There’s more to F1 than winning races

Kimi Raikkonen, the 2007 world champion. Arriving from McLaren, the Finn took time to acclimatise to his new surroundings in Ferrari last season.-AP

Promoted during the winter to the position of director of the Scuderia Ferrari, Stefano Domenicali talks about what it is like to head the most powerful team in the paddock. By Richard Williams.

The Ferrari team’s key figure this season is a 42-year-old economics graduate whose earliest memories of motor racing include falling asleep to the sound of Formula One engines. Young, smart and approachable in a sport overpopulated with ageing cynics, Stefano Domenicali is the new face of the most powerful team in the paddock.

Promoted during the winter to the position of director of the Scuderia Ferrari, Domenicali has made considerable progress since the days when, as a boy in Imola, he and his school friends would head for the town’s autodrome and pitch their camp at the Curva Tosa in readiness for the annual San Marino Grand Prix.

“We’d have such incredible nights before the race, preparing, putting up your tent, going there to live the atmosphere of the Grand Prix,” he said. “But then after three laps you were so tired you started sleeping. That’s the truth.”

As the 23rd man to take the job since the founding of the Scuderia in 1930, Domenicali is following in the footsteps of a lot of very wide-awake operators, not least Jean Todt, the Frenchman whose 15 years in the role encompassed the entire Michael Schumacher era, and Luca di Montezemolo, who masterminded an earlier Ferrari renaissance during the 1970s and is now the company’s president.

Todt, elevated to chief executive, has moved his office across the road to the factory where the road cars are produced, leaving Domenicali in sole charge of the racing team, whose buildings adjoin the Fiorano test track, and directly answerable to his two most successful predecessors.

“Well, you can’t lie to them,” he laughed, “because they know all the answers. They know where to point the finger.”

There was rather too much finger-pointing in Formula One last year, most of it arising from the allegations that one of Ferrari’s English technicians had passed important information to a senior designer at the McLaren team. As Todt’s deputy, Domenicali had to ensure that the team’s focus was not weakened as they faced the challenge which, at the last gasp, brought them a 15th Constructors’ Championship and a first drivers’ title for Kimi Raikkonen.

“When I look back now it seems almost impossible,” he said. “We were able to win because we never gave up and the others didn’t perform the way they should, for various reasons. We had to keep our concentration on the track while spending a lot of resources in fighting for something that was not on the track. It would have been easy to find excuses.”

It came as no surprise to Domenicali that Raikkonen, arriving from McLaren at the start of the year, took time to acclimatise to his new surroundings. The Finn’s customary reluctance to put his thoughts on display made the initial problems look bigger than they were.

“We were expecting a period where the car and driver performance was not really at the maximum level. But one thing that was fundamental was that Kimi didn’t really suffer too much. He considered it part of a natural learning curve. We are Latin, so we’re used to a certain way of communication, and he doesn’t show anyone what he’s feeling inside. But he’s a human being, so he’s living all the emotions. The best compliment we’ve received was when he said he thought of Ferrari as a family and as the best group he’d ever worked with.”

The big loser, of course, was Lewis Hamilton. Could Domenicali envisage making a bid for the Englishman’s talents one day?

“I can’t give a straightforward answer, yes or no. What I can say for sure is that Lewis Hamilton did an incredible season. He reached an unexpected level at the beginning and he faced a lot of pressure in the last part of the season. The pressure was very, very high. And, with all respect, he is very young. I think he learnt a lot last year, and this year will be very important for him. If he’s able to manage his talent and to grow as a person and as a driver, well, Ferrari is always looking at the fastest drivers. He has a different kind of pressure now, for sure. He’s trying, as is normal, to say, ‘I’m freer this year’. I don’t think so. But let’s see. What I can say for sure is that he will be one of our main competitors.”

Domenicali’s own active involvement in racing began when he graduated from snoozing spectator to volunteer helper at the Imola race weekends. After completing his studies at Bologna University, he wrote to Ferrari in 1991 and, aged 26, landed a job on the financial side. The company was experiencing a slump, but the arrival of Di Montezemolo later that year kick-started a revival.

Soon delegated to run the affairs of the Ferrari-owned Mugello circuit, Domenicali moved over to the gestione sportiva in 1993, following Todt’s arrival. There he gained experience in budget control, human resources, sponsor relationships and logistics before joining his boss on the pit wall, where he turned himself into a specialist in Formula One’s arcane rulebook. Now he is the team’s principal, with a major role to play as the sport faces a period of great change.

“We are in a transition period where we really need to be sure that we’re taking the right decisions,” he said. “We have a lot of new challenges and if we miss them it will be a problem. The sport is really good in terms of numbers, in terms of viewers, but we mustn’t forget other things that are on the table in terms of improving the show, the attention to the environment, and the cost of Formula One. Our main task is to win races. But those things are important, too.”

© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2008