Ferrari desperate to keep pace with new breed
Legendary team in transition as they look to resume winning ways, says Richard Williams
Published 10/07/2011 | 05:00
A discreet knock on the bright red door. "Due minuti," Stefano Domenicali says with an apologetic smile and slips out of his office on the second storey of the Scuderia Ferrari's lavishly appointed mobile home, looking out over the Silverstone paddock, to hear the latest ruling on off-throttle cold-blown diffusers.
With only a couple of hours to go before the final free practice session for today's British Grand Prix, the regulations on this most arcane of technical matters seem to be changing hourly.
"We are thinking too small in our small and dedicated world," the Ferrari team principal announces when he returns from a brief chat with his new English engineering director, Pat Fry. "People outside do not care about hot gases or cold gases. We need to take the level of discussion to another platform. This is the big challenge that we face for the future of Formula One."
For Ferrari, last week's row over whether to permit the creation of downforce through the use of exhaust gases is just another challenge in the company's long and often volatile involvement in top-line motor racing.
Sixty years ago this week, the young team came to Silverstone and notched up their very first grand prix victory when their No 3 driver, Jose Froilan Gonzalez, led home the all-conquering Alfa Romeos of his Argentinian compatriot and friend, Juan Manuel Fangio, and the defending champion, Nino Farina.
Today's team members are assembling a short film, including a message from Domenicali, to send to Gonzalez, now 88 and the oldest living grand prix winner, at his home in Argentina in time for next Thursday, the actual anniversary. Bernie Ecclestone now owns the car -- a mighty Tipo 375 with its 4.5 litre V12 engine -- that is believed to be the one Gonzalez drove.
The victory in 1951, the first major success for the team founded by a man whose long association with Alfa Romeo had ended acrimoniously 13 years earlier, laid the foundations of the Ferrari legend. When Federico Giberti, Domenicali's predecessor of 60 years ago, rang the team's headquarters in Modena to tell his boss their car had vanquished the supercharged Alfettas, Enzo Ferrari's response was uncharacteristically emotional. "I cried for joy," he said later, "but my tears of enthusiasm were mixed with sorrow because I thought: 'Today I have killed my mother.'"
An episode of matricide was a suitable way to begin the story of a team that has often found themselves in the middle of dramas. The most recent came earlier this season, when, with the cars of their current drivers, Fernando Alonso and Felipe Massa, languishing in the slipstream of the Red Bulls, Domenicali sacked his technical chief Aldo Costa as part of a reorganisation that appeared to reverse the tendency to re-establish the Italian character of the team in a post-Schumacher era.
A business graduate, 46, who joined Ferrari 20 years ago and has a reputation for niceness unusual in the Formula One paddock, Domenicali has a lot more grey hair than he possessed when he was promoted to team principal by the president, Luca di Montezemolo, at the beginning of the 2008 season. Bringing in Fry to replace Costa, he agrees, was one of his most painful decisions.
"Very simply, that was difficult from the emotional point of view. But in this position one rule is to try and be rational. If we do something, it's because we feel it's best for the team," he said.
"There was always a mix of nationalities in the team. The chief designer is from Greece. We've always had a lot of engineers from the UK or other countries. Someone tried to steer it towards a sort of confrontational fight, the Italians versus the others, but I never took that as the most important thing. For sure we are Italian as a company and we try to consolidate the positive values of Italy in our team.
"But one of our strengths is the multi-cultural approach we have now. It's something that's difficult to manage, but it's a great opportunity for the future."
He is aware that the team's designers and engineers appear to have mislaid their instinct for the sort of one-off innovation that tends to decide championships in the current era. "That is my push," he says. "I agree that our strength was to improve step by step in a linear way. It is still our strength. But we are also in a transition time where there are not too many technical people that are making the difference. We need to be realistic. The job that we need to do now is to build up a new generation of people of that level."
Gonzalez's win in 1951 was the first of 14 British Grand Prix victories for Ferrari, 12 of them at Silverstone, the successful drivers including Fangio, Alberto Ascari, Peter Collins and Michael Schumacher. Although Domenicali denies it, such a lustrous legend can become a burden when the fans' expectations are not being met.
"I'm not used to looking behind," he said yesterday. "I look ahead. But I know this is a very strong part of our myth. The fact that we were always here since the beginning of Formula One is something unique and something we would like to keep alive with new victories."
Ferrari have not won a race since Alonso took the chequered flag in South Korea last October. Third and fourth places in yesterday's qualifying session puts the Spaniard and his Brazilian team-mate in decent shape to challenge the Red Bulls -- the Alfettas of the present era -- today.
"We are in a world of competition that is changing all the time," Domenicali said. "In our long history we've had fantastic periods and difficult moments and very bad moments, but this is part of the cycle of life. For other competitors, the best thing is always to beat Ferrari. That means a lot. For sure we would like always to beat the others, but we have to accept that sometimes there are difficulties. The most important thing is that we are always here."
Sunday Indo Sport