Inside Line: A time when Ferrari nearly pulled the plug on F1

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Ferrari president Sergio Marchionne threatening to pull the legendary team from Formula 1 has captured miles of headlines, with many believing that the ploy is part of the power play that is simmering in the upper echelons of the sport, the saga prompted memories of a time in the seventies that none other than Enzo Ferrari lost interest and nearly pulled his team out of F1.

In the context of Ferrari having racing in its DNA, it should always be remembered that Enzo started producing road-going cars to generate income to support his racing ambitions, namely Formula 1 and sportscar racing.

This worked fine in the early days of the company, but as demand for the road cars grew and the racing programme developed the strain was felt by all at Maranello.

It was a case of too many pots on the stove, as the team’s 1964 World Champion John Surtees explained, “At Ferrari in those days you started with a handicap. Until Le Mans was over you couldn’t really do the work you wanted to do – and needed to do – in Formula One.”

By the end of the sixties Ferrari faced massive financial pressure as demand for their cars soared, but they simply did not have the tools to cater for the burgeoning demand, while maintaining a vast and ambitious racing programme in Formula 1 and endurance racing.

Enter Gianni Agnelli, patriarch of the Agnelli empire that founded and owned FIAT, who negotiated a 50% stake in Ferrari. The deal kept Enzo in charge while pumping the company with much-needed funding to expand their road car production capabilities.

It was not lost on the powers that be at FIAT that the Ferrari brand was intrinsically entwined with their racing escapades. The maths was pretty simple: success on track meant sales of Ferrari sportscars.

Thus focus shone on the racing programme and in the early seventies, the team were in reasonable form, although a Formula 1 world title had eluded them since Surtees bagged one in 1964. Success was overdue in F1 but, at the same time, Ferrari did have a very strong World Sportscar Championship programme on the go to supposedly compensate.

In 1972 they had rolled out the Ferrari 312PB, powered by their legendary 3.0 Flat-12, which was a Formula 1 car clothed in sportscar bits. That season they dominated the World Sportscar Championship season winning ten of the eleven races in the process, only missing out on victory at Le Mans because Enzo did not think his cars would finish the race and did not enter his team.

Despite the sportscar success, FIAT marketeers realised that the future of the sport was going to be Formula 1 and pressure was on Ferrari to ramp up their programme and take the battle to the British constructors – Lotus and Tyrrell – who had emerged as engineering powers that dominated in the early seventies.

The pressure mounted on Enzo to raise his game in Formula 1, but he pointed to his sportscar success and continued to focus on endurance racing element of the sport.

But in 1973 the sportscar programme, still potent, came up against Matra-Simca and their glorious MS670. It was a tight contest but the French outfit prevailed.

At the same time on the Formula 1 front Ferrari floundered. For 1973 designer Mauro Forghieri produced the awkward looking 312B3 which soon after breaking cover was dubbed “spazzaneve” or the snowplough in reference to the massive front wing. Apart from being ugly, it was also not particularly impressive in testing.

In a hotbed of politics and power games that prevailed in within the walls of Maranello, Forghieri was dropped from the F1 programme, replaced by Sandro Colombo who was tasked to redevelop the 312B3 while they fielded updated 312B2s – cars that were raced by the Reds during 1970 and 1971. It proved to be a recipe for disaster.

Jacky Ickx and Arturo Merzario spearheaded Ferrari’s 1973 campaign and got off to a reasonable start with three fourth places and a fifth place between them in the first three rounds. But thereafter it was downhill fast as the team was simply no match for the pacesetters: Lotus, Tyrell, McLaren and their formidable Cosworth DFV engines.

Colombo’s evolution of the 312B3 was a failure. Ferrari lost heart and on some occasions would only turn up with one car and even skipped two races that year – the Dutch Grand Prix and the German Grand Prix – in truth their season never really got going. They were sixth in the constructors’ standings when the year ended.

Meanwhile, FIAT were adamant that Formula 1 was the way to go for the company, but were alarmed by the on-track performance which tarnished the image of their substantial investment. They exerted pressure and in the end, Enzo had to make the choice to terminate his beloved sportscar programme for 1974 or focus the racing division solely on F1.

These were torrid days at Maranello as the two factions (F1 versus sportscars) fought for survival. In the end Formula 1 prevailed but it was a decidedly close call, with Enzo eventually swayed in the direction of Formula 1 for the future of his racing team. However insiders at the time tell stories of how the decision swayed one way or another on a daily basis until the final call was made.

It took the arrival of a charismatic young man – an Agnelli protege – by the name of Luca di Montezemolo, ‘convinced’ by Enzo to oversee the F1 operation and to energise the programme which was teetering on oblivion at the time.

Watching the first half of the 1973 season unfold from the sidelines, young Montezemolo knew what was required. Enzo made the 26-year-old direttore sportivo in June that year, at which point Colombo was replaced by Forghieri. Montezemolo was convinced that the latter was indeed on to a good thing with his version of the 312B3, while the former’s version was possibly the Scuderia’s worst F1 car ever built.

For 1974 the team rolled-out the Forghieri penned 312B3-74, which despite being unreliable, returned Ferrari to the top step of the F1 podium that year with Niki Lauda winning twice and Clay Regazzoni also claiming a victory as the team finished second in the constructors’ championship.

In 1975 the 312B3-74 evolved into the 312T in which Lauda won the team’s first F1 title in a decade. The rest, as they say, is history…

In closing, it is fitting to rewind to that key period in 1973 with Enzo having to decide which plug to pull: Formula 1 or sportcars. By all accounts, he was convinced at the time that sportscars were the way to go and expectations within the factory, especially after the disaster that was unfolding in the F1 World Championship for his team, was that sportscar racing would get the nod.

But FIAT knew better and were adamant that Formula 1 was the platform to promote the Ferrari brand. Years later it emerged that Montezemolo, an impressive chap even in his mid-twenties, was sent to spend time at Maranello by none less than Gianni Agnelli.

The objective was to convince Enzo that his sportscar programme, which at the time was on a high, needed to be shut down in favour of Formula 1 where they were at times (that season) the laughing stock of the paddock. Formula 1 certainly did not depend on Ferrari at the time as it supposedly needs to do so now

Not only did Montezemolo sway the ‘old man’ he did enough to convince Enzo to make him team chief at a very tender age – indeed many ridiculed the appointment. But for FIAT it was a case of killing two birds with one stone – they had convinced Ferrari to prioritise Formula 1 and at the same had their man in charge of the programme!

Fast forward 44 years and Montezemolo has now been replaced by the bellicose Marchionne, and although the world a vastly different place than in 1973 there are nevertheless two common denominators: Ferrari considers quitting the sport at the highest level and, for now, Formula 1 still is the best place for Ferrari to promote their brand.