Reflections with Richard Williams

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Ferrari is more than a business – it’s a calling

In his fascinating and often touching epilogue to a new Italian edition of his late father’s memoirs, Piero Ferrari writes of a little noticed facet of a character whose complexity he compares to a Rubik’s cube: the romantic streak that, in Enzo Ferrari’s final years, prompted him to hire Michele Alboreto in the hope of seeing an Italian driver repeat the world championships won by Alberto Ascari 30 years earlier. A vain hope, as it turned out, but then disappointment was already almost as powerful a part of the Ferrari legend as the countless victories.

For the Scuderia, 2017 ought to be a year of joy, in which all the threads of a wonderful story – past, present and even future – can be gathered up and celebrated. Perhaps that is how it will indeed turn out, although it is always dangerous to make predictions on the eve of a season featuring a set of new technical regulations. But all the evidence suggests that the festivities in Maranello are more likely to be directed at the glorious past as a way of deflecting attention from present tribulations under the latest group of managers struggling to prove themselves worthy successors to the enigmatic Old Man.

Most significantly, on March 12 it will be exactly 70 years since Enzo Ferrari, already in his 50th year, wearing a dark double-breasted suit, a white shirt and a tie, settled himself into the seat of the first car to bear his name. In front of a small group of mechanics, engineers and other associates, he fired up the engine and swung the little car – which had no bodywork to cover its naked mechanicals – out through the factory gates, turning right up the via Abetone Inferiore, the ruler-straight two-lane strada provinciale leading from Maranello towards Formigine, eight kilometres away. There he turned it around and headed back to the works, where Luigi Bazzi, his wizard of engine tuning, made a few small adjustments before taking the wheel himself for the car’s second run. Six weeks later that car and its near-identical twin would be on the starting grid in Piacenza, 70km away: the first cars named Ferrari to take part in a race.

A great thing to celebrate, of course: the birth of a legend. The story that began in the early spring of 1947 has been an artery pumping rich red blood into the whole of modern motor sport. Other teams might come and go, changing their identities or disappearing altogether, but the Scuderia Ferrari has been a permanent and uniquely compelling member of the cast – a distinction for which it is handsomely (some would say excessively) rewarded by Bernie Ecclestone in the annual division of the F1 proceeds.

When Enzo Ferrari announced in 1945 that he was giving up the machine-tool business whose success had seen him through the war years in order to build and race cars, the reaction was mixed. Franco Cortese, the company’s travelling salesman, who had raced one of the Scuderia Ferrari’s works-endorsed Alfa Romeos in the 1935 Mille Miglia, responded with amazement. “Only a madman would dump a business as profitable as this,” he remarked. But on May 11, 1947, two months after that first test run, Cortese would find himself in pole position for the Circuit of Piacenza at the wheel of the first 125S, about to set off on a long adventure whose route and outcome none of them could have predicted. He would lead that race until his fuel pump packed up three laps from the end: a “promising failure”, in Enzo Ferrari’s words. Two weeks later in Rome, on the circuit of the Baths of Caracalla, the former travelling salesman would give the Ferrari its first victory.

The anniversary of the first test drive to Formigine and back takes place exactly two weeks before the new season kicks off in Melbourne. On May 25 comes the 70th anniversary of the maiden victory in Rome, followed on July 6 by that of Tazio Nuvolari’s first win in a Ferrari, at Forlí, which confirmed not just the “inexhaustible qualities” of the old champion, in the words of a British correspondent, but the excellence of the new machine. (A week later, in Parma, Nuvolari led Cortese home in the first-ever Ferrari one-two, having judged the Miss Parma contest the night before.) Towards the end of the year, too, the company could commemorate the first sale to a customer – or customers, in fact, since the brothers Gabriele and Soave Besana, Milanese aristocrats, joined forces to purchase a two-litre 166 Spider Corsa, already raced twice by the Scuderia, in time to ship it to Argentina for the Temporada series in the early weeks of 1948.

The Besanas were the forerunners of countless aristos, heiresses, royals (both reigning and exiled), socialites, stars of Hollywood and Cinecittà, classical conductors, rock musicians, oligarchs, footballers and oil sheikhs, from Prince Bernhard and Ingrid Bergman in the 1950s to Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi. In his memoirs, Ferrari preferred to divide them into three categories: sporting types, men who won’t see their 50th birthday again, and exhibitionists. Every one of them was buying a piece of reflected glory.

Just now, that glory is not shining so brightly. Last year the Scuderia Ferrari went through an entire F1 campaign without a win for only the 14th time in an unbroken 67-season run of Grand Prix competition. There had been barren runs before, notably from 1991-93, when Luca di Montezemolo was getting to grips with reviving the company after Ferrari’s death in 1988 had been followed by a disastrous period under Piero Fusaro, a Fiat appointee. Montezemolo brought in Jean Todt, who gradually recruited the team that would dominate F1 in the early years of the new century, adding a new lustre to the company’s road-going cars.

If Montezemolo didn’t have Ferrari in his bones, he was certainly adept at giving that impression. He understood the need not just for success but for high drama, which his own personal flamboyance helped to supply. He knew about motor sport, having competed in a souped-up Fiat 500 in his youth before entering the world of top-line rallying. He had rescued the Scuderia once before, taking over as team manager at the age of 26 in 1974, immediately after the worst season in the Scuderia’s history, and working with Niki Lauda to win the world championship a year later before moving on to other challenges. He knew what it took.

Fusaro had tried to bring his business expertise to bear, but showed no real understanding of the way Enzo Ferrari had set up the company, with the racing team at its heart. He was not helped by a recession that left unsold Ferraris littering the factory yard, but it was his decision to raise production at a time when the Formula 1 team was not doing the business and the general economic situation was about to hit turbulence. Returning in 1991, Montezemolo refocused the team and rebuilt its morale. He and the people he gathered around him were all professionals, but they were also racers – as are men like Toto Wolff and Christian Horner, who run today’s most competitive teams.

The same cannot be said of Sergio Marchionne, the Fiat Chrysler chief executive who gave Montezemolo the elbow two years ago and added the leadership of Ferrari to his portfolio, or of Maurizio Arrivabene, the former Philip Morris sponsorship executive brought in as team principal earlier in 2014. The pullover-wearing Marchionne has degrees in philosophy and law to go with his MBA; he joined the Fiat Group in 2002 and is credited by some in the business press with turning its fortunes around, but his methods may not necessarily transfer to the racing world. The decision to put the Alfa Romeo badge on the 2015 and ’16 Ferrari F1 cars seemed a jarring expression of corporate strategy; more seriously, a disagreement with James Allison, the highly rated technical director who had revitalised the team’s performances in 2015, prefaced the Englishman’s departure midway through last season. Having seen his optimistic predictions undermined by poor results, Marchionne allowed personal exasperation to colour his tone when he said of the F1 team in November: “I’ve thrown all the money I’d like to throw at that.”

Money, he was saying, was not the problem, but then at Ferrari, it never is. Continuing revenue streams from FOM, Philip Morris, Santander and other sponsors guarantee them the biggest budget in the paddock, at more than £300m. His assurance that reorganisation has improved the internal running of the Scuderia awaits the evidence of the season. Marchionne and Arrivabene may be excellent managers in their own fields, but seven decades of history prove that when it comes to getting the bells of Maranello’s parish church ringing again, good management is useless without inspiration, innovation, the kind of commitment that comes not from the imposition of targets but from somewhere deep inside and, however carefully it needs to be hidden in today’s world, a streak of romance.

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