Fifth Column: Nigel Roebuck
Beware the ideas of Marchionne? Why the Ferrari boss’s threats to quit Formula 1 might not be as empty as those of times past
“COMMENDATORE, HAVE YOU GOT A MINUTE?”
“I have all the time in the world, since I am-a retiring from racing!” Even 60 years ago, when Peter Ustinov recorded ‘The Grand Prix of Gibraltar’, this was a cliche of the sport. Whenever something didn’t sit well with Enzo Ferrari, his invariable response was to threaten to quit.
Now, in 2017, the current Ferrari chairman, Sergio Marchionne, is making similar noises, and whereas no-one ever took Enzo’s pronouncements seriously, this might be a different matter. Autocracy is common to both men, but while – as ever – I find inconceivable Ferrari’s disappearance from Formula 1, Marchionne approaches the sport from a very different place.
It was Enzo Ferrari, let’s remember, who contemptuously christened F1 teams who ‘bought in’ engines, like Mclaren and Lotus, ‘garagistes’, and undeniably there has always been something about his company that sets it apart. If most enthusiasts support a driver, in the case of Ferrari there are across the world countless folk whose primary allegiance is to a team.
Like them, I grew up captivated. For a start, paint a racing car red, and for me you are halfway there, but there was also the blend of sights and sounds, black-on-yellow Prancing Horse shields, exposed gear lever gates, ‘PROVA MO’ stencil marks, and – of course – the scream of 12 cylinders.
Most of those trademarks have been long since swept away, of course, but still the fundamental mystique of Ferrari abides. If in the paddock it has never been the most popular of teams, overwhelmingly it remains the most powerful.
Enzo picked up on that very quickly – indeed at the very first world championship race, the British Grand
Prix at Silverstone in 1950, the programme contained a note of regret: ‘Closest rival to the Alfa Romeo team, the Ferraris were expected to challenge, but unfortunately these entries have been cancelled’.
Why? Well, because back in the days when teams negotiated individually with race organisers, it had not been possible to reach agreement on ‘starting money’ – and that established a pattern that would endure for two decades and more.
Time was when non-championship F1 races proliferated, many of them run in this country, and for fans the presence of Ferrari made all the difference, raising them to the level of ‘proper races’. Enzo, not unaware of this, sometimes got his way, sometimes didn’t: as a kid I was frequently heartbroken to hear the Ferraris announced as non-starters.
Occasionally, the Old Man would also play hardball at a grand prix, and it was not until Bernie Ecclestone formed FOCA in the early 1970s, and began dealing with organisers on all the teams’ behalf, that the participation of Ferrari was guaranteed.
Periodically, though, there were threats and flamboyant gestures. Towards the end of 1964, for example, Ferrari was at war with the ACI (Italy’s sporting authority), so when
John Surtees clinched the world championship in Mexico, his car was not red, but white and blue, the colours of its entrant, the North American Racing Team.
Pick another out of the air… in 1987, to encourage the
FIA to reconsider its decision to ban F1 engines of more than eight cylinders, Ferrari threatened to defect to the then-booming CART series – and even built a car for it.
Surprise, Enzo got his way, as he usually did, even though his threats to quit were invariably regarded as hot air: if ever there were a man for whom racing was life, after all, it was he. Until Fiat got seriously involved in 1970, money – as the drivers could attest – was always tight in Maranello, and the Old Man’s road cars were important to him only as a means of paying for his racing.
On the strength of Marchionne’s remarks last week, you might believe that for him the opposite is true.
Leaving Formula 1, he said, would be great for Ferrari’s shareholders: “It would be totally beneficial to the P&L [profits and losses].”
This was in response to Liberty Media’s announcement of its plans for Formula 1, Marchionne expressing support for some of its aims, not for others, notably that of reducing the complexity of the current hybrid power unit.
While Italian-born Marchionne has spent most of his life in Canada, some effort is required to unravel his tortured English. “We don’t agree,” he said, “with the fact that somehow powertrain uniqueness is not going to be one of the drivers of distinctiveness of the participants’ line-up.
“The fact that we now appear to be at odds in terms of the strategic development of this thing, and we see the sport in 2021 taking on a different air, is going to force some decisions on the part of Ferrari. Unless we find a set of circumstances, the results of which are beneficial to the maintenance of the brand, and the marketplace, and to the strengthening of the unique position for Ferrari, Ferrari will not play.”
‘The unique position for Ferrari…’ That emphatically it already has, receiving a massive annual bonus from Formula One Management simply for being Ferrari, and – in light of what it has brought to the sport for 70 years – you can make a case for that. Far less comprehensible – and acceptable – to me is that Ferrari also has the right of veto, sanctioned by the FIA, over any technical regulations for which it does not care. Is there another sport on earth in which one participant has the right to determine its rules?
No, thought not.
I write this the day before a meeting of the Formula 1 Strategy Group, at which Liberty will reveal more of its plans. Marchionne, who will be present, says he is not prejudging anything: “We’re walking in with the best of intentions, and we’ll see where it takes us.”
It would not concern him in the least, he said last week, to be remembered as the Ferrari boss who took the team out of F1. Fans are one thing, after all, shareholders quite another.
“Some effort is required to unravel Marchionne’s tortured English”
Enzo Ferrari knew his value and power
Imagine F1 without Ferrari on the grid…