The Scuderia fights back

A series of high-profile changes at Ferrari led some to fear the team might implode. But as the first races of 2017 show, nothing could be further from the truth

When James Allison, the Scuderia’s highly regarded British technical director, left halfway through 2016 a few months after suffering a family tragedy, the expectation was that the team was on a downward spiral. It’s happened here many times before, where the structure of the organisation is not up to the enormous pressure that lack of success creates. In 1991, for example the team suffered an almost total collapse just a few months after having been a serious title contender. Internal recriminations trigger annihilation, there is blood on the walls and it takes years to build the team back to strength.

It looked suspiciously like the disappointing form of 2016, on the back of the promise of the previous season, was going to trigger the blood-letting. A very high profile boss noted for his aggressive managerial style in the automotive industry, but with no racing experience, seemed to be placing extra pressure upon the people inside. They would react either by keeping their heads down, or else leaving. 

Good people unwilling to express original ideas in case they didn’t work, gifted people with great understanding and skills either fired or choosing to leave. The departure of Allison looked like the beginning of that familiar destructive process. A frustrated and dispirited star driver, after the honeymoon of his first season there, was – according to a source very close to the team and in a position to know – looking at ways in which he might be able to leave short of his allocated contract. There was no big-name technical director to replace Allison on the eve of a major technical regulation change, just the promotion of the former engine department chief Mattia Binotto. The car’s performance dropped ever-further away from the Mercedes steamroller and was leapfrogged by Red Bull into the season’s second half. The whole thing looked to be nosediving.    

Except... Here was Ferrari three races into the 2017 season, leading the championship after another win in Bahrain, with arguably the best race car on the grid, a technically innovative machine quite unlike the others, and a motivated Sebastian Vettel taking it to Lewis Hamilton race after race in the sport’s new post-Ecclestone era. Ferrari stands now gleaming as the apparent competitive saviour of F1. What the hell just happened? 

There is the car, the SF70H (its ‘showbiz’ name) or the 668 (its internal design number). But underlying that is the process which created it. And that’s where a fresh approach behind the scenes has not only steadied the ship but allowed it to set full sail. It may sound unlikely from within the insular world of the sport, but the car is actually a triumph of management, the embodiment of a new philosophy behind the scenes. Sergio Marchionne, for all his bluster, has been revealed as a more subtle and nuanced boss than had previously been acknowledged. A straight line can be drawn between the managerial innovation and the technical originality evident on the car. 

‘High Potential’ is a recognised management philosophy taught in business schools and is a system specifically configured to extract the potential of talented employees. The theory is that there’s a crucial distinction to be made between a high-performing employee and a high-potential one. This system is designed to build a more robust talent pipeline that no longer relies only upon people good at firefighting (i e high performers). High performers are self-evident in their track record of meeting or exceeding expectations, but might not have the potential to succeed in higher roles. On the other hand, ‘high potentials’ could through their aptitudes have a bigger positive impact upon the organisation than a high achiever, but are usually unsuited to managerial roles. The danger is that they can be overlooked within an organisation and they will feel under-appreciated and either not give the organisation the full benefits of their talents – or leave the organisation entirely. They are much more difficult to identify than high achievers. Managerial consultant Brian Kight summarises the problems of seeing only the high achievers. “When performance is the only criteria employees are evaluated on, high performers will be the only ones moving up – and your high potentials will be moving out.”

In looking at the specific situation within the high pressure confines of Scuderia Ferrari – massive pressure to achieve but an organisation with big numbers of technically talented individuals unsuited to management – Marchionne understood what the appropriate system was going to be.

The big change came during the 2016 summer break, in concert with the restructure of the technical department. Having spent many weeks interviewing employees at all levels for their ideas of what they saw as good and bad in their departments, Marchionne instigated the new high-potential structure. No longer would a department boss simply allocate tasks, but there would be a key group contributing ideas, with the boss then working through them and deciding how to proceed. The burden of responsibility to come up with ideas switches to the employees. Original ideas are encouraged rather than kept unsaid in case they don’t work and reflect badly on the person suggesting them. It’s a radical culture change, way more flexible and open, less hierarchical.

After years of producing technically conservative cars that simply followed the technical trends of the previous year, Ferrari’s SF70H was revealed with a highly original interpretation of the new sidepod regulations and much aerodynamic detail unseen anywhere else, such as the high-set radiator cooling inlets. Body sections that meet the newly regulated 75-degree swept-back angle ahead of the sidepods have allowed the sidepods themselves to be set at 90 degrees, facilitating a greater airflow capture to cool the radiators. This in turn enables the radiators to be smaller. A crucial part of the aerodynamic effectiveness of this generation of F1 car is joining up the airflow coming off the front wing, around the front wheels, and having it reattach far enough ahead of the sidepods to create the necessary vortices that accelerate the air down the sides of the bodywork to the rear. The faster the air can be made to move here, the greater the downforce created. It’s crucial then to have enough space between the front axle line and the sidepods – and it is partly this that has defined the current generation of F1 cars as very long. On the Ferrari, that crucial length between axle and sidepod is maintained by being able to start the sidepods a long way back (because of the reasons outlined above). Consequently the Ferrari does not need to be as long as more conventional cars. It is a much more compact – and lighter – car than its rival, the Mercedes W08. Ballast can be used to vary the SF70H’s weight distribution from circuit to circuit whereas the W08 is currently 6kg overweight and therefore cannot use ballast and its weight distribution is therefore fixed. The Ferrari is a more driveable, flexible race car, with a wider operating window and is kinder on its tyres.    

Perhaps significantly the sidepod concept is believed to be the work of David Sanchez – before he was promoted to chief of aero in the wake of Dirk de Beer’s departure. Sanchez could be used as the perfect case study of the ‘high-potential’ employee, someone previously with a reputation for left-field original ideas but without the ‘high-achiever’ type of personality.  

Sanchez has presided over another development of great originality – the way the car’s floor works in concert with the diffuser and rear wing. The floor – which by regulation must be a single piece – appears to be constructed in a way that allows it to pass the FIA flexibility test while flexing downwards in the section ahead of the rear tyres beyond a certain speed. This and the way the rear wing is pivoted on twin central pillars suggest that a way has been found partly to stall the diffuser beyond a certain speed. As the rooster tail of air from the diffuser is switched off, so there is less interaction with the monkey seat and rear wing, thereby reducing the drag of the wing. It would allow maximum downforce through the turns without all of the concomitant drag down the straights. It suggests that Ferrari has mastered the correlation between varying flexibility and the carbon lay-up required to achieve it –
Red Bull led the way in this domain with its nose and wings a few years ago. 

Such innovation is very different to Ferraris of recent years and questions have naturally been posed about whether it was essentially the product of Allison and his since-departed chief of aero de Beer (now at Williams). Under Allison’s directorship the general mechanical layout and wheelbase of the car was established, but not the detailed aero – as the latest regulations were not even defined until March 2016. At the time of their departures the car’s aero model was in the very early stages and the lift:drag numbers were said to be nothing spectacular. It seems as if the floor lay-up technology made serious progress in the months after their departures. The timing of the aero regs also effectively puts paid to the theory that some of the extra wind tunnel time available to Ferrari through the Haas programme two years ago was devoted to this car. At that time, there were no existing regs around which to simulate a 2017 car.  

Concurrent with all the aerodynamic progress, big gains were made by the engine department, something Vettel confirmed in Bahrain, saying, “We pushed very hard over the winter. I think we did a very, very good job, especially on the power unit side. There’s been a very big step. It feels great.”

Other areas of improvement include the gearbox and the team’s understanding of tyre science. Last year Ferrari lost a total of 30 grid places to gearbox penalties. In miniaturising the casing for aerodynamic gain, the ’box was simply too weak. An all-new unit is a feature of this year’s car. It was apparent quite early last year that the Scuderia lagged behind on tyre science; several times it lost the set-up of the car when the track temperature changed between Saturday morning and qualifying. Ernesto Fina was recruited (from Williams) as head of tyre science part-way through last season and the whole tyre group was further strengthened by other additions and a different understanding of how to use the relevant modelling software. 

NOR SHOULD THE INPUT OF FERRARI’S former technical director – the legendary Rory Byrne, still a consultant with the team – be underestimated. He has enthusiastically embraced the new system, continues to feed into the process of the creation and development of the cars and has stepped up his involvement over the last couple of years.

A fundamental change of management system seems to have unlocked the potential that was already residing in the people working at Maranello. Removing the stigma of blame has played a direct part in the originality of the car, which in turn is a big part of its competitiveness. Team principal Maurizio Arrivabene has tried in turn to underplay expectations, attempting further to relieve the pressure upon those inside.

Bear in mind too that there was a great will for Ferrari to be successful for the good of the sport – a fourth season of total Mercedes domination would not have helped anyone and, under his role of technical and sporting boss for Liberty Media, Ferrari’s old technical boss Ross Brawn will no doubt have been delighted at the progress of his former team. Ferrari’s pre-season query to the FIA, about the legality of the hydraulic actuation of the suspension systems used by Mercedes and Red Bull, has also surely played its part in the Scuderia’s strong start. 

Far from the implosion that looked imminent, the forces at Ferrari have coalesced into something quite formidable. For once, they all seem to be pointing in the same direction.