Author: Ian Parkes
Publish date: 2023-05-25 05:00:25
Frédéric Vasseur knows all about pressure.
In January, he was named general manager and team principal of Ferrari, one of the most high-pressure jobs in motorsport because of the popularity of the team. But in 1996 Vasseur had started his own team, and he said there were times he had trouble making ends meet.
“I probably had more pressure when I started ASM 30 years ago,” Vasseur said in an interview about the team. “Each Monday, I needed to get paid by the driver to avoid bankruptcy.” (At that level of racing, drivers pay the teams.)
When Vasseur, who was the chief executive of the Sauber Group and the team principal of Alfa Romeo last year, was approached by Ferrari to replace Mattia Binotto, who resigned at the end of the season, he had to consider the pressure he knew would be placed on his family.
“I knew I wouldn’t be affected or scared by it,” he said. “It’s just that it’s more demanding, and I didn’t want to expose them to it. For me it’s one thing, but for my family it’s another. I had to decide.”
Vasseur said it took him one day to do so because of his wife, Marie Laure. “I have four children, my youngest recently turned 15, he has school, and I knew it would be a big change for him,” he said.
“But my wife was more convinced than me. She said ‘What do you want? Why are you hesitating?’”
He said that Ferrari was so famous that “it’s quite impossible to say no.”
It has not been an easy start for Vasseur. After the team and its driver Charles Leclerc, who is from Monaco, both finished second last season in the championships, Ferrari was expected to challenge the champion team Red Bull this year.
But after five Grands Prix, Ferrari is sputtering. It has one finish on the podium and is fourth in the constructors’ championship, 146 points behind Red Bull.
After about four months in charge, Vasseur of France has had little time to make an impression on the team or make major changes. “The main issue I have had is that I joined quite late,” he said.
“Between my first day and the launch of the new car was just four weeks. You have a huge wave of things to digest.”
Vasseur, who spent about six years with Sauber and Alfa Romeo, said, “If you have a look, all teams take a long time to build up something strong.”
“But when we have been in a tough situation,” he said about Ferrari, “the reaction of the team has been calm, trying to understand, correcting step by step, not wanting to change everything straight away.”
Christian Horner, the Red Bull team principal, said he was surprised Ferrari had failed to challenge this season. The car has been quick over one lap in qualifying but has struggled in a Grand Prix.
“You can never write anybody off,” Horner said.
His team has finished first and second four times in five Grands Prix. “It’s been the best start that we’ve had, and we feel we’ve made a good step from last year’s car to this year’s car,” he said. “It’s the kind of step you would expect.
“It feels like others have lost ground. I’m sure they’re working hard to address that, and big gains could come quite quickly. But it’s surprised us that others have perhaps under delivered compared to where they were last year.”
Vasseur has worked in motorsport for almost 30 years. After founding ASM and winning the Formula 3 Euro Series title four times from 2004 to 2007, including with Lewis Hamilton in 2005, Vasseur helped created a second successful team, ART Grand Prix, in 2004.
Vasseur helped Leclerc win the GP3 title in 2016 before mentoring his first season in Formula 1 two years later at Sauber.
Leclerc has built a strong relationship with Vasseur, which has allowed the driver to “trust him fully” now that they are working together again.
“Until now he has basically been trying to analyze the situation as quickly as he can in order to make the best changes possible for the future,” Leclerc said. “The big part of his job will be done from now on.
“Obviously, I speak a lot with Fréd, and I know his middle- and long-term plans for the team, and I’m completely behind him.”
But Leclerc is struggling. After crashes last season contributed to him falling out of contention for the drivers’ title, he has been in three incidents this year.
He was in a first-lap collision with Lance Stroll of Aston Martin in the Australian Grand Prix and crashed in practice and qualifying for the Miami race.
Leclerc said after the qualifying session that he was “really angry” with himself and that he “should be driving at a higher level.” He is 85 points behind Verstappen. After five Grands Prix last year, he led the championship by 19 points.
The question is how much time Vasseur will be given to finally end Ferrari’s long wait for success. Its last constructors’ title was in 2008, and its last drivers’ championship was won by Kimi Raikkonen in 2007.
“It’s a no-name project,” Vasseur said about his plans to improve the team. “It will never be a Fréd Vasseur team.”
“It will always be the Ferrari team first. It will have my touch, I will have to make some changes, and the approach will be different, but the important thing for me is to be sure we are going in the right direction.”
Carlos Sainz, the team’s other driver, said he also had “a very good relationship” with Vasseur, but he had found the car “very inconsistent” to drive during a Grand Prix. His best finish was fourth in the first race in Bahrain, and he is 75 points behind Verstappen.
Vasseur has acknowledged there is “a top-speed deficit” to Red Bull.
“We have compensated for 50 percent of the gap compared to Bahrain, but the advantage is still there,” Vasseur said.
“We are bringing updates, but Red Bull is not sleeping either. They will improve, and very often it’s much easier to improve when you are in their situation, when you have self-confidence than when you are chasing someone.”
He said there was potential in the car because of Ferrari’s speed in qualifying, performance Vasseur wants to unlock for the longer Grand Prix, where the team has problems with the degradation of its tires. Ferrari has qualified in the top three in all but one of the Grands Prix, but the team has not translated that into top finishes except in Azerbaijan, where Leclerc qualified first and placed third in the race.
Vasseur said Ferrari’s upper management, including John Elkann, the chairman, and Benedetto Vigna, the chief executive, has not interfered with his decisions.
“I have never had the kind of relationship in the past, with the organization above me, as I have now,” said Vasseur, who had been team principal of Renault and Alfa Romeo.
“I know if I need their support, they are there. On the other side, I have the freedom to manage the team in a way that I have to.”
But then there are Ferrari’s adoring fans to contend with. “It’s the only team in the world where they are waiting for you every morning when you go to the factory and waiting in the evening when you are leaving. This is the reality.
“But somehow that’s good because this gives you extra motivation.”