The President's Men

Can Schumacher end Ferrari’s 17-year drought in the drivers’ championship? Mark Skewis finds Ferrari’s President in optimistic mood

There is far more to being a successful politician than just grabbing the nearest grubby-faced baby and praying that its nappy is empty and that the ice cream it is wearing instead of eating won’t smudge your Sunday best as you cuddle it.

Anyone seeking a vote of confidence from the electorate could do far worse than observe the progress of Luca di Montezemolo. With a handshake here, a flashed smile, a quick word there and a hand on the odd shoulder, Ferrari’s president navigates his way around the F1 paddock like a confident host mingling at a slickly-run party.

The problem is, the Prancing Horse is renowned as an organisation which couldn’t organise the proverbial party in a brewery. Which is precisely why its fate currently rests in the hands of this man. Team manager during the ’70s, when he helped Ferrari claw its way out of a crisis similar to the one from which it is presently attempting to escape, his smooth rhetoric and diplomacy have been polished in the course of a distinguished career which includes the organisation of the 1990 soccer World Cup and Italy’s first America’s Cup challenge.

Ending Ferrari’s 17-year quest for a world drivers’ championship is perhaps his biggest challenge yet, but underneath the charming exterior lurks the mind of a pragmatist. That was never better illustrated than by his decision, last year, to give the green light to the scrapping of the glorious-sounding V12 engine for which the Scuderia is famous.

‘Wouldn’t you have preferred to keep the V12 he is asked. “With my heart, and my romantic approval, yes, yes, yes,” he replies with a smile straight out of the Colgate advert. “But if you asked Jean and Gerhard last year, they said the engine was difficult to drive, if everybody Formula One has a V10, there must be reason…”

In his last spell with the team, Niki Lauda was its saviour. Intriguingly, Montezemolo has turned to a similarly cold, calculating character as he seeks salvation a second time. Like the Rat, and Alain Prost since, Michael Schumacher may not inspire the same love as did the passion of Jean Alesi but he does command the tifosi respect.

One of many myths surrounding Maranello is that Schumacher does not enjoy the fans’ backing. That suggestion conveniently overlooks the fact that the tifosi would cheer the devil himself if he could put their beloved cars on pole. They say people vote with their feet, a record number trudged through the turnstiles for Ferrari’s home GP, with 130,000 people attending on race day alone.

Alesi and Gerhard Berger may not be flavour of the month at Benetton, where they were called to a three-hour crisis meeting at Imola, but proof of their enduring popularity could be found in the banners which once again adorned the main grandstand. Either that, or the fans are just too parsimonious to fork out for a new flag now that its drivers have changed. Having stumped up 50 million dollars for Schumacher’s two-year deal, the same argument could hardly be levelled at Montezemolo who has, in every respect, put his money where his mouth is.

He has no regrets about recruiting the World Champion. Far from it. While Benetton personnel have been surprised at just how difficult life after Schumacher has been, so those at Ferrari underestimated the jewel they had captured.

“For me Michael is so important,” stresses Montezemolo, “because Formula One is no longer about robots, but about the driver once more. It is like football; it is about a team, rather than just going out and buying one superstar, but of course I can just go and buy a driver, which is a large part of the package. Ferrari has always had a great tradition in this area. Schumacher is as important to us now, as Senna was to McLaren.”

Both in Germany and Italy. where he qualified on pole and forced Hill to resort to a bold and, ultimately, successful pit stop strategy, the World Champion’s performance was a source of encouragement. But you sometimes sense that the team is racing not only against Williams, but against time. More heads have rolled at Maranello than at the Tower of London, but Montezemolo plays down the clamour for a ritual sacking.

“I am quite familiar with the pressure,” he smirks. “Ferrari is always under pressure from the press. Ferrari is always in the middle of the polemics. But where is the pressure? Only in the newspapers. In Italy the red team is like the national football team. All I hear is, ‘Why have you hired Irvine? Larini is much better’. ‘Why pay so much for Schumacher? It was better to keep Alesi’, ‘Alesi is the best driver in the world’; ‘Oh Barnard, the car is shit’.

“This is a folklore that in a way I like, because when the polemics are not any more, Ferrari isn’t Ferrari any more! When I visit the tracks, all I see is red flags. This is our life, our history and, I hope, our future.”

Speculation suggests that designer John Barnard may not have much of a future with the team. No sooner have the flames of controversy begun to flicker, than Montezemolo is on the scene to extinguish the debate.

“I was the man who hired Barnard again at Ferrari,” he promptly reminds you. “John is English, and sometimes he doesn’t understand the Italian press, but I would rather have him with me than against me. We pay a big price to have an office in England, but I was aware of that from the beginning. In Italy we are in a country where there is no Formula One silicon valley. The chassis, in particular, is an English phenomenon. Don’t forget the days of F1 with Colin Chapman. The chassis was born in England, no question about it.”

Much as he tries to defend the division of Ferrari’s resources between Italy and England, he can’t deny that the time has come for results to justify that investment: “I have tried to put my people in the best position: hiring Schumacher, building a new engine; giving John the best conditions in which to work. Now I need something back, I need some results. But from the team, not just from Barnard. Formula One is no longer a one-man show. There are many ingredients.

“I am old, and I know that Formula One is changing. In the ’70s the mechanical aspect came first: engine, suspension. Then, at the beginning of the ’80s, material: composites, the first wind tunnel; we paid a big price in the second half of the ’80s because our tradition was not strong in aerodynamics. The engine, the suspension. the brakes, were our know-how.

“Then in the ’90s came the crazy era, with people drunk for electronics and robots. You push a button, boing, in the fog. You push a button, boing, and a computer does the set-up of the car! We went too far. Now I think it is a good compromise between drivers, electronics and chassis. The engine is less important, now.”

Instead, the emphasis has swung back more towards the driver. And he knows that with Schumacher on board he is currently in possession of the best driver in the world. The German admits he can see light at the end of the tunnel, and accepts that the team is in a position to win far earlier than he expected. Frank Williams even believes Ferrari will push his drivers all the way for the title.

So is the holy grail now within sight? The consummate politician, Montezemolo waves away the suggestion with a wide smile. “If we do not win two races this season, it will be a failure. If we can win them, the championship is still our goal but only for ’97.”

In recent years the bungling of Ferrari has been the subject of much mirth down the pit lane. Now the opposition hopes its President isn’t about to have the last laugh…