Heaven’s gates

Racing for Ferrari in Formula 1 is every driver’s dream. Only five, though, have won their first championship race for the marque. Can Räikkönen do the same?

Words: Rob Widdows. Photography: LAT

Many a young man has stepped into this place, second only to the Vatican in its spirituality for many Italians. Most grand prix drivers, even if they will not admit as much, would like to record a stint at Maranello on their CV. Only five drivers have won their first championship F1 race for Ferrari – Luigi Musso, Juan-Manuel Fangio, Giancarlo Baghetti, Mario Andretti and Nigel Mansell.

There are folks who say that Ferrari should win every race, taking into account the facilities and the finances. In recent years they have come close to achieving what everybody else knows is an impossible feat, the Schumacher era being a purple patch in the seven decades since Enzo Ferrari brought his cars to the races.

To follow this will not be easy, to improve upon it a ridiculous notion, akin to jumping aboard Lance Armstrong’s bicycle and smashing his records. But if anyone can, maybe Räikkönen can.

The Finn is not averse to following a tough act, stepping up at McLaren when everybody knew that Mika Häkkinen was the favourite son, the apple of the chief executive’s eye. He is the kind of racer the Commendatore would have loved. 

Times have changed, of course; the Old Man is long gone and the operatic atmosphere has been replaced by a more English sense of order. And this will suit Kimi just fine. He’s a man of few words, more driver than diva, more Ibsen than Verdi. Stories of his taste for a tray of short, hard drinks are of concern only to those not familiar with Finland, whose Prime Minister recently observed that his countrymen are either workaholics or alcoholics, or both.

In the same way, Finns are not, by nature, chatterboxes. There are few of them inhabiting vast open spaces; many are isolated from each other by empty tracts of frozen forests. For much of the time it is very cold and very dark. When they do get together there is invariably more drinking than talking.

Arriving at Ferrari has never been an ordinary rite of passage, and the leaving is almost always stormy.

Not in the case of Michael Schumacher, granted, but nothing about his time at the Scuderia followed the normal course of events.

Phil Hill arrived at Ferrari as the golden boy, the winner of Le Mans and the first American to take a real crack at the business of grand prix racing. He quickly became accustomed to the politics that prevailed, not enjoying them, but learning to live with them. “I was very much the new boy when I arrived and I wasn’t supposed to win, even after the victories at Le Mans,” he says. Then, after winning the title in ’61, I began to hate it and fell out big time with the team. The in-fighting was hard to handle, communications broke down and I’d had enough.”

So, is it still the ultimate invitation for a driver, the beckoning finger from Maranello?

“Oh, yes, wonderful; it was a tremendous thing to race for Ferrari,” says John Surtees, another man to win the marque a championship. “If I could roll back the years I’d always want to drive for Ferrari, especially as it is today.”

Back in 1964, however, he found relating to team manager Eugenio Dragoni a challenge. Not a man known for his desire to compromise, Surtees ended his tenure at Maranello after falling foul of Dragoni and the constant political manoeuvring. Though he had brought the team back to the top after two very lean years, he felt that the true potential of the team was never realised.

“The glory of Ferrari was the important thing to Mr Ferrari, much more important than anything else.” explains Il Grande Giovanni. “We had a good relationship but he became a hindrance to the team; he was out of date and the politics got in the way of development. Opportunities went to waste; we could have won two more championships if we’d been able to harness all the resources and materials that were available.”

Surtees thinks Ferrari has made a mistake, hiring the wrong man to start a new era. “They would have done better to take Alonso,” he says. “He’s the closest thing to Schumacher and would have been a better choice. Kimi will be quick, don’t get me wrong, but he may not be the best thing for the balance of the team.”

Niki Lauda, too, looks back on a stormy journey. The wily Austrian brought them a brace of titles but never found it easy at Maranello. “The team was very Italian then, lots of spaghetti and chianti, not the kind of set-up you see today. Lots of shouting, you know, and shit flying around all the time. Brabham was much happier, more free and easy, ja?”

Mario Andretti arrived at Ferrari having started only nine grands prix, and he retired from eight of those. His first race for the team was the 1971 South African GP at Kyalami in a 3-litre Ferrari 312B. He won. 

Nigel Mansell was also an immediate winner at Maranello. They called him Il Leone, much to the amusement of the British media. The Lion roared at the start but it stalked away to Williams in less majestic mood. I hesitate to mention Mansell and Villeneuve in the same sentence but they were both racers, and Ferrari has always loved a racer. Which bodes well for Räikkönen.

Again it was politics that was the undoing of Mansell at Maranello. That and the arrival of Monsieur Alain Prost. Il Leone suspected that the Professor was manipulating the team in an effort to establish his status as the number one driver, on many occasions complaining that Prost had the better engine.

In his autobiography Mansell refers to this period thus: “I was a poor politician, and in 1990 Prost joined Ferrari, where we had developed a winning car the previous year, and proceeded to work behind the scenes to shift the team’s support to himself.” Those were the days when Machiavelli was alive, and kicking, at Maranello and Our Nige was slain by those forces.

Ironically, it was internal strife that led to the demise of Prost, himself a consummate politician. On the executive floor they became rattled by their driver’s constant criticism of both the team organisation and the 642’s performance; Prost was dumped. Both he and the team had expected a championship, Ferrari not having enjoyed such a thing since Jody Scheckter won the driver’s title back in 1979. Until Michael Schumacher, a saviour at the gates if ever there was one. 

So the Ice Man arrives. His job, of course, will be to sustain rather than to save. Kimi slides into a great car and inherits a team at the top of its game. No, the man he has to beat, for so many reasons, isn’t the guy driving the other Ferrari, but Fernando Alonso in Kimi’s ‘old’ McLaren.

Testing during this winter period is rarely a reliable guide to what we shall see in Melbourne, yet the car Ferrari brought home from Brazil was, according to Felipe Massa who dominated the race, the most perfect he’d ever raced. And the strong relationship with Bridgestone will count for something in the early days of a single-tyre season.

A bigger question is the lack of Ross Brawn. Without Brawn, a chunk of the brains has gone too. Luckily designer Rory Byrne has been persuaded to stay on as consultant. He may provide the stability the team needs while adjusting to a new, very different, leader.