Feature F1 Unlocked
BARRETTO: One year in, how is no-nonsense Fred Vasseur doing in motorsport’s toughest job at Ferrari?
Fred Vasseur is a no-nonsense kind of guy who deftly switches between ruthlessness and dry humour. It’s the way he was when he ran teams in junior series. It’s the way he was when he was at the helm of Renault and then Sauber in F1.
Taking on the biggest job in motorsport as Team Principal of Ferrari could have forced a change in that approach. He could have become more corporate, straight-laced and humourless. But after a year in the job, Vasseur hasn’t changed one bit.
That is despite the massive pressure weighing on his shoulders from demanding senior management, board members and fans – and the failure of the team to turn the needle significantly on paper, leaving them third in the constructors’ championship behind Red Bull and Mercedes.
It suggests Vasseur feels he has got this. Sure, there is a lot of work to do. Sure, daily phone calls with top brass Benedetto Vigna and John Elkann are just the tip of an iceberg laced with relentless pressure to be better.
Ferrari only managed to win one Grand Prix in 2023 and look a chasm away from Red Bull. But year one hasn’t broken Vasseur.
He’s absorbing the expectation and focusing on the job in hand. He still has full belief that he can get the job done at Ferrari and deliver on his remit of creating a new championship-contending era, last genuinely enjoyed in the early 2000s.
“Fred is a very direct guy,” says Sporting Director Diego Ioverno. “He is straight to the point. He knows the business, knows motor sport. He knows Formula 1. So, it's quite easy to work with him. It’s easy to understand what he wants. So it's very efficient like that, because you don't have to make your own conclusions – he tells you. He can be also very funny.
“I don't know, maybe some of you saw videos on our Instagram or whatever of him trying to put Carlos’ face in the cake when we were celebrating. So he knows also how to enjoy but I think it is better not to upset him because I think he can be also hard.”
Vasseur hasn’t been afraid to make decisions, including tweaking the strategy department after a string of questionable calls. He installed Ravin Jain into the role of Head of Strategy, moving Inaki Rueda out of the firing line.
Further reallocating has occurred without any fanfare. But he has so far steered clear of making sweeping changes. It is believed he’s made moves for personnel from rival teams – but their identities won’t be made public yet, nor will they start work for a significant number of months because of long gardening leave periods.
This has all been under the umbrella that after just one lap in pre-season testing in Bahrain, Ferrari knew 2023 was going to be difficult. Sources say one of their drivers went out on track and came on the radio after just a few corners to report that this car was different to last year – and not in a positive way.
It was a tough pill to take. Ferrari didn’t think they’d be world beaters in 2023, but they did hope they would be closer to Red Bull and in the mix to push them. But Bahrain testing proved that if anything, they had fallen back with a car that was more unpredictable and difficult to extract maximum performance from.
The first half of the season was a slog, with Carlos Sainz getting the better handle on a challenging car and holding the edge over Charles Leclerc. But after the summer break, the team started to make gains.
Their performance in Zandvoort was a marked turnaround. Though fifth isn’t good enough for the Ferrari faithful, Sainz proved the team had made gains in tyre management on Sunday afternoons as he finished around 12 seconds adrift of the winner.
Thereafter, Ferrari continued to make gains having unlocked the key to understanding to the SF-23. An upgrade came in Japan, but it was small and nothing special.
Instead, Ferrari were starting the weekend on a better foot, landing on a better starting set-up and the result was a more effective package that yielded six more podiums, including Sainz’s win in the Singapore Grand Prix.
“The performance is coming from everywhere into the company, on the fact that we are able to produce parts quicker, on we have a better reliability,” said Vasseur. “We gave up too many points this season for different reasons, for reliability, for disqualification in Austin, for impeding in quali, but this is clearly where we have to work.
“We have to improve on aero, on engine, on every single topic. It's not that we have something wrong and something good and you fix something and you are making a step of four or five tenths.
“The most important thing is that the 1000 people we have into the team are convinced that they are all contributors and they are all trying to push a little bit the limit, even if it's for one hundredth of a second which are enough then to do a huge step.
“I'm more than pleased because between Zandvoort and today, we didn't change massively the car. We had an upgrade in Japan I think, but basically we kept the same car and we were able to do a much better job with a better understanding of the car, better set-up of the car and a better approach from the drivers. We have room for improvement everywhere and this feeling is a good one to develop something for next year.”
That Ferrari had such a torrid start to the year and were still able to fight Mercedes for P2 until the final race of the season, ultimately missing out by three points, and were the only team other than Red Bull to taste champagne on the top step of the podium, represents a decent effort for Vasseur – who will have had no say on the car, people or organisation in place for this season.
He will have had plenty of time to impact all those areas, across all parts of the business, now though – which means much more will be expected of him next year. But you get the sense Vasseur backs himself to stand the test of time at Ferrari, where he is the fifth boss in less than a decade, and the early signs are that confidence isn’t misplaced.