The rise of Sergio Marchionne

by Nigel Roebuck on 23rd December 2015

The 2014 Bahrain Grand Prix was memorable for a superb wheel-to-wheel battle in the late stages between the Mercedes of Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg, but that wasn’t the sum of a dramatic day for Formula 1. Already long gone from the circuit by the time Hamilton took the flag was Ferrari’s Luca di Montezemolo, who thus sidestepped the sight of Fernando Alonso and Kimi Räikkönen trailing in ninth and 10th.

Before departing for the airport, however, the flamboyant di Montezemolo had had plenty to say about the new ‘hybrid’ Formula 1, and not much of it was good. “The risk of the new rules,” he said, “is drivers having to think about saving tyres and fuel – this is not Formula 1, which should be extreme, from the first to the last lap. And the rules should not be so complicated that the people don’t understand what’s going on…”

Luca also threw in a remark critical of the noise – or lack of it – made by the new engines. Personally, this has always concerned me less than a lot of people, but nearly two years on I can’t take issue with his observation that ‘Formula 1 should be extreme’. Perhaps, to remain relevant in a changing world, and to maintain interest from the manufacturers, at least some emphasis on ‘saving fuel’ was a necessity, like it or not, but ‘saving tyres’ was a very different matter.

To me, a fundamental nonsense of contemporary Formula 1 is the assembling of a team of brilliant designers and engineers, then the spending of hundreds of millions, so as to arrive at the best possible car – and then to compromise the whole enterprise by putting it on deliberately inefficient tyres.

This is all, we are endlessly told, in the interests of ‘The Show’. To me, it’s like putting nails in Usain Bolt’s shoes.

When di Montezemolo flounced out of Bahrain, he was very plainly in ill humour, but not all of it was due to dissatisfaction with the new Formula 1 per se. High on the list, too, was that Ferrari had come to terms with the rules far less impressively than others, notably Mercedes. There would be changes, Luca said, and changes there indeed were.

First, Stefano Domenicali, who had done so much to improve the image of Ferrari after the years of Jean Todt, announced that he was leaving the team, and this, coming close on the heels of Martin Whitmarsh’s departure from McLaren, meant that it was indeed a bad spring for the good guys.

Who would take over from Domenicali, we wondered, and the answer – which wasn’t long coming – was a surprise, for the name announced meant nothing to anyone in motor racing. Marco Mattiacci, who made his first appearance in Shanghai, had previously been the company’s sales director in the USA, and one wondered quite how this qualified him for the job, and why di Montezemolo had chosen him.

In point of fact, he hadn’t. “Be careful,” an Italian colleague told me at the time. “This is not a Luca appointment – it has nothing to do with him. This is a Marchionne appointment…”

My friend, quantifiably the best racing journalist in his land, going back to a personal friendship with Enzo, further assured me that big changes were indeed coming to Maranello. “I will make a bet with you,” he said. “Before this year is over, di Montezemolo will be out at Ferrari, and Marchionne will be running everything.” He then came forth with an Italian word to describe Marchionne, and I asked him what it meant. The nearest we could come up with in English was ‘bruiser’. “Believe me, this is a tough and ruthless guy…”

He told me no lie. When I started to look into Marchionne’s CV, it was difficult not to be impressed. Chairman of Fiat, chairman of Chrysler Group, chairman of SGS (a Swiss-based multinational company with 80,000 employees)… on and on, to the point that one wondered where on earth he found the time to do all this.

As usual the patrician di Montezemolo made his annual ‘laying on of hands’ appearance at Monza, but this time, as he invited the tifosi to genuflect before him, there was less of the old assurance, and if that weekend he promised the press that he was going nowhere, his words lacked conviction.

Marchionne was also at Monza in 2014, and when Alonso’s Ferrari pulled off in a cloud of smoke, leaving Räikkönen to trail in ninth, his expression was thunderous. “We’ve got to kick some ass,” he said, borrowing from his many years in North America, “and we’ve got to do it quickly. We might screw up, but we’ve got nothing to lose, right? Let’s risk something…”

Within a month di Montezemolo was out, as my colleague had predicted, and Marchionne – in addition to all his other commitments – had installed himself as chairman of Ferrari. At the same time, Alonso, bedrock of the team for five years, concluded that he could take no more of the arrogant Mattiacci, and ended his Ferrari contract a year ahead of time.

Now, twelve months on, for all his protestations to the contrary, Fernando must wonder at the wisdom of his decision. Like Chris Amon back in the late ‘60s, for years he suffered frustrating times with Ferrari before choosing to leave early – and, apparently, at exactly the wrong time. With McLaren-Honda, he has had a terrible season, while Ferrari’s renaissance has been stronger by far than anyone expected, not yet on terms with Mercedes, but closing the gap.

Marchionne, once a huge supporter of Alonso, is clearly not a man to forget such slights. Addressing the faithful at the traditional end-of-season event in Maranello, he rightly heaped praise on Sebastian Vettel for his work this season, but then somewhat ungraciously suggested that, “In five years Alonso was less Ferrarista than Vettel is after one year, in terms of identity and identification with the team”.

This was arrant nonsense. Yes, since moving from Red Bull Seb has very obviously cloaked himself in all things Ferrari, but so for a very long time did Fernando, who was never away from the factory, and worked himself into the ground for the team. Given that he won 11 races for Ferrari, his team-mates none, and scored 1190 points, to their 551, Marchionne’s remark comes across as more than a touch churlish.

He had other things to say, too, all of them very much to the point: he found it ‘offensive’ that Red Bull should consider it their right to have a state-of-the-art engine; he had no interest in subsidising other teams by supplying them with engines at a loss; he didn’t want to know about Bernie Ecclestone’s plan for a cheaper, simpler, engine; he believed the current Formula 1 rulebook should be scrapped because ‘the complexity of the rules is not digestible’; last, he found unacceptable the World Motor Sport Council’s recent decision to give Ecclestone and Todt a mandate to make changes to the structure of the sport.

Methinks Bernie has at last an opponent to give him pause, one accustomed to rather bigger fields of battle than an F1 paddock, who sees Ferrari more as figures on a balance sheet than as a racing team. A bruiser, indeed. Ask Marco Mattiacci: who he?

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