The Long Read: Formula 1 is Ferrari and Ferrari is Formula 1

enzo ferrari bernie ecclestone

During a recent interview with GQ magazine on the occasion of being awarded the “GQ Car Awards Lifetime Achievement”, ex-Formula 1 supremo Bernie Ecclestone was asked about who he admired most and felt was a true match during his F1 dealings. Among others, Ecclestone mentioned Enzo Ferrari.

He said: “Mr [Enzo] Ferrari. He was very special and he helped me a lot. He taught me that the sport is on the table and the business is under it. Formula 1 is Ferrari and Ferrari is Formula 1.”

The first part of his quote is quite normal to say, with the business part dominating most of – if not all – the major global sports today. It was the second part that intrigued me:

“Formula 1 is Ferrari and Ferrari is Formula 1.”

Now anyone who doesn’t know F1 and its history would have considered this quote to be the result of extreme vanity on Mr Ferrari’s part. As a matter of fact, even some F1 fans or insiders would consider this statement as vain and borderline narcissistic, but F1 purists can somehow relate to it and understand where it came from.

Nevertheless; this gets you thinking. How true is this statement? Most importantly though, to what extent does it still apply in modern-day F1?

Ferrari and F1 have been organically connected for as long as the championship has existed. The first thing that comes to mind when F1 is mentioned are those glorious red racing cars built by the house of Maranello and the legendary drivers that drove them.

That is understandable as Ferrari has been a staple in F1 from the very beginning back in 1950. Ever since, they have contested every season achieving monumental success over the years and becoming the most victorious team in the history of the sport. This allowed them to accumulate power and influence as F1 developed into the money-generating franchise it is today. As such Ferrari finds itself in a very privileged position compared to other teams.

They are so (politically) powerful that they hold the right of veto on the introduction of any changes (rules, regulations…etc) in F1. On top of their performance-based annual prize money, they receive a special bonus just for showing up at races; something that doesn’t apply to any of the other teams.

Another aspect of Ferrari’s involvement in F1 has been the “special” treatment they receive within the sport, which has been the subject of various controversies over the years. The most recent example is their power-unit episode during the 2019 season where they were so dominant on the power unit side that rival teams questioned its legality, triggering an FIA investigation.

Without delving further into details now, the case was settled “confidentially” by Ferrari and the FIA, with Ferrari keeping their points and incurring no penalties. Even though the FIA  reacted by issuing a strict technical directive forcing Ferrari to revise their power-unit, consequently losing a big chunk of power, none of the other teams was happy with this outcome, and any bystander would consider this as blatant preferential treatment.

We also cannot neglect that intangible factor that makes Ferrari synonymous with F1, deeply engraving it in the fans’ minds. Away from the fans, ask any person today what he or she knows about F1 and the immediate answer is: Ferrari and Michael Schumacher.

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I personally remember when I first saw a Ferrari F1 car on track in person at the 2017 Abu Dhabi GP. The minute the SF70H hit the track in practice, it stole the lights from the other cars; it just demanded attention! For an F1 team to develop such an imposing presence is by any chance no mean feat.

Saying that Ferrari is all about passion cannot be taken lightly. This is the impalpable reason why everyone relates to Ferrari in F1 and especially motorsport enthusiasts. Ferrari have built their brand around racing in general, and F1 in particular to the point that they are now entrenched in the sports’ image on both the marketing and sporting fronts.

We now come to the person who was behind Ferrari’s rise into the motoring juggernaut it is today: Enzo Ferrari – Il Commendatore. 

Coming from modest origins, this remarkable man dreamt big and was all about passion for cars and racing. To begin with, the man was a racer and a good one none the less. This has always influenced his decisions in life (it is a well-known fact that he founded the road car department to fund the Scuderia’s racing activities), and through his hard work, vision, leadership, and resilience was able to realize his dream.

Enzo’s life story is well documented, so it won’t be discussed here. But researching this exceptional man’s convictions and philosophies is a must if one hopes to understand how Ferrari became “Ferrari”, and most importantly the root cause of its current struggles.

Why to understand the struggles?

Because ever since the famous Schumacher era, Ferrari has become a shadow of its former self. With the exception of the 2007 drivers’ and 2008 constructors’ crowns, Ferrari has not been able to repeat its previous success for 12 years now. This is their second-longest dry spell since they failed to win the drivers’ crown (which they prioritise) – there were 21 years between Jody Scheckter’s title in 1979 and Schumacher’s first title with them in 2000.

Ferrari’s struggles for the past years are well documented. Some of their performances where borderline embarrassing, be it trackside operations, strategy calls, driver management, and last but not least the cars they are building; the SF1000 being a shocking example.

ferrari

Although they succeeded on some fronts over the years (their 2017 and 2018 cars were title contenders for example), they were never able to do so simultaneously and consistently over one season, let alone consecutive seasons. That is why they have not been able to launch a sustainable title fight to usurp Mercedes who, on the other hand, have ticked all the boxes and utterly dominated the sport since the start of the turbo-hybrid era.

So why this decline? Talent is abundant within their ranks. They never lacked funding. They always had the best facilities. Their cockpits were occupied by top drivers. Despite all this, Ferrari is still chasing that elusive title since 2008.

Going back in history and trying to find some answers within the words of the “Old Man” himself has shed some light on some factors that may explain the Ferrari conundrum in my modest opinion.

Enzo Ferrari was known to be tough. He ran the Scuderia with a steel grip. It was always his way or the highway. His focus was to keep the Scuderia winning. With that in mind, he took his decisions.

He once said: “I am an agitator of men.

“I give my collaborators complete trust. That is the only way to see if they deserve it.”, which shows his leadership credentials and supreme managerial skills.

He acknowledged the fact that he lacked a high level of education (due to his difficult upcoming), but more than compensated for that with how he built and managed his team. He once explained: “In my life, I’ve always surrounded myself with people who were very cultured, skilful, and especially pervaded by the wish of having success. 

“To love cars was the first quality, the first gift I was to discover in my interlocutor before hiring him. A task remained for me: to talk about problems, and to set up meetings, while assisting to the conflicting opinions of my collaborators, with a modest synthesis ability which I’ve always had to take some decisions,” Enzo said, which shows his great ability to extract the maximum productivity from the talent available to him within the Scuderia.

Then came his passion for cars and racing, to the extent that he once described the car as a “son”. He instilled that passion into his team and staff which was consequently transmitted to Ferrari’s fans. This infectious passion still drives Ferrari to our day.

enzo ferrari

He became Ferrari.

Marco Piccinini, former team principal (1977-1988), once said: “His dream always was to become Ferrari – the team, the factory, the cars. And he did become that. Enzo Ferrari didn’t need to play up to a perception. You don’t need to pose like Ferrari when you are Ferrari.”

We can go on all day quoting Enzo or the people who talked about him, but the fact is, the man has to be credited for how he built and managed his team despite what many say about him being ruthless and uncompromising.

His management style worked perfectly in his days, especially as his peers were legendary team bosses like Bruce Mclaren, Frank Williams, Colin Chapman, the list goes on.

I strongly feel that, after Enzo’s passing, the powers that be at the Scuderia tried to run it the way he did, except that, it didn’t work. None of them was Enzo, and the landscape of F1 has changed tremendously since Enzo’s days. In the post-Ecclestone era, after Liberty Media took over, F1 changed and company boards started running teams.

There is no place for one team boss making all the shots anymore. Dual leaderships emerged at Red Bull with Christian Horner and Helmut Marko, and at Mercedes with Toto Wolff and the late Niki Lauda. Those proved to be very effective and both teams ended up dominating modern-day F1. Red Bull dominated between 2010 – 2013 and Mercedes are still doing so since 2014 with no signs of slowing down. Needless to mention that, among other factors, both teams also featured stable team structures during the height of their powers.

Enzo’s successors tried to emulate him by being tough and ruthless but failed to be leaders and exceptional people managers like he was. Luca Di Montezemolo’s successful experience stands out. He made all the right calls. He hired the right people (Schumacher, Jean Todt, Ross Brawn, Rory Byrne, and others of course) and most importantly, empowered them, and shielded them from external pressure. They duly delivered with a dominating streak between 2000 and 2004.

luca di montezemolo ferrari

After the beating Ferrari received at the hands of Renault and Fernando Alonso in 2005 and 2006, the dream team got dismantled. Schumacher made way for Kimi Raikonnen, who won the title in 2007 but largely due to Fernando Alonso and Lewis Hamilton taking points off each other at Mclaren. And since then Ferrari lost stability and never recovered. They went through team bosses, lead drivers and senior management staff at a crazy pace with a revolving door culture developing within the team. It is worth noting that the late Sergio Marchionne tried his hand at rebuilding the team, but his efforts were cut short due to his untimely death. Many thought he had what it takes, but we shall never find out, unfortunately.

So Ferrari are still not out of the woods, and it remains to be seen if Mattia Binotto is the man to lead them out. The signs are not encouraging though. The man needs more support from the top (regardless of his credentials), and Ferrari are yet to replace Louis Camilleri (who resigned recently citing personal reasons) with John Elkann continuing to take a hands-off approach. They need to create and maintain a properly stable and efficient management structure that protects its people and empowers them. Otherwise, success will continue to elude them. 

It’s quite ironic that Aldo Costa, once a prominent member of the technical team, was sacked and went to Mercedes. There he built the foundations of their ongoing dominance with the W05 being the main focus of his work. Under proper circumstances, wouldn’t he have delivered the same for Ferrari? A valid question I feel…

Ferrari are running out of time, and need to reverse their fortunes ASAP. F1 is changing fast and the new F1 might not be as accommodating to Ferrari’s privileges.

As part of the sport’s new strategy, new fans are being attracted to the sport and those will witness Ferrari as an underachieving big team living on past glories. They will not comprehend why Ferrari is so revered especially when Mercedes is performing in such an impressive manner with only Red Bull taking the fight to them race in and race out. In such an ultra-competitive, money-driven and marketing-based sport, the old Ferrari will struggle, but a modernised and revamped one may re-validate its hallowed position within the sport.

If Il Commendatore saw his team’s state of affairs today, rest assured he wouldn’t be able to say what he previously told Mr Ecclestone with the same level of confidence and pride, let alone say it at all.

For a while now, every new season of F1 has started with great anticipation hoping that Ferrari reverse their fortunes, but they keep coming up short. I don’t feel that 2021 will be any different for them. But there is always 2022 (when the new regulations come into effect), and I, like many others, genuinely hope they come out with all guns blazing.

The fans need it, F1 needs it…

ferrari flag