Ferrari call for flair and fun to save Formula One

Bernie Ecclestone’s one-man empire and fan-free races ‘in the middle of nowhere’ are killing the sport, Italian team chief, Luca Di Montezemolo, tells Kevin Garside in Maranello

Fernando Alonso came out with A-stars all round, his best season at Ferrari according to chairman Luca di Montezemolo. Others did not fare so well in an end-of-year address, which switched quickly from narrow team concerns to the state of the union in Formula One.

This sport appears always on the point of combustion, and here in Maranello a Christmas missive was dispatched by the head of the paddock’s most powerful team, who loaded the festive glitter with gun powder.

First in the line of fire was the architect of it all, Bernie Ecclestone. The days of the one-man show are over, insisted Di Montezemolo in an unvarnished reference to Ecclestone’s autocratic rule. Formula One needs radical change, he maintained, if the sport is to have a sustainable future with Ferrari in it. One of those changes is new leadership. And Ecclestone thought the bullet would bear a Teutonic stamp.

There was genuine sympathy for Ecclestone’s plight, the danger he faces from the state prosecutor in Germany over his role in the sale of F1 by German banks to CVC Capital Partners and the alleged payment of a bribe. “First of all, I hope for Bernie and F1 that nothing will happen. If Bernie is accused under process [formally charged with an offence] I think he will be the first to give a step back in the interests of Formula One. This could be bad for F1.”

Of Ecclestone’s leadership style and the route down which he has taken the sport, Di Montezemolo was scathing. He lamented the lack of atmosphere at grands prix staged in the middle of nowhere, the loss of major engine manufacturers, the ageing demographic of the audience, a failure to engage the adolescent mind, the homogenising of technology with no room within the rules for imaginative engineering relevant to road cars, and last but not least his current bête noire, the billions wasted in wind tunnels.

“Three years ago, I was so impressed when I was invited to open Le Mans. It was a party. You go to the pits in some circuits in F1 and it’s like a desert. Do you think it good that we race in the middle of nowhere? Without the public, without the fans, the flags, the passion, it is cold. I don’t like it.

“Bernie is always upset when I say this but listen, today, if you have a girlfriend, say 20-years-old, with low-fare airlines you can go around the world for less money than a long weekend in Monza. This should not be possible any more.

“The world is changing a lot. Ferrari want to play a role in the future. In terms of the competition this year, the return to the United States, this season has been very good. But you have to look to the future. The time to make decisions about the future is when you have success. If you don’t, you are forced to make them when you are in trouble and that is bad. We are very close to opening a new page in the future of Formula One, acknowledging the good work that Bernie has done but moving on.

“We cannot share the future of F1 only with technicians and engineers. We have to share it with the important players. It is crucial to have television, radio, media to share their ideas about what we must do to reach out to the young generation. When I was chairman of Fiat I spoke personally to the chairmen of two, three companies. They left because of the cost, they left because of the credibility of Formula One with [Max] Mosley [the Chelsea sex scandal]. One of the three leading companies told me that we were losing the young public. They preferred to do something in ecology that is more sympathetic to the young or a formula in their own country instead of F1.”

It wasn’t all red mist. Di Montezemolo praised his team, said he was proud to see Alonso take the title race to the wire in Brazil against a unit with a better car, the 13th time in the past 16 seasons that Ferrari have gone to the season finale with a shot at the drivers’ championship. Counter to sentiment in some parts of the Formula One firmament, Di Montezemolo does not mind losing and was  lavish in the credit he extended to Red Bull. Well done to them, he said, for pulling back a deficit that stood at 50 points at the August break.

He took exception, however, to criticism levelled at the Ferrari leadership over the breaking of the gear box seal on Felipe Massa’s car in Austin, which propelled Alonso up a place and, crucially, on to the clean side of the grid. And he also defended the right of his team to seek clearance about the yellow flag under which it appeared Sebastian Vettel overtook en route to his third consecutive world crown. There was never a formal challenge, he insisted, and always a commitment to abide by the judgement of the FIA, the sport’s regulatory body.

We can quibble about the details in his justifications, but not about his commitment to the sport, or his concerns for its future. This was not the sabre rattling of old. There was no threat to quit for a breakaway series, but a compelling argument about the end of empire built by Ecclestone. “We need people with a more modern view. It is the same in my company. In a couple of years I will no longer be the person for Ferrari. Someone else will come. What I always say to Bernie is that the one-man show in life is finished. You need a team around you. We have to ask these questions in a positive way and look ahead. Sooner or later it will happen to Bernie as to me.”

With the teams poised to ink the commercial agreement for F1’s next decade, Di Monte-zemolo raised the spectre of further upheaval in peacetime. He wants F1 to become the natural playground for motoring’s big cats, a place they can usefully spend time on the outer limits of what is automotively possible. No more subsidies for teams that can neither win a race nor pay for the privilege of trying. He is banging the drum for a return to the table and a repeal of the regulations that enforce yet another engine change for 2014. Gone will be the 2.4-litre V8s to be replaced by a 1.6-litre V6 variety. The teams are already detailing chunks of resources to making cars tick to the new tune, and it is driving Di Montezemolo to the point of internal combustion himself. 

“If I could have tomorrow, Porsche engines, Honda, Audi that would be good. But if you cannot develop your engines it is not possible. It is one of the main problems that we face. We have 100 people working only in the wind tunnel. Why? It is a joke. We don’t do any mechanical research. We don’t test any more. We are not in a position to give young drivers opportunity in a competitive way. We are not in a position to organise events for sponsors.  Yes I’m in favour or reducing costs but I’m not in favour of not testing at Mugello, or for somebody else not to test at Silverstone just because some teams cannot afford it. If you look at the small teams after five laps they are out of the competition. They are better off in GP2.”

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