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Ferrari’s soap opera: the season finale

Is Ferrari a car company or a sports team or an episode of The Sopranos? Sometimes it’s hard to tell. At the Paris Motor Show last week we witnessed the departure of one of its great leaders, amid acrimony and even man-crying.

Luca Cordero di Montezemolo has ruled with charisma and genuinely astonishing effect since 1991, a reign that rivals in length and depth that of Enzo himself. But as of 12 October he’ll be out. And it’s clear it’s against his wishes.

His departure is at the behest of Fiat Chrysler Automobiles CEO Sergio Marchionne, who will take over on a part-time basis. Although Ferrari runs as a largely separate operation, it has always answered to Marchionne. Last Thursday in Paris, Marchionne said that Montezemolo was going because of the poor showing of the Formula One team. And he didn’t mince his words.

“A Ferrari not winning Formula One is not Ferrari. We’ve got to go kick some ass, and do it quickly. We’re not in the top three, so let’s risk something.” That risk being to change the leadership.

“Yes, I’m [often] reminded racing is not a science. But I go to Monza and see the first six cars on the grid not a Ferrari and not powered by a Ferrari engine. Since 2008 we’ve had phenomenal drivers – and I consider we have the best right now – but the chemistry has not worked.” He acknowledged the team had been unlucky at times, but said in the end he can only allow so much bad luck.

Marchionne also seemed keen to scotch widespread rumours that Montezemolo is departing because of a disagreement over the number of road cars the company makes. Montezemolo has always said he wants to keep that limited to about 7000 a year, and many recent reports have said Marchionne wants to let that rise significantly, even by building the SUV or saloon that Montezemolo always vehemently ruled out.

But no, says Marchionne, that’s not it. “Luca and the team have done a phenomenal job of building the GT [road car] division. The cars’ performance keeps going up. I own an Enzo and now a 458 would give it a fight. That tradition cannot be interrupted by a change of leadership. And the brand must be religiously fanatic about the number of cars it sells. We can’t be an easily available product. All that work on the uniqueness and the technical prowess needs to be preserved.”

Seems clear. It was the F1 flop that did for Luca.

But others in the Ferrari circle see it differently. “Why did Marchionne get upset about not winning in year six when he was fine about it in year five?” as one insider said to Top Gear. Basically, the two men are both control freaks and they’re in a simple power struggle. The race team’s travails have just given one an excuse to oust the other.

Sure enough they were soon seen in the same room, as Montezemolo gave his final press conference, his eyes distinctly damp. He couldn’t bring himself to say why he was going. He has built a great empire and he clearly doesn’t want to go. Yet as he spoke, Marchionne plainly didn’t listen or meet his eye, and was thumbing through a leather swatch book and whispering to other colleagues.

Of course management soap operas are all very well if you follow the industry personnel, but what does it mean for Ferrari cars?

Marchionne insists continuity is the order. “We’ll go our merry way. If we want to reach a wider audience, we can do some engineering services, or sell engines.” And indeed these past few years Montezemolo has set the strategy but not run the place day to day: that’s been the job of quietly spoken CEO Amadeo Felisa, a career engineer.

But Felisa is at retirement age and needed to be lured to stay by Marchionne. Ferrari has recently lost its chief engineer, Roberto Fedeli, to BMW. And now Montezemolo is going. High-end brands with very visible customers need a charismatic figurehead. Di Montezemolo played that to perfection and the customers (and yes the press) loved him for it.

Marchionne is a genius, but too busy elsewhere in the huge multinational business, and Felisa doesn’t like playing to the gallery. Maranello might lose momentum if it loses its frontman.

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