Until recently, Formula 1 has tended to avoid the hire-and-fire approach that exists in many other sports, with stability at the top being the norm. Ferrari has been the exception.
In replacing Maurizio Arrivabene with Mattia Binotto, Ferrari has its fourth team principal in five years. (Stefano Domenicali started the 2014 season before leaving and being replaced by Marco Mattiacci). Bernie Ecclestone accused Ferrari of being “too Italian” in the past, and another change at the top after finishing second could be interpreted as a negative. But this one has all the hallmarks of being the right move.
Taking Ecclestone’s quote literally, this change makes Ferrari less Italian, as a Swiss engineer replaces an Italian former Philip Morris executive. But more than that, it elevates somebody who had clearly had a positive impact on Ferrari in place of one who was increasingly making life harder in certain situations.
Former Ferrari president Sergio Marchionne was known to be an admirer of Binotto, who was promoted to chief technical officer in 2016, and very interested in the car’s development, to the point where the pair would have plenty of direct contact. Arrivabene was being bypassed in that sense and may have seen the writing on the wall, having been appointed by Marchionne at the end of 2014.
But while Binotto was ensuring that Ferrari was getting closer to Mercedes in terms of on-track performance in 2017 and 2018, Arrivabene was overseeing a team that was still not operating at its full potential.
It’s far from his only error, but Arrivabene was often closed off to the media in his final year, and didn’t react well to questions regarding mistakes the team and its drivers had made. At the end of the season, he even said suggestions Binotto was unhappy and could either replace him as team principal or leave were — that old favorite term — “fake news” designed to destabilize Ferrari.
During some race weekends, I share official FIA press conferences hosting duties with the excellent Tom Clarkson. Although questions for Maurizio were always painstakingly prepared to cover for all manner of moods he may be in, I rarely had any trouble with him. Tom, on the other hand, faced a tougher task. The pair didn’t have the easiest relationship, but when it came to the press conferences, Tom was the consummate professional. In that role as FIA host, you’re asking the obvious — and usually non-political — questions, and leaving the rest of the journalists to do the serious probing. But even so, Arrivabene would often be unreasonably difficult, as this extract from his final appearance in Abu Dhabi highlights:
“Maurizio, Ferrari came close this year, statistically your best season since 2008. What additional resources do you need to bring to the program to beat (Mercedes) in 2019?”
“The habit to win.”
“Is there anything you need to change within Maranello to help you do that?”
“Not really, maybe kind of reinforcement but, as I said, we need to swap our mind and to work a bit more on the habit to win.”
“And is there anything you can do to instill that winning mentality?”
“I already gave you the answer, OK? Thank you.”
The opportunity was there to speak positively. The first question gave him the ammunition to talk about progress, but Arrivabene’s approach meant he was either making the wrong sort of headlines or none at all. He wasn’t making friends in the media, and it turned out to be a small insight into his overall position at Maranello.
Ferrari was understandably not a happy camp toward the end of the year, partly due to its failure to take either championship to the wire, but also for some of the public criticism Arrivabene handed out. A team principal’s role is typically to protect those who work below them, not point the finger and deflect blame away from themselves.
Of course, some of that finger-pointing was at car development, with Ferrari’s title challenge fading after the summer break. Binotto’s realm.
As a result, the relationship between Binotto and Arrivabene became increasingly strained. It deteriorated to such an extent that a source close to the situation said toward the end of last year that it was almost certain one of them would not still be at Ferrari by the time the 2019 season started. (Essentially the “fake news” that Arrivabene was dismissing).
Usually the more senior person wins out, but that’s why this change feels different. Binotto was the rising star, bringing a momentum to Ferrari that it could not afford to lose, let alone to a rival team. Arrivabene had been in place for four years and was not inspiring confidence after a season that had more than a sense of deja vu about it.
The sudden death of Marchionne could have complicated matters, with Arrivabene stating his future would be up to new Ferrari CEO Louis Camilleri. It would have been easy for no changes to be made as the company’s top management settled in, but there was a real chance that could have led to Binotto departing of his own accord.
Reports in Italy suggest it was Fiat Chrysler Automobiles chairman John Elkann who made the decision to promote Binotto, essentially going over Camilleri’s head and protecting the person he feels has delivered the bigger impact on gains made at Maranello over the past two years.
It’s clinical. It’s logical. In many ways, it’s un-Ferrari. And that’s why it feels a little more significant.