A competitive Ferrari is Marchionne’s legacy

Former Ferrari chief executive and chairman Sergio Marchionne died on Wednesday aged 66, leaving behind a powerful legacy in the interconnected automotive, motorsport and business worlds.

Marchionne, who was also chairman of car giant Fiat Chrysler Automobiles, was felled by serious health complications arriving after recent surgery.

“Unfortunately, what we feared has come to pass,” said FCA and Ferrari chairman John Elkann. “Sergio Marchionne, man and friend, is gone.

“I believe that the best way to honour his memory is to build on the legacy he left us, continuing to develop the human values of responsibility and openness of which he was the most ardent champion.”

And it’s a substantial legacy he leaves.

Marchionne, who emigrated from Italy to Canada at 13, trained as an accountant and lawyer, practising with Deloitte & Touche before moving to a managerial role at Lawson Mardon in 1985.

From there he hopped through a variety of executive positions through which he developed a reputation for revolutionising ailing business before eventually landing in the chief executive officer role at Fiat in 2004, which at the time was in dire financial straits having lost more than €5.5 billion in the previous year.

Marchionne turned Fiat around, also saving American car manufacturer Chrysler in the process by merging the two into today’s FCA, the world’s eighth largest auto manufacturer worth in excess of 10 times Fiat’s value when he first joined.

Formula One came into Marchionne’s orbit in 2014 when he replaced Luca Montezemolo as Ferrari chairman and initiated an ultimately successful plan to spin off the sports car manufacturer from FCA, becoming CEO of the Prancing Horse two years later.

Despite coming to FCA with no automotive background, Marchionne had arrived at, taken charge of and made independent the most famous car and racing brand in the world, and it is at Ferrari as much as anywhere else that he leaves a valuable legacy.

The Scuderia Ferrari of 2014 was in crisis. Its star, Fernando Alonso, who had been flattering otherwise forgettable machinery with his unlikely wins and title tilts since 2010, was about to quit. Luca Montezemolo, 40-year Ferrari stalwart , left his chairman and presidency roles in a huff, disillusioned by the state of the sport and by Fiat’s Marchionne-directed guidance of Ferrari.

Most importantly, the team was in a performance drought, swept aside first by Brawn GP, then by Red Bull Racing and finally, under the new regulations, by Mercedes. The 2014 season was its first winless year since 1993.

Change was enacted. Team principal Marco Mattiacci was dispatched and replaced by Maurizio Arrivabene, lining up with the arrival of Sebastian Vettel and the increased influence of James Allison.

Improvement came quickly in 2015, with Vettel winning three grands prix, but a slip backwards in 2016 led to a major internal review at Marchionne’s behest. His plans for a new technical structure led to friction with James Allison, which reportedly triggered the Englishman’s midseason departure. Aerodynamicist Dirk de Beer left soon after.

The technical side of the team was subsequently restructured according to Marchionne’s plans. The Scuderia took on more of an Italian flavour, with the prevailing philosophy to promote from within.

“We keep on focusing on a single individual as being the answer to all these problems,” Marchionne said at the time. “I think we have huge talent inside the structure today … I would not be looking for the great hero to come in and turn this thing around.”

Mattia Binotto, formerly in charge of power unit, was made technical director amongst other changes in a more horizontal structure, and the team began thrived in 2017, mounting its first credible title tilt in years.

Aerodynamically, operationally and on the power unit front the team kept up with Mercedes, and 2018 has been a story of great consolidation, with the Scuderia even pulling ahead of the Silver Arrows at very least in terms of power delivery in Germany last weekend, up until which the lead of the drivers and constructors standings were both held by Maranello.

Only one or two years ago — even as recently as months ago during preseason testing — such a scenario was almost unthinkable. Ferrari, previously considered too rife with division and politics to succeed, has been turned into a potential Mercedes-beating machine.

This is Sergio Marchionne’s Ferrari legacy.

There are loose ends still to be tied. Marchionne was reportedly intending to helm Ferrari through to the new F1 commercial and technical era in 2021, and he had forged himself a protagonist’s role in it negotiation. How will Ferrari, the sport’s most powerful team, navigate its way through these increasingly pressing dealings?

There are more short-term concerns too, with the future of Kimi Raikkonen still to be decided. Marchionne was thought to favour Charles Leclerc joining the team in 2019, but will more change be what the team wants this season?

But really only one thing will matter to the team: the now bittersweet matter of sealing its first world title in a structure designed by one of the modern-day giants of the automotive world.

Vale Sergio Marchionne.