AMERICANS IN F1: OTMAR SZAFNAUER Formula One is a truly international sport - a combination of the work of people from around the globe. Take Otmar Szafnauer for example. Born in Romania, he grew up in Detroit. He's a United States...
AMERICANS IN F1: OTMAR SZAFNAUER
Formula One is a truly international sport - a combination of the work of people from around the globe. Take Otmar Szafnauer for example.
Born in Romania, he grew up in Detroit. He's a United States citizen with a background in both U.S. and international racing, and these days he is one of the key people in Honda's F1 challenge as vice president of Honda Racing Development.
"My job at Honda is varied," Szafnauer said. "I liaise with the European media and represent Honda at the FIA press conferences. I attend all the engine manufacturer work group meetings with a Honda engineer. I help on the engineers with the technical regulations and other technical work that happens outside of Japan. So my job is a bit of marketing and a bit of engineering."
Like so many people in F1, Szafnauer has a fascinating background.
"My father was a U.S. citizen living in Romania, which was under Communist control at the time," he said. "The Communists didn't acknowledge his U.S. citizenship. He wanted to get back to the States, and he tried to escape and was caught at the Romanian border. Then when he went to trial, he said, 'I am a U.S. citizen,' but they sent him to prison anyway. When he got out of prison, he was given his passport, and off we went."
"I was born in Romania and moved to Detroit in 1972 when I was 7 years old. I lived in Detroit from 1972 until 1998, and then I moved to England. My mother is Romanian, and my father is of German descent. My grandfather and great-grandfather were born in New York City, so I have American roots that go back to the 1800s. They moved back to Europe, and then my grandfather moved back to New York City in the 1950s."
Szafnauer was 4 years old when he started driving a kart.
"My father also had a car," he said, "which was rare in a Communist country in the early 1960s. So my love for cars and racing started in about 1968."
Growing up in Detroit, he had an opportunity to attend the United States Grand Prix, which took place on a downtown street circuit from 1982-88.
"Detroit was my only opportunity to see F1," he said. "I was impressed with the technology and the speed and the braking ability of the F1 cars."
Growing up in the Motor City and with a love of cars, it was only natural that Szafnauer ended up in the automotive business. While working for the Ford Motor Company, he completed a master's degree at the University of Detroit. He also started racing. He attended the Jim Russell racing school in California in the late 1980s, and then in 1991 started racing a Formula Ford 2000 in SCCA events and later the USAC Formula Ford 2000 series.
"My last race was at Indianapolis Raceway Park the night before the 1995 Indianapolis 500," Szafnauer said. "And the next day Jacques Villeneuve won the '500.'"
Ironically, Szafnauer and Villeneuve now work together as Villeneuve drives for the Lucky Strike British American Racing-Honda F1 team.
Szafnauer worked for Ford for 12 years between 1986-98 and held a variety of positions, including that of racing programs manager. He got to know Adrian Reynard while working on a project to build a two-seater Indy car. When Reynard became involved with the new British American Racing F1 team in 1999, he hired Szafnauer.
"He enticed me to come along as the operations director," Szafnauer said, "and that is what made me move from Ford to F1. I was at BAR for three years. Then Bobby Rahal recruited me to go to Jaguar Racing as the chief operating officer and his number two. But Bobby left Jaguar a week before my start date. I had already left BAR and couldn't start at Jaguar, but at the same time Honda wanted to bolster their knowledge of F1 and needed someone to work alongside the president, and I just happened to be available."
Honda was one of the dominant engines in F1 from 1985-92 when Honda-powered cars won 68 Grands Prix. After a sabbatical starting in 1993, Honda returned to F1 in 2000 but has yet to regain its past superiority.
"In that time (when Honda was out of F1), technology has moved on," Szafnauer said, "and Honda has recognized that this is the formula that is most challenging to them in the world. That's why they are here. They are here to take up the challenge; they are here for the long run and they are keenly aware that we haven't met the world's expectations yet, but we are working hard to do so."
Growing up in the U.S., Szafnauer knows that there is a solid core of F1 fans in the country.
"The American F1 fan tends to be sophisticated, knowledgeable and recognizes the difference in the technology that's applied to the cars and engines in F1," he said.
As for holding the SAP United States Grand Prix at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Szafnauer said it's the perfect venue.
"I think it is great that F1 goes to Indianapolis," he said. "It is necessary for F1 to have a Grand Prix in America because there are many F1 fans in America. It is also the biggest market in the world, so it is a good opportunity for F1 to showcase itself.
"Indianapolis has a lot of history, and it makes sense for F1 to go there. It is centrally located, so a lot of people can get to the race, and Indianapolis is a nice city. So it is a good marriage between F1 and Indy."