WHO CAN FIX FERRARI?
Despite a number of high-profile team staff changes, the Scuderia’s lacklustre form continues. Respected Italian journalist Pino Allievi analyses the chance of a turnaround
Judged by their own starry standards, Ferrari’s 2016 performance was woeful: thumped by Mercedes, overtaken by Red Bull, no wins and a lacklustre third in the championship. But, worse still, there seems little immediate prospect of a turnaround in their ailing form
“This rule – the one that says whoever nishes rst is the winner – is denitely penalising us.” Those surreal words were spoken by Italian comedian Maurizio Crozza in a perfect parody of Sergio Marchionne on a popular TV show in Italy. The Ferrari president was sitting in the audience for Crozza’s show, and enjoyed witnessing his alter ego – although, as he later elaborated to the assembled media at Ferrari’s traditional Christmas lunch: “Crozza’s good, but I denitely prefer it when he imitates Luca di Montezemolo instead!”
What this proves is that F1 in general, and Ferrari in particular, remain as present in the Italian public consciousness as ever, despite the fact that the Prancing Horse haven’t won a world championship in ten years. After the Schumacher era, despite the eeting ecstasy of Kimi Räikkönen’s 2007 drivers’ title, Ferrari have been missing in action, having failed to rediscover their title-winning ways. It’s a common feature of the cyclical history that characterises not just F1 but all forms of sport.
One reason for this failure is, perhaps, that there have just been too many changes at the heart of Ferrari in recent years. These ranged from Marchionne, who took over di Montezemolo’s role as president, through a succession of team principals (Stefano Domenicali, Marco Mattiacci and now Maurizio Arrivabene), to the technical directors who have come and gone like football managers: Aldo Costa, Pat Fry and James Allison, with Mattia Binotto the present incumbent. Last but not least, there are the drivers: brought in successively to take on a challenge that has so far failed to yield the desired results, due to the fact that not enough time was taken for everything to stabilise. Yes, Fernando Alonso nished second in the championship three times in ve years for Ferrari, but the result expected on each occasion was one better than that. As Enzo Ferrari famously said: ‘Second is rst of the losers.’
And Sebastian Vettel? Third in 2015, fourth in 2016, and 2017 a leap into the unknown. It
“I definitely prefer it when he [comedian Maurizio Crozza] imitates Luca di Montezemolo instead!” Sergio Marchionne
could all come good, but it might also be the year – which would not surprise anyone, if the car is again uncompetitive – that Vettel decides to leave Ferrari to seek his fortune elsewhere.
At 29 he still has time on his side, and remains true to himself, ambitious and competitive. He’s unlikely to wait as long as Fernando Alonso did for the Prancing Horse to break into a gallop. Alonso’s relationship with Ferrari’s powers-thatbe deteriorated rapidly between mid-2013 and 2014, due to a car that fell short on performance and a tense working atmosphere that was felt by every member of the team. Yet today, there are some who would still turn back time: Alonso’s undeniable speed allied to his implacable calm in moments of crisis, not to mention his astute set-up skills, left their mark, and, to some extent, a hole in the current structure.
Factors leading to the certainty that Vettel would not be adding to his collection of titles in 2016 have been well documented. And nobody has tried to deny them. First and foremost, this was down to the car: the SF16-H, which, on paper, initially looked as if it could take the ght to Mercedes. The rst race in Australia, atypical in that aerodynamics have a lesser inuence at Albert Park, attered the illusion: Vettel was running third, 9.64 seconds behind the Mercedes – but a tyre strategy error cost him a chunk of time. As the season progressed, despite the podiums that were picked up along the way by both drivers, it became increasingly clear that the gap to Mercedes was just as big, if not bigger, than in the previous year. Developments were introduced that didn’t work, and suspicions grew that the car had already reached its ceiling. Meanwhile, Red Bull gallingly went from strength to strength – to the point where Vettel’s former team actually managed to overhaul Ferrari in the end-of-year standings. It was a shock for the Scuderia, who never believed that the cars of Ricciardo and Verstappen could become such a thorn in their side.
Maurizio Arrivabene’s unfortunate quote in Monaco (“If I think that Red Bull is going to be a problem for us, I may as well go home now”) not only came back to haunt him, but was also the rst sign that the SF16-H was full of hidden limits that nobody had anticipated. The rst was down to aerodynamics, either directly or indirectly, because the simple truth was that the car just never felt very balanced. Then there was tyre strategy and management, areas where Ferrari were never quite as good as their rivals: less reactive and a little bit behind when it came to trying out new ideas. These factors inuenced both qualifying and races.
And nally there was a series of technical failures that should never have happened: from Vettel’s broken valve in Bahrain, to the two gearbox swaps for Räikkönen, plus the three for Vettel that sent him towards the back of the grid in Russia, Austria and Great Britain, as well
“If I think that Red Bull is going to be a problem for us, I may as well go home now” Maurizio Arrivabene, May 2016
as the anti-roll-bar failure in Singapore, which meant he started from 22nd place.
With the gearbox, the biggest mystery was why no long-term solution had been put in place over the course of ten months, given that its problems were rst noted in pre-season testing last February. There was nothing wrong with the design and it coped ne with torsional load. It was more down to defects in certain components, meaning a number of external suppliers were unable to react quickly. This is one of the many problems that Ferrari are now trying to solve.
Some of the solutions were put in place during the restructuring that followed Ferrari’s break with their British technical director, James Allison, who was subsequently replaced by one of their home-grown engineering talents: Mattia Binotto, 47, who has spent the past 16 years at Ferrari, having joined fresh from Lausanne University in Switzerland, where he had graduated in mechanical engineering. Binotto, a man whose actions speak louder than his words, was propelled to the top spot by Sergio Marchionne, who had noticed that in recent years it was the engine department, under the leadership of Binotto, that had made the most progress, coming closest of all to the high standards set by Mercedes.
Binotto is not a designer. Rather, he is an able manager who also has a good knowledge of architecture; it was he who decided where all the different departments should go in the Scuderia’s impressive new headquarters. He also conducts himself with a phlegmatic calm that allows him to get on with everybody, so he was duly put in charge of implementing the team’s new ‘horizontal structure’ that had been designed at length by Marchionne and Arrivabene.
But that management structure was really an enforced choice, made at the moment when Ferrari realised they couldn’t hire a technical superstar so had to rely on the many young talents already within the team. Each one of these people was given a chance and fully involved from the design to the production phases. Then, after a few months, the rst signs of improvement started to show.
Binotto was duly put in charge of implementing the team’s new horizontal structure
Small steps, but the potential was clear. Whether or not that trend will continue and some proper results will emerge is something we will know only in a year’s time and not before. If things go well, then perhaps Ferrari are on the verge of another cycle of success. If they don’t go to plan there will be yet another restructure, with more new management, engineers and drivers. And this would inevitably be a painful process.
“In 2016 we were weak on aerodynamics, but I really don’t believe that English engineers have a monopoly in that area,” pointed out Marchionne. “We’ve got some excellent engineers in Italy and we have complete faith in them.”
As part of the shake-up, Dirk de Beer, who had arrived at Ferrari at the same time as Allison, was removed as head of aerodynamics. Under the new management structure, the new chief aerodynamicist is David Sanchez, a Frenchman who has been at Ferrari for a number of years and has remained in the shadows up until now. He and his colleagues will report in to Enrico Cardile, who now heads up the whole department, having moved over from Ferrari’s GT racing division.
Ferrari could have pursued other leading engineers, but the very best generally have at least one year of gardening leave written into their contracts. And at Maranello, things need to happen right now. What’s more, their ethos has changed: Ferrari no longer want foreign mercenaries to swoop in with the latest technology, get paid a fortune, and then depart after a couple of years without leaving any kind of cultural mark as had sometimes happened previously. Which is another reason why Ferrari have placed their trust in these comparatively new names, who have grown up within Maranello’s unique atmosphere, relying on the notion that there is sufcient existing expertise to help them develop as leading engineers.
Much has also been said about James Allison’s departure. On the human side, the tragic death of his wife last March, and the needs of his three children living in England, were, of course, his priority. But there is another, less well-known factor on top of that, which is that Allison never really clicked with either Arrivabene or Marchionne, probably because he didn’t feel that either was qualied enough for him to talk to at a professional technical level. Those on the receiving end soon detected that attitude. And when, between the grands prix of Spain and Azerbaijan, Marchionne began to ask Allison exactly why the car wasn’t competitive, the explanations given weren’t sufciently expansive. As a result, Allison’s fate was determined before the German Grand Prix: Marchionne didn’t accept being kept in the dark for so long about the real problems affecting the SF16-H. One of the things Marchionne wanted was for development lead times to be shortened, particularly in the light of the relentless progress from Red Bull. He also didn’t like the fact that Allison wanted to be responsible for the chassis
“In 2016 we were weak on aero, but I don’t believe the English have a monopoly in that area” Sergio Marchionne
in addition to the aerodynamics. But, most of all, he felt tricked after Allison told him at the start of 2016 that the car about to make its debut would be highly competitive.
“Obviously there was a blockage in the ow of information somewhere, which is no longer the case,” Marchionne said. “If one of my guys tells me, for example, that we’ve got a car that is four seconds quicker than anything else, I have to believe him. Intellectual honesty is essential. And so I admit, I looked stupid. Since August, our way of working has changed: now we are expending money and resources in the right direction. Yes, we’ve lost a few engineers who we didn’t want to lose, but that always happens in any team. Paddy Lowe? The idea was talked about, but we’re sufciently covered and what we don’t need is a superhero to step in and solve all the problems. I’m condent that our own engineers will come up with the right results. But if things go badly, there will be only one person responsible – and that’s me.”
When it comes to on-track organisation, with Jock Clear now conrmed as head of race activities, there will be a few detail changes, including a new chief mechanic in place of Francesco Uguzzoni, who, after 21 years, is giving up all the travel to work back at the factory. But what happens on the track is not felt to be the problem. Despite a few strategy errors – which Mercedes, and to a greater extent Red Bull, have suffered from as well – Ferrari are happy enough with their on-site line-up. It’s enough to look at the time taken to change a gearbox, engine or other component, which Ferrari manages even quicker than Mercedes, according to those in the know. The same is true of the pitstops, which are nearly always executed with consummate skill – Kimi Räikkönen’s unsafe release at the 2016 US GP being the notable exception.
So will Sebastian Vettel be able to rely on the latest Ferrari to help him take a fth world title? The answer is as uncertain as his future following the expiry of his current contract at the end of this year. Marchionne pointed out: “We owe Vettel a lot but at this point it’s vital that he has a competitive car, because that’s what he deserves. And, in return, Seb must drive with serenity.”
His comment refers to the Mexican Grand Prix, where Vettel unleashed a tirade of insults directed at race director Charlie Whiting. The incident didn’t please Ferrari at all, although the team stood by their driver as far as the FIA was concerned. To tell the truth, Ferrari were not overly impressed with Vettel’s manoeuvre at the start of the Belgian Grand Prix either, in which he closed the door on his team-mate. The matter was played down, but it revealed a questionable aspect to Vettel’s nature that hadn’t been particularly evident before. In the same way, Ferrari didn’t quite expect Vettel to lose his sang-froid during the SF16-H’s weakest moments and push beyond the limits of the car, leading inevitably to some ill-judged mistakes.
It happened a lot last year, but nobody really blamed the German superstar despite the collision with Rosberg at the rst corner
“At this point it’s vital that Vettel has a competitive car… that’s what he deserves” Sergio Marchionne
in Malaysia (and a subsequent penalty for Japan), the other clash with Räikkönen in China, the shady move on Ricciardo in Mexico, and the spin on a waterlogged track in Brazil. Those who took Arrivabene at his word though, when he said in Japan that “Vettel needs to earn his seat at Ferrari as well”, were making a big mistake. The point he was explaining was that everybody at Ferrari needed to do enough to guarantee their future employment – himself included.
Arrivabene thinks extremely highly of Vettel, but would prefer him just to carry out his role as a driver rather than try to be an engineer or PR man, which goes beyond his remit. And a number of entirely innocent chats Vettel had with people from Mercedes and Red Bull, during some of the most delicate moments of the season, were taken the wrong way: perhaps deliberately so. In any case, just as Mercedes called Lewis Hamilton to heel a number of times and asked him to focus calmly on his job, why should Arrivabene not do the same with Vettel?
Yet it’s undeniable that we saw an agitated Vettel last season, committing the sort of indiscretions that invariably happen whenever victory takes a sabbatical. He’s undoubtedly got a deep-rooted desire to prove he can win with Ferrari as well, having formerly triumphed with a Red Bull team that enjoyed a notable margin of superiority over their rivals at the time.
Allison’s departure would have been hard for Vettel to stomach. But it’s worth making the point that when Michael Schumacher arrived at Ferrari he brought with him all his most trusted lieutenants from Benetton, whereas Vettel came to Maranello on his own. And with the bene t of hindsight that was a mistake, because the cracks in the structure at Ferrari were already evident back in 2014, when Vettel was negotiating his move. Schumacher had the advantage of being able to convince Ross Brawn and Rory Byrne to join him, whereas Vettel wasn’t able to do the same with Adrian Newey and Peter Prodromou, regardless of their contractual situations.
But all of that is in the past. Looking ahead, Vettel is hoping that 2017 will be different. Right now, Ferrari can judge from their dyno tests, simulations and windtunnel numbers exactly what can be expected of their latest challenger.
During the restructuring, some creative thinking and original ideas emerged: in the last few races of 2016, Ferrari bridged the gap to Red Bull, and in Abu Dhabi clearly beat their direct rivals. Yet nobody knows exactly what sort of Ferrari we will see in 2017. So there will be no great proclamations, no hopes manifested this time. The current Ferrari is a different animal to that of the past. And what if the revolution nally emerges from this new, tight-lipped incarnation? Stranger things have happened.
Pino Allievi is the distinguished Formula 1 correspondent of Italy’s La Gazzetta dello Sport
Arrivabene would prefer Vettel just to carry out his role as a driver rather than try to be an engineer
Maurizio Arrivabene (far right) is the most recent in a succession of Ferrari team principals, following hot on the heels of Marco Mattiacci and Stefano Domenicali
Luca di Montezemolo, Ferrari president for 23 years
Sergio Marchionne, Ferrari chairman as of 2014
Ferrari pitstops are usually well executed, but on Räikkönen’s final stop at the 2016 US GP he was called back and Ferrari were fined for an unsafe release
Arrivabene hadn’t guessed the SF16-H’s limitations
When drivers tried to push the car past its limits, it led to errors such as Räikkönen’s collision with the barriers and subsequent broken wing in Monaco
James Allison was pushed out in the summer of ‘16…
…and immediately replaced with Mattia Binotto
Despite making a terrible start, Räikkönen put in an exceptional drive at Bahrain in 2016 to finish second, between the Mercedes of Rosberg and Hamilton
Jock Clear joined as head of race activities in 2016
A broken anti-roll bar – just one of many unforgivable technical failures in 2016 – meant Vettel started from P22 on the grid at the Singapore Grand Prix
Vettel needs his team to help him to a fifth title
With the hopes of a country riding on them, Vettel and Räikkönen were just P3 and P4 respectively, behind Mercedes, at Ferrari’s home race at Monza in 2016
They know how 2016 went. So what next in 2017?