"In the race itself, Alonso is the best"

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During the Geneva Motor Show, we had an opportunity to chat to Ferrari chairman Luca di Montezemolo about road cars, motor sport… and Bernie Ecclestone’s succession
writer Andrew Frankel

Luca Cordero di Montezemolo is late, but not by much. To be frank, I’m surprised I’m getting to see him at all. It’s press day for the 2013 Geneva Motor Show, an event likely to be recalled by history as the LaFerrari Motor Show. Think what you like about the name of Maranello’s new hypercar, it didn’t so much steal the show from rivals as hold them at gunpoint while it ransacked the place. This is my 25th Geneva show and whether you think the car a pointless irrelevance or a technological masterpiece, I’ve never seen a car make a bigger impact.

It turns out the chairman of Ferrari has been meeting with Ratan Tata, the recently retired head of the Tata Group whose possessions include Jaguar and Land Rover. Now just 15 of our allocated 30 minutes remain but instead of being allowed to sit down and start the tape, di Montezemolo grabs my arm and marches me over to the part of the stand dedicated to Ferrari’s personal commissioning department. Here he shows me how you can have the transmission tunnel of your Ferrari covered in the same diamond pattern quilted material used on the 250GT0, or have your seats upholstered in the same denim as your jeans. It’s fascinating, but not exactly what we’re here for.

His English is as good as you’d expect of a man whose former achievements include studying law at Columbia University in New York, running the Scuderia at the age of 27, being CEO of the company that owns La Stampa, arranging Italy’s first ever America’s Cup entry, chairing the Fiat Group and organising the 1990 World Cup. Since 1991 he has been the chairman of Ferrari and, although he is endlessly rumoured to be Italy’s next prime minister and a known supporter of Mario Monti, politics is the one item not on today’s agenda.

Finally we are ushered into a small anteroom. I ask first about his new car, not simply because it is the fastest (218mph), most powerful (950bhp) and expensive (£1 million) Ferrari in history, but also because over the other side of the show, arch road and race rival McLaren is revealing the production version of its 218mph, 903bhp, £866,000 Pl. I wonder how the chairman thinks the two compare.

*

“The McClaren is not a 100 per cent new car,” he says. “Ours is not a version of something else or in any way related. I wanted a car that had nothing to do with Ferrari’s past or present. It follows in the unique Ferrari tradition of F40, F50 and Enzo. It has been 10 years since the Enzo but technology has moved so fast. In another era the advances we have made would look more like those you’d expect to take place over 40 years. And in 10 years, we will make another.”

No one will know whether McLaren or Ferrari has built the better car until the two meet in private (it seems unlikely to the point of impossibility to think that either manufacturer would assist in arranging the contest), but in sales terms the picture is clearer. McLaren said it would build fewer than 500 PI s before settling on 375 and, at the time of writing, approximately half are taken. A McLaren spokesman assured me the remainder would be sold “within weeks”. Di Montezemolo says his problem is deciding how to divide the 499 LaFerraris among the 700 favoured customers who want one. As problems for car company bosses go, it’s probably among the better ones.

Turning to Formula 1, I ask if he’s happier with where the Scuderia is today than he was this time last year. Eyes widen, brows raise: “That should not be our benchmark. Last year was a disaster.” He pauses before saying with all the considerable emphasis he can muster, “I was more than upset with our performance.

“What matters is that the car you have designed performs as expected at the first test. We have suffered heavily over the last couple of years because the car we thought we had was different when it reached the asphalt. This year we are completely in line with our expectations. Of course we have no idea where our competitors are but we are absolutely where we expected to be; last year we were nowhere near.” This is likely to make ominous reading for those rivals who recall that last year’s ‘disaster’ was still good enough to keep Fernando Alonso in the title hunt until the last race and claim second place for Ferrari in the championship for constructors, despite Felipe Massa failing to trouble the podium until the 15th of 20 races.

Ferrari’s inability in recent years to close out championships is something di Montezemolo feels keenly. “The secret,” he says, “is to be competitive from the first race and not have to play catch-up through the season as we have in the last three or four years.” He points out that three times in the past five years Ferrari has lost the title in the last race of the season. “In 2008 it was unbelievable, Felipe was actually champion and then lost it in the last metre of the last lap of the last race of the season. In 2010 it was actually more difficult for us to lose the championship than win it, because we only needed to come fourth, and last year again it came down to the final round.” His frustration is clear but so is his point: “For most of the last five years, Ferrari has been at the top and in a position to win.”

As for his drivers, he rates Alonso as not only the best driver in Formula 1, but also “the best during the race” of any driver he has worked with. Think about that for a moment. On that list you’ll find Niki Lauda, Gilles Villeneuve, Clay Regazzoni, Carlos Reutemann and, lest we forget, Michael Schumacher. He describes Alonso as “a combination between Niki, who was very intelligent in the race, and Michael who could do qualifying laps from flag to flag”. Di Montezemolo stops just short of calling him the best outright, because he says it’s difficult to make such a comparison over so many years when it includes testing and qualifying ability too but, “in the race itself, yes, he is the best”.

And what of Massa? The chairman springs to his defence. “It is true that at the start of last year, something happened in his head. He was blocked and couldn’t drive like Fernando. But now he is very relaxed and has been excellent in testing. Don’t forget there were times when Felipe was quicker even than Michael. If I have problems, they are not the drivers.” As if on cue, a text chirrups into his telephone. “It’s from Massa in Brazil. He wants to know if he tries as hard as he can to win in Australia, will we put his name on the list for the LaFerrari…”

*

Our official interview time has long since passed but di Montezemolo is in full flow and the PR chief in the corner knows better than to stop him. Clearly there’s never going to be a better time to lob a big question. So I ask if he thinks Bernie Ecclestone should retire.

There’s a moment’s silence, just long enough for me to wonder if the interview is already over before di Montezemolo roars with laughter. If nothing else, I think he’s amused by the question’s directness. But soon he’s serious again.

“I have just been with my friend Ratan Tata. And despite being one of the five most important entrepreneurs in the world and being in great shape, the rules of his group said he had to retire at 75. So now he’s retired. Bernie is 82 and is not even thinking of a successor. He is a one-man show with no equipe around him. Sooner or later we have to start thinking of the future.”

Is he calling for Bernie to quit? “He has done a fantastic job. I am a friend of his and I still think he is in a condition to work well despite his age, but in every company sooner or later you have to think of the future.” Then he says with a wry smile, “Enough diplomacy. If I have something to say, I’d prefer to say it to his face than to the press…”

But clearly the events of the end of last season still rankle. You might recall Ecclestone describing Ferrari’s request for clarification from the FIA, over whether Sebastian Vettel overtook during a yellow flag period during the title-deciding Brazilian Grand Prix, as ‘a joke’. “All we say to the FIA is that we have received hundreds of e-mails from our fans. We don’t know so please tell us. We will accept whatever decision you make.” Referring directly to Ecclestone he says, “Before talking about Ferrari like that you should think for 10 minutes because this has nothing to do with you. The FIA, but not you.” Di Montezemolo may be 65 himself, but fire remains in his belly.

Yet he remains in cheerful mood, and with good reason. Despite the collapse of Italy’s economy, Ferrari made more cars and sold them in more countries last year than ever before, and on merit: the model range has never been wider or stronger. He describes the company he inherited in 1991 as “locked in the prison of the past”, yet in February this year according to Brand Finance Ferrari replaced Apple as ‘the most powerful brand in the world’. Di Montezmolo still calls Ferrari “a small, local, Italian company” whose entire process, from foundry to production line, happens in the same small town where Enzo Ferrari started building cars, in the same year as di Montezemolo was born in nearby Bologna. “But,” he says, “our window is open to the world.”

With that Di Montezemolo gets up, smiles, shakes my hand and steps outside to face a thousand camera flashes from the world’s press as he launches Ferrari on the next stage of its extraordinary journey.

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