Here comes the son

Racing folk are aware of his existence, but less sure about the precise role Piero Ferrari plays in the globally famous company established by his father Enzo. Would it surprise you to know he’s been its driving force for many a year, despite popular perceptions to the contrary? Read on as he talks to Motor Sport in a world exclusive
Photographer: James Mitchell

The man in the shadows of a legend; it was true of the boy Piero Ferrari, the illegitimate son who sought to keep himself out of sight of the wife of Enzo Ferrari around the factory, and it’s true of the 69-year-old vice-president of the company. Despite the seniority of his position, his Ferrari DNA and the length of his service (48 years with the company, 26 of them as VP), the perception of Piero Ferrari remains – an enigmatic figure, a lugubrious lost soul forever trying to find his place in the narrative of this most Byzantine of stories. But it’s a misleading picture. In many ways he is the real power of Ferrari, the man moving in the shadows of the main stage but in his smiling, friendly, shuffling way playing a crucial and active role in guiding and directing the company, using his quiet influence upon the highest-placed of industrial, political and financial contacts throughout the world, leveraging that influence to give a power out of all proportion to his 10 per cent shareholding.

The recent ending of Luca di Montezemolo’s 23-year reign as Ferrari president is a case in point. Piero Ferrari did not make that decision – he’s not empowered to, given Fiat’s 90 per cent holding – but he is the link between Fiat and Ferrari, the man who is consulted and who can often find the solution. Di Montezemolo is expected soon to take his place at the head of Alitalia. But the background to this has Piero Ferrari running right through it. Alitalia is widely expected to be bought by Abu Dhabi’s airline Etihad, which is part of the same group of companies as Mubadala, essentially the Abu Dhabi royal family’s portfolio. Mubadala was introduced to the Ferrari team as a sponsor eight years ago and for a time took over a significant chunk of Fiat’s shareholding in the company, as a temporary measure to allow Fiat the cashflow needed elsewhere in its business. As allowed for in that deal, Fiat bought its shareholding back within a set timeframe (2009). But where did the Mubadala link come from? The answer is Piero Ferrari. As president of aeronautical company Piaggio Aero he formed business links with the royal family, his famous name and heritage the ultimate calling card. After bringing them on board as investors in Piaggio, he facilitated their introduction to the Fiat board, guided them towards Ferrari. Now, they are a part of the solution again as a graceful way has been found for the exit of di Montezemolo whose time was deemed by Fiat boss Sergio Marchionne to be past.

Luca leaves behind an empty office across the corridor from Piero’s, which is on the upper floor of the main Maranello factory block – not an extravagant room, maybe six by eight metres, decorated with prints of Jacky Ickx winning in the rain at Rouen in ’68, Art Merzario in the 312P at the Targa Florio and Ickx again at the Nürburgring ’72. To the side of his desk are pictures and mementos of his father and his family.

There’s none of the brooding drama of Enzo’s old office and there’s no hiding behind dark glasses, no orating, no delivering of a performance. This is not Enzo, despite a facial resemblance that seems to increase as the years pass. He’s accommodating, smiling and modest, gentlemanly, puts himself at your disposal, is gracious with the photographer’s requests. But you sense the underlying ease with his power, the shoulder-shrugging response of his tall frame to the perception of others. He’s just not a limelight man, but given his history he was never going to be.

“I don’t like to appear on TV or be interviewed every day,” he says. “My life has been just trying to do the best I can and to make my experience available for the company in general. Any chairman or CEO or anyone responsible for the Formula 1 team I have always tried to help. Marco Mattiacci I’ve known for 15 years and, if he needs help, I’m helping him. This is my attitude to the people responsible for the company business.”

The voice is a strong baritone but the delivery relaxed, the observations often coated in wry amusement. But the steel is there – and the pride.

At one point, on the subject of Mubadala, he insists: “I brought them, I started the contract, I began this revolution – not through Ferrari. I introduced them even to di Montezemolo. He didn’t know them before.”

“Piero is the exact opposite of di Montezemolo,” says Pino Allievi, a Ferrari observer for more than 40 years. “He doesn’t want to show what he is achieving but prefers to be like a phantom. Many of the ideas over the years have been Piero’s but have been allowed to be presented as di Montezemolo’s. He is like the gossamer of Ferrari. Every decision passes through him.” On the road car side, the low-volume concepts of F40, F50 and LaFerrari were his.

His input on the racing side is indirect, felt only when it overlaps with the big picture, but he was the one in the company advising the signing of Fernando Alonso as Michael Schumacher’s replacement. Jean Todt was reluctant, feeling that Kimi Räikkönen would create fewer waves. That much in Todt’s assessment was true, but in time Räikkönen was paid to leave a year early in order to facilitate the recruitment of Alonso. Piero was then adamant that a returning Räikkönen would be the perfect foil for Alonso, against the initial wishes of di Montezemolo. Piero doesn’t make these decisions, but his influence is central to them.

He’s seen a lot since officially joining his father’s company as a 21-year-old in 1966. “I started to walk around the company at the end of 1965,” he recalls. “In October ’65 my grandmother [Enzo’s mother Adalgisa Bisbini Ferrari] died and one month later my father told me at the funeral that in her testament she had stipulated that I work with him at Maranello and so I started there in early ’66.”

This is all of course tied up in the backstory of Enzo having fathered Piero out of wedlock, with Lina Lardi, a worker at Ferrari’s factory during wartime and apparently possessed of much the same serene nature as Piero would come to display. His identity as Enzo’s son was not widely known until the ’60s, although the ‘old man’ was very much a part of Piero’s childhood life. Enzo’s mother is said to have been very insistent that he legitimise his second son, Piero’s half-brother Dino having died in 1956, aged 24, from muscular dystrophy. Piero Lardi officially became Piero Ferrari in 1978 after the death of Enzo’s wife Laura.

“He was a good father. There was a tenderness behind those dark glasses that people didn’t get to see. But he was also a tough person and I was always just generally following his desires and orders – mostly orders! Any little job he was asking me to do, he was very demanding because he wanted to show other employees that I had no privilege. I was an example for the other employees – I had to work harder than the others for less money. My first job was taking the drawings and parts of the 196 Dino – a car that had given a fantastic performance at the Nürburgring in ’65 – to the GT department because we were making 20 examples for customers. I was between the two departments and doing all the paperwork. It was a big thrill.” Even for a young man who’d been given a new 275GTB for his 18th birthday…

The traits that are today such an important part of how Ferrari is shaped were evident very early, in that Piero came to be a valuable link between the engineering staff and his father. “I was sitting with the engineers and other employees, I was just one of them. I am not the sort always asking, ‘Why this? Why that?’ I just sat and listened and what I learned was from listening – that is my character. I had good relations with the others. I would not say they were good friends but we were together, we respected each other and they were able to be more open with me than with my father. It was a more friendly relationship.

“I love engineering and technology, but it had not been a formal study of mine. But over the years, just through my passion I tried to build my knowledge so that I could understand what the engineers were doing and build up an understanding of them as people. Many engineers are very smart at engineering but are too fanatical about their own ideas, for example. They don’t have a complete picture of the problem. So I always tried to be the person who brought the ideas together for a fuller understanding and, for my father, this was a very useful thing. When you are a manager you need someone who can tell you the full picture of why solution A is better than solution B. It seems easy but is very difficult. It’s technological and human together.

“There used to be a mechanic in engine assembly in the racing department and he was the representative of the unions. In the ’70s we had very tough strikes everywhere, including here. During the strikes the only two persons allowed to enter the factory gate were my father and me – my father because he was the owner, but alone he could do nothing, and me because I had a good relationship with the union and those people. This mechanic still calls me every Christmas. I had very good relationships at every level of the company.”

The picture builds of the younger Ferrari as the moderator, the facilitator, the more approachable, warmer side of the dynasty. The father-son relationship acquired an extra dimension as Piero settled down to life at Maranello. “The best time would be after the end of the day, if he had the spare time. He loved very much nice women and good food and he was always taking me to these different towns, different restaurants, different people. These are nice memories, when he wasn’t talking about work. He was a very special father. I saw him behind the screen. The glasses were his screen between the people and himself.”

Ask Piero about his favourite era of racing and he’s unequivocal. “The mid-70s with Niki Lauda and Clay Regazzoni. Maybe it’s nicer because I was younger, but for me that was a fantastic time. We had a lot of success. We had even more success later in the Michael Schumacher years but for me, my favourite time was with Niki and Clay.” It was Piero who was infamously on translation duties when Enzo asked Lauda of his first impressions of the Ferrari and Lauda replied that it was ‘shit’. “Niki didn’t like the car because it understeered. His style was to have it more responsive. But the car had been developed when Merzario was driving it and he always preferred an understeering car – if the rear end moved he was terrorised! So it wasn’t that the car was inherently bad and when we adapted it, it changed completely and Niki was much happier with it. But you know Niki – he’s a very special character. Even now he causes polemics when he says our car is shit! Everything is black or white with him. Actually my father was not so upset at that moment – it’s not like it was shown in the film Rush. The time he was upset was when Niki came and said he would not renew his contract [into 1978] and that he’d already signed for Brabham. My father was convinced he was coming to ask for more money, not to leave Ferrari. He had a lot of esteem for him as a driver and person.”

By now publicly acknowledged as the founder’s son, Piero’s career became more visible to the outside world and he began to assume some managerial duties. He formed a close bond with Jody Scheckter. “Of all the drivers, Jody is the one I was closest to. When I began the drivers were like heroes and older than me, then at around Jody’s time they were a similar age, then they were young! The drivers stay the same but you age. But Jody was a very intelligent person, not just as a driver but in everything. He proved this as a businessman after his racing career. But probably the two drivers that did the most for Ferrari during my time were Niki and Michael. They were the best of their time because they used the brain – they won because they were more intelligent. Gilles Villeneuve? He was the fastest, most fantastic driver who could do anything with a car but I don’t know if he had the mentality to say, ‘Today I need to be at 99 or 98 per cent, not 110 or 115’, and I think you need this to be world champion. He was a very nice person, very simple – and eating like he was still in rural Canada. What happened between him and Pironi at Imola in 1982 was only between the drivers, there was no team involvement. I was there in the pits that day and we had no idea there was a problem – until after the race. We had no radio then, only pit boards. After the Renaults retired [leaving the Ferraris running 1-2], their lap time was not really so fast and we were convinced they were not pushing 100 per cent. It was a misunderstanding between the pit wall and the drivers.”

One of the great partnerships that never was – between Ayrton Senna and Ferrari – did almost happen, first of all in the ’80s and again a few years later, and Piero was at the centre of it. “I talked to him about it a few times,” he says. “But even before then he was the only non-Ferrari driver sending me Christmas cards. I don’t think that was part of any plan – it was just his education. He was a very nice person. He was at Lotus with engineer Gérard Ducarouge: he thought a lot of him and wanted to bring him here. A few years later, we were talking again – but then the accident...”

Piero’s career within the company had continued to progress and by the mid-80s he was effectively in operational charge of the racing team. But this was a confused time in the company’s history, as Enzo’s powers were fading and Fiat – which had bought a 50 per cent share of the company in 1969 – began to get more involved. Perhaps Piero was not yet experienced enough to bridge the gap and he was further challenged by the polemics that developed: first those between Ferrari’s long-time chief engineer Mauro Forghieri and British recruit Harvey Postlethwaite and – after Forghieri’s departure – between the Postlethwaite and John Barnard camps. Of the two drivers at this time, Piero was close with Michele Alboreto and they were very much in the Postlethwaite camp. Gerhard Berger was closer to Barnard. Piero had been against the high-profile recruitment of Barnard and his Fiat and Enzo-sanctioned insistence of basing Ferrari’s F1 technological centre in the UK. Dissatisfaction grew and at the end of ’86 it led to Piero distancing himself from direct involvement in the race team.

“I never saw myself as repeating what my father had done,” he says now. “That would have been impossible. I did not want to be the king, it’s not in my nature. From my side, I was even convincing [Fiat] that what my father did was impossible to imitate and replicate. He was the king. That’s why he never travelled. He lived in Modena, worked in Maranello and commuted in between, but that was it. Because in Maranello he was king and always said, ‘If I go to Rome or Paris I am just a visitor’. In Maranello the rich and famous came to visit him – politicians, film stars, even the Pope! Can you imagine? I was driving the car [a Mondial Cabriolet] with the Pope at my side.”

The Pontiff did not in fact get to meet the Old Man that day, as Enzo was too frail. They spoke on the phone, the Pope informing Ferrari that he had blessed ‘young Enzo’, his great-grandson from Piero’s daughter. It was mid-1988 and for the 90-year-old founder the end was near. Piero was 43 and had no desire to be placed as head of the company.

“My father had the option of buying back Fiat’s option to buy another 40 per cent of the company after he died. If he did not do this, Fiat had the right to buy the 40 per cent. A few months before he died he decided not to leave the 40 per cent to me, but to sell it to Fiat. It was complicated by the death duty taxes. After he died I was in the company and the [Fiat] people of Turin were coming and wanting to have a different management. I was a 10 per cent shareholder, Fiat 90 per cent, so my position to Mr Romiti, who was in charge at Fiat at the time, was: ‘I am here and I can help you every day’ and that has been the story since. They have the choice, I can just help.” By guiding, influencing and providing solutions in his position as vice-president…

“Just because of my passion I started an engineering company that is developing quite well now. I’ve been with a group of Italian businessman serving Piaggio Aero, which was bankrupt, and I’ve been chairman since February. We’ve saved the company and it’s now the property of Mubadala. This is something different from Ferrari and I have built up a lot of trust with a lot of different people.”

It’s that trust at so many different levels that has proved to be such an asset for Ferrari. The departure of di Montezemolo marks the beginning of a new chapter in the company’s history, coinciding with the Fiat-Chrysler group being listed on Wall Street. The implications on the racing team are not yet clear in detail, but Piero leaves little doubt about the Scuderia’s continued commitment to F1. “We have always been in F1 and I don’t want to be alive the day someone wants to stop Ferrari’s F1 programme. Because if you stop and try to come back, forget it. It would take 10 years to be competitive again. I’d really be against it. As for Le Mans, it’s very interesting and part of Ferrari’s history. But I’d say it’s quite impossible to do a full LMP1 and F1 programme – for us. It would be incredibly demanding technologically and financially. You have to do one or the other.

“But I would say that the F1 regulations of the moment are difficult enough! We’ve introduced a new engine that’s not just an engine – it’s a lot of technology all together that does not exist on any GT or street car. It’s a hybrid car plus energy recovery from the turbo. If what we were doing before was like a mission to the moon, this is like a mission to Mars! It’s a completely different scale of technology and at the same time we are supposed to be trying to save costs. The engine freeze is not helpful because if you start with a winning car then you’re guaranteed to win all season.”

That is pretty much the story of Mercedes this year, Ferrari being one of those nowhere near as well prepared for the new formula – and firings have followed. It’s difficult not to reflect that Ferrari’s greatest period of success was built up by four individuals – Ross Brawn, Jean Todt, Rory Byrne and Schumacher - recruited from outside, each already with a record of formidable success. Ferrari has not been able to recruit Adrian Newey nor, reportedly, Mercedes’ Andy Cowell. It does however have a gifted technical director in James Allison and quite possibly the world’s best driver in one of its cockpits. It’s not a bad starting point, but what might be coming?

“An F1 team is always a work in progress,” says the vice-president. “It’s not a stable organisation – never. Engineers are moving all the time from team to team, and after five years maybe all the best are in one place. At Ferrari we are out of this circle at the moment. Some engineers from other teams are coming, of course, but we have a very solid core here. And everyone is trying incredibly hard for next year.”

Working in the spotlight and shadows.