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Can Vasseur change Ferrari’s ‘stable’ culture?

During today’s Ferrari SF-23 launch it was all wide smiles and hearty laughter, but these don’t win world championships. RacingNews365 Editorial Director Dieter Rencken examines incoming team boss Frédéric Vasseur’s to-do list and wonders whether the Frenchman will be empowered to make sorely needed changes.

Four team principals since 2007 and not a single drivers’ championship: That’s Scuderia Ferrari’s unenviable record - particularly given that Mercedes claimed seven driver titles in that time; Red Bull six, and McLaren and Brawn one each. True, Ferrari bagged the 2008 Constructors’ Championship, but that was against a backdrop of ‘Spygate’ - a scandal which threw McLaren into disarray - as Williams entered its slow descent. There is another equally salient metric, namely longevity on the pitwall: Red Bull’s team boss Christian Horner has been in the hotseat since 2005 and Toto Wolff last month celebrated his tenth anniversary with Mercedes. Their teams’ achievements in that time are surely no coincidence. Thus, the primary task facing new (ex-Sauber) Team Principal Frederic Vasseur is to beat Ferrari’s odds, yet the final decision is not his to take. The fates of his (all-Italian) predecessors attest to troubling precedents: Stefano Domenicali was forced out during the 2014 season; successor Marco Mattiacci after less than a year; Maurizio Arrivabene and Mattia Binotto after four and three seasons respectively. Crucially, all had overseen multiple wins, even challenged for titles. Equally, last year saw Ferrari open F1’s much-vaunted new era at the very front – but only after effectively writing off 2021 - then gradually drop back until it was within a race of losing second place to a Mercedes seriously hampered by a severely recalcitrant car. This begs the question: What does Vasseur - a man steeped in motor racing and in Formula 1, but with smaller, less pressure-packed teams - need to do to stay the distance required to deliver Ferrari’s first title(s) in 15 years? On the surface, Ferrari has it all: top dollars, top facilities, top drivers, top staff. However, these the Scuderia oft had access to, being by-products of Maranello Mythology that attracts the best to what is otherwise a rural Italian town. Virtually every top F1 engineer or driver either served the Prancing Horse or regrets being unavailable when the call came. Through circumstances at Sauber Vasseur was a free man at end-2022.

Ferrari yet to replay the greatest hits of Todt days

What Ferrari has not, though, enjoyed since the mid-2000s Jean Todt era is teamwork of the type that epitomises its grid peers: too often the left hand does not know what the right hand is doing or that it exists. Strange to relate, but until Red Bull’s powertrain operation comes on stream Ferrari is the only team producing a full car in a centralised facility. Such integration is priceless, yet consistently squandered. Todt, though, enjoyed open budgets via the generosity of Marlboro, Shell and Bridgestone, all of whom spent what it took to win five straight titles via a multinational team spearheaded by Michael Schumacher, the best (and costliest) driver of his generation and arguably all time. Then, after Todt departed, all that changed. Although the budget cap began to bite under Binotto, he, too, had the advantage of superb facilities, which momentum is gradually ebbing away. Crucially, Vasseur does not have that luxury under the (reducing) budget cap, so must fight on a level battle ground, not one tilted in favour of the Big Three. That is obviously a challenge also faced by Red Bull and Mercedes, but overall Ferrari historically has the most to lose under the cap given the enormous bonuses it pulled (and invested) under the previous Concorde – which paid Ferrari $100m per year simply to turn up. To summarise: the current Scuderia Ferrari is Italo-centric - save for Vasseur every top management member is staunchly Italian – and teamwork across all divisions appears seriously lacking. Finally, the Scuderia needs to adapt better to downsizing to remain within the budget cap, yet return top performances to the final race. Last year Ferrari cut back on upgrades from September – and it showed. It would be easy to hurl accusations at Binotto, but he was promoted just before Covid hit, then faced a 30% reduction in the planned cap due to pandemic ($175m down to the current $135m). Diversifying on staff is difficult when headcount reductions loom due to the cap; however, simple mathematics dictate that ‘fishing’ in an all-Italian pond means there are less top-quality fish available. Pre-Todt, Ferrari had prioritised Italian talent - save, strangely, on the driver front - for a title-less 15 years, but the Frenchman insisted on recruiting the best, regardless of passport. At the peak of Ferrari’s hegemony the executive team comprised British, French, Greek, Japanese and South Africans dedicated to delivering winning cars for German/Brazilian drivers. It was no fluke, as a straight five-year title run proves. Thus, in restructuring Vasseur needs to recruit the best talent, not simply the best Italian talent. That will, though, be no easy task given the cap: Previously Ferrari could afford to recruit with an open cheque book; now recruiting foreign specialists is considerably more complicated under Brexit than during Todt’s time. Then, the very term ‘scuderia’ is an anachronism meaning ‘stable’, harking to the sport’s earliest days when men raced horseless carriages. All well and good when the logo is a WWI stallion, but hardly conducive to a ‘team ethic’, particularly when the opposition invariably references their “team”, not an outbuilding. If Ferrari must keep its historic SF abbreviation, why not adopt the Italian term for team, namely Squadra? Genuine teamwork of the type that epitomises the most recent championship winners has been lacking at Ferrari for at least a decade now – and it shows in the smallest details which magnify when combined over a race weekend, then over a season.

The complex item on Ferrari's must-do list

Ferrari's most complex item on the must-do list? Downsizing while upgrading capital expenditure items. As time marches on, so the facilities acquired by Ferrari under the open budget days become antiquated and require replacement, yet simultaneously capex is restricted. Thus, a man versus machine war looms, one that can only be won through judicious cost cutting, hard as it may be. That Vasseur, who came up the ranks from race engineer through owning junior series teams to F1 team principal via a (cost-conscious under Carlos Ghosn) Renault and the independent Sauber operation, is well-equipped to operate on miniscule budgets, goes without question. Whether he can, though, instil those much-needed disciplines within a nationalistic Ferrari that became bloated through excess is another question. If Vasseur manages to turn Ferrari around he will go down as hero in both Italy and his French homeland - as had Todt - but to do so Ferrari’s top management needs to let him get on with the job he was recruited to do, but with their full support and, crucially, without interference. All this presupposes that Vasseur is empowered to introduce the necessary changes by Ferrari Chairman John Elkann nor CEO Benedetto Vigna, but on recent evidence they seem unable to do so. Thus, they should read numerous tomes that record Ferrari’s history: Todt was empowered to act as he saw fit by then-CEO and President Luca di Montezemolo. If Vasseur ultimately fails to deliver at least one title over the next five years – the first in 21 years - it will be their fault, not his…

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