Nothing focuses the minds at Ferrari quite like the roar of the tifosi at Monza. The sea of red, the febrile atmosphere, the passion for the Scuderia at its most intense and demanding. For Ferrari’s principal, Mattia Binotto, it is a reflection of what makes the marque so special that he shares with the fans and why he has brought such a personal commitment to try to return the team to the top of Formula One.
Binotto is speaking at Monza before the Italian Grand Prix, Ferrari’s home race. Intelligent, personable and relaxed, he betrays no nerves or concern at the inevitable scrutiny he is facing with a car that is still a way off the pace of Mercedes and Red Bull. Italy’s eyes will be on Ferrari, but Binotto is enjoying it.
Ferrari through and through, he believes the very idea of the marque extends beyond mere mechanical achievement, more than racing, to encompass a concept and principles that are more important than anything that may be delivered on the track.
It was Binotto, the 51-year-old who took over in 2019, who came up with the public expression of this distinctive philosophy that reflects Ferrari’s history as the oldest manufacturer in Formula One and the only one to have been competing in the sport since the first championship in 1950. He has it emblazoned on the cars and his drivers Charles Leclerc and Carlos Sainz’s race suits. It is an exhortation to an attitude: “essereFerrari”: in English, the slightly ungainly “being Ferrari”.
Such sentiment would have found favour with Enzo Ferrari. Il Commendatore always believed there was something special about the team he founded, not least in its early years when it was spirit and innovation that fuelled his team. Binotto wants to ensure this is reflected in the Scuderia now, because he believes it is essential to their future success.
“It is to identify ourselves,” he says with pride. “It is something unique, it is Ferrari, it includes all our values and everyone working at Ferrari. It’s most important that we understand it’s a unique family, a unique thing.
“I always say to my guys it’s more important to be Ferrari than winning, because winning will be a simple consequence. If we are capable of being Ferrari and working well, the winning will be the consequence. I use the example of Gilles Villeneuve as being a fantastic driver but actually he really won very little. The way he was behaving, the way he was driving, his passion made the difference.”
Binotto does not cite the great Villeneuve by accident. He was introduced to F1 by his grandfather when growing up as an Italian in Switzerland. It was of course the red cars they supported and for Binotto it was the competition that attracted him and Villeneuve, mercurial in a Ferrari, who kindled his love of racing.
Binotto studied mechanical engineering at university but only specialised in cars and engines when taking a masters in car engineering in Modena, close to Ferrari’s headquarters at Maranello. Given the chance to join the Scuderia as a graduate in 1995, he has been with the team ever since, and admits it was a dream come true but not something he actually thought would happen. “An opportunity came out of the blue,” he recalls with a smile. “Not something I was looking for and really by luck.” Ferrari may yet consider it their good fortune.
Binotto went through the ranks in a series of roles, including during the glory years when the Scuderia returned six consecutive constructors’ titles. When put in charge of the engine in 2015, his management was crucial in improving its performance, kick-starting the team’s return as a competitive force. He took over as chief technical officer in 2016, and principal in 2019.
The team he inherited from Maurizio Arrivabene, whose background was as a marketing executive, badly needed a reset. They had challenged for titles in 2017 and 2018 but both seasons were found wanting. Arrivabene had brought a bunker mentality: there was reportedly an intimidatory, critical culture within the team, finger-pointing seemingly rife.
In 2020 when Ferrari’s new car proved to be down on power and aerodynamically weak it was a real shock, and the Scuderia endured their worst season since 1980, when even Villeneuve could do little with the recalcitrant 312T5 and they finished 10th. Binotto’s reaction was telling. “It’s not by sacking people that you make a car go faster,” he said when revealing he had begun restructuring the team and how they operated. He was aware of the blame culture and has made it a point to deal with it.
“It is something on which we have worked very hard and we are still working very hard because it is the worst that may happen,” he says. “If you fear to be blamed you are not progressing so it is something, a behaviour, a culture, we are trying to address. At times of such difficulties in 2020 the team being united, no blame internally, no criticism but working together trying to react was something I was very happy with.”
These changes he has instituted – including bringing in new young blood and restructuring within the team, looking to the future by committing to the undoubted talent of a young driver in Leclerc – have made him optimistic that next year Ferrari will once more be challenging for wins. It is a process he believes will lead to another winning cycle at a team that have not taken a constructors’ title since 2008 and a drivers’ championship since 2007.
He has every right to be confident, having been with the team last time Ferrari went through similar convulsions to emerge stronger. In 1995 Ferrari had not won the constructors’ title since 1983 and Jean Todt was in the process of a slow, painstaking rebuild of the team that would ultimately pay off.
“There are similarities with now,” Binotto remembers. “It was a long time since Ferrari had won in 1995 and Jean Todt was building the foundations for the future to set up a winning cycle, employing young engineers. Twenty-five years later we are in a similar position.”
His experience then and the remarkable group of people who came together to achieve such great success were clearly crucial in forging the character Binotto now brings to the Scuderia. “I have been lucky to work with these guys, Jean Todt, Michael Schumacher, who was a leader not only in the car but outside the cockpit, Ross Brawn, Stefano Domenicali …” he recalls. “There were plenty of people at the time setting really good examples which are very useful to me today.”
Binotto is earnest and open. His reign thus far has been marked by an honest fronting-up to failings as well as a willingness to celebrate success when it comes. Ferrari is a family, he explains, and he laughs with gusto when it is suggested he is the father figure.
Yet there is also a serious side to this, a conviction to Binotto’s belief that this family, this “being Ferrari”, is what differentiates the team from every other and why he is convinced that sooner rather than later the tifosi will have reason to celebrate at Monza once more. “To have the right mood, the right passion, the right spirit is key,” he says. “There is something special at Ferrari, which is a clear identity, and that identity is our family.”