F1 frontline: October 2018

The death of Sergio Marchionne, after a year-long battle with cancer, has big repercussions for both Formula 1 and Scuderia Ferrari

Sergio Marchionne was a man who’d played hardball with the American government to acquire Chrysler for nothing; in fact better than nothing, for it came with all sorts of sweeteners that allowed both it and the Fiat Group to survive.

So, negotiating with F1’s owners about Ferrari’s terms of participation from 2021 onwards was surely a game of far lower stakes for him – and he was happy to play just as hard. Asked how he’d feel about going down in history as the boss who’d pulled Ferrari out of F1, he replied: “Like a million bucks, because I’ll be working on an alternative strategy to try to replace it. A more rational one, too.

“I think you need to be absolutely clear that unless we find a set of circumstances, the results of which are beneficial to the maintenance of the brand in the marketplace and to the strengthening of the unique position for Ferrari, Ferrari will not play.”

No one really thought it would come to that. But there was a reluctance to press him too hard on his word: a rival Ferrari-led series would be a death blow to F1. He used that weight well and, shortly before his trip to the hospital, he’d had dinner with Liberty Media’s Chase Carey and they’d largely agreed where they were heading – together – and the general terms upon which they’d be doing so.

Part of that was the insistence of keeping the current hybrid V6s, complete with MGU-H. Marchionne was against moving to a simpler technical model that Liberty wanted and would frequently refer to such plans as ‘NASCAR’ technology in which Ferrari would play no part. How much of this he really believed, and how much was a convenience as he negotiated Ferrari’s financial terms, was unknowable.

But he’s no longer around. And the reasons that Liberty wished to have simpler engines – noisier, cheaper, more encouraging for new manufacturers and independent engine builders alike – still hold. Probably no one has the stomach to fight that battle all over again with Marchionne’s replacement as Ferrari chief, Louis Camilleri. But, without the unique energy and personality of Marchionne, it will be interesting to see if and how the dynamic shifts between F1’s owners and its most valued team.

For all that he was already well established as a powerful, successful industrialist when he took the helm of Ferrari after ousting Luca di Montezemolo, there were naturally doubts about whether he had the necessary understanding to lead the F1 team. But that’s exactly what he did. He didn’t choose to put a specialist in there to run it for him and, although there were discussions with Ross Brawn to reprise his earlier role with the team, Ross’s insistence that he’d be the boss on everything but budget didn’t sit with Marchionne. He had more in mind someone who would action his instructions, a lieutenant – hence Maurizio Arrivabene as team principal. Meanwhile, he pressed on himself, took time to understand the team and its limitations. He was a tough bulldog of a boss – as James Allison found when he couldn’t agree terms to continue as technical director some months after a personal tragedy – but he wasn’t only that. There were more dimensions to his energies than just tough. He was creative and no respecter of convention – as suggested by his clothes sense and ungroomed appearance. In addition to his business qualifications, he also had law and philosophy degrees. He was a man of contrasts.

Employees at all levels would be surprised to receive an on-the-fly informal visit from the boss, who would ask questions about their department and how they thought it might be improved. He spent months doing this, building up a picture. He then presented his solution – and it was a highly unconventional one, at least for an F1 team.

He imposed a managerial system that sought to rid the team of its long-standing culture of fear, where people were reluctant to contribute ideas, fearful of sticking their heads above the parapet in an environment where scapegoats for failure were always sought. The Scuderia is uniquely pressured to be successful, yet was wired up to fail. Marchionne understood and interrupted this self-destructive cycle, and did so in a surprisingly short amount of time.

The ‘high potential’ system (see June 2017 issue) almost miraculously released the creative potential of the existing people and fed it directly into the car. Since that time, emboldened also by Marchionne’s bullish leadership, the Scuderia has been the team that has pushed hardest against the limits of the regulations – the mark of an absolute top team. It used to be Red Bull that was constantly being asked to explain how features of its cars worked, and whether it was getting around the intention of the regulations. At this time Ferrari was producing technically unadventurous machines that were just composites of ideas introduced elsewhere. But for the last two years, the team doing the explanations has been Ferrari. The latest round of head-scratching from rivals, about how it might be using its unique twin battery system to harvest energy more efficiently than anyone else, is just another manifestation of this. Cleverly bending floors, tricks of oil burn, aero-effect mirrors, active blown axles: all these have been the subject of FIA scrutiny, with new technical directives having to be written around interpretations no one else had made. 

Just a couple of years ago it would have been unimaginable for Mercedes to be guessing about the source of a Ferrari power unit advantage. Mercedes was master of all it surveyed. In the last few events, and for the first time in a decade, Ferrari has begun turning up at tracks actually expecting to be quickest. That’s the result of great work from a big number of people, but it’s also the mark of Marchionne’s leadership.

He did OK.

Since he began covering Grand Prix racing in 2000, Mark Hughes has forged a reputation as the finest Formula 1 analyst of his generation