Hyundai’s new signing comes with one of the strangest reputations of the modern Formula 1 era.
Cyril Abiteboul is a strange man in an F1 context. He was one of the most public and recognizable figures of the V6 turbo-hybrid era, but often for… not the wrong reasons, but not exactly the right reasons.
Hyundai’s new man ran two different F1 teams and, in between, spent several years in charge of an engine program. He became a symbol for the toxicity between Renault and its most famous team, Red Bull. He had a penchant for getting way too carried away promising the world – then getting annoyed that people held him to his own expectations and timelines for things.
That last point is indicative of another Abiteboul trait that so often was his own downfall: unflinching honesty. He wore his heart on his sleeve in F1 and that made for a brilliantly entertaining character if not always the most astute businessman.
Whenever the chassis or engine departments were working on some kind of upgrade, Abiteboul would fully buy into it and wax lyrical about what was being developed behind the scenes. If his team told him something was good, he would make sure the world knew too.
If he felt his organization was under attack, like it often was from Red Bull at the height of the discontent, Abiteboul would fire both barrels in response.
When he signed Daniel Ricciardo from under Christian Horner’s nose, his glee could not be contained. Nor could his fury and obvious sense of betrayal when Ricciardo decided to leave for McLaren.
Abiteboul’s explosiveness meant he could often come across as a total caricature, and maybe didn’t always get the respect he deserved. But he is an erudite individual, to the point of being a journalist’s nightmare – when Abiteboul gets into full flow, a two or three minute answer can be the equivalent of any other team boss’s 10-minute soliloquy.
He wouldn’t just talk for the sake of it either. Abiteboul, for example, was among those who recognized the threat of F1’s increasingly bloated calendars and made a compelling case for shortening the schedule to 16 or 17 events, comprised mostly of F1’s truly important and spectacular venues and using the appetite among others promoters to fill out the rest of the schedule with a rotating pool of options.
Hyundai is getting an experienced, intelligent, passionate and dramatic team boss
Beneath the hyperbole and the chaos, there were serious question marks over how Abiteboul ran his F1 concerns. At Renault, he seemed to get entrenched in company politics. It’s what gave the works team a false start in 2016 because Abiteboul couldn’t work alongside racing director Fred Vasseur.
Time and again there would be signs of the team firing into life only to stagnate, with lots of changes at technical management level and eventually Abiteboul ran out of either time, or excuses, or both.
When the Alpine rebrand came about under Luca de Meo, there was talk of Abiteboul being moved across to lead the automotive side of the business – he was put in charge of the Renault Group’s plan to make Alpine a more substantial part of its business model, and was rumored to be shifting into a less F1-focused role in 2021, then left quite abruptly.
Exactly what happened with his departure was always murky, but the fact Alpine didn’t replace him as team principal for 12 months suggests he was made redundant, ousted in a political reshuffle to make way for the De Meo/Laurent Rossi era.
It was fitting in a way given the politics that always seemed to undermine the Renault works team in Abiteboul’s time.
But the silent nature of his ‘slink out the back door’ exit (a statement appeared on Renault’s corporate website but the F1 team made no mention of it) was entirely out of kilter with his particular brand of leadership.
In short, Hyundai is getting an experienced, intelligent, passionate and dramatic team boss. It may not live up to expectations, but it is likely to be quite the ride.
Scott Mitchell-Malm is an F1 correspondent for The Race