James Allen on the seriousness of Ferrari’s threat to quit Formula 1
I’m fascinated by Ferrari chairman Sergio Marchionne’s concern that the DNA of F1 is about technical differentiation and that this should be preserved at all costs.
He doesn’t like the direction that Liberty Media is proposing to take the sport from 2021 onwards, whereby the engine is simplified and the rules package prescribed such that there is a more level playing field between teams. Marchionne sees no value in racing in a series where the difference between a Ferrari and a Mercedes is mostly paint colour. Mercedes feel the same way.
Unlike previous managers who have threatened to take Ferrari out of F1 in the past, such as Luca di Montezemolo, I believe he means it.
Marchionne’s Ferrari needs to be handled very differently from Montezemolo’s. They have a very much more corporate culture now, more akin to a US corporation than to the feline, aristocratic European operation Montezemolo ran.
But on one thing the two managers are aligned: Ferrari are not like any other F1 team.
One of Liberty’s mantras is, ‘we love all our children the same’. This is in marked contrast to Bernie Ecclestone’s strategy of divide and rule. He prioritised Ferrari for a number of reasons. In addition to their historical significance to the sport, they have a global cachet and aspirational appeal that chimes perfectly with F1’s values.
And Mr Ferrari was a very big influence on Bernie as he was coming of age in the 1970s and ’80s as a manager and an operator in F1.
Bernie was brilliant with intangibles, with patronage and hidden meanings; things at which high-level Italians, like Enzo Ferrari and Marchionne, are masters.
When the teams got themselves organised in 2009 and formed the F1 Teams Association, Bernie knew he needed to break it up and he did so skilfully. By forming FOTA, the teams were trying to speak with one voice and have more say into how F1 should present itself and how it should be run.
This action forced an equal and opposite reaction as Bernie picked off Ferrari and Red Bull and signed them up to lucrative bilateral commercial agreements, which form the platform for the inequality of team payments which undermines F1 today. Other teams followed reluctantly. FOTA was dead and F1 was lobsided.
Liberty now have to renew the contracts with the teams from 2021 onwards, while attempting to rebalance and reduce the inequality. That’s another thing Marchionne doesn’t like.
So 2018 will be the year of political flash points and grandstanding as we pass through the pain of defining the future shape of F1, what engine format it will use and who will participate. But whereas Bernie provided a narrative through the media, Liberty will play it straight.
The lines are being drawn; Marchionne has evolved his sphere of influence among F1 teams, bringing Sauber and Haas under his tent. Toto Wolff at Mercedes has Force India and Williams in his tent.
Sitting on the other side of the river is Red Bull, who would love the influence of manufacturers in F1 to be diminished. It’s always been the weak point in their F1 strategy and since the advent of the hybrid turbo engine in 2014, it has left them powerless.
Marchionne might have expected support from the FIA president Jean Todt, given that the Frenchman has a long and illustrious history with the marque as Ferrari’s most successful team principal in the Michael Schumacher era.
But instead Todt made it clear in a media briefing I attended mid-march that Ferrari are free to leave F1 if they so wish, although he hopes that does not happen.
The alignment between Todt and Liberty is now obvious and events have worked out in Todt’s favour. He’s the last man standing of F1’s ‘big beasts’ – Mosley, Ecclestone, Briatore, Dennis, Montezemolo ? All gone.
And Todt is putting in place his legacy, such as the single-seater path from F4 to F1, and his final act as president will be to preside over the implementation of F1 2.0.
It is a critical set of decisions that Ross Brawn, Chase Carey and Todt will be making this time.
The world is changing quickly and by the late 2020s we will have become used to autonomous cars. They could be as prevalent then as Ubers are today. That will be how we first come into contact with them, via robotaxis. As people get used to the idea of being able to text, be drunk or do other things while being driven along, so fewer will think about driving and owning a car.
In that world, F1 needs to present a compelling spectacle of hero drivers in extreme cars doing death-defying feats. There will always be a market for that.
The uniqueness of Ferrari is a huge part of the current DNA of Formula 1 and vice versa