conversion phase,” said Vowles.

“The bit I can say is that Pat’s not a part of that change that they’re going through. Pat’s decision was made many, many months ago.

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“And I’d probably say if you go and look at what was happening in the media with Alpine around that time, you might even be able to pinpoint when it was happening.”

Pierre Gasly, Alpine, Baku City Circuit, 2023
Rossi slated Alpine’s performance in Baku
In April, when Rossi was still in charge, he described the team’s start to the season as “disappointing” and “I want to say, even bad.” A few months later he was moved aside to head up Alpine’s ‘special projects’.

Permane’s exit shocked many in Formula 1. Mercedes CEO Toto Wolff said he would obviously be of interest to rival teams as a potential hiring.

“Alan Permane is one of the rocks of Formula 1,” began Wolff. “One of the longest-standing senior engineers in the sport, and certainly someone with a lot of knowledge.

“I don’t know about ins and outs of the management reshuffle there, but there’s a lot of very respectable and top people in there and you shouldn’t discount anyone of that seniority.”

Red Bull’s Christian Horner – in rare agreement with his opposite number at Mercedes – said he “did not want to be drawn into commenting on other teams” but was also surprised to learn of Permane’s departure.

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“Whilst I’ve never worked with Alan Permane, or Bat as he’s more commonly known up and down the pit lane, I think sometimes there has to be respect shown for somebody who’s put in 34 years of hard graft and been involved in world championships with Michael Schumacher, with Fernando Alonso.

Rival teams heaped praise on Permane
“He’s also been a steady hand during periods of that team going virtually going into administration, out of administration and into different ownership. He’s very much been a constant there during that period. I think that earns respect and recognition.

“I’m sure he’s a guy, as with Otmar, it won’t be the last you’ll see of them in the pit lane, I’ve no doubt about that.”

While Famin reiterated Alpine had not lost confidence in Szafnauer and Permane, what remains to be seen now is who will the team put in place to accelerate their progress to a rate the top management consider acceptable. Alpine need to be clever with how they move forward. Stability is key in Formula 1, but with the loss of Permane alone almost three-and-a-half decades of institutional memory have just walked out the doors of Enstone.

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Claire Cottingham
Claire has worked in motorsport for much of her career, covering a broad mix of championships including Formula One, Formula E, the BTCC, British...

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11 comments on “The departure of a team lifer shows the “pain and trouble” at Alpine”

  1. Coventry Climax
    7th August 2023, 13:32

    They’re at a junction, clearly, and in a sense, the decision to part ways with the two, but Permane especially, is a brave one. It’ll either go down or up. Their idea is they’ll go up, but I’m sure they’ll recognise that that won’t be immediately. It’ll take time, commitment and money to regroup and come back stronger.
    Where two groups ‘don’t line up’, as they phrase it, you could have either group reposition and try to see it the way the others do.
    I’m not convinced they choose the right group to do that.

  2. Let’s see,
    We have a mediocre chassis
    An unreliable engine
    To little bhp/torque when working
    A beheaded team direction
    A new oversight by the board

    I see a lot of ingredients for success…/s

    1. Dutchguy (@justarandomdutchguy)
      8th August 2023, 19:06

      … and a pair of drivers who plough eachother off the track

      What could go wrong???

      1. I have an opinion
        9th August 2023, 0:48

        I would never have guessed Gasly & Ocon were that friendly away from races.

  3. Ever since someone at the top decided or was convinced by an external influence that locking themselves to a three!!!! year deal with someone as a average as Ocon was a good idea, it’s been going downhill for them.

    Ive always liked Renault but they are in this mess because of themselves. I always felt of all the major car companies Renault understood what they needed to do well in F1 but now they seem as lost as Jaguar was…

  4. You have to wonder what management’s vision of the future is compared to Permane’s if they are not aligned. For someone who has been with the team for more than 30 years and has won multiple championships, I have to think they understand what is possible and what isn’t in terms of visions for the future. I don’t think this bodes well for Alpine in the next few years if their expectations are so unrealistic that they part ways with someone like Permane.

    1. has won multiple championships

      That was almost twenty years ago, and Permane at the time was race engineer for the #2 driver. An important position, but not among the leadership of the team. The Enstone team has been underperforming for over a decade, having their last proper good season when Räikkönen somehow finished 3rd in the chaotic 2012 season.

      Experience in F1 is valuable, but being experienced at not performing does at some point become a problem. Now that’s not on Permane alone; the team is notoriously underfunded compared to similar manufacturer-backed outfits. But there just hasn’t been anything noteworthy coming from the team either. No unexpected good seasons, no clever ideas, it’s all been decent and enough to to consistently finish about 5th, but not much more than that.

  5. En route to sell Alpine

    1. This does seem like a possible outcome of this. The potential buyer asking Renault to leave them a clean slate and sort out all the contracts they signed is certainly a realistic option.

      With Alpine joining the WEC next season with a proper car (unlike the refurbished LMP1 the “Alpine” team had before), and not a single team willing to buy their engines, their time in F1 might well be coming to a close (for now).

    2. Alpine out, Andretti in?

    3. They don’t sell to non France persons so don’t think Alpine or Renault will sell to a American company and losing their ID.

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