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Why Alan Permane leaving Alpine matters: a team in crisis

Permane's departure is the latest in a long line of high profile exits from Enstone

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Alan Permane departing Alpine will have far-reaching consequences for the team and is a sign of just how far it has fallen. 

Alpine posed for a photo with Permane prior to his departure after the Belgian Grand Prix (Image Credit: @AlpineF1Team on Twitter)
Alpine posed for a photo with Permane before his departure after the Belgian Grand Prix (Image Credit: @AlpineF1Team on Twitter)

Older F1 fans know Alpine is the latest iteration of a historic team based at Enstone. Originating in 1981 as Toleman, it gave the legendary Ayrton Senna his first drive. Becoming Benetton in 1986, it won the driver’s title with Michael Schumacher in 1994, repeating this in 1995 with the addition of the constructor’s championship. Since then, Renault has mostly owned it as a whole works team, winning both titles again in 2005 and 2006.

Alan Permane has been with this team since 1989, just three years after the team became Benetton. He has seen all the team’s high and low points, helping it become a title contender in its highly successful years.

Alpine choosing to part with Permane and Team Principal Otmar Szafnauer indicates a radical change of direction. The move has been condemned by former team advisor and legendary four-time World Champion Alain Prost. He told L’equipe that the recent upheavals and team members leaving were “a huge mistake”.

Who is Alan Permane?
Alan Permane acted as race engineer to Giancarlo Fisichella in both of the Italian's stints with the team (Image Credit: @CrystalRacing on Twitter)
Alan Permane acted as race engineer to Giancarlo Fisichella in both of the Italian’s stints with the team (Image Credit: @CrystalRacing on Twitter)

Permane started as a Test Electronics Engineer in the early Benetton days. He worked hard, though mostly under the radar, and rose quickly. His first race was at Phoenix in 1990, attending races full-time from 1992.

Speaking on the Beyond the Grid podcast, he said his most challenging season was 1994. Benetton had “the best car by a long way”, and penalties constantly hit the team during the season. 1995, on the other hand, he calls out as one of his best, with the team operating at a different level.

He became a race engineer for the 1997 season, promoted to the pit wall. He has worked with drivers such as Jean Alesi, Giancarlo Fisichella, Jarno Trulli and Romain Grosjean. A stalwart of Enstone, he became Sporting Director in 2012 under the guise of Lotus. He has held this position since. Although some may not know his name, his face is instantly recognisable to older fans.

Memorable radio exchanges

However, viewers and fans know race engineers primarily by one characteristic, their voice. Since radio messages began to be broadcasted, we have been given an insight into the mindset of race engineers. The near-impossible task they have of managing an F1 driver during a race makes for great entertainment.

Drivers have a unique relationship with their race engineer. Lewis Hamilton and Pete Bonnington have a vastly different relationship to Max Verstappen and Gianpiero Lambiase as an example of polar opposite working methods.

Permane’s voice on the radio was encouraging, but he knew when to push his drivers. His most iconic relationship was with Giancarlo Fisichella from 2004 to 2007. Alan never held back if he needed more from Fisichella, the 2006 Australian Grand Prix the most notable example.

Permane came over the radio and the TV feeds to tell Fisichella he was two seconds a lap slower than teammate Fernando Alonso. While Alonso won the race, Fisichella finished down in P5, 38 seconds behind his teammate.

In a more infamous incident, he told Kimi Raikkonen to “get out of the. f*****g way” at the 2013 Indian Grand Prix. He said he would handle the situation with Kimi differently if replayed today but admits his relationship with Raikkonen did change due to the incident. A man of passion, Permane took no prisoners when the team needed to take priority. This demonstrates a sense of loyalty that is born from an extended tenure.

Working alongside legends such as Nelson Piquet, and Fernando Alonso, Permane has experience and expertise spanning multiple decades. He is one of the last remaining old guards in F1.

How will his departure affect Alpine?

While certainly not depending on him, his experience greatly benefits Alpine. He has been part of the team through its different guises and rebirths, assisting its recovery from some of its most dire years. The nadir of 2001, where the team finished in P7, was countered by back-to-double world championships just four years later. While no further titles followed, he was instrumental in assisting the team bounce back from the underfunded Lotus years.

Permane’s sudden departure will leave a void in Alpine. A wise head with experience is a commodity highly coveted in F1. The Enstone team has undergone several overhauls since Renault repurchased the team from Genii Capital for the 2016 season, with Permane a constant presence throughout the changes in direction and branding.

Thirty-four years in a single team demonstrates loyalty and reciprocal respect. Permane is a towering figure of excellence, not just in Alpine but in F1 itself.

Regardless of whether or not sharing the same vision as management, to part company which such an experienced and well-revered individual can hardly be described as a wise move. The team will suffer from this in morale and loss of expertise. Szafnauer has indicated concern about the team’s staff. 

Although now out of a job, expect Permane to be snapped up fast by a rival team or the FIA.

Confusing changes
Pierre Gasly's P3 in the Belgian Grand Prix sprint acted as much needed morale boost for a team in crisis (Image Credit: @AlpineF1Team on Twitter)
Pierre Gasly’s P3 in the Belgian Grand Prix sprint acted as much needed morale boost for a team in crisis (Image Credit: @AlpineF1Team on Twitter)

For Permane, Szafnauer and Alpine to agree an immediate departure indicates the turmoil behind the scenes at the team. Alpine is in damage limitation mode, with the now former Sporting Director the latest casualty of a rapidly sinking ship.

One could argue it is a sign of corporate interference, preventing the team from moving forward. No senior figure from the 2018 season is still in the team. This is a startling statistic showing the leadership issues at Alpine shows no sign of abating.

Renault Group CEO Luca de Meo sidelined former Alpine CEO Laurent Rossi two weeks ago, moving him to another role within Renault Group. Combined with the sudden departure of Team Principal Szafnauer and Permane by new interim Team Principal Bruno Famin and the defection of Chief Technical Officer Pat Fry to Williams, all is clearly not well.

Contradictions exist when looking past the statements announcing their departure. Szafnauer and Permane were supposedly not aligned on the timelines needed to improve performance. As reported by PlanetF1, Famin highlighted differences in alignment on the “evolution” of the team :

“We decided together with Alan and Otmar to split our ways. It’s a mutual agreement first”.

“We’ve been discussing for a while about what we needed to do for the timeline, for the evolution we required in our F1 team. At one stage, you realise that we are not on the same paths on this then we decide to split ways.”

The word “project” was later used by Famin to describe the reasons for the reshuffle. Famin called it “ambitious” at the press conference, adding the team Alpine has now entered “phase 2”.

History repeating itself?

Ambiguous corporate messaging in F1 can be a prelude to disaster. We only need to look back to 2008 to see the impact of corporate projects and goals negatively impacting a team.

Toyota’s board attempted to control its team’s operations, investing millions of dollars, but never winning a race. This was due to corporate decision-making undermining the team. Ford did the same with Jaguar.

While not at this stage yet, worrying comparisons are beginning to emerge. The revolving door of management since 2018 and critical, historic personnel leaving the team are the first symptoms of a corporate disaster waiting to happen.

The question now is whether the revolving door has shut after this latest round of musical chairs. F1 teams can only progress with stability and a steady ship at the helm. Top teams have clear, assigned leadership that both inspires and creates vision. Lacking this, Alpine has been stuck in the midfield, while rivals McLaren and Aston Martin have seen a massive jump in performance.

With this philosophy in mind, here’s a question to end on. As the Alpine “project” enters phase two, does anyone know what phase one actually was? If the Alpine leadership cannot answer that, how can the team be expected to when trying to move forward?

P3 in the Belgian Grand Prix sprint race may have boosted morale but is only a sticking plaster to the deteriorating situation.

Feature Image Credit: @Autosport on Twitter 

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