F1 Frontline with Mark Hughes

Twenty-three years on and Ferrari’s saviour Luca di Montezemolo has left the building, with more than a little urging by his Fiat boss Sergio Marchionne. It’s a move that probably has much to do with the Fiat-Chrysler group’s listing on the New York stock exchange and Marchionne needing to be seen to be in charge of the group’s most valuable and profitable brand, but the steady decline of the Scuderia’s F1 form has not been the greatest of shop windows.

It shouldn’t be forgotten that di Montezemolo presided over the longest period of sustained title success of any team in the sport’s history. But that gentle slide into mediocrity has been on his watch, too, and reflects a lack of the sort of vision he seemed to possess when he turned Ferrari – the road car company and the Scuderia – around in the mid-90s. In F1 terms he made one very expensive mistake back in 2007, one that might ultimately have sealed his fate.

That was the year Kimi Räikkönen gave the team its sole post-Schumacher world title (for drivers) and, apart from the distraction of ‘Stepney-gate’, everything seemed to be going swimmingly. The momentum of the previous Ross Brawn-led era was enough to see the team through; Ross had left a highly capable bunch of people and a good structure behind and everyone just kept doing what they’d always done. Little had changed other than Ross taking a year’s sabbatical. But at some stage that year Brawn made a visit to Maranello, discussed whether he would return after his break and did not get a positive message. Di Montezemolo’s vision was of a more Italian Ferrari, run by home-grown people within the company rather than expensive ‘mercenaries’ bought in from outside. The ongoing success seemed to indicate – superficially – that Ross was not needed, that he was of the past.

So Brawn took the Honda job and history unfolded as it did – with the subsequent Honda withdrawal laying foundations for the world title-winning Brawn Grand Prix and the further subsequent buy-out of that team by Mercedes, still with Ross at the helm. The momentum at Ferrari, meanwhile, was showing signs of petering out and would soon be relying very heavily – too heavily – upon the genius and competitive will of Fernando Alonso to keep it in contention at all. Technically, it was being left behind as earlier long-term strategic managerial decisions – such as not rehiring Brawn and initially turning down requests for a new wind tunnel – came home to roost.

But the biggest challenge for everyone lay ahead, in the form of the radically new hybrid formula. Recognising the scale of this challenge, Brawn began preparations years in advance. The whole trade-off between engine and aerodynamic performance needed to be reassessed, initially without any real idea of the implications on the rest of the car of the new fuel flow-limited hybrid turbo V6s. Some of the answers only became clear as the power unit took shape – and Mercedes found itself in a perfect position to discover them as Brawn had set up a beautifully integrated project team between the chassis and engine sides of the operation. The chassis team began asking fundamental questions of the engine people and vice-versa, with the answers opening up doors of possibility that had never previously been considered. With just a year to go, the car they’d been working on was canned – and they started again, using the new knowledge of how the fundamental requirements had changed.

At Ferrari – and everywhere else – things were less well planned. The fundamental questions asked did not go as deep, the solutions, while similarly out of the box in many ways, were not as well supported by re-evaluation. Ferrari elected to go all-out for aero performance – the weakness of Ferraris of the previous few years – by moving the oil tank to the rear to allow the engine to be brought forwards which, in conjunction with a much longer wheelbase, would allow the maximum potential to be gained from the rear aerodynamics. But it was a concept that made what turned out to be the key technical must-have of the new era – a compressor split from the turbine and mounted at the front – impossible. The difference in vision between what Brawn oversaw at Mercedes and that in place at Maranello was suddenly laid starkly bare.

Now Montezemelo could see the benefit of having Brawn on board. Ross didn’t invent the split turbo concept, but he was behind the strategic planning that put in place the group that did, bringing the right people together in the right structure and ensuring they had the time to mine deep into the problem.

So Ferrari has now decided it can do without its president. But boy, does it ever need Brawn.