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Formula 1

The big takeaway from Ferrari's year-end debrief is Vasseur himself

by Edd Straw
6 min read

Fred Vasseur has the air of an avuncular uncle, ready with a laugh and a joke but with a hidden, razor-sharp edge capable of cutting with savage depth and precision.

That neither of these characteristics have been blunted after 12 months at the helm of Ferrari’s Formula 1 team is revealing. It proves that he has, so far at least, largely been left in peace to do things his way.

A trip to Maranello for Ferrari’s annual Christmas lunch underlined this. The event is a press conference at heart and Vasseur faced the collected media, including The Race, fielding questions in between courses. It was all very convivial, which in itself shows how much difference a year can make.

This time last year, this event didn’t take place.

Fred Vasseur and Mattia Binotto, F1

Even during the COVID-19 years of 2020 and 2021 it happened remotely, but given Mattia Binotto had departed in early December with Vasseur appointed to take his place, it wasn’t the right time.

If it had been held, the questions would have been about upheaval, the public and behind-the-scenes interventions of Ferrari executive chairman John Elkann and managing director Benedetto Vigna - Maranello was in a maelstrom.

Vasseur, fortunately, can afford to be relaxed about his current situation. And that’s good news for the whole team because we can infer from it that while politics can never truly be banished at Ferrari, they can be contained.

When asked about the Fred Vasseur of December 2023, almost a year into his time at the Maranello helm, the Ferrari team boss typically described himself as “Fred who is still alive, good news".

“One year ago, it was… 'tough' is not the right word, but it was quite a challenge because I joined quite late and it was a huge wave of things to manage, to understand, to discover in a couple of weeks. It was four weeks before the launch and five or six weeks before Bahrain.

Charles Leclerc and Carlos Sainz, Ferrari, F1

“Now, I am in a much more comfortable situation, I know almost everybody in the company, the system and I think I am doing a good job, a better job than last year, let's say. It's a non-end process, F1, and if you have the feeling that you are in good shape, you are almost dead.

"We need to keep the momentum and I think the last part of the season went pretty well. It’s never enough [though], and we don’t have to stop.”

You could legitimately argue that, given Ferrari finished second in the constructors’ championship last year with four wins but slipped to third in 2023 with just a single victory, Vasseur’s first year hasn’t gone well.

However, he had no chance to influence the gestation of the Ferrari SF-23 given it happened before he arrived. What he did was create a more aggressive approach that successfully got the best out of the car in the final third of the season.

Carlos Sainz and Charles Leclerc, Ferrari, F1

When he was reminded that after 2022 Vigna publicly reached for the old axiom that second is the first loser, Vasseur was happy to chip in with a “we are the second losers”. It wasn’t a joke so much as black humour, but the fact he hasn’t recently had to contend with further comments in that vein from the upper echelons of the company is a positive.

He spoke positively of his communications with Elkann, but fundamentally he can deal with success or failure on his own terms.

“We didn’t wait for the end of the championship to discuss,” Vasseur said when asked about Elkann’s feedback on finishing third. “The advantage of Ferrari is that we have a daily discussion, we are not far away [at Maranello].

“Nobody can be happy with what we did at the beginning of the season. We had too many issues in terms of reliability and I was the first one upset with this, and [disappointing] performance.

"But more than everything, the reaction of the group, the reaction of the team, the fact that we were able to do pole positions [regularly late in the season], the fact that we were able to fight with Max [Verstappen] on some occasions in the races, was a good step forward, even if we are not happy.

“I don't need Mr. Vigna or Mr. Elkann telling me something, I'm not happy with P3, this is clear, but I'm more than happy with the reaction of the team and I think this feeling is the same for everybody.”

Ferrari, F1

There’s no guarantee that this will continue to be the case, but the lack of counter-productive interference with the team or problematic public proclamations from on high suggests Vasseur is being left to do things his own way. Accordingly, his messaging has largely been unchanged during the year.

Aside from the early race weekends, when he was perhaps guilty of putting too positive a spin on the race pace of the Ferrari in particular, he has avoided either being too negative about failures or too positive about success. He points to the very real progress, but is under no illusions that this is just a small part of the constant process of improving.

Vasseur is a canny operator, one with a huge amount of experience. While his F1 CV, comprising a short stint at the helm of the revived Renault team then a longer period at the helm of struggling Sauber, might not inspire confidence to the uninitiated, his motorsport career is one of success.

That’s not only on track with his own operations in single-seaters, but also some of his wider motorsport business activities.

At Ferrari, the question was whether he’d be allowed to do things his own way. So far, he has been able to and he’s made it all about constant evolution, putting the key pieces in place and making decisions that will pay off not tomorrow but in years to come.

As he constantly reiterates, that’s how F1 works these days with the “inertia” in the recruitment process. Such a process can be undermined either by a team boss who promises implausibly fast progress, or a top brass that demands it.

Fred Vasseur, Ferrari, F1

When Vasseur had his early media engagements as Ferrari team boss this year, including one at the same Fiorano facility that hosted this Christmas lunch, what he said was not dissimilar to Friday. Yes, he’s more sure-footed now, can speak more in absolutes and has a whole season of experience to draw on, but the fundamentals he espouses the same.

Far from reflecting a lack of progress, that indicates a steady course. And Ferrari has lacked that for a long time given he is its fifth team principal in a decade.

For someone running the Ferrari F1 team, that’s the most difficult thing of all to navigate. Maranello is so often consumed by storms, and when even conditions are calm enormous pressure builds that can create a monsoon to sweep away progress. It takes a strong character, and one with real gravitas, to do that.

Vasseur is not Jean Todt, despite their shared nationality, and is a very different character. But he has a similarly strong presence and clarity of mission.

Fred Vasseur and Jean Todt

That remains intact after a year at the helm. It doesn’t mean that Vasseur’s Ferrari is on a guaranteed trajectory to success and will end its 15-season title drought next year, or even that it will have such triumphs under his stewardship. But he’s not been derailed or destabilised.

Twelve months on, Vasseur’s Ferrari is still a going concern. That’s not always a foregone conclusion when running Enzo’s team.

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