OCTOBER 24, 2000

Will success destroy the team at Ferrari?

LUCA MONTEZEMOLO has been trying since November 1991 to put together a team which would enable Ferrari to win the World Championship.

LUCA MONTEZEMOLO has been trying since November 1991 to put together a team which would enable Ferrari to win the World Championship. He has done it, but in building up for that victory has he not also sewn the seeds for defeat. The team has proved for years that a modern Formula 1 operation cannot rely on local talent, unless it is situated in what they called Motor Racing's Silicon Valley where the flow of information from one team to another is so rapid that they all move ahead faster than teams which have chosen to locate themselves on the Continent.

The British motor racing industry has been studied in recent years by academic researchers working for the Institute of Public Policy Research, and they concluded in a report called "Playing to Win" that the success of Britain's motor racing industry was due to the clustering of specialist racing firms in an arc to the north of London. A thriving club racing scene in the 1950s led to commercial opportunities for the winners and as these businesses were entirely dependent on the sport they had to remain competitive to survive. Constant competition forced them to make continuous technological advances and every aspect of racing car design was examined and re-examined. Information and personnel transfer between the teams was constant. The report concluded that teams which base themselves outside this cluster are at a disadvantage. They can attract engineers with large sums of money or with specific challenges but they were rarely able to keep them for very long. British engineers like to live in Britain and once they have enough money not to have to worry, they tend to look for jobs at home. In an effort to solve this problem Ferrari has twice opened and then closed down satellite technical facilities in Britain. Ferrari's performance has often lagged behind that of the British teams.

In the past the key to building a good team at Ferrari has been to attract the top drivers. The real stars of the sport create a loyalty amongst engineers which will overcome some of the desire to be at home. They like to win and it is a particular challenge to win with the sport's most famous name Ferrari. Alain Prost nearly won for Ferrari back in 1990 but after he was fired by the team in 1991 the engineers who had gathered in Italy went their separate ways. Later attempts to recreate a winning team all failed until Michael Schumacher agreed to join Ferrari at the end of 1995. That attracted Ross Brawn and Rory Byrne from Benetton and they were followed by a stream of aerodynamicists, mechanical engineers and electronics experts. Now that group has achieved victory and already there are signs that the team will break up.

McLaren faced a similar problem in 1998 after the team had fought its way back to the top of the sport after five years in the doldrums. One of the reasons that McLaren stumbled badly in 1999 was that there were a lot of new faces within the team because the others had had enough and taken a rest. Ferrari is facing just such a crisis. Ross Brawn has been away from Britain but knows that he can earn as much money at home as he can in Germany. His contract is believed to end in the middle of next season. Rory Byrne came close to retiring before the offer to join Ferrari and at the age of 56 he is getting close to retirement. Others such as electronics man Tad Czapski are already rumored to be on their way back to Britain. And even Sporting Director Jean Todt, who must take a lot of the credit for building the team, says that he is not sure that he is going to stay at Ferrari when his contract ends at the end of next year.

"I love motor racing," Todt said in Malaysia, "but I don't know what I want to do. There are other things in my life and I need to reflect and have some time. I do not want to work like I have been working these past few years for the rest of my life."

It is a view shared by many others in Maranello.

Wise men, so they say, always quit when they are ahead and do not let their careers go into a slide. It will be interesting to see what happens in the years ahead. Perhaps the group will pull together to try and achieve another victory but if cracks start to appear in the team, it is possible that the whole organization will break up and Luca di Montezemolo will have to start again - unless, of course, he has moved on elsewhere in the Fiat empire, riding on the back of his successes at Ferrari.