For full-fat Italian drama forget Verdi or Puccini at La Scala - look no further than the rolling hills around Maranello, a once-dozy agricultural village (current population 18k) that currently turns out 10 000 (or so) automotive sculptures per annum, each of which changes hands at ever-escalating values. The stage setting is Ferrari; the brand’s newest operatic drama the latest smash hit ‘Push or Jump?’, playing to capacity global audiences.
The main character is, of course, Mattia Binotto, Team Principal and Managing Director of Scuderia Ferrari, the hallowed brand’s Formula 1 racing team which placed second in both 2022 World Championships; the Swiss Italian’s opposite numbers are John Elkann and Benedetto Vigna, respectively Chairman and CEO of Ferrari.
Elkann is well-known only due to his (inherited) role atop the Prancing Horse pile thanks (primarily) to an investment made in Ferrari – notably, a decade before Elkann was born - by his industrialist grandfather Gianni Agnelli, plus via a current court saga in which his mother Margherita (nee Agnelli) charges that John (and two) siblings conspired to relieve her of swathes of inheritance via off-shore trusts and suchlike.
Vigna was fundamentally unknown to motor enthusiasts (and the wider world) until plucked from semiconductor obscurity by Elkann to run Ferrari - a far cry from his calling as physicist and inventor (of, for example, the microprocessors used in Nintendo games) - in the aftermath of the exit due to illness and personal reasons of Louis C Camilleri in December 2020.
The Maltese, ex-President of Philip Morris and thus with long-standing relationships with Ferrari via Marlboro and such sponsorships and then also a Ferrari board member, had been parachuted in after the sudden death in 2018 of Sergio Marchionne, then Ferrari and Fiat Chrysler CEO - (on paper) reporting to Elkann. Binotto had been Marchionne’s choice to lead Scuderia Ferrari and enjoyed the support of Camilleri.
For 18 months Elkann oversaw Ferrari until Vigna joined in mid-2021; then, within six months bloodletting began: Gone in short order were three of the most senior executives in the automotive division, followed in short order by marketing, communications and HR personnel. With Covid then playing havoc with F1, Scuderia Ferrari seemed safe, particularly as the sport was ramping up for its (delayed to 2022) ‘new era’.
At the time Elkann publicly announced the team’s targets: 2021 would be a write-off F1 season due to Covid, but from 2022 the Scuderia would need to be competitive and win races as it geared up towards winning its first world championship since 2008. All seemed on track, as four wins, 10 poles and an eventual second in both this season’s World Championships – secured in the final round in Abu Dhabi - attest.
The team could look forward to moving up a gear in 2023, particularly given Red Bull’s aerodynamic test restriction as part of its cost cap penalties. All this, though, reckoned without Ferrari’s instinct for drama: As the team faced the final two races that decided their final positions in both championships, knives were sharpened in Maranello: After the Brazilian round the Italian media was fed titbits that Binotto would be sacked after the Middle East finale.
He would be replaced by Sauber’s Frédéric Vasseur, wrote journalists, allegedly fed by the Frenchman’s camp, possibly feeling insecure after Audi announced its buy-in into the team currently racing as Alfa Romeo. Such suggestions were, of course, belatedly denied – but two things were clear: Elkann and Vigna did not move to quell rumours until urged to do so by Binotto, and by then some serious damage had been done.
“In relation to speculation in certain media regarding Scuderia Ferrari Team Principal Mattia Binotto's position, Ferrari states that these rumours are totally without foundation,” read Ferrari statement, without a quote from top management. Hardly a ringing endorsement…
Still, Binotto believed he was safe, secure in the fact that both runners-up slots had been delivered, ahead of Mercedes, at that. Suggestions that he would be ousted once he returned to Italy were shrugged aside, and he headed for F1’s winter recess hoping for unequivocal backing from his bosses in order to kill off rumours once and for all, not least to enable the team to work without distraction towards going one better in 2023.
When it became clear such wholehearted support was in short supply Binotto did what honourable men do when faced with indecisiveness and duplicity: He offered to resign, on his terms. Hence the saga dragged on a week. Consider how lacking in management courage Ferrari’s top echelon is: Not a word has been said by either Elkann or Vigna since before Abu Dhabi, nor is the PR team able to comment either way.
The net effect is a statement can be expected, potentially today (Monday) but more likely Tuesday after final details are thrashed out - with a six-month block of gardening leave likely to follow - while Ferrari seeks a replacement for the man who delivered every target set for him this season. In the interim, Vigna, said to have constantly meddled with strategies despite attending but five Grands Prix this year, acts as team boss…
Thus, Ferrari’s fifth rebuilding period, inevitably peppered with talk of ‘three-year plans’, since 2008 will commence late 2023. Thus, the rest of the current formula - which ends in 2025 - can be written off by tifosi. In the interim Elkann will be distracted by the feud and demands of other branches of his family’s business, including the Stellantis motor behemoth and Juventus football club. Any wonder F1 hardly registers for him?
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Binotto (53), a superb engineer with winning team principal experience plus widespread experience of Ferrari’s inner workings, will surely be snapped up once that period is over, while it is unlikely the Scuderia will find a replacement to lead its highest profile activity any time soon. As I wrote here, a key management rule is not to de-hire anybody unless a more effective replacement has been secured.
Whatever, Ferrari may argue Binotto resigned and the matter is now sorted - but Elkann’s failure to support Binotto when it counted was and is crucial to the drama still being played out. That is the crux: unless he and Vigna, recruited primarily to drive Ferrari’s electrification push, wanted the last survivor of the Marchionne era out, begging the question: Why issue a half-baked statement when the rumours first surfaced?
The word is Ferrari spoke to folk up and the down paddock - including Red Bull team boss Christian Horner, allegedly offered a package that would ensure a rather comfortable retirement - but given the churn and poisoned chalice that is Scuderia Ferrari’s top job there were no takers. Now it is up to Vigna to prove he can do it in addition to running the car automotive division, or maybe even enlist his Nintendo buddies…
Students of Verdi and Puccini would do well to take lessons.
F1 Podcast: Is Binotto's position under threat?
RacingNews365.com F1 journalists Dieter Rencken and Michael Butterworth discuss the key issues from the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, including whether Ferrari team boss Mattia Binotto's position is at risk.