until Abu Dhabi Autonomous Racing League

Formula 1

Alpine banks on doing what McLaren couldn't with its new tech chief

by Matt Beer
4 min read

Alpine's new executive technical director is David Sanchez - who recently made a surprise exit from the McLaren Formula 1 team just three months after his much-heralded return from Ferrari.

Creating that new role for Sanchez in itself represents another abrupt change of plan, as it’s under two months since Alpine committed to a three-person technical leadership set-up in the wake of technical director Matt Harman and head of aerodynamics Dirk de Beer abruptly quitting their roles.

Their departures happened pre-season but were only officially communicated to team members following the Bahrain Grand Prix weekend - during which the news leaked out anyway.

Alpine has made a painful start to 2024, with its car often the slowest on the grid and yet to score a point.

In March it announced “a new three-pillared approach” with Joe Burnell as technical director (engineering), David Wheater as technical director (aerodynamics) and long-time Mark Webber race engineer Ciaron Pilbeam becoming technical director (performance).

Team principal Bruno Famin said at the time that the three-person set-up “will bring better work and collaboration across our technical areas and contribute to delivering performance from the factories to the racetrack”.

But perhaps prompted by the sudden availability of Sanchez, Alpine has now installed a more senior figure above them all.

David Sanchez

“This is a key appointment to ensure we are optimising everything we do as a team and focusing on the right performance areas,” said Famin in the press release announcing Sanchez’s arrival.

“It is clear that the performance of the car and development path has not moved at a sufficient pace relative to our ambitions as a team.”

Sanchez joins Alpine with immediate effect. He started his F1 career at the team in its title-winning Renault era in 2005, as a junior aerodynamicist.

“This team has always had so many fantastic people involved and there is clearly so much potential to unlock,” said Sanchez.

“We have a big task ahead to improve on-track performance and it is this type of challenge that motivates me.”

The Alpine role appears to offer Sanchez the clear seniority that his McLaren position turned out not to.

Having risen to aerodynamic leadership and then head of vehicle concept roles during a decade at Ferrari, Sanchez was a major signing for McLaren when it carried out its own major restructure in early 2023 and he committed to joining the team in February that year.

But under the terms of his Ferrari contract he was not free to join McLaren until the start of 2024, by which time team boss Andrea Stella had adjusted his planned technical leadership structure twice, including to account for the sudden chance to sign Rob Marshall from Red Bull.

It appears Sanchez expected to be taking on a more traditional technical director role at McLaren, but then the team first moved to a three-person plan in which he would be technical director of car concept and performance while Peter Prodromou was technical director for aerodynamics and Neil Houldey was technical director for engineering and design.

Then Marshall was recruited from Red Bull to take on the role Houldey was earmarked for and Sanchez’s job title was ‘streamlined’ to focus on just performance rather than concept as well.

Scott Mitchell-Malm on why Sanchez didn’t work out at McLaren

David Sanchez

If we’re to believe the three-pronged technical leadership does work, and McLaren hasn’t replicated the problematic matrix structure it swore this was not a repeat of, then something must have been incompatible in terms of how Sanchez specifically fitted in.

As team principal Andrea Stella puts it, the set-up needs to play to the strengths of the players. And the polite answer seems to be that Sanchez felt he was too senior for the role McLaren had for him. 

The complexity of McLaren's technical leadership, with multiple key figures holding significant roles, could have limited the scope or influence Sanchez expected to wield.

His envisioned role, potentially promised under a different set of circumstances around when Key was still the technical director, might have become diluted or redirected. 

That’s all fair. And you can see why it might have left Sanchez feeling unfulfilled. But at the same time, that didn’t guarantee a solution couldn't be found somehow.

This brings us to the slightly less polite answer, which is that Sanchez is too individualistic. He didn’t fit into a structure where he had to accept sharing responsibility and feeding into a wider system. 

Effectively the position Sanchez is now moving into at Alpine places him above the kind of structure that he didn’t fit into at McLaren so is likely to have appealed to him more and could play to his strengths better.

And it will absolutely need to, given the scale of the task facing him at F1 2024’s biggest underperformer.

  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Email
  • More Networks