Name someone who has actively worked at Ferrari since 1965. My list starts and stops with one man—Piero Ferrari. Piero, son of company founder Enzo, has seen and been involved in most every facet of the business, and has been around the company his entire life, yet has a wonderful ability to view Ferrari almost as an outsider.
The history that the man represents and understands makes spending time with him a treasure, so I try to see him regularly when I am in Italy. On a beautiful spring day this past May, I met him in his office at the factory. Our talk, however, started far away from Maranello.
Someone told me you have a passion for NASCAR.
(Laughs.) It is not really a passion. I have my small engineering company, and I try to spend time by myself and my engineers in some fields of technology or areas of technology…[the idea is] to be like a hub of knowledge, to exchange experience from Formula 1 to NASCAR and vice versa. You always have these opportunities to learn something. We started some interesting engineering activities for a NASCAR team.
So there is a NASCAR team that has Ferrari engineering in it?
Not Ferrari, but my private, small group of 25 engineers. Some are Formula 1, some are from the GT, some are in Ducati. You know that I had to design the Desmo 16 MotoGP engine. This was done by a couple of my guys, my engineers. This started like a hobby and now it is a small group of high-level engineering.
When did this start?
The engineering, 11 years ago. With NASCAR, four years ago. I have twice been to the Daytona 500. It is really quite the motor-racing event of the year in the U.S. There are 400,000 people, quite impressive. What I really like is you see the cars, all tubular frames, bodywork with metal sheets and not carbon fiber. It looks like quite old technology, but behind it there is a lot of experience and every detail is developed to perfection, as they have not much space to do new technology. But they know every screw of the car.
They still use carburetors.
They still use carburetors. (Pauses.) In fact, I have been talking with Jim France, the owner of the series. His father was Bill France…and my father was dealing with him for the Daytona 24 Hours in the old days. The famous 330 P4 victory was one-two-three in Daytona. So, he was asking me, “When do you think Ferrari will be back for the Daytona 24 Hours?” Maybe, some time—never say never.
A decade or so ago, we talked about how the real legend of Ferrari was created with endurance racing. Since then, so much has happened in F1 that it almost seems like ancient history. Do you look at endurance racing as “ancient history” for Ferrari, or is it something you would like to go back to?
There is not any more endurance racing like there was in the past. In the past, it was a real championship. Those days, the 1950s and ’60s, it was maybe nine or ten Grands Prix for Formula 1, plus six [endurance races]. So it was like today, where we do 16 or 18 races in Formula 1. In those days, the total activity was the same, but it was five or six races in endurance.
Today, when I am thinking of the big races from the past, there are three names: Le Mans 24 Hours, the Indy 500 and Monte Carlo for Formula 1. These three names are it. We have a special feeling with Monza, because it is a historic race, but in the big picture it is those three names: Le Mans 24 Hours, Indy 500 and Monte Carlo.
Okay, you are Piero Ferrari the racing driver. Which one would you most want to win?
As a racing driver…I don’t know! Perhaps all the three, like Mario Andretti tried to do but never succeeded; he is missing Le Mans. So as a driver, maybe the Indy 500 or Monte Carlo. As a car manufacturer, for me Le Mans is always a very good image.
So the spirit of endurance racing in Ferrari may not be dead. To “never say never,” you may go back.
We are still there competing in GT2. We have good customer teams. Last year, we won the GT2 of the Le Mans 24 Hours. We are still involved in some way.
Today, you have to compete in Formula 1 and you have to make a choice. Audi, they made a very strong commitment to Le Mans and did very good lobbying to have the diesel [engine capable of] winning Le Mans. They did a good job, but this proves that you have to be committed to one kind of competition and not both.
The last true Ferrari endurance racer was your baby, the 333 SP.
That was really something that happened through a good friend of mine, Gianpiero Moretti. He was racing in the United States, for a long time it was in IMSA. He said, “Piero, they have new rules and a new sports car. Please make a Ferrari to race in this.” So we convinced [company president] Luca [di Montezemolo] and [he said], “Okay, do it!”
It was really something done for customers, to sell some sports cars, and it was successful; we did sell a lot. We won the Daytona 24 Hours, Sebring and two IMSA championships. It was a very good customer-car program.
Jumping back to Formula 1, this season must be difficult for you.
Yes, for sure.
What do you think caused Ferrari to stumble and others to succeed?
Brawn made an aerodynamic floor that is complying to the rules, how it is written, but not to the spirit of the rules. The FIA accepted this. This makes a big difference, the aerodynamics.
Plus, we spent all of the last year to develop the car up to the last race, because we were fighting for the championship with [Felipe] Massa. That means we were very concentrated on last year’s car, so we have been late on the aerodynamic development of the new model. Plus, we spent a lot of time and money on this famous KERS device.
At Brawn and Toyota they have an advantage, but we say it is illegal.
You, Piero, always seem to look at the spirit of the rules. We had this discussion a while ago, when you were considering whether to do Le Mans with the F50 GT1. There was a competitor who didn’t respect the spirit of the rules, although they followed the letter of the rules, and that was one of the reasons why you pulled back.
This is the difference in how the rules are written by the FIA, the European racers, and the Americans. The Americans are very different. In NASCAR, Indy Car, they say, “The suspension arms have to be steel, this is the quality of the steel, welded in this way,” and that is it. If you do something different, half of the same stiffness, this is not the spirit and they say no. It is very different. So they state the spirit of the rules, even if they do very restrictive rules, they stick to the spirit, not to the wording. Ours is a more legal interpretation. The rules are different.
Here’s a hypothetical question for you: Kimi Raikkonen retires from Formula 1 and you have to choose between Fernando Alonso and Lewis Hamilton to replace him. Who do you pick, and why?
Hmmmm. Alonso, because for sure he is a champion. He is a champion because he has twice been World Champion. This makes it a different story. Hamilton has won one, but I feel that [Alonso] is able to help the engineers develop the car in the proper direction. You saw last year how the Renault was not a good car at all. But he was pushing, doing some improvements, and he got the chance and won two races. To be quick is something, but if you don’t have the attitude to give the right direction to the engineers, after some time you lose. I think Alonso can do this.
So it is basically his ability to improve the car through the season?
Yes, to improve the car through the season and give the right direction for the next season, to work with the team. This was a main quality of Michael [Schumacher]. The real champion is someone who is quick and [has] his brain, all together. He’s thinking.
It’s like Niki Lauda. He was a fantastic driver. There were some guys who were as quick as Niki, but he was able to tune the car, set up the car, for his type of driving. He was a technician. Niki had been testing GT cars for years. Niki was asking to us, while we were engineers from [the GT department], to bring the car to the Bologna airport. [He said], “I will drive the car up to Maranello.” So we thought, “Okay.” He was driving the car from Bologna to Fiorano, he did one lap and he stopped and made the comments that our test driver made in one month. In one hour, he was able to understand the car.
This is the quality, an example to explain to you the difference. Nigel Mansell was a fantastic driver, but if you asked him what was the direction to develop the car, where we can be quicker, he had no idea. He was just driving…. [Piero bangs his hand on the desk to indicate flat-out.]
On a different note, it is a tragedy that Pininfarina is possibly heading toward bankruptcy. What is the relationship between the two companies right now? And what happens with the design of Ferraris going forward?
Sergio has serious problems. He is not any more in the company. He’s home [and] maybe he doesn’t even know that the company is so bad financially. He was so nice to us. I’ve met Sergio let’s say every month since 1964. We have a very good relationship.
Sergio was not a designer himself. He was a person with a lot of good taste. He was watching and saying, “This is nice and this is ugly.” This is really good taste. So he was leader in this sense. We trusted him a lot and as he was not a designer, he set up a group of designers…a good school of designers inside the Pininfarina style. They are still there, inside Pininfarina. It is different from other designers who don’t have a school internally.
I think, the industrial part, this is a problem of Pininfarina. The style studio is still doing a good job. I hope they will continue and that we [will] work together.
How would you describe Ferrari style today? In the past, we have talked about this, where up through the 1980s it was beautiful, classical. Today’s Ferraris seem to be more aggressive and edgy. Do you agree?
Look at the California. Do you agree?
For me, the jury is out on the California, the way it looks.
I accept your comments, but nobody told us, “Oh, it’s too traditional or it is a copy of something else.” The customer likes a mix of traditional elements and new. So to describe Ferrari’s style today, what words would you use? This may be difficult, for a 612 Scaglietti is different from a 430, which is different from a 599. I cannot describe. In a Ferrari, there are some style concepts, some style elements that are of the Ferrari design elements. If you say to me, “Describe how a Ferrari has to look,” I can’t. If you put the Prancing Horse on any Japanese [car], it is not a Ferrari.
In any case, the style a Ferrari needs is a strong personality. I don’t know if personality is a good word…I mean, you can see the latest Ferrari and [if] you have never seen it before, only maybe some pictures, [and] you see one on the road, you have no doubt it is a Ferrari. Why? It is not only because of the Prancing Horse, it is some elements that describe the style of Ferrari. A Scaglietti is a Ferrari and an Enzo is a Ferrari. They are so different, but you recognize it. When you see the car coming from a distance, you know this is a Ferrari.
Even for me, it is difficult to give you an answer. There are some designers who are making nice cars, and then sell [their design] to Opel or Toyota or someone. You change the logo, and that is it. That is not with Ferrari.
Is it true that you drive a Quattroporte?
I have been driving one since it started production. I like it.
It’s ironic that Ferrari rescued this ancient rival, got it on somewhat firm footing and then Fiat took it away, but now Maserati really prospers. What would your father think about you guys saving Maserati?
In the past, when Citroen was the owner of Maserati, they offered it to my father. For him, it was a little too risky. [He was] too concentrated in his company, and Ferrari was maybe too little.
What was good in Maserati was the brand. When it was in the same group as Ferrari, we invested in a lot of new projects. Maserati today is a range of products we developed in that period. Now they have to do the second, the second era.
The transformation Fiat has undergone in the past five or six years is fascinating. Many Americans feel Fiat is “Fix It Again, Tony,” but now Fiat is coming to fix Chrysler. That must be an incredible thing for you.
Yes, it is really incredible. What really shocked me was the president of the United States announcing the deal himself. He was the best sponsor of the deal Fiat could have.
I remember in 2004, Fiat shares were under a euro or thereabouts. For the rating agencies, Fiat was junk bonds, junk shares. Nobody was believing. You know we have a strong relationship with the [United Arab] Emirates, and they purchased the Ferrari shares [35 percent of Ferrari from Fiat]. And we said, “Why don’t you buy some Fiat shares?” They told me all their bank advisors told them, “Stay away from Fiat.”
So how did Fiat go from that position to being Chrysler’s savior?
This is really something impressive that, in three years, Fiat CEO [Sergio] Marchionne did a total turnover. He made a real change in the management of the company. He made possible that everything was decided from the top immediately as a reaction [to what was happening] on the floor, from the people underneath. This [change] made [the turnaround] possible. You know what my view was? Fiat was a group in which there was a very strong bureaucracy. It was many levels of managers, and the bureaucracy was stronger than the good ideas of the managers. Everything was passing through the bureaucracy and then [in the end, there] was nothing, zero. It was like a big filter.
What Marchionne changed was this. This is the problem of GM. They cannot change the negative tendencies. GM has been losing something like 0.8 percent of the market every year for 20 years and nobody did anything. I’m not happy that GM is going into bankruptcy, but this is your destiny if you are doing nothing.
Am I too rude?
After our talk, I asked to take some portrait photos. Piero immediately recommended heading down to Classiche, rather than shooting something in his office. He was completely at home wandering through the historic Ferraris being examined for the upcoming RM auction, talking with Classiche personnel and commenting on various cars.
We soon wandered outside, where I spied a rack of bicycles that factory personnel use to get around the company’s expansive grounds. When I asked if he’d mind using one for the portrait, Piero replied, “Not at all!” and yanked one out of the rack.
This unassuming demeanor is another quality that makes Piero so endearing. Despite his family connections, his history with the company and the fact that his name is emblazoned on the gates, you would never know it from spending time with him.