Bernie Ecclestone’s name was synonymous with running Formula 1 for decades, but that all changed when Liberty Media took over and installed Chase Carey as CEO and chairman as part of a three-man management team also featuring Ross Brawn and Sean Bratches.
A little over three years later, and Carey’s tenure is starting to wind down. A change at the top at Formula 1 was always coming this year, but exactly when that would be announced and who would be taking over were two of the things that were uncertain.
Names like Toto Wolff and Christian Horner were often spoken about, partly because it’s one of the only jobs that would represent a step up for a team principal. And that caused a little bit of mischief in the paddock, as rival team bosses quite often enjoyed seeing the reaction when one was questioned about the other.
But those games were played out last season, and a central point to Stefano Domenicali’s appointment was the recent Concorde Agreement that outlines exactly the kind of sport he will be overseeing in the coming years.
When the new Concorde Agreement was signed by all the teams last month, Carey’s final big task was complete. He had overseen the ownership transition, got to know the sport a little better and re-shaped its future with new regulations and revenue distribution. Obviously he hadn’t done all of this on his own, but he’d played a big part.
At the age of 66, Carey can now start to hand over the reins to someone who will ideally be a longer-term successor in the role of F1 CEO, allowing him to continue in a reduced capacity – probably Stateside – in the executive chairman role he was appointed to back in late 2016.
But the person he is handing over to was also somewhat influenced by the new Concorde. As part of that agreement, top executives at teams cannot move over to take a similar position with F1 with immediate effect unless the appointment has the unanimous approval of all ten teams. So that effectively ruled out a Wolff or a Horner – or any other team boss – unless that had universal support.
Instead, Liberty went after someone with extensive knowledge of the sport, who has worked at some of its highest levels but who also has a proven track record away from it, too. Domenicali is that person.
It’s a big job, but taking over from Carey will in no way match the daunting prospect of having to follow in Jean Todt’s footsteps when the Frenchman’s 15-year spell as Ferrari team principal came to an end. Todt had overseen the most successful period in Ferrari’s F1 history, dominating the sport with Michael Schumacher in the early 2000s.
For six years Domenicali was a major figure in the F1 paddock, a likable, approachable Ferrari boss who often protected his team members during multiple near-misses in the Fernando Alonso era. He also oversaw the team’s last championship success, winning the constructors’ title in 2008.
But he left at the start of 2014, resigning early in the opening year of the V6 turbo hybrid regulations with Ferrari lagging far behind Mercedes in power unit performance terms and set for a season where it finished fourth in the constructors’ championship, well adrift of Williams and with just two podiums to its credit.
That was over six years ago, and since then Domenicali has gained further executive experience with Audi before being appointed CEO of Lamborghini – an Audi-owned brand – in 2016. By the end of last year, Domenicali had overseen huge growth in sales for the Italian manufacturer, with the 2016 figure of 3,457 rising to 8,205 in 2019.
But he has remained involved in motorsport, most notably with the FIA. Domenicali became the president of the single-seater commission, helping with the ladder that takes racing drivers from karting all the way through to F1.
“You do these things because you love motor sport, and motor sport has been part of my life since I was a child,” Domenicali said at the time. “My job is to make sure that my experience and vision of motor sport can influence the work of the commission in order to present to the World Motor Sport Council – and to the world of motor sport – ideas to make sure single-seater racing has a well-structured platform that can enable not only drivers but also young engineers and teams to develop a career and their business.”
As he stated, racing was part of Domenicali’s life from a young age. Born and raised in Imola, he was never going to be able to escape the allure of Ferrari and racing, but he went to university in Bologna to study business before joining the Scuderia after graduating. He initially worked on the financial side as he rose through the ranks, giving him the grounding that led to the executive path that followed when he left Maranello.
It’s easy to write the headline – I did it myself for yesterday’s story – that Domenicali is an ex-Ferrari team principal taking on this role, because that is what he is known best for in F1. But his progression since then highlights how he is so much more than that, and is well-placed to lead the sport into the future.
As a personality, the Italian is also a positive hire. Domenicali was always media-friendly even as the holder of one of the most high-pressure positions in F1. But it wasn’t just a front: he maintained that demeanor when the cameras weren’t rolling, too. He even went on to work as a pundit on the Channel 4 coverage of last year’s championship, and the interactions he had with members of the paddock showed how popular he remains.
Being a nice guy doesn’t guarantee success, of course. Far from it. But Domenicali has the relationships, the respect, the approach and the track record that suggests he is as prepared as he can be to be F1’s CEO. And at 55, if all goes well, while he might not be in the position as long as Ecclestone, he could well end up being the leader of the sport for a long time to come.