Decline of a superpower

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Ferrari once boasted the greatest team in Formula 1 history, but those glory days are long past. Worst of all, its long fall from the top was entirely self-inflicted

Ferrari’s new team principal sat confident but silent alongside president Luca di Montezemolo at a press gathering in the Scuderia’s motorhome during the Spanish Grand Prix weekend. Silent because he’s still learning the ropes of F1, parachuted in as he was from a position as CEO of Ferrari North America? Or silent as in he’s the man with the real power behind him and simply allowing di Montezemolo to act the part? In that question could lie the team’s future prospects. Power politics are everything here, just as they always have been, and all is not quite what it seems. Team principal Marco Mattiacci has been placed in his role by Fiat chairman John Elkann, grandson of the late Gianni Agnelli, and the appointment has the full blessing of Fiat CEO Sergio Marchionne. It was not an internal, Ferrari-only appointment, though clearly Luca has been allowed to present it as such.

Stefano Domenicali – who resigned as team principal after the Bahrain Grand Prix following six years at the helm – was only ever di Montezemolo’s employee, doing the job as he saw fit in between carrying out the president’s specific wishes. This was in sharp contrast to how things had been before – when Jean Todt, Ross Brawn and Michael Schumacher between them formed a tightly knit circle of power. No-one – not even di Montezemolo – could break into that. They took control and between them agreed that they would share all information, effectively stripping the boss of any interruption or disruptive power play. It was the way Todt had worked at Peugeot, too, clearing a space for those doing the job so as to be immune from the pressures of management.

Because they and chief designer Rory Byrne were also supremely talented in their own areas of expertise, they combined with Ferrari’s resources to become dazzlingly effective. They took the shambles that was Ferrari of the early ’90s and progressively evolved it into the greatest team F1 has ever seen, unbeaten in the championship for five straight years. They developed structures, disciplines and procedures previously alien to the very Latin culture of Maranello and turned it into a tough fighting unit, with the late Nigel Stepney translating that approach to the ground troops so that Ferrari also had consistently the best reliability and pitstops in the business.

Todt and Brawn were employees only on paper. They completely transcended that status in reality. Di Montezemolo could take the credit for having recruited them in the first place (though in the case of Todt it was on the advice of Bernie Ecclestone, the Frenchman in turn targeting Schumacher who then insisted they needed Brawn and Byrne). But though the duration of success was beyond anything even the Scuderia had enjoyed before, perhaps the president felt one step removed, perhaps it wasn’t Italian enough and perhaps there was an underlying resentment that he’d had to recruit ‘mercenaries’ from outside to reconstruct an edifice that had become almost derelict. It’s possibly quite significant that when he announced Mattiacci he said: “I decided to appoint a young manager in whom I have a great deal of confidence and someone from the Ferrari family, rather than going around the world looking for some mercenary.” Did he consider Todt and Brawn mercenaries? Did he resent the big money, high profile and recognised success of Todt and Brawn? Did the sweetness of their success have a bitter aftertaste? He’s never going to answer such questions, this man who is sometimes like an actor playing himself, so the real person is never revealed, but his actions tally with that and his words sometimes betray it.

Early in 2006 Brawn informed di Montezemolo that he would not continue beyond the end of the season. Schumacher then only very reluctantly retired at the end of that year, his decision hastened by di Montezemolo’s pressure. The boss had signed Kimi Räikkönen, not in any way the traditional number two that Schumacher had always enjoyed under the protection of Brawn and Todt. Michael was free to stay if he wished, but only as an employee. Feeling underappreciated and not sure if he could summon the focus he thought would be required to prevail over Räikkönen, he stepped down. A few days after the end of the season Todt was effectively dismissed, though in the Italian way it wasn’t presented like that. He would stay as a special advisor, though in reality Domenicali was now the team principal, and would be labelled as such the following year. And so it was done; the three pillars of control (Brawn, Todt, Schumacher), whose combined forcefield had kept di Montezemolo one step removed, were now gone. He was back in charge. Part way through 2007 Brawn had meetings to see if Ferrari might want him back after his 12-month sabbatical, but predictably that idea didn’t go anywhere.

Di Montezemolo did not try to replace the architects of the golden period with similar figures. Instead, he installed the home-grown Domenicali, a very able lieutenant but not one who either by circumstance or personality would ever be able to assume the level of control and responsibility that Todt or Brawn had taken. Rory Byrne went into semi-retirement and was replaced by his long-time number two Aldo Costa, another very able man but again a more conservative, less gung-ho persona than his predecessor. The excellent structure built up during the glory years allowed the team the momentum of success. Räikkönen won the 2007 title and Felipe Massa was an agonisingly close runner-up in 2008. But by the time di Montezemolo finally succeeded in recruiting Fernando Alonso, the technical momentum was already on the wane. Simulation technology had advanced at breakneck pace during this time and Ferrari had not kept up. From leading the field in this area, it was already badly lagging. Without a widely connected team boss, with a network that covered all the British teams and suppliers – and someone who could authoritatively demand more budget for facility upgrades and explain exactly why they were needed (ie Brawn) – Ferrari was very quickly falling behind the times technically. The dazzling rebuild of the early ’90s ruin was beginning to look a little tired.

The challenge was exacerbated as it had voluntarily surrendered one of its key advantages over the British teams – an on-site test track. The testing ban neutralised Fiorano. Di Montezemolo had aligned himself with the British teams and against FIA president Max Mosley during 2008-09, a historically unusual position for Ferrari to adopt. He even, briefly, became president of team association FOTA. Some of the cost cutting measures agreed in that time actually worked against Ferrari. Domenicali was also very active in the team body, working for the greater good but taking focus away from the slow slide into only semi-competitiveness that has characterised Ferrari in the Alonso era. At much the same time, the weapon that is Adrian Newey had been properly unleashed, free now from the constraints of McLaren and given the freedom and budget to do whatever he saw fit at Red Bull. Not only was Ferrari sliding gently down, but the bar was simultaneously being raised.

Things were slowly getting out of kilter and the big technical overview was not being represented at the highest level of decision making. Reconfiguration of the team’s wind tunnel began four years ago, upgrading it to be able to use 60 per cent rather than 50 per cent scale models and incorporating an advanced format that could present a curving airflow to the car. It proved a disaster and, after being shut down and redesigned during much of 2012-13, it is only now beginning to give reliable correlation with the real world. The team had to rely on the Toyota wind tunnel in Cologne in the intervening period. It was unfortunate that the timing of the new tunnel coincided with how F1 aerodynamics were developing to use ever-more intricate and inter-related vortex generation to accelerate airflow all around the car. The development in F1 of counter-rotating vortex pairs (CVPs) – generating separate vortices that accelerate the airflow through the gap between them to create the various outwashes and invisible sealing that are such crucial parts of a current car – made the aero performance incredibly sensitive. It was the worst possible time to encounter a tunnel problem.

“In all my time at Ferrari, I don’t think we ever brought new parts to the car that stayed on it over a race weekend,” said Felipe Massa at this year’s Spanish Grand Prix. “They never worked. At Williams the correlation between the tunnel and the track is fantastic.”

Although the tunnel problem has had a major bearing on the team’s performances of the last few seasons, it has really been a symptom of the underlying problem – which is that without someone at the technical level of Ross Brawn having an overview, the team management is simply having to rely on what its engineering staff are telling them. Strategic decisions are not fully informed – nor does the team have complete access to what is going on in F1’s UK ‘silicon valley’. Domenicali was a highly competent manager, but keeping Ferrari at the forefront of F1 technology requires more than that. It demands the sort of background that can make fully informed choices, that can anticipate technical problems before they arise and have the clout to demand changes or investment.

In the meantime di Montezemolo repeatedly tried to recruit Newey, offering a reported £10 million per year in 2011. Newey turned him down and renewed his Red Bull deal (which officially expires at the end of 2017). It would be no surprise if the recent rumours of di Montezemolo trying again turned out to be true.

Brawn was a shrewd technical man at a very senior level and was not replaced on a like-for-like basis. At the track Domenicali was not the sort of personality able to pursue Ferrari’s interests above all else, in the way that Todt and Brawn were. Things generally were less clearly defined within Ferrari in the post-Todt/Brawn era. The example of the Alonso/Massa team orders affair, at Hockenheim in 2010, was just one outward manifestation of a trait that was always there. This had its roots in Alonso’s second race with the team, Australia 2010, where he was coming back through the field after a first-lap incident and was on-course to be challenging for victory until he encountered Massa in third place, going significantly more slowly. The team didn’t ask Massa to move aside and, unwilling to risk a collision, Alonso was prevented from reaching Kubica and Button just ahead. As far as Alonso was concerned, a winnable race had been lost for the sake of ‘being nice’ to the other driver. Alonso met with Domenicali at the factory in the aftermath, made his point forcibly and the boss agreed that if such a situation should arise in future, the call would be made. But at no point was this agreement relayed to Massa, who only got to find out on lap 45 of the German Grand Prix when he received the infamous “Fernando is faster than you” message.

Alonso has found himself in a strange situation at Ferrari. Recruited as ‘leader’ of the team, something that hadn’t lent itself to Räikkönen’s personality, he has not received anything like the support Schumacher enjoyed. He has never been on the same solid footing, never been part of the fabric – because the real power has always been one step removed, the supposed team boss really just an employee of someone not present. Then, as the Spaniard’s frustration spilled over with a throwaway line last summer, so di Montezemolo pounced. He berated arguably the world’s best driver as if he were an errant schoolboy.

And so to this year’s Bahrain Grand Prix, where di Montezemolo had made his typically showbiz entrance, photographers surrounding him getting out of the back of the car, smile on full dazzle, waving to non-existent acquaintances off in the distance to make for more impressive footage. Later he pronounced to the journalists – we need to increase the fuel limit, this formula is for taxi drivers, the racing is dull etc. And then he left before the finish, a thrilling race, wheel-to-wheel dices right down the field, but the Ferrari drivers sank ever further back, a lack of traction and efficient energy harvesting leaving them bereft of electrical boost at critical points of the track. Luca couldn’t watch any more and his car was duly summoned, and headed for the airport a long time earlier than it might had the red cars won.

For a man to whom image is so important, it was all very embarrassing – and the laughing stock quotient only increased when some of his points were put to those more intimately involved: “Increase the fuel limit?” said the engineers. “Where would we put the extra fuel? The cars have all been designed around 100kg tanks.”

Montezemolo’s former employee Todt was there and, asked about Luca’s suggestions, replied. “I’ll happily talk to him about them, but maybe he should talk with his engineers first.”

There’s a lot that’s still right about Scuderia Ferrari. It has potentially the best integration of chassis, aero and power unit of all, given that it’s the only team that has these departments on one site. But the lines of communication, the attitude of all working together for the best overall car solution – as typified by Mercedes and the conception of the W05 written about in last month’s issue – is not at the level it should be. This must be seen as a failing of management; the lack of overview and recognition of what is required. There are a lot of talented and passionate people working there – and technical director James Allison is a huge asset – but they need to be directed effectively and efficiently. There are multiple losses in this system.

So we return to that scene in Spain, with the silent Mattiacci sitting alongside the expansive di Montezemolo. “Mattiacci knows how to run a company and handle a group, which is very important. Now he has to do a full immersion in F1 – much as I did when I started in 1973. I was passionate but not an expert. In ’92 Jean Todt joined as an expert of rally, not F1, but he quickly became an expert. I’m not happy about where Ferrari is, not at all; it is so much less competitive than my expectations. We need to be very clear about where the problems are, why we are not competitive, improve the situation as soon as possible without losing the talent, while maintaining a good, calm environment and have firm short-, medium- and long-term goals. I know that Ferrari has all the capabilities and opportunities to grow back to its form. In looking ahead we need to react in terms of mentality, in terms of organisation, in terms of speeding up time to market.”

What was going on behind Mattiacci’s impassive face as this was being said? If we knew that, we’d have more clues about whether he is the man for the job. Although his experience of racing is non-existent, that need not matter. Flavio Briatore, a man from the clothing industry, proved a highly effective F1 team boss. But he was guided by great technical men – Brawn and Pat Symonds notably. If Mattiacci can make someone like Allison a trusted ally and, once up to speed, transcend his position of employee and become a genuine boss, then it’s possible.

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