Former BAR-Honda team boss Craig Pollock once opined that the role of team principal was the most challenging of all management positions: “There is no other job in the world where you are as publicly audited every fortnight, by extremely passionate people but with little or no knowledge of the overall picture.”
The Scotsman, who founded the team that then became the mighty Mercedes steamroller, had a point: virtually every one of F1’s tens of millions of global fans hold critical opinions - more usually in hindsight - with their judgements generally being clouded by the travails of their favourite team or driver.
Pollock spoke those words over 20 years ago, before the era of 1000-strong F1 teams; at a time when the internet was used for banking via dial-up modems and iPhones oohed at in sci-fi movies; Amazon lost millions daily and twitter was something birds did each morning; Facebook was a photo album and TikTok a nursery rhyme; Budget caps applied to grocery bills, Netflix was a DVD rental service and F1 had 13 teams.
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How the world has changed since, dragging a screaming and shouting F1 in its wake. Crucially, in the early noughties Ferrari was flying high after 21 years in the doldrums. Saliently, then-Ferrari team boss Jean Todt had resisted regular calls for his head until he eventually delivered the most successful team in all F1 history, but only after eight years of intensive restructuring. Suddenly this mass hysteria stopped…
At the time every other team was managed by its owner who was answerable to no-one save a bank manager. Fast-forward 25 years and every team boss is an employee – highly remunerated, yes, but subject to prying questions from corporate boards whose only eye is on ‘brand’ and its impact on the bottom line.
They have absolutely no knowledge of the complexities of the world’s most expensive sport yet profess to ‘know it all’. Add in the toxic environments that are social media platforms, and such executives are easily swayed by public opinion, so desperate are they to save their own skins by propping up the share price.
Now mix in the ignorance of legions of emerging fans whose only staple take-out from Drive to Survive is that all drivers hate each other and none more than their own teammates, and that even minor regulatory transgression amount to wilful cheating punishable by lingering death. Bumbles by a team - favourite or not - will not, cannot be forgiven or indeed even be forgotten by dint of being constantly flighted on YouTube.
Against this background it is little wonder there have been ever-louder calls in (primarily) Italian media to replace Ferrari F1 boss Mattia Binotto. Sure, Ferrari has suffered inexplicable botches this season such that despite leading both championships in the early stages of the season - having effectively written off last year to prepare for F1’s ‘new era’ - the Scuderia is in dire danger of losing second place to a resurgent Mercedes.
Regardless of what one thinks of Binotto’s personal leadership skills - not having worked under him I’m in no position to judge, but folk who have are adamant he has what it takes, then add that “Mattia is a very good man” - he did not force Charles Leclerc’s car into a spin in Imola, where the Monegasque frittered away a certain podium.
Nor did Binotto turn the steering wheel during Carlos Sainz’s various excursions; was he a wrench man during slow pit stops or the engine rebuilder? Does he devise strategies? He was not even in Brazil to check local weather forecasts, so how could the Swiss-born Italian even be blamed for the team “waiting for the rain that never came," as Leclerc so quaintly put it.
The answers are as categorically clear as they are concise; His job is to ensure that every team member has the skills and equipment to do the job, not go around wrenching or turning tillers; equally, the words printed on a large sign sat prominently on the desk of Harry S Truman throughout his (1945-53) US presidency apply as profoundly to Binotto’s office: The Buck Stops Here.
Thus, if Binotto is in any way ‘guilty’ of mismanagement it is arguably due to his refusal/failure/inability (delete as considered appropriate) to take decisive action against those individuals who directly committed the blunders, be they drivers, senior managers, engineers or technicians, and then to ensure that systems are in place to prevent reoccurrences. Maybe he has done so behind closed doors – who knows?
Can he be blamed for not firing such folk left, right and centre? Maybe, but the flipside is: What use is constant disruption, and what does that achieve, particularly if there is no better individual available? That is a golden rule of effective management…
In July 2020, Ferrari Chairman John Elkann gave an interview to Italian organ Gazzetta dello Sport in which he accepted that 2021 would be a write-off in terms of results due to the dog of a car that was the 2020 Ferrari (which would then be rolled over to the following year as a result of F1’s ‘Covid regulations’) but that the target Binotto had been set for 2022 was “to be competitive.”
What, then, are ten pole positions - 1000% the tally of Mercedes to date and one more than Red Bull - and four wins thus far (or double that of the Three-Pointed Star even if the silver team wins in Abu Dhabi)? True, overall Ferrari has not come close to Red Bull, but then nor has any other team.
Still, now come increasingly strident rumours that Binotto is to be replaced, with the same Gazzetta dello Sport claiming the guillotine has been sharpened and tethered, ready to drop after Abu Dhabi. The outlet claims that Frederick Vasseur, currently boss of Sauber/Alfa Romeo, has been lined up to take his place. I like Fred enormously, and thus I truly hope he does not accept this most poisoned of chalices if it was even offered.
Consider: If the Frenchman (or any other candidate) accepts this most glamorous but ultimately thankless role in F1, Ferrari would have had four team bosses since 2013. In these nine years Mercedes has had one - Toto Wolff - while Red Bull’s Christian Horner has been in his role for double that time. Both have won serial championships in that time; Ferrari has not. There must be a lesson in that parable…
Ferrari has, though, in that time listed on the New York Stock Exchange – possibly Binotto’s other ‘crime’ is that shareholders do not understand this incredibly complex sport and thus share prices mirrors Ferrari’s most visible activity, namely F1. If Ferrari keeps spinning the Scuderia’s revolving door ever faster results are likely to deteriorate in the long term, not improve in the short term.
After days of speculation Ferrari has now publicly – but hardly emphatically - refuted that Binotto’s position is under siege, but the damage has been done by dithering. What Binotto - and by extension the Scuderia - require more than anything from Elkann and Ferrari CEO Benedetto Vigna is full support, not delayed comments or a public lynching regardless of what ignorant shareholders, rabid tifosi and sensationalist Italian media may demand.
If Elkann and Vigna are unable to stand up to them, Binotto should plonk the Truman truism down on their desks…
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