His insistence on wearing sunglasses despite the overcast, smoggy skies and low temperatures, which characterised the Shanghai International Circuit yesterday, immediately earned the new Ferrari team principal, Marco Mattiacci, the nickname “Hollywood”, after his colourful Nineties predecessor Cesare Fiorio.
But the man who replaces the much-liked Stefano Domenicali raised a laugh of a different kind when he admitted to reporters that at first he thought the offer of the job to run what is arguably the world’s most famous race team was an April Fool’s joke.
“I live in New York and I received a call at 5.58 on Friday morning,” he revealed. “Luca di Montezemolo [Ferrari’s president] was on the phone, and he started, ‘This is my idea.’ I told him April Fool’s Day had been about 15 days earlier. But after the second or third minute of our discussions I understood he was being serious. And that there was already a ticket waiting for me to go from New York to Milan in three hours’ time.”
Mattiacci paid tribute to his predecessor, who had discussed the rudiments of the job with him last week prior to Domenicali’s hasty departure for tomorrow’s Chinese Grand Prix.
“Stefano is a great person, a friend of mine,” said the man who worked for Ferrari on the road-car side and has zero experience of the piranha club that is Formula One. “Last Saturday we spent a few hours, and Monday we spent the entire day together. He is a person for whom I have the utmost respect as a human being and a professional, so it was natural to discuss the roles.”
Yesterday, Mattiacci watched Fernando Alonso set the fastest time in first practice and finish the second only 0.141sec off Mercedes’ Lewis Hamilton, who has won the last two races. But nobody was fooling themselves that Ferrari have turned the corner by bringing in a couple of small updates since their cars finished ninth and 10th in Bahrain a fortnight ago.
Then, Alonso had also seemed fast on Friday, only to fall back. Shanghai is thought to suit Ferrari a little better than the Middle Eastern track, but, as ever, qualifying today, and then the race, will tell the true story. Fridays can be misleading, as Alonso himself is forever reiterating.
The Spaniard’s body language in Mattiacci’s presence was interesting. He had said he “guessed” the new boss, with whom he had yet to talk, would be coming to the race; after the first practice session they both walked from the pits, but not together.
As for the car’s performance yesterday, Alonso said “everything worked well and that’s good news”. But Hamilton was less satisfied. He was struck by a rear- suspension problem in the morning and didn’t get out until the final hour of the afternoon session.
He nevertheless managed to set the fastest time, but struggled with understeer and then reported at the end of the faster session: “Something’s not right with this car.”
Later he expanded: “We’re not too happy with the balance of the car at the moment, so we need to work on that. A few of the other teams look to have improved in terms of pace, which is great as it means we will have a fight.
“There’s a lot of work to do and the guys will be working late, but I’m confident that we can make some improvements.”
Oh, and Hollywood’s sunglasses? Mattiacci explained: “If you do in less than four days almost 40 hours of flights, and you don’t sleep, then probably you need sunglasses.”