Leading from the Front

Meet Stefano Domenicali, he is the new team principal of Scuderia Ferrari, better known as the Ferrari Formula 1 team. Ferrari isn’t like any other team in the sporting world. For a start there is the impossible task of improving on perfection, after the staggering success of the last ten years, with 13 world championships, both drivers’ and constructors’.

Imagine being promoted to one of the most sought after jobs in the world at the age of 43. Then start loading up the challenges; the two most successful exponents of the same role are both still in the management structure, your company has dominated in its field for the past decade and you are tasked with taking it on. And to put the cap on it, you have to negotiate your way through the minefield of enforced cost reductions across your industry, without losing competitiveness.

"If you are able to create Ferrari with Italian people, of course it is fantastic for Italy, for our brand. But Ferrari is more than that - it crosses borders. The strength of our group was always to have fresh blood without looking at the passport."

Then there is the social responsibility; Ferrari carries a nation’s hopes. When the team is racing over 12 million Italians watch on the television and every newspaper has it’s daggers ready to plunge into the team if they fail.

Motor racing is passionately followed in Italy. There are many football teams, but there is only one Ferrari. It is part of the fabric of Italian life and a vital part of its history. When the bridges over the River Po were destroyed in the second world war, it was motor racing and the need to hold the legendary Mille Miglia (1000 mile) road race, which got them rebuilt quickly. Both literally and symbolically it reunited Italy. Ferrari was part of that history and retains an importance today. The late FIAT patriarch Gianni Agnelli, who bought 90% of Ferrari in the 1970s, said that a successful Ferrari team was vital to the image of Italy because it meant that “Made in Italy’ could be a badge of pride.

Domenicali is an affable, but razor sharp man. He is aware of the responsibilities and risks of his role, but also has the calmness and assurance, which come from having been a key part of the group who made Ferrari so successful. He was able to learn from two great leaders; Ferrari board member Jean Todt, who was team principal from 1993 to 2007 and Ross Brawn, who headed the technical department from 1996 to 2006. He saw how Ferrari maintained its grip on success thanks to a stable group of talented individuals, all highly motivated to improve and never rest on their laurels.

“I have been lucky to live close to both (Todt and Brawn), “ he says. “I try to keep my personality because it would be wrong to change it, but I understood how to manage this very difficult work in F1. For example the way Ross takes into consideration all the different people, but at the end of the day one person has to take a decision. And from Jean I learned the importance of taking care of all the details and never giving up. Those were the main lessons. But I have to be myself, I mustn’t cut and paste from anyone else, firstly because I am not a good copier and secondly because it is important to be in record mode, to listen to everything, take everything in.”

Ferrari as a racing team had fallen into disrepair after the death of Enzo Ferrari in 1988 and even before that he had allowed it to fall behind the British based outfits like Williams, McLaren and Benetton.

Ferrari president Luca di Montezemolo, who managed the F1 team in the mid 1970s, hired the best international talent to regenerate the team. Along with Todt and Brawn he recruited South African designer Rory Byrne and German driver Michael Schumacher. But the ‘expat’ regime at Ferrari had a succession plan in place and it was leading towards Italians taking over the team again. Domenicali is the embodiment of that process,

“I think that it (the succession plan) was a good move for the motivation of the people working in Ferrari,” he says. “The most important thing is to keep everyone at a high level. Also it’s important that the top management have created an evolving, dynamic stability, in order to change people at the right moment without changing the philosophy. In 1996, when Ross and Rory and Michael came with us, we had a big change because we were lacking a lot of things inside. Then, step by step, that group of people brought a lot of know-how and brought us to a very good level.

“The Italian-ness of the team is always there,” Domenicali continues. “What is important is that the passport is not a limiting factor. If you are able to create Ferrari with Italian people, of course it is fantastic for Italy, for our brand. But Ferrari is more than that - it crosses borders. The strength of our group was always to have fresh blood without looking at the passport. People were coming from England, Germany, South Africa. Now we have more responsibility as Italians but if someone comes from another country is not a problem.”

A One-Company Man
Domenicali has only ever worked for one company. The son of a prominent banker from the same region of Emilia Romana as Ferrari, he joined them in 1991 after graduating from Bologna University. He started out on the road car side, but then moved across to the finance department at the race team. He has done stints in personnel and logistics too, but his core business over the last ten years has been team management, especially as a liaison between the team, its rivals and the sporting authorities. F1 is a complex sport and the rules are often vague and open to interpretation. It was Domenicali’s job to know the rules inside out and to get the best outcome for Ferrari.

Under Todt and Schumacher, in particular, Ferrari was a team which never gave an inch to its rivals and sometimes crossed the line of what is and is not acceptable in the pursuit of victory. They were not much liked for it, either within F1 or among the wider public.

Without in any way distancing himself from that regime, Domenicali is very much his own man and has his own values. Ferrari under him is a more open team, more engaged with its competitors, whilst maintaining the highest standards of engineering and racecraft.

“I have a clear vision, “ he says. “This job is team work, I don’t want to focus everything on me. At the end of the day it’s Ferrari that is winning. I don’t need to have any ego about that. For me the team spirit has to be the thing that wins.”

By any standards, Domenicali has a tough task on his hands. If he cannot match the success rate of his predecessor his reign may be considered a failure. The competition in Formula 1 is always intense, but currently Ferrari faces an onslaught from the Mercedes-backed McLaren team and from a well-financed and well organised, BMW outfit. The buck now stops with Domenicali,

“I feel that responsibility, “he says. “But we don’t have to over-react. Of course when you set such a high standard, it is very difficult to keep up the same results for many, many years. We are in a sport and, in the real world life is up and down, and you try to control it. This is the cycle of life. When you have this kind of challenge you know that after so many years of success to keep on thinking you can do the same for years is unrealistic. And I am a realistic guy. On the other hand the way we want to face this challenge is to think that it is possible.

“To have this job at my age is incredible, I take it as an honour that I was able to achieve it. But I understand that it will all disappear very quickly if we don’t achieve results. “

Domenicali arrives in the top job at the same moment as the sport is embarking on a major cost cutting exercise, with talk of budget caps and slashing budgets in half. For Domenicali, downsizing from a budget of £200 million a year without giving anything away to the opposition will be very tricky.

“For sure the attention on cost is vital for the future,” says the young team boss. “On the other hand, we don’t have to overreact, because F1 has always been the leader in technology and for us technology and the development of it is the key element of F1. The transfer between F1 and the road car side is essential.”

Achieving agreement between the teams has been very difficult over the years with deep suspicion and clashing egos dividing the older team principals. Domenicali represents a new wave, a chance for reconciliation and progress.

“We had periods in F1 where the ego of some people was too strong,” he says. ”And without having the possibility of an overview of the long term for F1. This is something that will change over the next few years.“