Six years ago Toto Wolff was stressing that the team principal role had become “a thing of the past”, outlining that more people working together and combining their skillsets had replaced the powerful figure of a sole guide. Along with the growth of F1 teams as complex companies endowed with multiple internal structures, the need of having different personalities leading sporting, commercial and organizational departments increased significantly.
However, a team’s success or shortcomings are still addressed by a single figure, which is usually the one carrying all the pressure and taking the blame. Over the past ten years, the F1 paddock has witnessed firm and charismatic leaders as Christian Horner and Toto Wolff standing on the frontline, facing the media, explaining and defending their choices day in and day out. On the contrary, Ferrari’s downward spiral was mirrored in the numerous changes occurred at the top, from Stefano Domenicali to Mattia Binotto. The latter had the upper hand on Arrivabene in a garbled and cruel power struggle at the beginning of 2019, jumping from the role of technical director to team principal.
Binotto’s engineering background ended up clashing with the leading role assigned to him. The ultimate contradiction of placing an engineer at the top of a racing outfit culminated in Binotto’s decision to attend fewer races to spend more time in the factory. The 51-year-old skipped the Turkish GP and announced that he would miss the Bahrain GP as well, in order to focus on the 2021 project. Ferrari endured its worst season under Binotto’s guidance in 2020, causing major backlash from the fanbase and the press. The “shame culture” deeply rooted in the Italian system destroyed numerous Ferrari leading figures, who eventually relaunched themselves in foreign environments.
The team needs stability, and Binotto’s proactively supporting and supervising the team in Maranello stands for an important sign of commitment, guidance and strength. Moreover, given Binotto’s background, his contribution as an engineer in his own field can motivate him as well as the team itself.
Keeping himself away from the cameras and the pitwall will definitely recharge his batteries and lead to a strengthened in-house team. Binotto’s absence, as stated over the past weeks, is set to become a habit in 2021, having to channel more resources into the highly-demanding 2022 project.
Moreover, with 23 races on the calendar, a major personnel turnover will be required next year. This will also cause all teams to rethink their schedule and reshuffle the affluence of their employees to races and testing sessions.
During Binotto’s permanence in Maranello, sporting director Laurent Mekies undertakes the role of team principal trackside. Therefore, what Ferrari is currently lacking is the embodiment of a full-blown leader in a single figure, but the scenario was inevitable due to Binotto's professional background.
“Mattia has always approached his role in an innovative way, trying to think outside the box” Mekies explained before the Turkish GP.
“He has come up with a method of working that gives the flexibility to manage the priorities in the most efficient way possible: he had already adopted this approach when he was technical director and has applied it even more so now as team principal".
The real target for Ferrari is to find balance from an organizational standpoint, finding what works best for an engineer inserted in a foreign context. Unlike Toto Wolff, who missed his first race last year in Brazil in over six years, Binotto's distance from the track might have highly therapeutic effects on the team and on his own credibility. The factory is the place where he can fully thrive, perhaps awaiting a real decision maker to step in and take the helm of Ferrari.