Four times world champion Sebastian Vettel will be in Maranello today, driving on the iconic Fiorano test track for the first time as Ferrari’s new star driver. But what kind of project is he walking into and should be be worried?
He follows in the footsteps of other greats who have taken the bow at Maranello, like Fangio, Prost, Mansell, Schumacher and Alonso to great expectation and excitement from the tifosi.
First the German will learn the track in a GT car and then he will test in a 2012 car, the most recent allowed by the F1 rules, to get promotional photos and video. The triumphant arrival of a “campionissimo” at Maranello is a very important moment.
Schumacher made his grand entrance there back in the 1990s when he switched as a two times world champion from Benetton and more recently Alonso. The journeys those two great champions made at Maranello were very different. Schumacher stayed 11 seasons and won five world championships, although none for the first four years.
Alonso in contrast came close to winning the title twice in five seasons and then walked away this year, encouraged out of the door by Marco Mattiacci, who found himself following the Spaniard. He’s on a short but significant list of champions, along with Fangio, Surtees, Lauda and Prost, of drivers who walked away from Ferrari.
The Scuderia has known turbulent times, where politics rules and success could not be bought at any price and the concern is that Vettel might be walking into another such era.
Vettel arrives at Maranello at a time of great uncertainty and the ‘dipendenti”, as the management calls the employees of the Gestione Sportiva, will be looking to the young German to inspire them. Vettel will stay until Monday, when the new team principal Maurizio Arrivabene will be crowned; riding into town like the Marlboro Man, all gnarled-looking and ready for a fight. The “dipendenti”, rocked by the churn of three different team principals and two chairmen in seven months, now crave stability and will look to Arrivabene to lead them out of the troubled waters.
Vettel was annoyed at not being able to drive in the Abu Dhabi test, but revealed to Auto Motor und Sport that Red Bull technical chief Adrian Newey blocked it as he didn’t want Vettel to “pass secrets” to Ferrari from his test, despite the fact that Red Bull technical people are among the 40 people hired by Mattiacci for the Scuderia during this year.
Sadly for the team and for Arrivabene in particular, Ross Brawn and Mercedes engine guru Andy Cowell are not among that number. Cowell said no, while Brawn has denied that he is part of the new plan of Ferrari chairman Sergio Marchionne.
The scarlet cars were 85 seconds behind the Mercedes in the final race of the season – due to down on power engines – so what does success look like for Ferrari in 2015? Halving that gap? No, it has to be to challenge for regular podiums and show signs of getting back towards winning races. But there are only just over three months to the start of the new season and the new cars will be launched in around 60 days from now. And there will be no “engine unfreeze” in 2015, to give a mid season boost.
The success of Arrivabene will hinge on finding the right partner to fill the role of running the team and the technical side. To borrow the Mercedes model, which has been proven to be the best one for a modern F1 team with 800+ employees, the former sponsor is probably capable of doing the Toto Wolff role, but he needs a Paddy Lowe figure to run the team credibly. That man should be Brawn, but he would want to be the “reference point” for the team, as he puts it and that would mean Arrivabene swallowing a humble pill.
There is James Allison, but at this stage in his career, the talented Englishman is still a hands on engineer and technical director, is he ready to run the whole thing? Bob Bell is a fallback possibility; he handed in his notice at Mercedes early this year and has experience of running Renault and knows Allison well.
One wonders, though, how unsettled Allison has been by the heavy courting of Brawn. Also he will be looking around him at people like chief designer Nicolas Tombazis, who has the skids under him, according to colleagues in the Italian media.
There are also serious question marks about the leadership of the engine division, which needs to turn it all around if Ferrari is to compete with Mercedes in 2015, 2016.. or ever under this hybrid formula.
On top of the huge question marks surrounding the leadership and the infrastructure, with both Vettel and his team mate Kimi Raikkonen both on poor form on track in 2014, there is great uncertainty around the Ferrari project for 2015.
One final note: For Ferrari fans it will be something of a struggle to get a feeling of being close to the project as neither Vettel nor Raikkonen uses social media, particularly Twitter, to share their thoughts. So it will be the official line only, which seems very old fashioned in these days of the “connected” sportsman.
How do you think Vettel’s adventure at Maranello will turn out? leave your comments below