Ferrari’s F1 chief on making the scuderia swagger again

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Success in any sport requires confidence as much as talent. But confidence is far more fragile. In team sports, managers often need to change an entire culture in order to reverse a slump in confidence.

This is something that anyone who has led Scuderia Ferrari HP knows all about. Ferrari F1 team members are uniquely exposed to external forces, as the team represents all of Italy, every two weeks, on the world stage. The gales blowing in from the media, from the huge fan base known as the tifosi, as well as the higher corporate layers of the automotive company and its sponsors, can easily send the team off course. It has happened often before.

The current team principal is Frédéric Vasseur, widely known as Fred and only the second non-Italian to lead Ferrari in 75 years. The first, another Frenchman, Jean Todt, won 14 world championships for drivers and constructors between 1999 and 2008. Those were the glory days, with Michael Schumacher behind the wheel. Since Todt left, Ferrari has not won a single world title. Red Bull and Mercedes have dominated.

So, last year, Ferrari chief executive Benedetto Vigna and chair John Elkann brought in Vasseur. Now 56, Vasseur managed the Renault and Sauber F1 teams after two decades of success with his own ART GP team in the junior categories. He brought through Sir Lewis Hamilton, Nico Rosberg and several other drivers who have become household names.

Fifteen months into Vasseur’s tenure, Ferrari is getting its swagger back. Operationally, the team is sharper and makes fewer mistakes. Results on track have improved, despite some recent setbacks. But the biggest boost came in February, when Hamilton shocked the F1 world by announcing that he would quit Mercedes for Ferrari in 2025. Twenty years after they won together in F3, Hamilton and Vasseur are getting the band back together.

“Lewis was an important symbol because it sends a positive message to the paddock for the future of the team,” says Vasseur in his bright, modern office in Maranello, near Bologna. “He had to make a choice: ‘Where do I have the biggest chance to win the world championship in 2025, ’26, ’27?’ And he said, ‘Ferrari’.

“For us, [Hamilton’s arrival is] also the best way to attract good people. We have good people at Ferrari, but I want to reinforce.

“Most [F1 technicians] are in the UK. If you move from Mercedes in Brackley to Red Bull in Milton Keynes you keep the children at the same school, you keep the same house. From Friday to Monday, you can switch. Coming to Italy, it’s a different story. You have to move the family; it’s a change of life. The move of Lewis will help us,” he says.

Hamilton’s signature has boosted the confidence of a team that was already progressing. Wins in Australia for Carlos Sainz and in Monaco for Charles Leclerc, along with strong performances in other races, mean that Ferrari is back in the hunt, if not quite at the level of Max Verstappen and Red Bull Racing.

But the gap is narrowing. Vasseur has tackled the blame culture that was rife in the team. He pushes the engineers and staff in other roles he calls “performance differentiating” to be more aggressive, and to take more risks. They trust him to take the blame himself if it does not work out.

“If you are scared about the capacity of taking risk, you take margins everywhere,” says Vasseur. “And, in our business, you can have five cars in one-tenth of a second. I spent the last 15 months pushing everybody. Because the more we take risks, the better we will be in the management of risks. I’m really pleased with the step forwards.

“At Ferrari, we don’t have to be scared about the consequence of what we are doing. The team, perhaps in the past, was a bit scared about external forces. But it’s my job to manage this; to push them to be a bit more aggressive. And then to take on the mistakes when we are [making] mistakes.”

What makes Ferrari unique — and its employees uniquely vulnerable — is that there is no let up. The employees live in the environs of Ferrari’s Maranello base, and they have to contend constantly with the consequences of the results — both good and bad. Whether at the café, the school gates, or in the supermarket, Ferrari’s most recent race performance is always a talking point.

For Vasseur, being French gives him a certain detachment, some thinking time and the space to take the emotion out of situations. He learnt from Todt that, for Ferrari to be successful, the team principal has to act as a human shield against the external forces, allowing the team to get on with their work.

“The more emotional and more passionate you are, the more fragile you are, because emotions are going up and down. Monaco for everybody was a mega weekend. The week after, in Canada, was a disaster. But, when you are in the game, you feel that the difference between Monaco and Canada is very, very small: a few tenths of a second,” he says.

“The perception of the results [is sometimes] much bigger than the reality on the track. It means that we have to stay calm. In both cases, you have to do the same analysis of what is going well and what is going wrong and you have to stay away from the emotion. Like this, you build up the confidence.”

Ferrari has a strong record in the British Grand Prix, winning the race 18 times, including the scuderia’s first ever F1 win in 1951. With the team’s confidence growing, few would bet against it adding an 19th win this weekend.

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