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

Autosport (UK) - - CONTENTS -

“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…

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