Before sitting down for a formal chat on Thursday in Monaco, Alpine CEO Laurent Rossi and I indulge in small talk about motor racing in general. It turns out the 45-year-old’s motorsport roots run deep, and visits to the principality were a regular treat for the young Rossi, born and bred in Corsica, home of the Tour de Corse.
“So [my father] would very often take me to the Monaco Grand Prix, and mostly we were watching grand prix every weekend; it was kind of like going to church for us. I was basically educated through Formula 1.
“Like I always say, I was probably one of the few French kids who was not dreaming of being [soccer star] Michel Platini, but being a [race] driver.”
Rossi has overall responsibility for the full Alpine sports car operation, encompassing design, development, production and marketing of the resurgent brand; plus the Viry-Châtillon F1 engine operation; and ‘Team Enstone’, the Renault Group’s F1 team, now branded ‘Alpine’.
True, Alpine is a niche brand, but the plan is to grow it substantially through electrification and new products. Viry is largely an engineering and logistics base producing a handful of F1 power units per year with manufacturing out-sourced. Alpine has no customer teams and Enstone is largely overseen by executive director Marcin Budkowski, but juggling these high profile activities must be massively time consuming.
“It’s challenging but exciting,” smiles Rossi. “It’s easy to do a job you like, I wake up every morning quite happy to be doing what I’m doing, [but] I try and leave the passion outside and keep a cool head.
“The goal [for the F1 team] is to make progress and get back to a higher standing, obviously. We were fifth last year, we want to be fifth at least this year, but we want to progress towards much higher up positions, obviously, the goal is to be a championship contender. Ultimately, that’s one piece of the equation.”
The word in Enstone is that Alpine’s management is targeting third this year, which Rossi does not confirm.
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“I don’t recall having said that myself. [The objective is] continuing momentum from last year. Last year, we were indeed in the vicinity of P3 for a while [but] ended up P5. I just want us to at least do as well as the last year: P5, couple of podiums, hopefully better. Then we’ll see.”
With that he reverts to Automobiles Alpine: “The other [part of the equation] is that this visibility translates into sales on the road car business; the other side of my business. I try to ensure the two are constantly connected.”
Although Alpine’s manufacturing operation is based in Dieppe (on France’s Normandy coast), the CEO’s ‘main’ office is located in Viry-Châtillon, a south Parisian suburb. During a grand prix weekend his time is “95% on F1” while the overall split is, he estimates, roughly 65% road car and 35% F1.
Any executive is, though, only as effective as the senior managers within prevailing company structures. Alpine has certainly gone left-field in this regard, appointing ex-Yamaha Moto GP Davide Brivio team boss as sporting director, sharing day-to-day responsibilities with ex-FIA technical manager Budkowski, who is more Enstone bound. Both report to Rossi, as do all senior Automobile Alpines executives.
A full plate, but for Rossi the eventual target is, “more wearing of a [button down] shirt and less of a black polo…” He is, however, adamant that the current structure is working well.
“It’s providing the results we wanted, we’ve made progress at the factory. It’s evident in terms of lap time gain. It’s mostly coming from Marcin’s review as well as Davide’s because there’s a feedback loop between what we do on track and what’s happening in the factory. [Trackside] there is also progress, in terms of the way we build the weekends for the drivers, build-up to qualifying, to the race. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it…”
His vocabulary is typical management-speak, and little wonder, although his is a mechanical engineer with a masters degree in engine technology. He adds that some of his fellow engineering students followed careers in F1, with some now working at Alpine, Red Bull or Ferrari. “I’ve got friends everywhere,” he quips.
Rossi holds an MBA from Harvard and consulted to the global Boston group and Google’s automotive division before rejoining Renault in 2018, where he had previously been the powertrain project leader for the road division between 2000 and 2007. Prior to accepting the Alpine CEO gig in January this year he was chief strategy officer for the group.
Strategic planning is therefore his forte, and there is no important pressing question teams face at present than when to switch focus their cars for 2022, when sweeping new technical regulations arrive.
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“We’ve had a plan since January [for] what we will bring to the track, when we stop and switch gears to the 2022 car. The plan has delivered pretty well, you see the progress.
“I think we’re going to follow the plan so the car will probably deliver what we want it to deliver, then stay where it is [thereafter]. Then we’ll switch without any regrets towards ’22.”
When? “That should be more or less just before the break, so July, somewhere like that.”
Renault is an anomaly in having no alliances across the grid, nor engine customers after McLaren switched to Mercedes from this season, and also no technical partnerships as do Mercedes with Aston Martin and Williams, and Ferrari with Sauber and Haas. Rossi’s predecessor Cyril Abiteboul previously told RaceFans that the team was open to such deals with the right team.
But Rossi says Alpine are “not actively looking” for such an arrangement. “The reason being I’m not convinced that at the moment we can afford the distraction. It’s time consuming.
“In a perfect world, it helps you have more data points that can take the team higher. But the reality of the past few years is that if you’re not ready for that, if you’re not geared up in terms of [resources] it can become a drag on your operations.
“At the moment, I’d rather we focus on ourselves and improve in the many areas where we can improve. Then we might consider extending our roster of customers. But for now, I think it’s better [as is].”
I point out that all current teams are tied up in partnerships of some sort, so any partnership would likely need to be with a new team.
“We’ve been entertaining some conversations with a lot of the usual suspects; there’s a couple of projects that have been running around. We talk to them, we talk to the FIA, [but] we’re not actively looking – if we see something that is manageable, feasible, we will consider it. But our project is the priority at the moment.”
Clearly he is referring to Panthera and Monaco F1 Team, but he won’t be drawn. Which, though, brings us to the crux of the matter: given relatively paltry sales of Alpine – less cars sold in three years than Ferrari sells per year at less than half the price – how does Renault Group justify the renaming to Alpine? Particularly as its long-term objective is to make the brand self-sufficient, with the team funded from sales revenues.
“The answer lies in the question,” says Rossi. “For Renault the return on investment was rather flat in the sense that we’ve been around for 40, almost 45 years. People were not even seeing us anymore; unless you win the world title, you become part of the furniture.
“I also have to say it was difficult to make a tight connection between Formula 1 and your Kangoo or Clio. That’s another consideration. On the other hand, Alpine is all about positivity like a great heritage and motorsports, yet it has not penetrated enough in not enough countries, but can still command a fair share of the market because the product is great.
“So we figured we could hit two birds with one stone by combining Alpine and Formula 1, and the results are already in our favour. The interest in Alpine has grown plus 70%, year on year, every month since January, when we announced Alpine is in Formula 1 and the sales are following suit. So, our metrics are good.”
That said, interest needs to be sustained to provide a return, which then surely demands a major ramping-up from the 60 or so dealers Alpine currently has in Europe. Plus, he confirms the A110’s replacement – likely to be named A310 or A610 after previous products – will be fully electric.
“We’re going to expand the network, big time. We want to quadruple or even times five that number in the next three, four years. The idea is to max out potential of the A110 – which we are far from – and then prepare the markets for the renewal of the line-up of portfolio of new products that will arrive in 2024/25. This will coincide very nicely with rundown of A110 and ramp up of the rest of the of the line-up.”
How do these metrics square with the target of fully funding the team in the near future?
“The objective is breakeven by 2025,” he says. “It’s simply based on realistic projections of our volumes on the next batch of cars and what it will cost to run the motorsport programme, and especially F1 in the cost control environment which the FIA is pushing towards. So, our planets are aligned, and our assumptions make it possible by 2025.”
I suggest that it’s a big ask given the relatively low volumes of A110 and its price points. What sort of breakeven point does the company envisage? Rossi won’t reveal volumes and profitability levels but is adamant that – based on the current sales performance and economics of A110 – the assumptions are realistic and that the future product line-up, which will likely include a SUV, will consolidate that profitability.
Given that the A110’s successor(s) will be electric – due to costs and demands of complying with Euro 7 emission legislation, he says – how can Alpine commercially and technically justify a Formula 1 programme based on internal combustion engines, albeit with increased hybrid elements?
“The crux of the matter for both of them, road cars and in Formula 1,” says the powertrain specialist, “is already about whether you have an ICE attached to a battery. In both cases it is now ‘how do you manage the battery in terms of torque and repeatability of performance. It’s the same [in F1] as it’s on the road. At the end of the day, it’s all become about battery management system for both road cars and Formula 1.”
Where once a Renault F1 engine was the gold standard amongst power units – as multiple titles with Williams, its own team and Red Bull attest – there is currently no queue building up outside Viry’s gates, suggesting that Renault’s power package has been found wanting by potential customers.
With an engine freeze in place from next year through to end-2024 – basically ‘run what you brung’ in March 2022 for the next three years – how confident is Rossi that Alpine’ Renault power unit will be up scratch after this final year of open development?
“Pretty confident. It’s an aggressive plan we’ve been devising, [one] I’ve been personally monitoring because we’re in a tight deadline, we have only one year to develop a new engine. We have all the skills necessary in Viry to make it happen.
“Let’s not forget Renault has been in Formula 1 for 45 years, every now and then as works team, but continuously as engine manufacturer. Our forté should be the engine, and I hope it’s going to be back on top.”
This team won multiple titles as Benetton and Renault with Michael Schumacher and Fernando Alonso respectively. With the latter back on board, have Rossi’s first four months in the hot seat convinced him the combination of Enstone, Viry and Alpine can return the team to the very top?
“Yes” he nods. “It has a lot of the good things we need. Over time we’ll see if we need to add [resources]. The team has a lot of strength, it’s a works team with the backing of an industrial group which can give us a lot of additional know-how that we need to take it to the next level, and across constrained environments.
“I think we have all the ingredients to take the fight to the top contenders, yes.”
2021 F1 season
- Masi says he received “death threats” over months after Abu Dhabi controversy
- Masi did make mistake with title-deciding Abu Dhabi GP restart, Horner admits
- Williams fined for late submission of budget cap documents
- The omission in the FIA’s Abu Dhabi report which may store up trouble for the future
- New insights but notable omissions in Drive to Survive’s account of F1’s 2021 finale