“A fierce competitor.”
“Immeasurable contributions to Formula 1.”
I didn’t know Sergio Marchionne on a personal level – many working in F1 won’t have – but when reflecting on a person’s impact on their professional world, you can learn a lot from the reaction of their peers. And the above statements go a long way to describing Marchionne’s achievements.
While reports about Marchionne’s health had started to surface several weeks ago, it was only last weekend in Germany that the true extent of the situation became clear, with Fiat Chrysler Automobiles (FCA) forced to replace him as chairman and CEO – both at FCA and Ferrari – as he would be unable to return to work.
On Wednesday came confirmation of what many had feared given the nature of those decisions.
“Sergio Marchionne, man and friend, is gone,” FCA chairman John Elkann announced.
When you consider his roles with Fiat, Chrysler and latterly FCA as a whole, Marchionne’s reach was enormous. In paying tribute to the 66-year-old, FIA president Jean Todt highlighted the breadth of his influence.
“It is with great sadness that I learned that Sergio Marchionne tragically and unexpectedly passed away,” Todt said. “Sergio achieved a colossal amount for the automotive industry and motor sport worldwide. He dedicated himself fully to turn around the Fiat Chrysler group and put all his energy to bring Scuderia Ferrari back to the top.
“He was an endearing, upstanding and brave man, an unconventional and visionary leader. He was an eminent member of the FIA F1 Strategy Group and of the FIA High-Level Panel for Road Safety. His death is a considerable loss. On behalf of the entire FIA community, all my thoughts go out to his family, his friends and his Ferrari and Fiat Chrysler group teams.”
It was off the back of his achievements at Fiat Chrysler that Marchionne arrived in F1, adding the fortunes of the most famous team in the sport to his extensive list of senior responsibilities.
Before Marchionne took over at Ferrari, Marco Mattiacci had already been installed as team principal and was dealing with a team in crisis. As the Scuderia struggled through 2014, Mattiacci looked out of his depth and the smallest detail could serve as a springboard for humor at his expense. Examples included wearing sunglasses in the garage upon arrival at his first race, or opting to wear a team t-shirt, as if he’d rather be helping with pack-down than leading the Scuderia. The latter earned him the completely uninspiring nickname ‘T-shirt Mattiacci’ between a few of us less-creative occupants of the media center.
Marchionne’s clothing choices also made him stand out, but there was no such fun being poked at his preferred black woolen sweaters – he had many – once his influence started being felt at Ferrari after taking over from Luca di Montezemolo in late 2014. (Well, not from us anyway. FCA chairman John Elkann did jokingly hold a tie in front of Marchionne’s sweater while posing for photographs after a presentation earlier this year).
When the Italian-Canadian spoke, his words carried huge weight. Those words might have sometimes gotten him into trouble, and he made threats that Ferrari could quit F1 on numerous occasions, but even that familiar story received serious attention because Marchionne knew how to get things done to achieve his aims, and had no qualms about making unconventional decisions along the way.
Fighting Ferrari’s corner often put him at odds with other teams, but the online tributes from the likes of Christian Horner and Zak Brown show the respect he commanded and the regard in which he was held.
But Marchionne also had a great appreciation for partnerships and collaborations, suggesting there should be more cooperation within the automotive world. From an F1 standpoint, it was Mercedes with which he forged the closest bond, all while engaging in an intense battle for honors on the track.
“This is a sad day for all of us in F1,” Mercedes team principal Toto Wolff said. “We have a lost a huge supporter of our sport, a fierce competitor, an ally and a friend. Our heartfelt sympathies are with Sergio’s family and all at Scuderia Ferrari at this difficult time.”
F1’s newest owners, Liberty Media, had to deal with the Ferrari-Mercedes alliance almost from day one, and regularly found itself in opposition to Marchionne when it came to ideas about the sport’s future. But sitting across the table gave F1 CEO Chase Carey on opportunity to appreciate just how impressive a leader he was.
“We are deeply saddened by the passing of Sergio Marchionne,” Carey added. “He was a great leader of not just Formula 1 and the automobile world, but the business world overall.
“He led with great passion, energy and insight, and inspired all around him. His contributions to Formula 1 are immeasurable. He was also a true friend to all of us and he will be deeply missed. At this difficult time, we extend our deepest sympathies to his family, friends and colleagues.”
When Marchionne took over as Ferrari chairman, the team was on its way to fourth place in the constructors’ championship at the end of a winless season. The following year brought victories but no real challenge to Mercedes’ dominance, and the team slipped to third overall in 2016.
But last year and this have brought a Ferrari resurgence; the team wheel-to-wheel with Mercedes and standing an excellent chance of winning its first championship in a decade.
Where his death will impact Ferrari’s future direction remains to be seen, but now is the time to reflect on the achievements of one of the sport’s biggest figures, and appreciate the incredible impact he has had on both the racing and automotive world.
If Ferrari wins a world championship this year or in the near future, it will owe a great amount of that success to Sergio Marchionne.