Ferrari and the Chaos Theory

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Enzo Ferrari died a decade ago, but, says Mark Hughes, it’s taken the team longer than that to realise it is stability and focus, not just pride, which wins titles.

Ferrari. Just looking at the collection of letters on the page conjures up a collage of intoxicating images; black prancing horse on a shield of yellow, a red Formula One car dancing on the razor edge of disaster and glory, any one of dozens of heroes at the wheel, savagely beautiful sportscars, their wailing exhaust notes the very sound of Italy. At the centre of it all, a broad-shouldered old man with grief in his heart for the lost son who wouldn’t be around to carry it all on.

It’s a story almost too operatic to be true. But where, within the story, truth really resides is almost an irrelevance, for there is a greater, undeniable truth: that Ferrari is regarded with a reverence that elevates it onto a different plane to any other car or race team. It’s a name that transcends a world of cars, that has become a motif for an intangible mix of desires and aspirations for our lives, beyond the materialistic but encompassing it too.

But don’t go looking to reconcile this greatness – for that is what it surely is – with the quantifiable achievements of the race team. That correlation is simply not there.

Sure, Ferrari has won 120 championship Grands Prix. But it’s taken 48 years and 604 attempts to do it, a ratio of one victory every five races. By contrast, Williams Grand Prix Engineering’s 103 victories have come on average once every 3.4 Grands Prix, McLaren International’s one every 3.3. Similarly, the Italian team has taken one of its drivers to the world title nine times in 48 years, a feat Williams has achieved seven times in 21 years, McLaren International seven times in 18 seasons. Even more damming, if you consider only the 18 years that these three teams have raced against each other, the title score with one race still to run this year is McLaren seven, Williams seven, Ferrari zero.

Its record in sportscars is impressive on paper, particularly its run of six consecutive Le Mans wins in the ’60s. But even this doesn’t stand up to closer scrutiny. In the ’50s, when Mercedes, Jaguar and Aston Martin were serious players there, Ferrari won just twice. Its ’60s run came in the face of little serious opposition and once Ford, then Porsche, committed to the event, the Ferrari wins dried up. A starkly objective view of Ferrari’s early years as a race team in the ’50s would be: its first Grand Prix car failed to mount a serious challenge to a design, the Alfetta, which was 12 years old. Its second design was a worthwhile effort which managed to win the odd race against the by-now 14 year old Alfetta design. The team then won a series of F2 races the ’52 and ’53 world championships against little more than a bunch of privateers in the first year and the Maserati team in the second.

Developments of this four-cylinder machine were completely outclassed in the new 2.5-litre formula by both Mercedes and Maserati and it wasn’t until the team inherited a new design from Lancia that it took another title, albeit with only Maserati as a worthwhile rival. It got an honourable season in with the Dino 246 in 1958, before being outclassed by the new wave of British mid-engined cars.

But loving Ferrari is not about being starkly objective is it? John Surtees, world champion in the red cars in 1964, cites some of the obvious reasons for the reverence: “You had a single, very charismatic and controversial figurehead in Enzo Ferrari. The company he founded is after all these years still in the same town. There’s a continuity in that the cars are still Italian red when everyone else changes colour every few years. It’s the only team which makes the entire car itself and right from the start, with those V12s, they made a fantastic sound.

“All these things add up. As Montezemolo said, it’s a firm dedicated to creating beauty and they actively promote themselves in that way. There’s always an excitement about them, a passion and a style. Although I’ve been away from there for a long time, and I didn’t leave on the best of terms, there’s still an excitement for me in having been associated with them.”

Chris Rea, who invested major time and money into a celluloid celebration of his love for Ferrari, La Passione, delves deeper into our psyche in his assessment of our enrapture: “It’s a three-dimensional dream of an Italian image we all have a fascination for. Because we love the Italian culture; it’s a striving culture. It’s striving to do something fantastic and beautiful without compromise. Which is why it often screws up because it shoots for the stars. I saw a Ferrari mechanic at a pit stop test in Monza actually clawing the ground as the car accelerated away. You get this feeling that because of their emotions getting in the way, it’s harder for them than it is for Williams or McLaren. And that strikes a chord with everybody else in life the struggle. It never looks easy for them to win and therefore the achievement seems all the greater.”

The real world doesn’t usually reward purity, passion, a love of beauty and refusal to compromise an ideal with quantifiable achievement. Where this leads cannot be put in a column and ticked off, won’t be incorporated into a wind tunnel. You need to look elsewhere to see the greatness that is Ferrari. It’s there in the tempestuousness of its struggle and sometimes, just sometimes, that struggle sees them soar.

Mario Andretti saw both good times and bad in two stints at Ferrari and says: “It’s a very special place, more so than any other team. They put their heart and soul into it in a way that I never experienced anywhere else. This isn’t always a good thing for you as a driver because if things aren’t going well it’s like you’re at a funeral or something. But when it’s a competitive situation it’s like total euphoria and when it’s like that, for me it’s the ultimate.”

The maelstrom of passion hasn’t usually been channelled or directed in any one way and the struggle has often been as much with itself – between different elements within, all fervently believing their way is right – as with its rivals. A former designer with the team comments of his time there: “Almost everyone there worshipped the Old Man and adored what Ferrari stood for and were totally committed. But it was as if they each had their own idea about how they could best serve the team and consequently you got all these horrible factions. Of course the Old Man didn’t come to the races which encouraged that sort of thing developing; he wasn’t there to see with his own eyes and make decisions on the spot. But it was relentless, very wearing and you found yourself putting as much or more energy into dealing with that than with getting on with what was really needed.”

Traditionally, the way of it has been that when the controlling faction doesn’t bring immediate success, there’s a bloodbath, an internal coup. Such infighting was, to an extent, the spice of life for Enzo, who revelled in conflict. “His way of operating,” says John Barnard, who was hired by the old man for the first of his two design stints with the team, “was to generate conflict by throwing everyone into the melting pot and letting the strongest float to the top. That was how he believed you got the best out of people.”

The bloodbaths were intensified by the insanely fervent rantings of the Italian sporting press again driven by a passion unimaginable in a British culture and the sensitivity of those within the factory gates to whatever was written. You begin to understand the storms that were forever brewing there. “I remember we had an engine blow on the dyno once,” says Steve Nichols of his time there, “and it’s not like when you do an in testing and everyone sees the smoke. This was hidden away in the dyno room. Yet in the papers the next day, there it was, and not only did they know about it and want to write about it, but they knew what had caused it! In my two and a quarter years there, every single day there was a feature about Ferrari in Gazetta dello Sport, and the management took notice of what was said because they knew their bosses and in-house rivals would be reading them, and so they would react, which was not helpful.”

In many ways the first really convincing era of sustained success from Maranello came during the Surtees days of 1963-66. Sure, it was more the time of Clark and Lotus, but Ferrari were genuine contenders for a longer period than ever before. The next such run didn’t come until the Lauda years of the 70s, the changes made then keeping a momentum of success going for a few years after he left. Thereafter, there was no sustained run until the current Schumacher reign. The common factor seems to be a strong-willed man making himself more than a driver and taking an element of control, being strong enough to force the factions in one direction.

That, according to Surtees, is partly a function of the very macho Italian culture: “In an Italian team – and I found this in motorcycles as well as cars – you need to be sure of yourself and behave as if you are sure of yourself and then prove it by performance. Otherwise you’re finished.” But even he was tripped up by the politics eventually, and now feels he didn’t make a sufficiently strong power base to keep progress going. “I was trying to develop things in a certain way – I was trying to make it a more international team, rather like it is now – and I had some success with that but it meant I fell foul of certain people within the team” People with a no-compromise passion about their vision of Ferrari, as always. And so came the coup.

“Stability is the most important commodity for success in any team,” continues Surtees, “and, partly through the Old Man’s mentality, partly through the way things are in that culture, the lack of that got in the way. I think there was a world title there for the taking in 1966 when I left and another one after that, and possibly a third in ’68. It was a terrible shame, the way things turned out, but the Old Man later said to me, `We must remember the good times and not the mistakes’ and I said I couldn’t agree more.” There is real emotion in Surtees’ voice when he says of the split: “It wasn’t good for either of us. We both went into a barren patch.”

It took until the mid-70s for Ferrari to come out of it. By then Fiat had acquired the company, though control of that part of the empire remained firmly in the Commendatore’s hands. But the first hint of a businesslike approach that would become more apparent after Enzo died in 1988, came with Luca di Montezemolo. A law graduate in his mid-20s, as ostensibly a team manager he was the architect of the renaissance, one of the rare men in Ferrari history who got the factions to mould together. He used designer Mauro Forghieri and driver Lauda as the cornerstones of this plan. But he was more than a team in reality. Critically, he enjoyed the backing that Surtees hadn’t been able to muster, through a close family link with an ally even stronger than the Old Man: Fiat’s Gianni Agnelli.

With that sort of clout implicitly behind his every move, Montezemolo was able to demonstrate just what a force Ferrari could be if its creativity and passionate energy were properly directed. From ’75 to ’79 Ferrari won four constructors and three drivers world titles and were by far the dominant force of F1. It was a dazzling display against intense competition, arguably the first time that all that talent and passion had achieved its potential. Montezemolo had left by ’76, Lauda a year later, but the structures laid down during their time helped carry others, notably ’79 champion Jody Scheckter, to success.

“It was a very together team, and well organised,” Scheckter remembers. “I guess a lot of that was from Montezemolo’s work before then. It only once threatened to deteriorate into casino when something I said after they’d given me the wrong pit signal found its way into the papers. There was a big meeting on Monday morning and the daggers were out, and I just said, ‘Hey we shouldn’t be fighting against each other but fighting together against everybody else’. The Old Man said ‘Yes, you’re absolutely right’ and the whole tone of the meeting changed and was positive once more.”

That sort of clear focus didn’t mean that the emotion wasn’t still there. “I always felt,” continues Scheckter, “that the people there, the mechanics especially, would be prepared to die for the team. When the Old Man gave his speech at the end of the year, some of them would be crying. “The Old Man was still a very tough, smart guy then,” remembers Scheckter, “and I think he was able to keep what was there together. But as he got older the team got weaker and weaker.” Indeed, without a Montezemolo to keep the energy directed, Enzo’s failing strength saw the team return to many of its old ways as different factions took hold.

Patrick Tambay enjoyed, in 1982 and ’83, the team’s last strong seasons before a long lean spell. “Structurally it was still a good team then, even though the management was not as efficient as it might have been,” he remembers, “but the British teams were about to make big technical strides and Ferrari just didn’t seem to be able to respond.” As Enzo’s influence declined, Fiat took an increasing role, one which became more fully visible after his death in 1988. For a time it was the worst of both worlds: no one strong figure to pull it all together but a corporate mentality from people brought in without the understanding of what Ferrari meant.

Nichols saw this period at first hand: “A lot of managers were brought in from Fiat and aside from the fact that it would take them a long time to adapt to F1, I got the impression that their time at Ferrari was a phase in their career. They’d have one eye on the rung below to keep anyone from grabbing them, one of the rung above and only their third eye on Ferrari.” As the downward spiral continued, the Fiat management thrashed around buying whoever was F1 technical flavour of the month, but without the necessary stability to back them up when they came. “They seemed to think if they got the name everything would just happen by osmosis,” says Nichols.

It had already by then lost Barnard and Enrique Scalabroni and junked the superb car the two had created. It was a machine which could have been a solid foundation upon which to base long term success. When its successor was a failure and its driver Alain Prost criticised it in public, it was followed by as bloody a series of firings as had ever been seen in the old days. Lost from the battlefield in 1991 were Prost, two team managers and the Ferrari president.

But from these smoking ruins came the genesis of a day when Ferrari would combine its passionate striving with a focus once again. Just as in the ’70s, when it happened last, it was a process that would see Ferrari again become a devastating force, and just as in the ’70s the man Fiat brought in to do this was Montezemolo, not in the pitlane, but sitting at a desk directing. This time his cornerstones are called Todt, Schumacher – like Surtees and Lauda, a strong enough character to be more than merely a driver – Brawn and Byrne. It’s a team which can now survive adversity but which still strives like no other.

Two disastrous races into this season, Surtees was asked what the team needed to do. His reply carried the tone of Maranello experience: “I would suggest that everybody places their faith in the people who are there.” A look at what they’ve achieved since says all that needs to be said about both stability and striving. It’s a potent combination and one which may, finally, see that correlation between greatness and results become apparent over time. “When the old man died I had to make a little statement,” says Surtees, “and I said, ‘With all respect to Mr Ferrari and what he has created, Ferrari’s best days are yet to come.’ I think that is true.”

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