KNUTSON: Ferrari’s Revolving Door Of Leadership

Dan Knutson

BLOOMINGTON, Minn. — Predictably, when Ferrari announced on Jan. 7 that team principal Maurizio Arrivabene was leaving, it was all couched in flowery language.

“After four years of untiring commitment and dedication, Maurizio Arrivabene is leaving the team,” the Ferrari press release said. “The decision was taken together with the company’s top management after lengthy discussions related to Maurizio’s long-term personal interests as well as those of the team itself. Ferrari would like to thank Maurizio for his valuable contribution to the team’s increasing competitiveness over the past few years, and wish him the best for his future endeavors.”

The reality, of course, is that Arrivabene was fired — and that came as no surprise. Most F-1 team bosses stay in their jobs for a long time. Christian Horner, for example, has run Red Bull since 2005. Ferrari, however, uses a variation of the NASCAR playoff rules of win and you are in or, conversely, lose and you are out. Mattia Binotto, who replaces Arrivabene, is the team’s fourth boss since 2008.

While Ferrari has won races, it has not won the   F-1 world championship since 2007. The “super team” led by now-FIA President Jean Todt and running superstar driver Michael Schumacher won five consecutive championships between 2000 and ’04. After Schumacher retired from F-1 — for the first time — and Todt left, Ferrari named Stefano Domenicali as its new team principal.

Domenicali is a nice guy, maybe too nice for the cutthroat world of F-1 and these days he is the CEO at Lamborghini. While Ferrari came close to winning more championships with Fernando Alonso, Red Bull and Sebastian Vettel did a better job.
For some inexplicable reason, the Ferrari brass decided in 2014 to replace Domenicali with Marco Mattiacci who had been president and CEO of Ferrari North America and president and CEO of Ferrari Asia Pacific. Mattiacci knew about selling road cars but nothing about F-1, so he was really thrown in at the deep end. He lasted just six months and then his long career at Ferrari was over.

Fiat Chrysler boss Sergio Marchionne named Arrivabene as the new Ferrari team principal in November 2014. Arrivabene had spent more than 20 years working for Philip Morris and Ferrari’s main sponsor Marlboro.

The abrasive Arrivabene had a reputation of ruling Ferrari by fear. He certainly made few friends in the media. Teams like Red Bull and Mercedes hold a postrace media debrief with their bosses. So did Ferrari until Arrivabene put an end to that. Under Arrivabene’s reign, Ferrari became the only team to stop putting out press releases after practice on Friday, qualifying on Saturday and the race on Sunday. When he had to appear in official FIA press conferences, Arrivabene was often terse with his answers.

The contrasting styles of Binotto and Arrivabene could not be more different. Binotto is open and friendly rather than brusque and aggressive. Team insiders talk about a growing rift between the two. It’s also rumored that Marchionne was getting ready to fire Arrivabene, but that was all put on hold after Marchionne died in July.

Binotto has worked for Ferrari since 1995 when he started in the engine department, and he became the head of that department in 2013. When Binotto was promoted to chief technical officer in July 2016 (replacing James Allison who ended up at Mercedes), we did not know how good a job he would do because his specialty was engines rather than the overall car. In fact, Binotto did a great job and other teams came sniffing around to see if they could lure him away from Ferrari.

Now, we wonder how will Binotto fare in his new role. Being chief technical officer is a full-time job, and now he will have to split his time between improving the car and running the team overall. He is going to have to delegate more responsibility and work to engine department head Corrado Iotti and aerodynamics boss Enrico Cardile. So far Ferrari has not named a new chief technical officer.

Binotto won’t have time to make any major changes at Ferrari as preseason testing and the season-opening race in Melbourne, Australia, are fast approaching. And the needed big changes will jar the team’s much-needed stability.

The question now becomes how patient will Fiat Chrysler chairman John Elkann and Ferrari CEO Louis Camilleri be with Binotto? If Ferrari does not start winning championships soon, how long will it be before Binotto too will be shown to the revolving door of the team principal’s office?