Luca Montezemolo– more to him than you might think
The name of the Ferrari President has been in the news a lot recently. One way or another he oversaw the replacing of one Team Principal with another, and also as part of the changes Montezemolo promised to ratchet up his own involvement in F1 matters in support of the new man Marco Mattiacci: ‘I will stay closer to Formula 1. I’ll spend more time on it’.
I often sense an undercurrent at such moments. Perhaps I’m doing people a dis-service but usually I get the impression that Montezemolo’s interventions are treated by a few F1 fans rather like the ramblings of an embarrassing elder relative. While more specifically, and in the same ilk, the consequences of his getting more involved in the management of the Ferrari team have been envisgaed seemingly as akin to letting Mrs Rochester out of the attic. Met with sni
ing among those who aren’t minded to see Ferrari succeed; perhaps even cringing among those who are.
Such people possibly don’t know their history however. Luca Montezemolo is no ignoramus when it comes to the day-to-day operation of an F1 team. He has his own previous at the coalface, between late 1973 and the end of the 1975 season – and what’s more he was exceptionally good at it.
As outlined in a recent Motorsport Article
the history of the Ferrari Sporting Director is a chequered one. Indeed, of all of those who have held the post going back decades probably there are only two who can be considered unequivocal successes. One is Jean Todt of course; the other is Luca Montezemolo (before I go any further you may have noticed that I’ve dropped the commonly-used ‘di’ from his name. I have it on good advice that this is the correct way of naming him – and even the man himself I’m told doesn’t know why everyone adds ‘di’ to his name!)
And while discriminating between more than one set of fine achievements rarely is an especially worthwhile task, you could even make a coherent case for Montezemolo’s tenure being the more impressive of the two.
For one thing, while Ferrari was on its knees in 1993 when Todt arrived, when Montezemolo was parachuted into the Scuderia 20 years earlier the outfit wasn’t so much on its knees as gave the outward impression of being resigned to a fate of execution and burial in a shallow grave.
One feels on safe ground describing the 1973 F1 season as the most pitiful campaign in Ferrari’s extended and rather varied existence. The team was in all sorts of bother; it had been close to a decade since its last title, and was now left way behind by the British-based garagistes, mainly in the chassis game, and the red cars that year were never near front-running contention. For much of the season the team was reduced to a one-car entry; and indeed while we often consider Ferrari an F1 perennial, such were the Italian team’s problems then that it didn’t even turn up in two 1973 rounds (the Dutch and German races). Perhaps indicative of the extent that they had become a footnote, hardly anyone noticed its absence.
But Enzo Ferrari wasn’t idle while all of this was going on; in the time sitting out those two events he was restructuring the team frantically. And it included bringing in a new guy to manage the team.
His selection wasn’t the most likely; a law graduate from the FIAT organisation that by now owned Ferrari, not yet 26 years of age. A man without much in the way of racing experience; he’d driven in a few rallies, as well as had appeared on a motorsport radio commentary (it was then apparently that he had come to Enzo’s attention), but that was his lot. A man also of aristocratic stock, and close association with the Agnelli dynasty which ran FIAT. That man was Luca Montezemolo.
Enzo of course remained the man with whom ultimately the buck stopped, but he hadn’t attended races with any regularity since the 1950s. At Grands Prix Montezemolo was in charge.
And whatever else happened Montezemolo’s tenure coincided with a rapid and – for the team’s rivals – devastating upturn in Ferrari fortunes. From being also-rans in 1973 – finishing a mere sixth place in the constructors’ table with 12 points, behind March (entered by the happy-go-lucky debutant Hesketh squad), equal with BRM and only just ahead of such luminaries as Shadow and Surtees – from the off in 1974 Ferrari arrived seemingly and unexpectedly from nowhere to be the sport’s number one habitual front-runner (Scuderia pilot Niki Lauda took nine poles in fifteen rounds), and only just missed out on both titles via a few factors coming together – some Ferrari’s doing, some not.
But in 1975 – and even though the Autocourse written at the end of the 1974 season outlined a belief that ‘1974 might turn out to have been Ferrari’s last chance’ (whoops) – this was corrected and emphatically so; Lauda cantered to the drivers’ crown while Ferrari taped up the constructors’ just as easily.
That’s another area wherein Montezemolo’s achievements on the face of it trump Todt’s; it took Todt six and a half years to take his first title – the constructors’ crown of 1999. Montezemolo claimed a championship double after just two and a half years of his tenure.
It can be said that Montezemolo had luck on his side. Part of the upturn that took place on his watch could be attributed to Mauro Forghieri being brought back in from the cold to head technical matters (he had been working on ‘Special Projects’, a department focussed on theoretical future models – though I don’t know about you but it sounds a lot to me like a job title you’d get as a precursor to being sacked), and the two cars produced, first the revised 312B3s for 1974, then the 312Ts for 1975, were classics. Particularly the 312T with its trasversale (or transverse-mounted) gearbox, taking the best lessons from the garagistes in getting the car’s centre of gravity compact, low and central, ensuring a nimble machine.
Other things fell Montezemolo’s way too; in 1974 Ferrari halted its costly and time-consuming sportscar programme (John Surtees when driving for the Scuderia used to comment that each season there’d be no development on the F1 car until Le Mans was out of the way…), with the resources freed up put into the F1 effort. Ferrari’s relationship with the Italian labour unions which had been fractious was also by 1974 mended (such troubles had meant – perhaps unthinkably – that the building of the team’s 1973 monocoques was outsourced to a third party in England).
Few either could have predicted that Lauda would flourish into the most complete and impressive driver in that era of F1, having given little outward notice of that potential in his time at BRM beforehand. But still, Montezemolo was a contributor in recruiting the Austrian, having witnessed the Monaco and Silverstone rounds of the 1973 season and been impressed by his performances in both, before reporting back to Maranello accordingly.
In another card that fell Montezemolo’s way, Enzo Ferrari had also by now recovered from an illness that had rather left the team drifting while he convalesced.
But whatever is the case with such matters no one underestimates the crucial role of Montezemolo in the team’s sudden and towering success.
His intelligence and rational approach, combined with his urbane charm that disarmed even the Scuderia’s most combustible characters, were all strings to his bow.
Veteran Italian journalist Pino Allievi noted that while Montezemolo arrived at Ferrari with a glowing reputation and all the right connections, ‘Montezemolo built the remainder of his reputation himself, thanks to his brilliant negotiation skills, uncanny ability to second-guess the psychology of his interlocutors and deep understanding of the mechanisms of communications’.
But perhaps the most important facet of Montezemolo’s modus operandi – and possibly key to what set him apart from Ferrari team chiefs before and afterwards - lay elsewhere. First off, time for a quick history lesson. Unlike in Todt’s day Montezemolo at the Scuderia had to consider the man behind the wall. As mentioned Enzo Ferrari remained the team’s big boss, but as also mentioned he had long since stopped turning up to races, and remember too that at the time media coverage of F1 was rather rudimentary. Thus Enzo was dependent on his circle of courtiers to keep him abreast of what was going on.
Such interpretations however were often, shall we say, highly individual, and motivated by promoting or protecting ones position. This tended to ensure a permanent swirl of intrigue down Maranello way, which always was distracting and often debilitating. But Montezemolo thanks in large part to his status within FIAT was – possibly uniquely among Ferrari team chiefs while Enzo was alive – free of this, and able communicate to Mr Ferrari – in Alan Henry’s words – ‘in a totally impartial and accurate fashion’.
In this ilk Niki Lauda said of Montezemolo: ‘he was very young but he was good. Because of his social background he was largely proof against the daily round of intrigue, and this meant he could concentrate on the real job in hand, something of a privileged position for a Ferrari team chief. Off the top of my head, I can’t think of anyone in that position before or after who enjoyed the same freedom.’
And almost certainly not coincidentally Ferrari free of such politicking and manoeuvring was suddenly able to function as an integrated unit, and finally able to realise its considerable potential in terms of its vast resources, not least its virtually on-site private test track of Fiorano. And the success flowed.
Montezemolo left the Ferrari F1 effort at the conclusion of the triumphant 1975 campaign, in order to move up the FIAT chain yet further. And arguably things were never as good again for Ferrari until the heady days some time later under Todt and with Michael Schumacher’s repeated success. Nevertheless the momentum of what Montezemolo created meant more championships for Ferrari in the two following years; in 1976 and 1977 the constructors’ crowns were won again, the team thus becoming the first ever to claim three consecutive constructors’ crowns (a feat that wouldn’t be equalled by anyone until 1990). And without Lauda’s notorious fiery accident at the Nurburgring in 1976 surely three consecutive drivers’ titles would have been taken too. And as if to underline the extent that Montezemolo was a tough act to follow, of the two that came next in the role – first Daniele Audetto and then Roberto Nosetto – neither lasted more than a year.
All in, it’s rather a long way from Mrs Rochester.
Author: Graham Keilloh
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