Just twelve short months ago at the 2014 Bahrain Grand Prix, the most famous and grandest team in all of motorsport was in a state of utter chaos. Ferrari had begun the new 1.6L turbo hybrid era of Formula 1 with a car that was plagued by power, chassis and aerodynamic problems, and there were no quick or easy remedies to be had.
So recalcitrant was the 2014 F-14T that two of the most talented drivers in the sport, Kimi Raikkonen and Fernando Alonso, could only muster 7th and 10th in qualifying. In the race, the red cars were so off the pace that they were passed on the track by midfield teams, prompting Ferrari President and Chairman, Luca Cordero di Montezemolo to storm out of the Ferrari garage mid-race after giving Ferrari Team Principal Stefano Domenicali a piece of his mind, witnessed in part on global television. Alonso would finish the race a lowly 9th, and Raikkonen 10th. Not the stuff of a team with a rumored annual budget in excess of $500m USD.
As is the norm in Italy after such disasters, the first of many heads began to roll. Domenicali was out in the days that immediately followed, falling on his sword, officially at least, in the interests of the greater good. In his stead was a hasty pick for a replacement. Marco Mattiacci, a long-time Ferrari man, but one with no racing experience whatsoever, took the helm at the very next race in Barcelona. And from the beginning, he looked to be a worrying choice.
While as we shall see, Mattiacci was the force behind many of the changes that would lead to what Ferrari has become in 2015, on the surface of things he seemed to be a cold and distant man, one who was curt and short in interviews, and fond of hiding his eyes behind dark sunglasses at all times. More worrying was the obvious lack of fireworks from the get-go between Mattiacci and the man seen by many as Ferrari’s saving grace, number one driver Fernando Alonso. The relationship seemed doomed from the start, as Alonso was very fond of Domenicali both personally and professionally.
As Mattiacci took his time learning the sport and the team, Ferrari continued to flounder from race to race. The F-14T was not a car that responded well to aero development, essentially the main area in which changes could be made to the car mid-season. It was hampered primarily by a power unit that was by some estimates 50bhp down on the benchmark Mercedes power plant, the result of a determination back in 2013 by the car’s primary designers, Pat Fry and Nicholas Tombazis, that the new formula would be one in which aero was everything. This choice erroneously led them to package the Ferrari power unit as compactly as possible, to the detriment in particular of turbo size and exhaust layout; both of which hobbled the MGU-H’s ability to harvest exhaust heat, thus limiting the amount of energy regeneration the system could handle.
No better apparently was the suspension package, with a front that lacked precise feel, and a rear that was prone to oversteer, which meant that the F-14T was none too friendly to its rear tires. Add to all this, the Ferrari aero squad, despite their focus on developing the car into an aerodynamic tour de force, accomplished nothing of the kind; instead producing a shape that was at best fair, and at worst well inferior to that of both the Mercedes and the Williams.
Alonso for his part managed to make the most out of this mediocre technical package, scoring a third place in Shanghai, and a second in Budapest, where he almost miraculously won the race. But Raikkonen was lost. The imprecise front end of the F-14T left the Finn unable to extract anything remotely close to Alonso’s performances, and thus the man who many credit as being the fastest man in terms of pure speed in Formula 1 could do no better all season than a 4th place at Spa.
But beyond the technical problems that Ferrari was dealing with was a general malaise amongst the personnel of the team. Since the salad days of the Schumacher/Brawn/Todt juggernaut that brought Ferrari five consecutive Driver’s and six consecutive Constructor’s Championships, the team had begun to devolve into a hornet’s nest of political infighting and a general culture of blame that was the norm in Maranello back when Enzo himself was running things.
Despite winning the 2007 Driver’s Championship and the 2008 Constructor’s Championship, things were not well behind the scenes. Domenicali, who took over from Jean Todt, was not nearly the Team Principal that the diminutive Frenchman was, nor was the new technical team that filled the void left by Ross Brawn and Rory Byrne up to scratch.
But in retrospect, the blame for the descent into the Heart of Darkness that was the 2014 season must ultimately lay at the feet of Luca di Montezemolo. While he dutifully encouraged Domenicali to attract many of the best and brightest minds to the House of Cavallino, he failed to foster an atmosphere where everybody worked together towards a common goal, and instead ruled the team through a game of whisper campaigns, whereby those departments that were seen to be slacking were walking on eggshells, constantly hearing rumors that they were to be imminently replaced. The result was that none of those best and brightest minds were inclined to come up with radical or cutting edge ideas for fear of being wrong. Mediocrity became the norm.
Sergio Marchionne, the new CEO of Ferrari parent company Fiat-Chrysler, had enough with the situation towards the last quarter of the 2014 season, and after a series of private and semi-public scraps with Luca di Montezemolo, asked for and received the latter’s resignation in September. And thus it was that the man who started working for the Scuderia as Enzo Ferrari’s assistant in 1973, who was the Great Man’s near adopted son, who was appointed to the Ferrari Presidency by none other than Gianni Agnelli, and who brought the company from near oblivion to being the most prestigious brand name in the world was gone, replaced by Marchionne himself. One cannot overestimate the effect the news must have had from the factory floor all the way up to the boardrooms in Maranello. The sacred cow had been slaughtered.
One of the most important effects of this from the standpoint of our focus, was that it represented the final straw for Alonso. As tight as Alonso and Domenicali had been, the Spaniard’s relationship with Il Presidente had been even more so. In the span of a few short months, Alonso had lost his two biggest supporters in Ferrari and was left with a very strained relationship with Mattiacci, one which reached a public head when Alonso was seen on television refusing to share some grapes he had been given by a fan with his team boss in the pits at Suzuka.
With hindsight, we know now that Alonso had already made up his mind to leave Ferrari by this point. It was a loss to the team that when publicized made even the most hardened Tifosi believe that the whole ship was sinking. But what we also didn’t know at the time, was that it was Mattiacci, not Alonso, who had drawn a line in the sand and more or less said to the Spaniard that if he was not happy, he was welcome to pack his stuff and leave, which Alonso promptly did. That weekend, Christian Horner of Red Bull announced that star driver Sebastian Vettel was leaving the team and headed for a new career in scarlet. It was as shocking an announcement as F1 fans the world over had received all year, most especially those devoted to the red team.
But the shocks would keep coming. A mere eight months after being appointed to the position of Team Principal, Mattiacci too was given his walking papers, replaced by long time Philip Morris executive Maurizio Arrivabene, a man who like Mattiacci, had no experience helming a Formula 1 team. But with a fire in his belly to return Ferrari to its former glory “for the whole of Italy,” the new boss set to work, and the heads continued to roll. Chief Engineer Pat Fry, Chief Designer Nicholas Tombazis, Strategy Chief Neil Martin, and Tire Engineer Hirohide Hamashima were all sent packing in short order.
For those keeping score, in a single season the team had lost one President, two team principals, the engine chief, engineering chief, chief designer, chief strategist, chief tire engineer and the number one driver. Surely a record, even for Ferrari.
But many in the know saw these changes as necessary and a step in the right direction, for in a culture of dysfunction, you can’t simply lob off the head of the beast and expect things to suddenly move in a new direction. And so it was that many F1 insiders sided with the new, gregarious Arrivabene and his bloody executioners axe. His judgment was further seen to be acute given the replacements he made. James Allison, the brilliant technical man poached by Ferrari from Lotus in 2013, was promoted from Chassis Technical Director to overall Technical Director, and given a Ross Brawn-esque level of control over the entire technical team, as well as final say in regards to the design of the 2015 challenger.
Under Allison would be a powerful technical squad consisting of new Chief Designer Simone Resta, Power Unit Director Mattia Binotto, and Chief Power Unit Designer Lorenzo Sassi, among others. It is key to note that many of the reorganized technical group were in fact long-time Ferrari F1 employees, who knew the team and its resources well, and had been laterally promoted from other positions within the Gestione Sportiva. There would be little then in the way of fresh personnel who in addition to learning their new job would also need to learn the faces and workings within the team. A very shrewd move in an enterprise that directly employs over 800 people.
And the changes were not limited to the technical team alone. Esteban Gutierrez was contracted to be the team’s new test driver, and many of the Scuderia’s ancillary sections such as the commercial, sporting and marketing departments would see new directors and managers as well.
Arrivabene made it clear through all these actions that to be a team all must work as a team, from the drivers to the technical staff, the PR people to the person sweeping the factory floors. Virtually overnight, the Scuderia had been streamlined and reorganized to facilitate a culture of cooperation where there had once been infighting, collaboration where there had been rivalry, and team and national pride where there had been self-interest and preservation. Perhaps more than anything else, these changes in approach put Ferrari back on the right track.
It has been rumored that upon Arrivabene’s and Allison’s appointments, much of the work to the 2015 car done by their predecessors was scrapped, and new components were designed and manufactured in record time so as to be ready for the first winter test at Jerez on February 1st.
To accomplish this technical revolution, Allison reversed the design philosophy of the previous regime, and had his individual component chiefs address the 2014 car’s specific deficiencies directly. A larger turbo was installed, the unusual placement of certain components in the 2014 car’s engine were relocated to more traditional, tried-and-true positions, power unit integration and cooling were given extra emphasis, and the brake-by-wire system was comprehensively reworked.
Allison also saw to it that innovation was put at a premium in the minds of the various component designers, and as a result, a cutting edge cooling system, a unique routing of the exhaust through the gearbox casing, and many aerodynamic advances both inside and outside of the car were employed, yielding massive improvements in performance.
The chassis and suspension departments also found appreciable gains, working hand-in-hand with the aero department to create a rear suspension that was much more planted and thus easier on its tires. One can see Allison’s fingerprints all over this development, as it had been a trait of many of the cars he worked on in his past stints with Benetton, Larousse, Renault and Lotus. It is a critical and greatly desired attribute in a Formula 1 car, as it enables the team’s strategy to be more flexible by allowing it more latitude in deciding when to pit, and what tires to change to.
Of perhaps equal or greater importance, the chassis and suspension team cured the front-end problem that plagued the 2014 contender. They delivered a suspension that was much to the liking of both Kimi Raikkonen and Sebastian Vettel, two drivers who rely heavily on front-end feedback to feel confident entering corners.
Though as usual, Ferrari kept fairly closed-lipped about the new car and the progress made with it during the winter test season, one could tell by both the lap times and the attitude of the drivers (particularly the stoic Kimi Raikkonen, who was actually seen smiling through much of testing) that 2014 was a distant memory. It was clear that Ferrari had in great haste and against all odds produced a car that was consistent, fast, reliable, and easy on its tires. Both drivers were repeatedly heard to say that the car felt very solid. And when two drivers of their caliber feel confident with their machinery, good things happen. And so they did, with an ebullient Vettel reaching a 3rd place podium finish in the first round in Australia, and scoring a brilliant win in Malaysia. The joy he expressed over the radio on his cool-down lap in Sepang was genuine and emphatic, and may as well have been uttered by every Tifosi on the planet. Thirty-six races is a long time between wins for any top Formula 1 team. But for Ferrari, it seemed like forever.
The nightmare was over.