Ferrari’s book of excuses has reached the last full stop on the final page — it’s no never. Schumacher and this new car aim to make it now. Alan Henry assesses the chant
The overwhelming majority of motor racing fans understand the magic that has always surrounded Ferrari. Granted, there are several of today’s Formula One team owners who believe that the mystique of the Prancing Horse is nothing more than a lot of sentimental hot air, but the strand of continuity, tradition and presence which links Michael Schumacher’s most recent victory at Monza five months ago with Froilan Gonzalez winning at Silverstone in 1951 is, in my view, the key to the whole affair.
Yet, all that said, there is a powerful case to be argued that Ferrari has with a few notable exceptions done a pretty rotten job with its F1 team since the late 1970s. Jody Scheckter won the last drivers’ World Championship in one of the cars from Maranello 18 years ago. Since then, they have bagged a single constructors’ championship almost unnoticed in 1983.
This is why Ferrari just has to win the 1997 World Championship. I simply do not subscribe to the view that well, er, we can wait until 1998. Or perhaps 1999. Although even Michael Schumacher privately believes it could take this long to get the job done, I think that the entire team’s credibility now hangs on the possibility of winning the title this coming season.
It has always struck me that one of the problems with the Ferrari F1 team is that it is the corporate equivalent of a spoilt child. It never seems to know what it wants next. One minute it agrees that its design office should be based in the UK, the next you hear rumblings that it should be back at Maranello. Drivers fall in and out of favour with corresponding frequency.
“The real problem with Ferrari is that it claims to be a single team of 450 people,” said one rival F1 designer recently, “whereas, in truth, it’s 450 teams of single people. Think what they might achieve if they were all working together.”
Since 1992, Ferrari’s fortunes have been steered by the charismatic Luca di Montezemolo. He is a man who attracts much respect, having originally made his name when he helped mastermind Maranello’s F1 renaissance in 1974, which led to Niki Lauda winning the Drivers’ Championship in 1975 and 1977.
Di Montezemolo broadly knows what is required to achieve success in F1. He is sufficiently well versed in the motor racing business to appreciate that the access to specialist technology in the UK’s “silicon valley” fully justifies having the team’s R&D base here.
In that respect, he took a leaf out of the late Enzo Ferrari’s book. From 1986 to 1990, GTO at Shalford was John Barnard’s design base. It was then sold off to become a component-manufacturing out-station for McLaren Cars. That meant they had to start again in 1993 when Barnard came back into the Ferrari fold, establishing Ferrari Design & Development. In the building next door!
At first glance, this seems the commercial logic of the mad house. It tempts one to conclude that Ferrari’s apparent belief in the benefits of siting its R&D department in England was nothing more than a willingness to accommodate Barnard at any cost. In fairness to Barnard, at the start of both his stints with the team, he stipulated the condition that he would not relocate to Italy.
Inevitably, there are home-brewed pressures, which Ferrari takes into account. It seems to me that the Italian media has a disproportionate influence on Maranello’s thinking. You can’t imagine Ron Dennis or Frank Williams fretting about anything in the papers. But Ferrari is different.
Early in 1996, a minor storm blew up over what di Montezemolo did or did not say at a Maranello press conference. The net result was that he felt it necessary to journey to the European GP and explain his position to the media.
The way I heard it, his words did not quite amount to a ringing endorsement of his design chief. “To be honest, I expected altogether a more competitive car, I will admit,” he said. “But on the other hand, I know that it was necessary to pay a big price, particularly in the first half of the season, because we have everything new, even the fuel —the drivers, the chassis, the engine and gearbox.
“We know that our engine is making very steady progress, but the first priority was to make the engine reliable. Now, after the first three races, we are involved in a deep investigation of the chassis in conjunction with John Barnard, because the interpretation of the rules for driver protection theoretically leave us with the possibility of having to think of a new chassis. But I sincerely hope not, both from financial and timing reasons. In the meantime we will concentrate on working on the car which is obviously very late indeed.”
For his part. Barnard does not mince his words. He has been frustrated in the past by growing impatience with his adherence to the philosophy of a three-year development plan. In Ferrari’s case, it culminated with the 1996 F310. But he had similar problems convincing Benetton that this was the right way to go back in 1990.
“You can go in and explain that the project will take three years minimum, and you can tell a team that they need to spend this and that,” he says. “Then they say ‘OK, give us a bottom-line figure’ and I do. But there is often difficulty conceiving long-term plans in F1.
“The team will agree, but in the back of their mind they would like to win three or four races the following year, and as soon as they get to the first race they are saying ‘where are we?”
“For example, the 1993 season with Ferrari was ‘ one of the most difficult I ever had, complicated by the need to develop an active suspension system just before such systems were banned.
“But in the back of my mind, I’m just passing through that season, like a train on the way to the terminus. I’m looking out of the window, if you like, and it’s all going past in a blur. I can’t do anything. I can’t stop the train and get off at that particular station, because I don’t want to be at that station. I want to be at the end of the line.”
Recently, there have been signs that certain factions at Ferrari would like to take the design department back to Maranello. Ross Brawn’s recent recruitment from Benetton to work in Italy is seen by many as sending a markedly firm signal in this connection.
Of course, the proof of the pudding may well come in July 1997 when John Barnard’s current contract expires. Clever money in F1 has been linking him with the forthcoming Prost-Peugeot alliance for 1998. If he jumps ship, it will be interesting to see how long Ferrari R&D retains its present level of technical clout. Indeed, if the British-based facility continues to exist at all.
On another positive note, the team has also benefitted from Jean Todt’s presence as sporting director for the past three years. The Frenchman has been accused by some critics of bringing a somewhat Napoleonic approach to bear on the challenge, but most of the firm evidence attests to his beneficial influence.
In particular, Todt has exerted a calming influence on the drivers, all of whom speak highly of his talents. Add to that the fact that Schumacher is committed to Ferrari on a long-term contract and all should look rosy. And yet…
Other events make one seriously question the cohesion of Maranello’s management. In November 1996 it was announced that the Sauber team would be using Ferrari engines for the following season. Within days of the press communique, it was followed up by an idiotic half-denial. Sauber was accused of putting out the release without clearing it with Ferrari. The deal, it seemed, could be off.
Peter Sauber may be a reticent sort of fellow, but he’s not an idiot. Eventually the whole deal was reconfirmed with a press release which, far from smoothing over these troubled waters, cast Ferrari in an even more absurd light.
“Ferrari will build up a structure which shall (sic) work together with Sauber Petronas Engineering engine technology department for the manufacturing of engines based on Ferrari’s experience etc, etc,” read the press release from Sauber.
It was dated 29 November 1996. The 1997 F1 season is due to start on 9 March next. Was Ferrari and Sauber actually expecting anybody to believe that brand new engines “based on Ferrari’s experience” would be built, from scratch, in about 10 weeks? Of course not. Sauber will use 1996-spec Ferrari engines from the start of the new season. The convoluted form of words was used, presumably, to pacify Ferrari’s F1 sponsors Marlboro and Shell. And they say comedy is dead.
So what happens if Ferrari doesn’t finally deliver the goods. Do we watch as Di Montezemolo is led away in chains if Schumacher hasn’t secured the World Championship for the Prancing Horse by the end of the year? Will Maranello end its days being relegated to the role of some half-baked Italian version of Cosworth Engineering, shelling out V10 F1 engines on a customer basis for Minardi in addition to Sauber?
There are even those who believe that the Maranello racing department should have been locked, bolted and barred the day Old Man Ferrari died in August 1988. Left to gather dust as some sort of museum, preserved in a state of suspended animation, as a fly in amber.
It won’t happen like that, of course. But Ferrari is backed firmly into a corner now that it has every available resource to be competitive. The Maranello Book Of Excuses is now dog-eared, tatty and ready to be tossed into the rubbish bin. Those three wins in 1996 came in the nick of time for Ferrari’s credibility.
Di Montezemolo remains resolute in his belief in the future. He certainly does not believe that there is an ominous Sword of Damocles, wielded by Fiat, hanging over the company.
“Ferrari has been in F1 for more than 40 years and I want the team to be competitive again,” he says with a passion. “Do you think I would have invested money in building a new wind tunnel and recruiting young technicians with the intention of training them for the future, if it was our intention not to continue in F1?”
He may be proved right.
At the end of the day, I have to confess that I am one of the believers. Even if the hype, the romance and the nostalgia sometimes blind me to the more eccentric internal workings of the most famous F1 team in the business.
If I had to put money on it, I would bank on Michael Schumacher getting the job done for Ferrari in 1997. But, at best, I expect it to be a damn’ close run thing. Perhaps even too close for comfort.
And I might end up losing.