How Ferrari’s F1 evolution under Fred Vasseur helped it shed fear of failure

How Ferrari’s F1 evolution under Fred Vasseur helped it shed fear of failure

MARANELLO, Italy — Wherever you look around Ferrari’s famed Maranello headquarters, you cannot escape its remarkable and unparalleled history.

Echoes of the past ring loud, standing outside what was Enzo Ferrari’s ground floor office. Here, through five square windows, the team founder had a direct view of the yellow post-war buildings and the Piazza Giovanni Agnelli, where every new Ferrari car would be unveiled.

A wall in the middle of the campus separates the ‘old’ and ‘new’ buildings – one side painted yellow, the other red, to divide the grounds. Even the streets linking the headquarters are named after Ferrari’s Formula One champions: Via Alberto Ascari, Via Jody Scheckter, Via Kimi Raikkonen. Seven-time champion Michael Schumacher has an entire piazza (public square) named in his honor.

While on campus, you understand why Ferrari is more than F1’s most famous and successful team. In Italy, it is an institution. For its loyal fanbase, the tifosi, it’s a religion.

And to lead Ferrari is to carry one of the heaviest responsibilities, a weight borne for the first time in 2023 by Fred Vasseur.

Vasseur knew what he was in for when he became team principal at the start of the year. Taking the helm of Ferrari, a team entering its 16th year without a championship and onto its fifth leader in the past decade, would be unlike anything he’d previously faced in his long racing career. In his last role as Alfa Romeo’s team principal, podiums were a long shot, and expectations were far lower. The spotlight would be harsher at Ferrari.

“It’s a different pressure,” Vasseur said. “At Ferrari, the pressure is coming more from the outside.”

Speaking at Ferrari’s Christmas lunch on Friday at its Fiorano test track next door to the factory, Vasseur had a lot to look back on. Ten months earlier, in the same room, he’d spoken about his aspirations for the season and that he was “convinced” Ferrari had “everything to win” without major overhauls or changes.

It wasn’t the season Ferrari wanted. Red Bull’s advantage became evident during preseason testing. Drivers Charles Leclerc and Carlos Sainz quickly knew they didn’t have a car capable of winning a championship. Leclerc, runner-up to Max Verstappen in 2022, earned only six points in the first three races, two of which he’d failed to finish. In Australia, he branded it “the worst-ever start of the season.”

Vasseur might’ve expected more of a honeymoon phase as his tenure began. “Everybody told me, ‘You will see at Ferrari, you will start the season very well, and then it’s going down,’” he said. “Trust me, after Jeddah or Melbourne, I said, ‘What the f—, if this was the good part of the season, we will be in big trouble.’”

It turned out that 2023 was a rebuilding year for Ferrari. Unable to challenge Red Bull, it was left to fight it out with Mercedes, Aston Martin and McLaren to be next-best – a weak currency to an iconic team like Ferrari. It had to change course.

“We were conscious of the situation and the weakness of the car, but we had, I think, a good attitude to tackle it,” Vasseur said. “We took it step by step. The reaction was a good one.”

Before he joined the team, Vasseur admitted thinking that Ferrari tended to overreact to problems. Defeats seemed to be met with emotional, not rational, decisions. Instead, Vasseur encountered patience at Maranello. “This is the good lesson,” he said. “Even when you are in trouble in our business, you have to stay calm and build up the pace step by step.”

Ferrari made strides with its car, which had a “peaky” nature that made it hard for Leclerc and Sainz to glean much confidence early in the year. So it shifted the design concept with major upgrades as early as Spain, ditching its ‘bathtub’ sidepods as part of a package to make it more predictable and consistent. Through the second half of the season, its strong one-lap pace, which yielded seven poles, started to translate into the races more often.

Vasseur said it was a “tough six months” leading to Ferrari’s home race at Monza, where Sainz took pole and fought hard against Verstappen for the first third of the race. Red Bull scored a one-two, but the sight of Sainz and Leclerc going wheel-to-wheel on the final lap, fighting for third, felt like a spark for Ferrari.

One striking thing about the Ferrari version of Vasseur is how little he has changed from his Alfa Romeo days. He has lost none of the humor, regularly laughing at his own jokes or comments. Yet he also remains a staunch realist, never thinking too far ahead. A perfect example of the two combining arrived in Abu Dhabi when, after a year of saying on F1 TV that he “did not have a crystal ball” to predict things, presenter Laura Winter gave him an actual crystal ball as an early Christmas gift.


But what about a Christmas gift for the tifosi? Going into 2024, what could Vasseur promise? The realist kicked in.


“The Christmas gift for them will be if we are able to do a good job in March, not for Christmas,” he said. “Christmas, the gift is just based on a promise, and I don’t want to make a promise. We will see in March.” He paused and added with a smirk: “It will be the Easter gift!”

Regardless of the holiday, it would be one Ferrari fans across the globe would gladly accept

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