HISTORY OF FERRARI PT 6
All empires fall. Interference from above shattered Jean Todt’s superteam, put the brakes on Ferrari’s serial championship domination, and once again left them chasing dreams
After Schumacher’s greatness, another fall from grace
Of all the drivers racing on the 2018 grid, he’d get it more than any of them. To join the canon; to add to his Red Bull haul with F1’s greatest team and equal Fangio’s title tally of five; to follow in the wheel tracks of his friend and countryman Michael Schumacher; and to achieve what Fernando Alonso failed to pull off in five seasons. How satisfying for a man who carries the Prancing Horse shield into battle with heartfelt pride. He’d wear that title well.
But the big question must dwell somewhere in his psyche: like Alonso, the man fêted by so many (and surely to Vettel’s annoyance) as the most complete F1 driver of the modern era, is Seb destined to miss out too? Or could he still be the man to gloriously rescue the Scuderia from a title slump all too familiar from decades past? This year, we might be about to find out.
It’s been 11 years since Kimi Räikkönen took the crown from Alonso and wonder-rookie Lewis Hamilton in their tumultuous season together at Mclaren in 2007. Since then the Finn has faded, been paid not to drive for Ferrari, been paid more to return… and is still there in the other car, despite fading again.
In the midst of Kimi’s puzzling career, the made-in-heaven match of Alonso and Ferrari rocketed into life in 2010… only to tumble to terra firma in the wake of anticlimactic nearmisses and groan-inducing team mistakes. Vettel was the vanquisher then, but now finds himself in near-identical circumstances, against Hamilton and Mercedes’ silver dream machines.
Back in Maranello, Jean Todt’s recordsmashing reign petered out once Schumacher’s glorious era had passed, and even Midas-gilded president Luca di Montezemolo – saviour of two Ferrari generations – lost his touch, to be replaced by a flinty industrialist whose taste for comfortable knitwear belies his growing reputation for cold-eyed steel in the boardroom.
In recent times, Sergio Marchionne has more than once threatened what was once unthinkable: to pull Ferrari from F1. Sure, Enzo Ferrari said the same, on more than one occasion when it suited him. But with Marchionne, one senses he’d really do it – without a moment’s regret. Grand prix racing was once Ferrari’s raison d’être. But in 2018 is that still the case?
Strange times – but then that’s not just true for Ferrari. Rewind to 2005 and the picture was so much more familiar. Schumacher had obliterated the previous campaign for his fifth title in a row and, at a fighting-fit 36, there seemed little to suggest he wouldn’t march on and claim more. One hundred grand prix victories? It was surely just a matter of time.
Then Bridgestone, dependable tyre supplier and complicit partner in Ferrari’s awesome run of success, got it wrong. The new rule banning mid-race tyre changes, rain notwithstanding, had
SEBASTIAN VETTEL WOULD PROPERLY CHERISH A WORLD CHAMPIONSHIP WON IN A FERRARI.
the desired effect in shaking up F1 and ending what had become a scarlet monotony. While French rival Michelin made rubber that proved both durable and consistent, Bridgestone’s was neither. Renault vs Mclaren, Alonso vs Räikkönen – that was the refreshing script of what turned out to be a great season. Mostly.
Indianapolis was the giant blot that would stain the history books. Here it was Michelin who got it wrong. Their failure to provide tyres that teams could trust in the banked final turn led to grand prix racing’s greatest debacle, as just six Bridgestone runners took the start, to a cacophony of boos from a furious public. And in the sceptical US of all countries.
To make matters worse, Todt’s refusal to consider anything beyond the selfish interests of the Scuderia kicked in once again. Ferrari’s part in refusing to compromise on the addition of a chicane to Turn 13 should never be forgotten. Yes, Michelin screwed up, but between them, the FIA and Ferrari could have led F1 through this nightmare with grace. Instead, they chose wilful intransigence and the horror story played out to its pathetic conclusion. To the world, Schumacher’s victory – having almost barged team-mate Rubens Barrichello off the track after a pitstop – was beyond meaningless. To Todt, his man had ten points and was back in title contention. Nothing else mattered.
In the name of safety, tyre changes were reintroduced the next season, leaving 2005 as a diverting anomaly all these years later. As the new 2.4-litre V8 era began, Ferrari bounced back – only to find Renault, Alonso and Michelin more than ready to defend their hard-won titles. Alonso’s battle and ultimate defeat of Schumacher was monumental that year, a season of high-stakes drama. In Monaco, there was Schumacher’s ‘parking manoeuvre’ at Rascasse, when he purposely nosed his Ferrari into the barrier to thwart Alonso’s qualifying lap. Yet another foul to further stain a blemished legacy. Then at Hockenheim, politics threatened to sour a classic season when Renault were thrown into turmoil over the supposed illegality of their clever mass damper system. The FIA stewards approved it – only for the governing body to appeal against their own employees’ decision!
Meanwhile, over at Ferrari, the superteam that had blown through the record books and seemingly broken the age-old boom-bust cycle was beginning to crumble. Tensions between di Montezemolo and Todt were drawn tight. Once he’d brought in Schumacher, Ross Brawn and Rory Byrne, it’s arguable that Todt’s main contribution to the years of sustained glory had been holding the team together – and pushing back against di Montezemolo’s disruptive influence. But the dynamics were changing.
Mindful of Schumacher’s age and a perceptible need for a succession plan, di Montezemolo signed Räikkönen. Todt was furious – but powerless to protect his beloved ace. At Monza, Schumacher announced his retirement at season’s end. Speculation was rife that he’d effectively been pushed. His inability to find contentment after F1, the painful flirtation with superbikes and his return with Mercedes in 2010
“IT’S 11 YEARS SINCE KIMI TOOK THE CROWN. SINCE THEN HE HAS FADED, BEEN PAID NOT TO DRIVE FOR FERRARI, BEEN PAID MORE TO RETURN… AND IS STILL THERE”
clarifies only how even Ferrari’s most successful F1 driver could succumb to Maranello’s machinations. Schumacher meekly accepted an ambassadorial role for the time being.
In his wake, the glue binding the superteam dissolved. Without Michael, Brawn chose to go fishing in 2007, while Todt began to lay the groundwork for amiable Stefano Domenicali to succeed him. Both had so much more to offer F1 – but no longer under the Modena-yellow shield that had defined them. For a while, it seemed their creation would rumble on in their absence. Räikkönen’s title smash-and-grab in 2007 vindicated di Montezemolo’s meddling, although Räikkönen’s raid would never have come off had it not been for Mclaren’s Alonso vs Hamilton civil war, which was mismanaged so spectacularly badly by Ron Dennis. This was also the year of ‘Spygate’, when disaffected mechanic Nigel Stepney passed Ferrari technical drawings to Mclaren’s Mike Coughlan.
Thereafter, Brazilian journeyman Felipe Massa took centre stage as Räikkönen failed to convincingly defend his title. How Massa came a Timo Glock away from becoming 2008 world champion is, ten years on, the stuff of legend. His dignity in the wake of Lewis Hamilton’s skin-of-the-teeth first title has defined this true gentleman of F1 – happily so, given how dark his story turned the following year.
“ALONSO WAS HEROIC IN FERRARIS THAT FAILED TO MATCH HIS TALENT. THEN SLOWLY, THE DREAM PARTNERSHIP SOURED”
Massa’s freak head injury from an errant spring thrown from Rubens Barrichello’s Brawn in Hungary spawned advances in helmet design, but effectively ended Massa’s frontline career. His return in 2010 for the start of four more seasons in a Ferrari was an admirable victory in its own special way – but he’d never win another grand prix. This was Alonso’s team now.
Even before his mid-decade title double, Alonso was touted as the most likely successor to Schumacher. It took longer than expected – the stormy year with Mclaren in ’07, then two wound-licking seasons back at Renault – but eventually he found his way to Maranello. His air of superiority, the intelligence, the racecraft,
the political nous… he was made to lead the reds. And how close he came to Ferrari immortality.
Recalcitrant Räikkönen was shuffled off with a year left on his contract – at great Ferrari expense – to go rallying; then Alonso dazzled on his debut. Like Fangio, Andretti, Mansell and, yes, Kimi before him, he won on his Ferrari debut. The title soon seemed to be within his grasp. At the final race, Abu Dhabi, he held an eight-point lead and qualified third. Then Ferrari’s spectacular strategy own-goal dropped him behind Renault’s Vitaly Petrov. On a track purpose-built for F1 showdowns such as this, the Ferrari had no chance to pass – and the title slipped to Red Bull’s Vettel, who led the points for the first time (and the time when it mattered most) only when he crossed the line to win.
Somehow that crushing defeat set the tone for Alonso’s time at Ferrari. He was title runner-up twice more in subsequent years and was heroic in cars that failed to match his talent. Then slowly, the dream partnership soured. His patience spent, Alonso and Ferrari split in a cloud of dust-ups in 2014. Given how his surprise return to Mclaren has turned out, you might think he should have taken more deep breaths, counted to ten and stayed put. In reality, there was no way back from the brink for this Latin firebrand.
With four consecutive titles and little more to gain at Red Bull, Vettel’s switch for 2015 made sense. It’s strange and surely unfair that the perception of a quadruple champion should be so tepid – but a title in red would warm the legacy nicely. So many before him have paid the price for chasing Ferrari immortality. But that only makes it more desirable. This year, as he and Hamilton go head-to-head in a bid to match Fangio and reach five, Vettel will do all it takes (and probably more) to join the anointed.
Meanwhile, what of Ferrari themselves? Do they still matter as they always have? This mysticism, this magic, caught the wind with Ascari, Fangio, Hawthorn and Hill, and gathered strength like a hurricane through the decades. The future? It was always in doubt. But Il Passione drove Enzo’s army. For staff loyal to Maranello and Italy’s devoted tifosi little has changed. The same is not true of the boardroom.
For all his faults, di Montezemolo was a direct link to Enzo’s Ferrari. He understood the past and was a part of it. Marchionne? He is blown by a different wind that might – just might – puff the world’s most famous automotive brand on to a wholly different course. But would it matter? Marchionne’s Ferrari can sometimes be hard to love. Then again, the same was said of Lauda’s Ferrari 40 years ago, and certainly of Schumacher’s team of more recent times. Now, thanks to Todt and Brawn, of all people, an F1 without Ferrari is conceivable – and in some respects, perhaps preferable without Ferrari’s unfair power of veto over rule changes.
But what are we saying? How much duller and less colourful would grand prix racing be without the reds? The thread to Ascari’s Ferrari, and even further back to Nuvolari’s, is thin. But all the time it holds. The drama, the histrionics, the glories… and the failures. This is Ferrari. And we wouldn’t be without them.