Monday 15 September 2014

Why, despite everything, there's reason for optimism at Ferrari

His departure was a lot like the man. Unorthodox, dramatic, no doubt rubbing a few up the wrong way. After a summer wherein rumours that he was about to quit, perhaps already had done, lingered throughout. A matter of days after requiring the world's media to gather outside the Ferrari motorhome for Lord-knows-how-long in the midday heat of the Monza paddock amid much anticipation only to tell them there was nothing to see here. It was confirmed: Luca Montezemolo was on his way out of Ferrari.

Luca Montezemolo was a man in much demand at Monza
Photo: Octane Photography
Such a step is not to be underestimated, and not just because Montezemolo's current stretch at the team extends to 23 years. He wasn't loved universally, indeed his interventions more latterly were treated by a few as the mad ramblings of an embarrassing elderly relative. As if Mrs Rochester had been let out of the attic. And such is the way of these things it took his departure for exactly what his contribution was to be expressed. His place at the very centre of Ferrari's lengthy history, indeed as one of the most central figures in modern-day Italian public life more generally, is incontestable. Bernie wasn't too far off in placing him somewhere within the bastion of the Commendatore.

There probably was justification for Montezemolo's dividing of opinion. But his effectiveness and achievements are absolutely not to be belittled. First of all as Sporting Director - team manager at the F1 team's coalface - in the early-to-mid 1970s, where he turned an outfit that appeared to the outsider to be slipping from the sport and causing the most minor of ripples as it did so to being F1's pace setters within six months; champions within 18. Only Jean Todt can be said to have been as successful in the role. You could make a case that not even he was.

Then upon returning to the company in 1991, to find it in turmoil (and not just on the F1 track), and turning it around on both fronts this time, with 118 wins and more F1 championships than it knew what to do with gathered, record profits and moreover, according to BrandFinance, 'the most powerful brand in the world' bar none (not just in motoring in other words). No small fry.

But while on his watch the Scuderia dominated the sport in a way never done before or since, it's also the case that there was a conspicuous decline also on his watch more lately. As things stand the team hasn't won a title since 2008; hasn't won a drivers' one since 2007 (which in itself was a big last-gasp surprise). Fernando Alonso's abilities in alchemy, oh-so nearly rewarded with two drivers' titles in this era of famine, frankly flattered the team. To underline the point, since that last title was won in 2008 there have been 107 Grands Prix and a Ferrari has started on pole position in a grand total of four of them. Removing those won in the wet and it's down to a mere two; the last one of the latter was won almost exactly four years ago. Almost never since the 2008 championship has the sport's pace and technical standard-bearing machine been one painted red.

And it all wasn't a pure matter of the buck stopping with Montezemolo, he had a few fingerprints on the incriminating evidence. Forcing Michael Schumacher out at the end of 2006 which Schumi himself certainly felt was ahead of time we know about. His conscious effort to Italian-ise the team in the post Todt, Brawn et al era wasn't backed up with results either as indicated. Then there's the fact that as far as most were concerned the Team Principal for most of that slump Stefano Domenicali was one clearly malleable to Montezemolo's ways.

And the feeling grew that Montezemolo had become a direct hindrance. That he was sticking his oar in too much, constantly hauling people in for crisis meetings with all of the distraction and disruption that entails. As German F1 journalist Michael Schmidt outlined: 'The biggest achievement of (previous, and successful, Sporting Director) Jean Todt is that he protected the team from Luca, Luca let him do. Domenicali didn't have that luxury, he (Montezemolo) was always interfering.'

The negative spiral continued further; a rather craven culture, and one of rapid ostracising, developed in the team. As was noted by an observing Gary Anderson at Silverstone this year: 'everyone is frightened of sticking their head above the parapet and making a call because if they do, and for any reason they're wrong, it will be chopped off.' The parting shots, of the self-justificatory variety, from sacked engine head Luca Marmorini a few weeks ago didn't reflect well on the Scuderia mindset either.

The Ferraris have been mainly stuck in the pack this season
Photo: Octane Photography
There was a sense too that Montezemolo still was fighting the last war, tending to yearn for a return to good old days of unlimited testing and spending (when, as if by coincidence, Ferrari dominated), when its re-establishment, or anything like it, in these austere times never looked likely. And the team by now faced a different sort of opponent, a stripped down and entirely focussed racing operation in Red Bull. And now a Mercedes team that has learned a lot of the Bulls' lessons. Ferrari appeared unwilling or unable to adapt.

It's not coincidence either that it came to a head in this season. In previous years Ferrari had lost out in an aero battle, mainly to Red Bull. That was one thing, as down Maranello way few pulses are quickened by aerodynamics. Engines however are something else; those have always been the real badge of honour for Ferrari ever since the freshman days of the Commendatore Enzo Ferrari. And this campaign it not just is losing out but is being utterly humiliated in an engine formula.

Worst of all from the Scuderia perspective a rival manufacturer of performance cars (as opposed to a mere garagiste) had taken the same new set of rules (that was supposed to suit Ferrari), started with the same blank sheet of paper, at the same time, if anything with less in the way of resource and facilities and cleanly leapt ahead having done a markedly better job. Ferrari if anything have looked further away from where it wants to be than ever.

Montzemolo responded in a very old way too. Via politics, turning up to round three in Bahrain to tell all that the sport was in urgent need of change because of it lacking on the entertainment front. It wasn't at all subtle though, and just about everyone saw it for what it was.

Nevertheless by the next race Domenicali was gone. Montezemolo wanted the head of engine boss Marmorini; Domenicali fell on his sword instead. There is an irony in that Marmorini went a few months later anyway.

But even Domenicali's departure came back on Montezemolo to an extent, as he as it turned out had left a slow-emitting stink bomb. It transpired that F1's design star of modern times Adrian Newey as well as Mercedes engine boss Andy Cowell - as responsible as anyone for the silver dominance this year - both were in advanced talks with Domenicali about moving to Maranello, and both were put off by Domenicali's departure and everything that it entailed.

Still though despite this lengthy litany of woe there are some reasons for those associated with Ferrari to feel optimism; even now with the ripples on the surface not yet becalmed from Montezemolo being cast overboard some evidence exists that Ferrari may just be turning its vast tanker around.

This is mainly because in Domenicali's replacement Marco Mattiacci Montezemolo may in fact have given the team a wonderful parting gift. His selection when confirmed before the Chinese race miffed a few - plenty noting his lack of racing experience (instead he'd been selling Ferrari road cars in America) and a lack of profile that apparently rivalled it. Some assumed that he was a mere stop gap for the return of the team's King over the water in Ross Brawn. That in China and subsequently he seemed to spend most of the time when cars were on track sitting impassively, rather like an ornament, not conspicuously getting involved like a Christian Horner for example would, cemented the view further.

Marco Mattiacci is one winning people over
Photo: Octane Photography
But there's since been a bit of discrete backspacing as gradually over time Mattiacci has impressed. Viewing him at work is to view one who is steely, authoritative, a man you can't imagine being messed with.

And despite his absence of F1 and even of racing experience, he appears to have done a good job of identifying the areas to prioritise, in so doing benefiting from the fresh thinking that one from the outside offers.

This is something Jonathan Noble of Autosport has noticed: 'I spent an hour and half with Marco at the German Grand Prix...he's very much a listener, he's gone in there, he knows what he's strong at, he knows what he's weak at, he knows that he doesn't know Formula One as well as other people...One interesting thing he said is that he's gone in to understand how to improve the team, where people think it's right and wrong, but he said "I don't have meetings"...he just randomly sits at someone's desk with them and says "right, what do you think we need to change at Ferrari?", puts them on the back foot. Then you get proper honest answers...He's going about it in quite a unique way.'

The BBC's Andrew Benson meanwhile, more to the point, noted that Mattiacci is 'making a good impression among senior figures in F1 as a man who means business and looks like he can deliver.'

Importantly too - given the problems explained earlier - Mattiacci has also spoken frequently of the need for 'culture change' in the squad.

Mattiacci further reportedly has identified the team's new for this season Technical Director James Allison - who in the forthcoming post Newey age has good claim at being the strongest technical figure in the sport - as the man with the torch required to lead the team out of the gloom. Benson reckons Mattiacci is backing Allison 'to the hilt'. Perhaps it's not the most outlandish call by Mattiacci given everything but it reflects well on his judgement all the same. And even more importantly - particularly given that this is Ferrari - as well as the mere act of identifying the strategy he appears to be succeeding in driving it through in terms of delivery also.

This was reflected by Allison's words in Hockenheim a few weeks ago when he described the quiet and incremental revolution that has been going on in Maranello as it picks its way back to the front: 'You need to make big changes and small changes at the same time' he said.

'Any team in F1, any of them, good or bad, are all pretty impressive organisations and it's actually much much easier to make them worse than it is to make them better. So the changes that need to be made in an absolute sense are quite small, but there's lots of them and they've been happening for some months.

'Marco's (Mattiacci) arrival has helped to galvanise more of them, and across the board at Ferrari there are changes that are extremely helpful to moving us in the right direction.

'If you were to come and sit alongside me or any of the other senior figures in Ferrari and watch the changes that are being made you'd think "well that doesn't look very big, that doesn't look very big either", but by the time you've got the totality of them they add up to something significant, and when you're in a sport that's very competitive all those little things add up to making a big difference.'

Fernando Alonso's efforts have flattered the Ferrari team
Photo: Octane Photography
Mattiacci even appeared to be achieving what Domenicali couldn't, in protecting the team from Montezemolo's dubious influence. That Montezemolo's gone now presumably this process becomes easier. And as a source close to Ferrari noted to Andrew Benson in response to Montezemolo's departure: 'Finally, Ferrari has a chance to sort itself out'.

Schmidt though had a note of caution, as upon musing that it'll likely not be this year or next that Ferrari returns to the top added: 'I say it's too long because they don't have the patience'. He added however that Mattiacci being able to work without Montezemolo's interference may make the journey back to the top quicker.

There has been speculation that Fiat CEO Sergio Marchionne - who has been put into Montezemolo's place as President - is merely keeping the seat warm to allow Mattiacci to move into it. It would make sense on the company level in some ways, given Mattiacci's status as a Ferrari company high-flier combined with that it's the New York stock exchange that the Fiat-Chrysler October flotation is taking place on, and as mentioned Mattiacci has considerable recent experience (and presumably contacts) in the US.

But for the sake of the F1 team's immediate prospects it makes much more sense you would have thought to leave Mattiacci exactly where he is, and allow him to finish what he's started. And to give him his way as much as possible.

And Sky Italia's Antonio Boselli thinks this is most likely indeed, in the immediate term at least: 'There's not going to be any big changes in the next weeks, in the next months' he noted on TV a few days ago, 'because if you think about in the last six months what's been happening at Ferrari is something incredible. If you would have asked me one year ago what do you think is going to be Ferrari in one year nobody could have guessed such big I think Mattiacci's going to keep his post and Marchionne is going to be the President, but I think he's going to give a lot of power to Mattiacci. I think they're going to give a lot of money into investments especially on the engine side...I think that the team now needs to stay stable and steady and focussed on the priorities for 2015.'

And Marchionne too enters the Ferrari fray as one with a strong reputation, and with turning the FIAT company into a major global force as his most recent accomplishment on his CV.

In among all of this there too was one further spot of bright, for Ferrari and - however grudgingly it might be felt - everyone else. Or at least a potential one. The company's success as well as the record profits mentioned, and just posted, were not enough to save Montezemolo. Because the Ferrari team on the F1 track has been lacking. The quotes made upon his departure indeed dripped with it. 'The important thing for Ferrari is not just financial results, but winning...For the last six years we have struggled like hell...' noted Marchionne over the Monza weekend, and days later in confirming Montezemolo's departure he added 'Luca and I have discussed the future of Ferrari at length, and our mutual desire to see Ferrari achieve its true potential on the track has led to misunderstandings.'

We can take from this that Ferrari, despite everything, despite the breadth of its activities, despite its persistent threats to walk away, remains as its core a racing team. And an F1 team. Racing is its raison d'etre, its priority.

OK - everything is connected to everything else, and the team's struggle on the race track may have an impact on the wider company brand. But it didn't seem to be manifesting itself yet (not at the bottom line anyway). Kate Walker also took a different tack, saying that the split reflected a difference in opinion between Montezemolo and Marchionne over the exclusivity and price of Ferrari road cars, as well as the latter wanting full control in advance of the upcoming FCA (Fiat Chrysler Automobiles) Group flotation on the Wall Street stock market. And in any case over recent years FIAT control over Ferrari has grown, this strike having a lot of the natural conclusion about it.

Boselli concurred, calling the on-track results 'part of an excuse' for the move and noting that Montezemolo was due to step down at the year's end anyway. It seems one hell of a coincidence too that Montezemolo's leaving date - 13 October - is exactly that on which the floatation is due to take place.

But again everything is connected to everything else, and even with these disagreements it's hard to imagine the pressure would have been so intense had F1 race wins on track been the accompanying background noise. That it can be used as an excuse is a good sign too.

And it 'twas ever thus at Ferrari. After all, Enzo only started selling road cars to help fund the racing programme. So again, despite everything, we can consider Ferrari an F1 perennial. One that will always go racing as long as it is able, just like we do with Williams and McLaren (and - as a comment not a criticism - something we can't say necessarily of some others like Red Bull, perhaps even of Mercedes). And that is something that should really gladden us.

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