A new CEO moves in at Ferrari who’s a semiconductor guy, not a car guy; Russell likely to move in to replace Bottas at Mercedes; and a new Technical Director settles in at Aston Martin.
There have been a few fascinating moves in F1 in recent weeks, which I think hint at changes in the sport for the future – or at least the potential for a big change. And I’m not talking about sprint races or upwardly-mobile TV statistics in the United States.
The first is the announcement from Ferrari that it has appointed a CEO – six months after Louis Camilleri resigned unexpectedly – who is not a racer, nor even a car guy. This may be a good thing because, for many years, one of Ferrari’s biggest problems has been having CEOs who dabbled in F1, thinking they knew what to do when, in truth, there were not always fully up to speed with what it takes to be successful in the sport.
Benedetto Vigna (52) will be unlikely to get involved unless it becomes obvious that the team needs a kicking. We will know this after the first three races of 2022 when we will see if Ferrari is a winner again. If it isn’t, I sense that the axe will swing and Mattia Binotto’s reign as head of Gestione Sportiva (Scuderia Ferrari) may come to an end. Let’s not forget that Binotto oversaw the worst season in modern Ferrari history in 2020 when the team finished sixth in the Constructors’ Championship. The last time that there was such a disaster was in 1980 – 40 years ago. And, as we know, the problems were self-inflicted, caused by technical decisions that made it necessary to have a secret agreement with the FIA. So, Binotto and his people need to fix things properly and start getting good results. And that will not be easy.
The astonishing thing about Vigna is that he is not a car guy at all. The word is that he was chosen in competition with Luca Maestri, who has been the Chief Financial Officer of Apple in recent years, who had at least worked at General Motors at an early point in his career. The move has puzzled many because Vigna is a technologist and inventor, a specialist in lasers and then, over time, in micromachining techniques of microprocessors. He and his engineers at STMicroprocessors have revolutionised the world in many respects with a tiny gyroscopic sensor able of detecting motion in three dimensions. These incredible devices are present in smartphones and game controllers. After that, their work on developing Internet-of-Things technology has further impacted the world.
The appointment fits with the vision that automobile manufacturers are becoming software companies, with the future being in automated smart battery-powered vehicles with integrated systems all run by a central computer that will be updated by 5G mobile networks. It may be that Ferrari is aiming to be more than just a supercar manufacturer and has the ambition to establish itself as the manufacturer of operating systems that can be used by all car manufacturers.
It’s reckoned that there will ultimately be only one or two such systems dominating the market, as is the case with smartphones, which generally operate with either Android or iOS systems. The systems required for future automobiles will be far more complex but the firms that produce the most viable options will reap huge benefits and add to the value of the Ferrari brand in a new way – moving it towards a company in the style of Apple, which has expanded out from being a computer manufacturer to becoming a multinational technology company, specialising in consumer electronics, software and online services.
This would not impact Ferrari’s role as a supercar business, although that might in time become a division of something bigger… Time will tell if this is the thinking, but it’s hard to imagine the appointment is just to keep things as they are.
The second big news was Esteban Ocon signing for Alpine. That may sound a bit weird, but let me explain. Ocon signed for the team for a long-term deal, knowing that it would effectively mean an end to his relationship with Mercedes. To do that, Ocon must have believed that there was no chance of him getting a drive at Mercedes. This might suggest that he thinks Lewis Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas will stay next year, but the fact that it is a three-year deal with Alpine, suggests that he is not expecting any opportunity there for the longer term as well. And this means that he sees George Russell as being the man who will get in his way. The giveaway for me is that the deal was done early and that means only one thing – Ocon wanted to get a solid position to make sure that no one else could come along and take the drive. Remember that happened to him with Renault when he was set for a drive and Daniel Ricciardo came on the market and Esteban ended up out of F1. So he’s wary of that. And who was he worried about? In my view, there is only one driver who would be a problem for him – Valtteri Bottas. And from that conclusion, one can suggest that Bottas will be moving on at the end of the current season and George Russell will be moving up to Mercedes. That makes sense because Mercedes don’t know how long Lewis Hamilton will stay and they want a driver to be the team leader when Lewis goes and they don’t want to have to wait for a new driver to integrate into the team. They did that when Nico Roberg suddenly quit and Bottas had to find his feet. They don’t want to do it again. So I’m willing to bet that George will be alongside Lewis next year…
The third significant story is that Aston Martin has signed up Dan Fallows, the chief engineer of aero at Red Bull for the last seven years. Fallows is a big-league player and for Aston Martin to have lured him away from Red Bull has required a technical restructuring to give him the role of technical director and – I suspect – a very, very large salary. What this shows is that Aston Martin needs to be taken seriously in the long term. This is a clear indication that Aston Martin means business and intends to win. And that message will spread through the F1 community making it easier to hire the best engineers and to attract new sponsorship.
Joe Saward has been covering Formula 1 full-time for over 30 years. He has not missed a race since 1988.