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F1: Frédéric Vasseur’s Plan for Ferrari Begins to Pay Off

In January last year, Frédéric Vasseur started one of the toughest jobs in motorsports, team principal of the Ferrari Formula 1 team.

It did not help that as a Frenchman, Vasseur was the first non-Italian to be appointed to the position since Jean Todt left in 2007. The Ferrari fans, known as Tifosi, were unhappy with the decision. In an episode of the Netflix documentary “Formula 1: Drive to Survive,” they made their feelings known.

“He’s never done this job,” one person said. “What the heck has he come here to do?” On Vasseur’s not speaking Italian, another said, “A team like Ferrari is a family. It’s important.”

Vasseur said the fan reaction didn’t surprise him.

“They have always been very positive, not necessarily with me, but with the team,” he said in an interview.

“There are always people at the entrance of the factory in the morning, or the evening when I’m leaving, and they are all positive,” he added. “I have never had someone shout, ‘Ah, you are doing rubbish.’ The guys who are there are shouting, ‘Allez, allez, allez.’”

Under Mattia Binotto, the previous team principal, Ferrari finished second in the constructors’ championship in 2022. Charles Leclerc was runner-up in the drivers’ standings. Last year, under Vasseur, Ferrari was third, Leclerc fifth and Carlos Sainz, his teammate, seventh.

This season the results have improved as Vasseur pieces together a plan to help the team win its first championship since 2008. Leclerc and Sainz are now third and fifth in the drivers’ championship and have finished on the podium six times, including Sainz winning the Australian Grand Prix in March with Leclerc finishing second. The team is also second in the constructors’ championship behind Red Bull.

“Short term, it’s more about putting everything together, to have a good team spirit,” Vasseur said. “You can reorganize some departments, to change people, but it is more a matter of mind-set at the end. We did it quite quickly last year, and it’s paying off.

“As a team principal, you can quickly change the mentality, the ability to take risks, instill self-confidence. With this kind of team spirit, let’s call it, we made a decent step forward.”

In Binotto’s final season of his four in charge, Ferrari made errors during Grands Prix, on strategy, in pit stops and from Leclerc that allowed Red Bull and Max Verstappen to comfortably win the titles.

Vasseur joined Ferrari weeks before the start of the new season. He said that he never felt resistance to his appointment, but that with little time to integrate himself into the team, it was “quite brutal.”

“I needed time to understand,” he said. “It’s very difficult to arrive at a team and say we are weak on this, this and this because it’s not just a matter of results. You need to understand the reasons.

“If we are not doing good pit stops, or the strategy is not good, why? Is it a matter of people, tools, organization of the pit wall? You need to understand, to see them working together, and that takes a little bit of time.”

After improving the team spirit in the short term, the mid- and long-term projects have involved strengthening the team. On the drivers’ side, Lewis Hamilton, a seven-time champion, will join Ferrari next year after 12 seasons with Mercedes.

In the junior categories, en route to Formula 1, Hamilton won the Formula 3 Euro Series title in 2005 with ASM, led by Vasseur. The next year he was GP2 champion with ART GP, also under Vasseur.

Hamilton said it was his “great relationship” with Vasseur that persuaded him to activate a release clause in his Mercedes contract that was to run until the end of 2025.

“We had amazing success in F3 and GP2, and that’s really where the foundation of our relationship started,” Hamilton said. “We always remained in touch. I thought he was going to be an amazing team manager at some stage and progress to F1, but at the time, he wasn’t interested in that.”

It was not until 2016 that Vasseur moved into Formula 1 as team principal, of Renault. He resigned after six months. Six months later he joined Sauber Motorsport as managing director and chief executive, and became team principal of the Sauber team.

“It was really cool to see him step into that team,” Hamilton said. “Then when he got the job at Ferrari, I was just so happy for him.”

The friendship between Hamilton and Vasseur was pivotal to his joining Ferrari. “The stars aligned, and I think it really wouldn’t have happened without him,” Hamilton said. “I’m really excited about the work he’s doing there.”

To make way for Hamilton, Vasseur informed that Sainz he would be leaving at the end of this year. Sainz was the only driver to win a Grand Prix last season other than drivers from Red Bull.

“I have huge respect for Carlos,” Vasseur said. “I’m perfectly aware of the job he did last year. He was the architect of our recovery after the summer break. He brought us the win in Singapore and the podium in Monza.

“But for the team, being able to bring Lewis on board was a no-brainer for tons of reasons. I had to take a decision, and the decision was harsh. We closed the discussion by saying, ‘It is like it is. Let’s push until the last corner of the last lap and do a mega-good season.’”

On the technical side, Loïc Serra, performance engineer at Mercedes, will join Ferrari next season. Adrian Newey, who has helped Red Bull win seven drivers’ and six constructors’ titles during his 19 seasons with the team, is leaving the team early next year.

Hamilton said it would be a privilege to work with Newey. “If I was to make a list of people I would love to work with, he would absolutely be at the top of it,” he said. Leclerc said Newey was someone “who can make a difference.”

Newey said he was “going to take a little bit of a break and see what happens next.” Vasseur would not comment on whether he would sign Newey, but was aware that important hires take time. “The recruitment of people is very long,” he said.

Leclerc, who signed a new contract with Ferrari in January, said the team was “in a very good moment” with Vasseur in charge.

“Fred has always shared with me his medium- to long-term vision of the team, and it’s going really well,” Leclerc said. “I’m really happy with how it is going. We are in a good place to attract the best people in the world.

“I have said it before, but we are a really good team already, and in the last seven, eight months, we’ve made incredible progress. Whoever now comes in to make us even stronger is super important.”

Vasseur said his time in charge had been “very demanding,” not just for him but also “for every single team member.”

“I don’t want to say that I won’t take harsh decisions, but at least on the difficult days, it’s much easier to smile than to not smile,” he said.

When the “Drive to Survive” episode on Ferrari ran in February, the fans’ perception of Vasseur had changed.

“I have a lot of faith in Vasseur,” one fan said in the episode. Another added, “He can bring Ferrari back to where it deserves to be.”

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