Last week a Sahara Force India F1 car appeared in Covent Garden, London. We’re always keen to find out what’s going on in and around Formula 1 and were curious to learn that the car was there, outside of London Transport Museum for an event with the team and their Interaction Design Agency, Orange Bus.

Orange Bus are working with Force India to improve how the team engage with fans and the numbers are looking good with an increase of 65% already from the first year of their partnership. Pretty impressive statistics, I’m sure you’ll agree. But what does it all mean?

Badger was given access to catch up for a chat with the Force India COO, Otmar Szafnauer, and took the opportunity to chat about his career, how he caught the motorsport bug, his role with Force India and the teams effort with engaging fans.

Getting into motorsport

So what drove Otmar towards Motorsport as a child? He smiles and speaks enthusiastically.

“From an early age, where I grew up in a small village, I don’t why, but the local school bought a couple of go-karts and I was fascinated by them. I was able to drive one of them after school, and it was not much as it was on dirt, but I was absolutely fascinated. Then when we moved to the States, one of are my neighbours, his father was a drag racer and he had a pro stock car, for a professional team sponsored by Pabst Blue Ribbon Beer. Occasionally, they’d bring the cars home and I must’ve been 10 or 11 years old at the time, and this was great. I always liked cars, but then I was hooked on racing.”

Otmar the racing driver

After studying engineering at University, Otmar went on to work at Ford, and drove in Formula 2000 in America for about five years, participating in 55 races, first regionally, then nationally, and then professionally. Did he ever think about carrying on that career?

“Well, I was a bit naive. I started way too late and when I drove regionally and nationally, I was quick, but then when we got to the professional level racing, I was in my late twenties, but racing 17 year olds coming over from England wanting it to be their career. They were much quicker, and I couldn’t afford to keep up with the technology. They were buying new cars every year, and I couldn’t so, before you know it I had spent a lot of money and couldn’t take the next step. Out of my 55 races, I won five, even against some of the youngsters.”

Photo Credit: Autosport

Otmar in Formula 1

Following through Otmar’s career, he moved to BAR in 1998, and then almost went to Jaguar in 2001, before the move fell through. He joined Honda in 2001, where he remained until their decision to leave the sport at the end of 2008. Having worked with a plethora of drivers over that period, I ask Otmar if there are one or two that particularly stood out in his memories.

“Ricardo Zonta, remember him? He went home to Brazil once when his cat was ill, and I thought there’s a caring chap! Takuma Sato. We were in France, which we raced at Magny-Cours. It was the first lap and I was watching the race from somewhere after turn four or five. There’s a straight, with a right hander at the end  and I was watching the cars in line with the straight. By this time, everybody was in single file going into that turn and everybody was nose to tail. It was nose to gearbox, nose to gearbox, nose to gearbox. I’m watching this, and one guy poked out and try to overtake. Takuma – it was him. That is Takuma Sato. It was always maximum attack. If there’s an overtaking manoeuvre, he was doing it. That sums him up. I wish I had a picture of that!”

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“And then who else? Adrian Sutil, very quick driver. Paul Di Resta, very quick to learn. Nico Hulkenberg, fabulous driver. And the two that we have now? Esteban Ocon, from the minute he got in our car, you could tell he was talented. He’s got a lot of talent. And Checo. The thing that I really like about Checo is he’s very tenacious. On Sunday, he is a smart racer and I thought Hulkenberg was going to destroy him, but no, Checo does what it takes to either beat his teammate, or get on the podium. He’s just got that knack and I like that about him. On a Sunday, you want Checo.”

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The F1 Timing app

One thing that not many people may be aware of is that Otmar had the initial idea and founded the software company that released the official F1 Timing Application, Soft Pauer. This fascinates me, as watching the race alongside the timing app transformed the way I watched races, and I share with Otmar that at our GP Screenings race viewings, we have the app running side the race on giant screens so that the two can be viewed simultaneously. This he likes.

“You gain more from that sometimes than the TV. If the screen is showing you the driver that you’re not really interested in, you’ve got to look at the app to see what he’s doing. Is he setting green sectors? What’s his lap time like? What’s the gap to the car in front. You get all that here, you get none of that there. You won’t spot it through the TV.”

He then shares with me a story to demonstrate.

“Two or three years into the app, I didn’t go to China for the race – I’ve got a family too, and if I go to every race, I miss all the holidays with family except for in the winter. So I take China off and then we usually do a spring holiday somewhere, and we went to Cornwall. I wanted to watch the race and it was on early in the morning, so I tried to find a pub that would show it. I found a hotel and they said we’ll show the race tomorrow, but when I got there, somebody else already had commandeered the TV. They said, sorry you’re too late. So now I’m frantically try to find a pub with the race on!”

“I walked into this pub and I could hear the race, and this was at a time where the engines were loud, but on TV they were showing something else, so I thought where is that sound coming from? It was the formation lap so I was frantically looking, and I found these guys streaming the race on a laptop in the middle of the pub. I was with my son and I said, “Excuse me, do you mind if I watch this race with you?” They said, “No, no, no.” And they made way, we joined them, and I started chatting with them. One had worked at the McLaren, and I said, “Do you guys have the F1 Timing app?” They said, “No, what’s that?” And I pulled out my iPhone – it was the original iPhone, the curved back one and I was running the app and put it next to the computer screen. And I said, “Watch this, it’s got all the timing data on it.” Here they are, die-hard fans, and they didn’t know about the app. Zero.“

“That was three years into it, and once I showed them, they were amazed. They said, you can get all this, especially the guy that worked at McLaren. You can get all this? I said “Yeah, download the app, and the more you use it, the more you can’t watch without it.” That’s what I think anyway.”

I would have to agree with Otmar there. I wouldn’t want to watch the race without it, because I would feel like it was impairing my experience. I want to know more, so I thank Otmar for bringing this to the table for us, and we move on to talking about how he joined Force India at around the same time.

Otmar joins Force India

“Honda left Formula One and I was a Honda employee, so I left with them and then I needed to find a job. My first thought was the app, and I always had it in the back of my mind and I thought, well now I’ve got the time to develop it. A friend of ours owned a small software company and he was a coder as well, and I told him what I wanted to do. He said “I can do that for you”, so we worked on that together. At the same time, McLaren and Force India had a technical collaboration where we got gearboxes and the rear impact structure from them, the engine from Mercedes, and we used the McLaren simulator in collaboration with. Part of that collaboration was a secondee from McLaren to Force India. That was a one year secondment, and the secondee wanted to go back to McLaren, so they were stuck with nobody running the place. Martin Whitmarsh called Vijay and said if you’re stuck, I know this guy Otmar who needs a job, he’s left Honda, so you should interview him. So I went and interviewed with Vijay and got the job! I’ve got a lot of time for Martin. He helped me get the job at Force India, and he’s a nice straight guy, which I like.”

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Is 4th on the cards in 2018?

Looking at the results the team have achieved in the constructors championship since Otmar joined, it’s an upward trajectory (7th, 6th, 6th, 6th, 5th, 4th, 4th), a remarkable achievement from a team that are recognised as being good value with a limited budget, or “bang for buck” as many say.

Does he think they can maintain this, and what does he attribute their success to?

“Third is hard. Staying fourth is going to be hard this year, but I think we can do it. I think it’s luck. We do some things right, but most importantly, I think the thing we do best is carefully hire the right people that can work together well. In a summary, that’s it. It’s all about the people and how you work together. I think that’s what we do. We’re a close knit team, we’re more of a racing family. We’re a bunch of racers. There’s no politics, we all pull together and help each other, and lo and behold, the results come. We do some other things right too, like we hire good drivers, for example, you need that. You can have all that other stuff and the driver’s not up to it and you’re not doing as well, so that’s key.”

Fan Engagement and Orange Bus

Over the years that he has been in motorsport, Otmar must have seen some real changes in the way teams engage with the fan base, with social media now being so prevalent, and being one of the smaller teams in workforce means that it’s a real effort to try and keep up with the bigger budget teams, but Sahara Force India do their best. How important does Otmar think this is and how is the collaboration with Orange Bus helping them address this?

“I think ultimately, without fans of the sport, there is no sport. Even if there is a sport, it will not be the same as what we do. Fans support what we do, so we’ve got to be cognizant of what the fans want. They’re our customer. So to me fan engagement is a conduit to the fans. You can get to them easier, but ultimately what you really, really should be doing is understanding what they like, what they don’t like, what they want and then try our best to deliver that. That to me is what it’s about. We should get better feedback from our fans, we should be able to reach out to them and ask them questions easier. We should start getting to know who they are a little bit more and Formula One itself is doing that too, asking the questions, what do you want? What do you like? What do you want more of? What do you want less of? Once you have that information, then you do your best to deliver. And Orange Bus will help us on our level, whilst Formula 1 are doing that as well.”