Interview – Luca di Montezemolo

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“Apart from my family, Ferrari is – and will always be – the most important element of my life”

In a rare – and exclusive – interview,  former Ferrari chairman Luca di Montezemolo outlines recollections about his time in the spotlight 

He sticks his head through the door of the meeting room. “What are you doing here?” Great mock confused/puzzled expression – and then the Hollywood smile. Luca Cordero di Montezemolo has made his entrance. Even if the only audience is me and photographer James Mitchell, the impression is still worth making. 

We’re here to talk to the former Ferrari chairman of 23 years about his two stints there, the first as the Scuderia’s team manager in its Niki Lauda glory years, the second as chairman and CEO of the company until being squeezed out less than gently by Fiat’s Sergio Marchionne in September 2014 – “Please, how it ended I cannot really talk about.” After talking for an hour-and-a-half, he was out of the door like a whirlwind, with a meeting to attend. “It was nice to remember,” he says by way of parting, “but also it’s about the future. We need not to get left behind by the speed of the world.”

He doesn’t stay still long enough to see him properly, so much to do, so many places to be – chairman of the Rome 2024 Olympics bid, chairman and acting CEO of Alitalia, chairman of the NTV high speed train project, consulting with son Matteo in the family investment company. Forever just a speed-blurred impression of a man, it’s good to finally be able to sit stationary with him for a while in his apartment in the elegant Parioli district of Rome (through the streets of which Tazio Nuvolari won his first major car race in 1927). It’s good to be able to get his hindsight thoughts on the revitalising of Ferrari – both the company and the Scuderia – over which he presided, the anecdotes along the way about F1, a sport in which he has been intimately involved since turning up at Silverstone for the 1973 British Grand Prix as a 25-year-old in his fourth day of employment.  

But even sitting with him it’s as if he’s still moving. This is not a man to be pinned down, to make himself vulnerable to too much questioning. Rather, he makes a presentation of his career, an impressionistic rush. Which is understandable; there’s a lot of ground to cover and time’s forever crowding in on him. He’s out-run the 68 years of his life so far – trim figure, long boyish hair, fizzing with dynamic energy – but always time is in relentless pursuit. In the temporary lead he has pulled out over it, he has made a second-time-around family, two teenage daughters and a five-year-old son from marriage number two. But also, it’s the style of someone whose habitual role is one of quickly understanding, assessing – and acting, all in broad outline, leaving the specifics to someone else. So the detail is not always there, at least not in time-limited exchanges. This is what high-powered looks like up close. But high-powered with charm, smiles, conspiratorial winks, a quick guided tour around the many artefacts and mementos of his apartment, bursting with enthusiasm. He knows Motor Sport magazine very well, always looks for it on the newsstands when he’s visiting Britain and is forever surprised that he’s occasionally recognised on the streets here. He’s turned down “many, many” interview requests in recent months, but has granted this one.         

“So, what can I tell you?” he says after the pleasantries, but almost before I reply, he’s off. Back to a radio studio in Bologna in 1972. “While I had been studying [commercial law in Rome] I had been doing some rally driving with Lancia. I was quite good, not bad. But I had decided to stop because I wanted to study for my masters at Columbia University, New York. I said, ‘Now it’s time to do serious things.’ But as a young rally driver I was invited to a very popular radio show called ‘Chiamate 3131’ where it was possible to say anything – live – so people would say, ‘You are an idiot, you are a bastard,’ whatever, and it was very popular. We received a phone call from a guy, a very tough call, saying, ‘Racing is ridiculous, a sport just for rich people, it’s dangerous, it damages the environment.’ I was very tough back – saying, ‘Listen, first of all you have many great drivers who came from humble places,’ and then I put a lot of arguments to support my points. Enzo Ferrari had been listening. He used to arrive at his office 10.30-11 in the morning, and he had a big radio on his desk. Live he called, saying, ‘I want to know this boy. He has balls and I agree with him’.”

The prospect of talking with Mr Ferrari, while formidable, was maybe a little less so for him than it would have been for most: from an aristocratic background, he was a close family friend of the Fiat-owning Agnellis, having been a school buddy of Gianni Agnelli’s nephew. “Mr Agnelli came to be like a mixture of a father and a brother to me,” he says. “He was not a team guy, not a manager of people so much. But a visionary. He spent a lot of attention on what will happen in the world, the future of the world, the new countries. And he had this sense of state, where he felt he should set an example to the people in the company. He was very well educated but most of all he had a generous spirit.” Montezemolo’s career would come to be inextricably linked with Agnelli. “He and Mr Ferrari liked each other and had a lot of things in common, but were quite different. Ferrari’s way was to shake everything up among his employees, saying, ‘Luca says you’re an idiot because…’ and sometimes he went too far. But like Mr Agnelli he loved the Italian way of life, food, wine, social contacts, and they both always looked ahead. But like Ralph Lauren Mr Ferrari was a genius of marketing: the name, the brand, the myth, the dark glasses that he threw to one side as soon as the interview was over. Fantastic. What I learned from him was to be even more tough when you win because if not, sooner or later you lose. Second, if you are in the shit never surrender, always react.” 

So in June of ’73 after completing his studies, young Luca drove to Maranello, as promised. “We had a nice meeting and he said, ‘Listen, I need a boy like you because I’m in the hands of the technicians.’ I started to work as his assistant in July.” So much for the career as an international lawyer. But for a man of such calibre and connections, the starting point probably wasn’t critical. “So I arrive at Silverstone and, after practice, Jacky Ickx was 19th. I phone the Old Man. ‘How are we doing?’ I say, ‘In my opinion, very bad.’ And he tells me that I must tell team boss Colombo to load the cars onto the truck and come home, saying we couldn’t be seen by the British racing fans to be so uncompetitive. This was my fourth day in the job! I managed to reason that it wasn’t really practical to do this – and he accepted it.”

Who knows, perhaps that had been Enzo’s test for the 25-year-old? To see if he wasn’t just another yes man – because he’d had his fill of those, marooned in his kingdom, cut-off from the racing immediacy. If this super-bright, well-connected young kid could also be tough, then the Old Man would have a live-wire connection to what was happening in the field. He was already formulating a recovery plan for ’74, involving the rehabilitation of the genius Mauro Forghieri – and now Montezemolo was part of those plans too. For ’74 Enzo made him team manager. Forghieri designed the cars, Lauda (and Clay Regazzoni) drove them, Montezemolo managed it all. It was a formidable combination and came to form F1’s gold standard, finally rubber-stamped at Monza ’75 when Lauda clinched the Scuderia’s first title in 11 years and Regazzoni won the race. In his office Luca shows us a picture of the Ferrari pit wall from that day with three laps to go. Below the board saying that Regazzoni is leading Fittipaldi and that Lauda is in the required third place to seal the title, there is a huge smile on a handsome young face framed by an immaculate mop of hair. 

With that job done, he was out of there – fast-tracked onto bigger and better things within the Fiat empire. The team definitely lost some impetus afterwards, Lauda noting that an air of complacency began to surface in the preparations for ’76. “I spoke with him this morning actually,” says Luca of his close and enduring friendship with Lauda.

“I first met him in Milano in ’73 as we tried to find a deal for ’74. He told me how much he wanted – a number in Austrian schillings. We didn’t know how much this was in lire so we bought a Financial Times to look at the exchange rates. The first time he came to Maranello he came in a Ford Capri! I said, ‘Listen, be careful.’ Many years later Jean Todt made the same mistake when he first came to meet me – he arrived in a Mercedes. My son said, ‘He must be an idiot.’

“When I joined, Ferrari had not won a title since 1964 and I thought there has to be a reason for that so I very carefully tried to benchmark everything – working methods, engineers, relationships, everything. And the benchmark driver was Jackie Stewart and I believed that Niki potentially compared well. We succeeded together and formed a very close human relationship, talking every day.”

From corporate Fiat to positions elsewhere within the Agnelli empire, Montezemolo was just a brief but brilliant comet as far as F1 was concerned. Ferrari was in a sorry state by the time Agnelli recalled him to Maranello in October 1991. Enzo was three years dead and both the company and the racing team had floundered badly under Fiat corporate management. Alain Prost had just been sacked after a disastrous F1 campaign that yielded not a single victory. The road car range – the new 348 and the venerable Testarossa – had lost much of the magic of previous years, the factory full of unsold cars, workers being paid half-wages to stay at home. “Mr Agnelli and Cesare Romiti said, ‘We are very concerned about Ferrari. You have to go back,’ and the way they were talking I was thinking after all these years they want me to go back to what I was doing before as team manager? So I said, ‘OK, if you insist. But I can only do this for a couple of years, re-organise and then go on my way.’ And Mr Agnelli said, ‘Luca! Are you not pleased? You don’t want to be the chairman and CEO of Ferrari?’ and only then did I realise: ‘Ah. So it’s a different position! OK.’   

“I started in December ’91. I recall well I was driving my car on the small roads of Maranello and remembering when I’d driven the same roads 18 years earlier as a young man. I had a big emotion.” But that toughness that had served him so well last time around was still there, now enhanced by experience. “After Italia ’90 [Italy’s hosting of the World Cup, another of Montezemolo’s projects] went so well, I had given myself a present and bought a 348. It was terrible. So I’m at the first meeting as CEO and I asked to be presented with our range. ‘OK, we have the Testarossa, we have the 348, very good car, innovative, eight cylinders,’ and I said, ‘Please stop. This is a shit car. So don’t say this to me; I am a client, I know what this car is like.’

“On the F1 team they were preparing for the ’92 season. I asked chief engineer Lombardi for a presentation of what they planned. ‘Who is responsible?’ I asked. One was a person from Fiat, a good engineer but not from F1, an American designer [Steve Nichols, who had left] plus Lombardi for the engines. ‘Yes, but who is the chief designer?’ No one. I said, ‘This is a tragedy. I hope the car will be competitive.’ At the first test I understood it wasn’t. I called Harvey Postlethwaite and got him to come. We had a meeting in Monaco in May of ’92 and he told me we weren’t in a position to do the ’93 car because we had not the right facilities or people. At that time it had become all about electronics. In the ’80s it had been about structures and materials. Ferrari’s expertise was mainly mechanical but F1’s priorities had changed. From talking with Harvey I understood what was necessary. We were going to have to buy in expertise.”

This was the level Ferrari had sunk to, the mess Montezemolo inherited. Yet during his tenure Ferrari became the most successful Formula 1 team there has ever been and the road car division was revitalised so that it was once more producing a diverse range of the most desirable cars in the world. It all earned him God-like status in Italy. 

Short-term, the F1 expertise solution was a repeat of the John Barnard Ferrari satellite operation in the UK, with Postlethwaite running the racing department using cars created by Barnard. A longer-term answer was needed and not only technically. “I needed to find a person who could do the role I had done there for Mr Ferrari,” recounts Luca. “He needed to be a good organiser and good at putting the right people in the right positions. I called Bernie and asked him what he thought about Jean Todt, who I liked because he had been at Peugeot a long time, wasn’t one of these mercenaries going from team to team, he was outside of F1 politics and he was not Italian and so not related with the press here. Bernie said he was very good and that we should hire him. Todt turned out to be the key to our revitalisation. I first began to believe we might be on an upward direction when Jean Alesi finished second at Monza in ’93 – and then Gerhard Berger won for us at Hockenheim in ’94.

“Gerhard was a friend of Ferrari, expert enough for the time – which we needed. For sure, he wasn’t a driver for the future, but he helped us stabilise.” But there was briefly the possibility of someone else. “Ayrton Senna was the fastest driver I have ever seen – especially in qualifying. He was one of the very few who could combine extreme speed with intelligence. I talked twice with Ayrton about him joining Ferrari. The first was in Villa d’Este, Como. This was towards the end of his McLaren time, before Williams. He said he had a dream he would like to end his career at Ferrari, to win with Ferrari. He said that whenever he arrived somewhere, even though he was champion, if the Ferrari drivers were behind him they got all the attention! We agreed to keep talking, but at that time we had already a contract [with Berger and Alesi] that we had to respect. Then on the Wednesday before Imola ’94 he came to see me at my home, which is about half an hour away from Imola. We talked again about this idea and I told him, ‘You cannot imagine how much I want this to happen too. Try to put yourself in a position, or create a situation where you are free.’ We had dinner early so he could go to Imola.” 

Events that weekend took their tragic turn and fate decreed a different solution to Ferrari’s problems. In the meantime the road car revolution was underway. In the same month as Imola the F355 was introduced – a beautiful, dynamic replacement for the insipid 348. “That car started the new generation. An emotional driving experience, beautiful but practical. From that came the 360, the 458. And we started a new line of front-engined V12s, traditional Ferraris for the modern times. An influential British car magazine said the 348 had a gearbox like a truck and I recalled that Ferrari had been the first to introduce paddle shift in F1 and I said I wanted to transfer this technology to a road car. People said Enzo would have died twice but they didn’t understand: Enzo was always looking to the future. We were the first to do this and now every Ferrari has this gearbox.”

The Barnard Ferraris turned Ferrari’s decline around, bought Montezemolo some time. But having the key expertise located in the UK was not a stable long-term solution. “I discussed with Todt who we should seek not only to bring the expertise in-house but to allow our own people to grow. I recalled talking to the soccer player Zola, who said that in six months playing with Maradona he learned more than in the previous six years.” They looked in the most obvious place: Ross Brawn and Rory Byrne had together created and run the double title-winning Benettons. How could they top that? Only Ferrari offered that possibility. They jumped at the chance of their next big career move but weren’t available until ’97. But their driver Michael Schumacher was able to exit his contract one year early. “We had to pay Michael a lot of money and Mr Agnelli always referred to him as ‘Caro’ Schumacher.” (Like the English word ‘dear’, ‘caro’ could be either an expression of fondness or expense.) “In ’96 we had three terrible races in a row and suddenly there was a big pressure for me to fire Todt. Because I was always pushing the Fiat shareholders to have Ferrari highly independent from Fiat, there were people there jealous of my work at Ferrari. After Canada the Fiat CEO said ‘Todt has hired Schumacher, cost us all this money, you have to fire him.’ I said, ‘First of all I would not do it and repeat your mistakes, bringing in someone from Fiat who knows nothing about F1 after Mr Ferrari died. Second, if you want, you can have my resignation tomorrow.’ Mr Agnelli stood behind me on this, like he always did in difficult moments. Then we won at Spa and Monza and we were OK.” 

Dodging that bullet was crucial and, when Ross and Rory arrived, the pieces were in place for the greatest team F1 has ever seen to take shape, transforming Maranello from a technical desert to a facility lacking nothing. Schumacher lost out on the titles only in the final rounds of ’97 and ’98, Eddie Irvine did the same in ’99 but in that season Ferrari became champion constructor for the first time in 16 years. The following year Michael became the first Ferrari world champion in 21 years – and then just kept repeating the feat. “A big, big part of my heart is for Michael,” Luca says, “because for me he has been by far the biggest Ferrari hero. My relationship with him was different from that with Niki – we were not in daily touch. Todt was in daily touch with him – but he has done the most of anyone for Ferrari.”

Entropy eventually played out to dissolve that record-breaking partnership and Montezemolo tried to use the momentum to create a more home-grown team, promoting from within. Inevitably it wasn’t as successful as the blockbusting team of the early 2000s, but Kimi Räikkönen won in 2007, Felipe Massa took it to the last lap of 2008, Fernando Alonso lost out only in the final rounds in both 2010 and ’12. “From ’97 until 2012 – 16 years – apart from a couple of seasons, Ferrari was either champion or lost it at the final race. And against many rivals. At first it was Williams, then McLaren, then Renault and finally Red Bull. But all the time Ferrari was there, a constant. Apart from my family, Ferrari is – and will always be – the most important element of my life.”

The new hybrid formula, however, was not Ferrari’s friend. “It was like in ’92,” Luca recalls, “in that the type of expertise necessary for these hybrids was not in-house and I think I made a mistake in approving these regulations at a time when we were far from ready.” The Scuderia’s sorry form in 2014 made Luca’s position very vulnerable to the control Fiat’s Sergio Marchionne sought as Fiat and Ferrari were each being prepared for stock exchange flotation. Without the protective shield of Gianni Agnelli – who passed away in 2003 – Montezemolo lost out in the power struggle. But during his reign Ferrari – the brand as well as the company’s financial performance – had been transformed. He was recently quoted as saying he might have at least received some public thanks from Marchionne for all he’d achieved. I ask if he thinks this might be forthcoming and all I get is a knowing, resigned smile and, “Do you have a different question?”

Many actually. But time is crowding in – and everything takes time. He’s working towards Rome hosting those Olympics in 2024 and with a flourish of smiles and shakes, he’s outta there, racing and raging against time, refusing to be left behind by the speed of the world.