Scuderia’s succession scramble

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The death of Sergio Marchionne has left a void that is being filled by three powerful players, each with their own agenda and support base. The question is: which one will ultimately prevail in the battle for Ferrari’s soul?

Not many would have bet that Sergio Marchionne could lead Scuderia Ferrari to a fantastic renaissance in the last couple of years, transformed it into a creative tour de force that has produced F1’s fastest car and left even the great Mercedes-Benz scratching its head. Sadly, the enigmatic industry boss never got to complete his planned post-corporate pet project, never put in place the final pieces. His sudden death without a succession plan has left a power vacuum in his wake and the medium-to-long-term prospects of the team are far less certain than they were.

How will it all play out? With intrigue, drama, plots and sub-plots in the best Italian tradition – and already we are hearing of the opening moves and positioning of the leading players. Although Ferrari is now very much part of the global corporate world, it is still run by a unique set of aristocratic industrialists. “Theirs is a strange world,” says one who once worked there after a time at British teams. “As an outsider you are never fully accepted, but you get to see a little of how it is. Socially, this group of Italian aristocracy is very closely linked and inward looking. It probably numbers no more than a few dozen people – not at Ferrari, just in total. They live in that world of a few dozen people from a handful of families and are sort of bound together in their unique world, shut off and protected from the outside. Most of the top people of Fiat and Ferrari – way above the level of the team itself – are from that world, that culture.”

Marchionne had only one foot in that world. He transcended it to see the world as it really was, moved freely among it, bold and assertive, a force that proved stoppable only by cancer.

The financial and commercial realities of the time made the skills and vision of this commoner – of Yugoslavian blood but born in Italy, raised in Canada – the true heir of the Agnellis, despite the heavy presence of the offspring of the founding family. An accountant, a lawyer, a philosopher; in truth he was anything he chose to be and could run rings around anything or anyone that stood in the way of the goal. He was ruthless and he fired people, but that came from a clarity of thought that allowed him to see the true root of a problem very quickly. He soon got the hang of F1.

“Jesus, he created a stir when he first appeared at the F1 Strategy Group meetings,” recalls a British team boss. “In the first one he came in and started ranting about why were we standardising everything. He said, ‘If I want to put a great big hole in the bottom of my car, I should be able to do it, damn it,’ and started trying to undo a lot of things that had already been agreed and signed off. He’d brought Arrivabene with him and at one point Maurizio said something and Marchionne said: ‘Stop talking. And don’t talk any more,’ and he didn’t!”

He’d recruited Maurizio Arrivabene from the closely Ferrari-associated Philip Morris to be his lieutenant after taking soundings from a relative that also worked at the tobacco company. He recruited him, he said at the time, “For his thorough understanding not just of Ferrari but also of the governance mechanisms and requirements of the sport.” Arrivabene’s background of expertise was sales and marketing and he’d sat on the F1 Commission for some years. His job now was to carry out Marchionne’s instructions regarding the running of the team. He wasn’t empowered in the same way as other team principals, wasn’t a mover and shaker. He was there to keep the ship steady.

“Arrivabene wasn’t empowered in the same way as other team principals. He was there to keep the ship steady”

AS MARCHIONNE BECAME more familiar in the environment of both F1 and the Scuderia, so he began to understand the mechanisms that were making the team less than it could be. There was a lot of talent there and the team was far from a disaster, but it was some way from the cutting edge entity it had been a decade or so earlier in the Brawn/Schumacher era. But Marchionne didn’t seek to recreate that structure. Instead, after asking questions of employees at all levels throughout the organisation, he began to put together a different sort of working hierarchy. During this process he’d been very impressed by the insight and level-headed, intelligent approach of the engineer Mattia Binotto, at the time assistant chief of the engine department. Marchionne promoted him to engine director in 2014, and subsequently – after not seeing eye-to-eye with James Allison and letting him go – to technical director, mid-season 2016. Binotto is a big picture man, an able engineer, but outstanding in his management of a technical group. Undemonstrative and with a quietly pleasant demeanour, but smart and ambitious, there are those there who see his strengths and traits as similar to Ross Brawn’s.

Increasingly, Marchionne was taking his readings from Binotto – and not Arrivabene – of how things were going and what was needed. Binotto was increasingly in the loop in the forming of important decisions in a way that was not the case with Arrivabene, whose role was just to implement. The rumours strongly suggested that for 2019 Marchionne planned on replacing Arrivabene as team principal with Binotto. He also made arrangements for Ferrari junior driver Charles Leclerc to replace Kimi Räikkönen, having infamously referred to the latter as ‘something of a laggard’. Marchionne was fine-tuning the entity. With the technical group re-energised and now consistently the most creative and effective of all, outstripping even Mercedes, now he needed to get the team operation running to a similar level. These were going to be his first moves towards achieving that. But he died before they came to be. So Arrivabene gets to stay and Binotto’s promotion to team principal is delayed indefinitely – probably for as long as Arrivabene is there. The moods and currents arising from those dynamics can only be imagined…

THE STRAINS WERE definitely showing during the Italian Grand Prix weekend, where Sebastian Vettel’s championship aspirations took a serious dent, not least because of the ambiguity that the management had allowed over Räikkönen’s role – both for the Monza weekend and into the future. How binding was whatever agreement between Leclerc and Marchionne? Could it be deferred for a year or two, keeping Räikkönen in his role – as Vettel (and Arrivabene) would prefer?

At the ground level of the team there was a great level of support for Räikkönen to remain. But as far as the upper levels of management (John Elkann, Louis Camilleri) were concerned, the plan remained just as Marchionne had intended. Different factions pulling in different directions, it wasn’t a reassuring pointer to the future…

Furthermore, no one was telling Räikkönen what the situation was – until Sunday morning, a day after he’d qualified on pole, one place ahead of the champion-designate Vettel. An angry Räikkönen understandably drove very much for himself in the race, his strong defence of the lead from Vettel at Roggia on the first lap very much a key to Vettel’s subsequent collision with Lewis Hamilton. Had Räikkönen been in full team-player mode, it doesn’t seem too much of a stretch to imagine Vettel winning the race rather than limping home fourth, three places behind title rival Hamilton. Then there was the matter of why Räikkönen had been allowed to run Q3 in position to be towed by Vettel rather than vice-versa. It was Räikkönen’s turn on this weekend in terms of the team’s agreement with him. But a stronger management might have overridden that in the circumstances and ensured it was Vettel who got the tow (worth 0.35sec at Monza) and not Räikkönen, who eclipsed the untowed Vettel by just 0.16sec. These were self-inflicted wounds, with Hamilton and Mercedes taking clinical advantage. Even with the benefit of the fastest car, is a conflicted team such as this Scuderia capable of winning a world title?

In the emergency restructuring following Marchionne’s death, he wasn’t replaced by one man, but two. The late Gianni Agnelli’s grandson John Elkann was named chairman. Board member Louis Camilleri – previously CEO of Philip Morris, where he’d been Arrivabene’s boss – was appointed CEO. Camilleri and Arrivabene have a relationship going back more than 15 years and are said to be close – up to a point. “Camilleri knows the animal,” says our source, “knows the level of freedom he can give Arrivabene.”

That level is considerably more than he was ever granted by Marchionne. Camilleri seems not to be planning the sort of hands-on approach of Marchionne. Asked at Monza about driver choice, he said, “That’s a matter for Maurizio.” Regardless of how misleading the answer was, if one could imagine a sentence that would never, ever, have been uttered by Marchionne, that one would be somewhere near the top… “Maurizio is really puffing his chest out now,” says an amused British team boss. “He’s going round trying to organise this, pull together that. It seems pretty clear the alliance with Mercedes forged by Marchionne is a thing of the past. He seems to be trying to block anything Toto [Wolff] is suggesting and appears to be trying now to align Ferrari more with Red Bull.” At Spa he made sure photographers knew he was about to have a meeting with Christian Horner in the Red Bull motorhome…

THE NEGOTIATIONS ABOUT Ferrari’s continued presence in F1 post-2020 had largely been resolved between Marchionne and Liberty Media’s Chase Carey. “I had dinner with him just before he went into hospital,” says Carey, “and on the goals we had, we were largely in agreement. The specifics of how to achieve those goals was still to be agreed, but it was very much, ‘Let’s get this done’. I don’t want to be pushing Ferrari at this moment,
post this change. But we have a good relationship with them.”

“Can Binotto continue to be the powerhouse of the most creative technical department in F1?”

These were heavyweight discussions and it’s doubtful anyone at Ferrari has the stomach to redraw them, so Marchionne’s work can be expected to stand at that level. Camilleri met Carey and Brawn at Monza and is understood to have largely agreed with the post-2020 proposals on the table. But there is a concern that, as a result of Marchionne’s uncompromising approach having bruised several key people, they might now want to undo much of what he put in place within the team. “There is a part of the family that resented the power Marchionne had,” says the insider. “He had radically restructured things and worryingly there seems to be a mood among them of the need to fix what they perceive he did wrong.”

The Emperor is dead. But are those who resented his power, and now seek redress, as skilled? Can they put aside their personal ambitions for the sake of the team? Probably the most important part of this whole equation is on the ground level – whether technical director Binotto can draw a line under what might have been and continue to be the powerhouse of the most creative technical department in F1? Beyond that, can he work effectively with Arrivabene in achieving success together? Can Arrivabene carry the role of team principal in its broader, empowered sense? Does he have the necessary qualities? Can the senior management stand behind him? Can that family of cocooned, privileged individuals hope to ever have the breadth and vision that the cardigan-wearing bruiser brought to the game? Things are rarely dull at Maranello.