Honour still exists in the F1 paddock – but is not always rewarded
Something was always going to happen once Luca di Montezemelo arrived in Bahrain full of show, pomp and pronouncements – and was then left embarrassed by how the thrilling race made a joke out of his criticisms of the new formula and, more particularly, how poorly the Ferraris performed. There was too much loss of face, too much tension for there not to be some major fall-out. Just over a week later Montezemelo accepted team principal Stefano Domenicali’s resignation. This was old-school Ferrari, a throwback to the days before Ross Brawn, Jean Todt and Michael Schumacher took the Latin heat out of the team’s coalface and rebuilt it in the image of a contemporary cutting-edge F1 entity.
Domenicali (right), who took over the reins in 2007, is a decent and honourable man who has always conducted himself with grace, humility and good humour. It was these qualities, together with Martin Whitmarsh taking over at McLaren from Ron Dennis, that thawed the awful relationship between those two teams.
Unlike some previous Ferrari bosses, the world of private jets and first-class travel was not for him. He took an interest in people and tried his best always. Maybe his best wasn’t good enough – under his command the team won the 2007 championship and was a final round contender in 2008, 2010 and 2012 – but it was he who decided so. The initial assumption of many was that he had been left with no alternative by chairman Montezemelo, but according to people inside the team this was not so: he sacrificed himself as an alternative to having to fire someone else. That’s just the way things roll at Ferrari now, like a throwback to the 1950s and ’60s. It had to be someone’s head so he chose to make it his own, to protect those below him.
Perhaps it was just in Stefano’s nature that he did not transcend the status of employee even when in the role of team principal. Perhaps he wasn’t allowed to. As you may have read in last month’s magazine, when Ross Brawn had joined Jean Todt and Michael Schumacher at Ferrari, they made a pact with each other that the senior management (i e Montezemelo) would not break their circle, that they would ensure they each had a clear space to run things the way they deemed necessary. It was clearly a frustration for the boss, even as the team enjoyed the longest run of success of any in history. So when Brawn, after taking his sabbatical in 2007, entered discussions with Montezemelo about coming back from ’08, he was spurned and Todt had already been dismissed. Domenicali was Montezemelo’s man, a good company employee who would do as requested. So it was never in Domenicali’s remit to act as a full team principal. Which has led to where it was inevitably going to; despite the limitations of the role placed upon him, Domenicali’s record was good. But under those terms it was never going to match the heights attained during the Brawn-Todt-Schumacher era.
Whether Domenicali had the forceful, ego-driven competitive personality required of a true F1 team principal is debatable; he probably was too nice a guy for that. But he was never given that opportunity, always had the straitjacket of employee around him. At one of Luca’s pre-season press conferences his answer to a question was interrupted by his mobile phone going off. He answered, said something about ‘Domenicali’ attending to the matter and with a dismissive wave handed the phone over to Stefano who jumped like an errand boy. It wasn’t dignified, and to have imagined Montezemelo treating Todt or Brawn in such a manner would have been unthinkable.
A few years ago Montezemelo offered Adrian Newey several million pounds per year to come and lead Ferrari’s aerodynamic department. Adrian turned him down and renewed his Red Bull deal. This coincided with the Ferrari boss making pronouncements about how F1 was too much about aerodynamics and that it should be more representative of road car technology, such as engines. Well, that’s exactly what we have now. The Ferrari F14T’s aero looks pretty damn good, its power unit less so. Well, with all those TV cameras pointed at Luca as Fernando Alonso and Kimi Räikkönen were passed on the straights as if missing a plug lead, that had to be someone’s fault. Apparently it was Domenicali’s.