Written by Niels Rooman, Edited by Ishani Aziz
The winter break between the 2022 and 2023 Formula 1 seasons saw the emergence of a team principal musical chairs game. Those changes in the team principals' line-ups were so unpredictable that they were likened to what is called the ‘silly season’ (the upheaval of the drivers market that generally occurs during the summer break). This chaotic period of team principal rearrangement, where several left F1 after being replaced, highlights the tremendous endeavours of team principals. So what becomes of these people after they leave the ruthless world of F1?
Cyril Abiteboul is among those infamous principals, who left Renault after 20 years of loyal service to the French car manufacturer. Abiteboul’s journey began after attaining his engineering diploma in 2001. He then started with the ‘Renault F1 Team’ in Enstone (UK) shortly afterwards, and steadily progressed to the director of Development in 2007, then and the executive director in 2010. The same year, he integrated the team of ‘Renault Sport F1’ at Viry-Chatillon in France, with the role of Deputy managing director.
His first experience as a team principal proved difficult, with Caterham choosing Abiteboul to manage its F1 team (due to its engine partnership with Renault) between 2012 and 2014. Alas the team didn’t score a single point for three years.
After a change of ownership at Caterham, Abiteboul was replaced and returned to the French manufacturer as the general director of the Renault F1 Team. He managed the general brand strategy and the relationship with the teams motorised by Renault (which were Red Bull, Toro Rosso, Lotus and Caterham at the time).
In 2016, Abiteboul rose to the general director of ‘Renault Sport F1’ to support the return of the “losange” in the F1 paddock. Under his management between 2016 and 2020, the team scored 459 points. Despite that, Renault’s first season proved rocky. Kevin Magnussen and Jolyon Palmer scored only eight points and finished ninth in the standings. The following year, the new line-up improved, with Carlos Sainz and Nico Hülkenberg finishing sixth. 2018 was perhaps the team’s wealthiest year for Renault in terms of standing, finishing fourth at the end of the season. In 2019, Abiteboul secured a huge deal by recruiting Daniel Ricciardo, the Australian leaving Red Bull to come out of Verstappen’s shadow. The Ricciardo-Hulkenberg line-up finished a respectable fifth with 91 points. The following year, Esteban Ocon replaced Hulkenberg and the team scored 181 points with their highest ever score under Abiteboul management, a whopping double of the score in 2019.
Abiteboul certainly left a mark in Renault’s motorsport history, but this adventure also marked him. In fact, quite literally, Abiteboul lost a bet to Ricciardo, the price of which was a tattoo of the infamous “honey badger”, after the Eiffel GP on 11th October 2020. This marked the first podium for Renault since 2011. After October the team climbed on the podium three times in 2020.
The replacement of Carlos Ghon by Luca de Meo as the head of Renault in July 2020 changed the position of Abiteboul. Indeed, de Meo wanted to put forward the Alpine brand, which somewhat left behind after the release of the new A110 in 2016. To insist on its role as a “sport brand” in the Renault Group, de Meo chose to engage Alpine in F1. Then, Renault F1 Team became Alpine F1 Team at the start of the 2021 season; which came with a structural change. Abiteboul was replaced by Laurent Rossi to manage the Alpine brand. The latter chose Davide Brivio and Marcin Budkowski to manage the F1 team together.
Brivio, a previous MotoGP team principal, left his role of co-director at the end of the 2021 season, assuming that it would have been easier if one person was leading the team. Although they finished fifth in the standing with 155 points, with one victory and a podium, Budkowski was thanked by Laurent Rossi and left the team under a new management readjustment. Otmar Sznafnauer, former team principal at Aston Martin, now holds this role at the Alpine team.
Abiteboul left the F1 paddock for good. He first joined Mecachrome, a French company that assembled engines for different teams in several prestigious categories such as F1, rally or endurance. Today, the firm assembles F2 and F3 engines. There were rumours that Abiteboul was going to join Red Bull Powertrains (the newly created engine department of Red Bull Racing). He quickly put these to rest, leaving the motorsport world to join the offshore sailing industry within CDK Technologies, a French racing yacht manufacturer (in Imoca, Ultim and other sailing categories). He was appointed as the General Director when he arrived in March 2022.
He later re-integrated into the motorsport world by joining Hyundai in January 2023. As the Team Principal of Hyundai Motorsport, the role meant that he was no longer the general director of CDK Technologies, but rather retained the role of strategic advisor.
With Hyundai, Abiteboul has a clear goal: the drivers' crown, which has been denied the Korean brand since it arrived in the WRC in 2014. They won the constructor’s title in 2019 and 2020 but Abiteboul wants more. At the moment, after the Portugal rally, Toyota is looking strong with 201 points but Hyundai is not so far behind with 169 points. Esapekka Lappi, one of Hyundai's drivers, admitted during an interview after the rally that it was:
“A bit of a missing performance compared to Toyota at the moment”.
Scoring a double podium (Lappi third and Dani Sordo second) in Portugal was a relieving performance for the team which sadly lost one of its part-time drivers earlier in the season. Craig Breen passed away a week ahead of the Croatia rally, after a private test. The Irishman has scored eight podiums in WRC, including a second place this year in Sweden. The team chose to race in Croatia, to honour Breen. Lappi took third place.
Recently, rumours emerged about Hyundai looking to enter endurance racing in the Hypercar class. According to Auto Hebdo, Abiteboul has already started to look for staff. As the WRC seems to be at a standstill on the sporting level, WEC (World Endurance Championship) is perhaps the best option for Hyundai in the future, especially because they’re interested in renewable fuel technologies. It remains unclear if the Korean manufacturer would build a LMDh (Le Mans Daytona hybrid) or a LMH (Le Mans Hypercar). However, François-Xavier Demaison, previous technical director at Williams F1, has apparently been contacted by Abiteboul for a future leadership role when Hyundai will enter the sport. Their future target would be to compete at Le Mans 24 Hours. Nothing has been said officially, as is the case about the rumour of Hyundai joining F1. It is possible that Hyundai leaving WRC poses a potential threat to the discipline which engages only three constructors in its top category at the moment (Toyota, Hyundai and Ford). This remains to be seen.
The journey from single seaters, to the sea, to rallying and endurance, Abiteboul has taken the mould of an ex-F1 team principal and broken it completely. His dedication to sport, and in particular motorsport is rare, and should be revered. Not to mention his character will never be forgotten in the paddock.
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