A special interview taken from The Official Ferrari Opus
Piero Ferrari is a reserved man, a man of few words. A little self-conscious and reluctant to show his emotions, he takes care over everything he says, measuring every sentence, fully aware that every single word carries weight. But he isn’t the type to evade difficult issues. With the passing of the years he has learned to bear the weight of a demanding legacy: being the son of Enzo Ferrari. He grew up with a very special father, a man fully aware he was a living legend. Practically everything there is to know about the ‘Commendatore’ is known already. Hundreds of books have been written about a life dedicated to ‘la rossa’ – the red one – the national team of the automotive world, the symbol of ‘Made in Italy’, ambassador for research and innovation, a byword for progress. Being the heir to all this cannot have been easy. So it’s worthwhile finding out just who Enzo Ferrari, the father, really was, through the memories of the only son remaining to recount them. Enzo was hard and demanding, but also protective of a young man who would have to remain in the shade for a long time. “Well, there were advantages” admits Piero to break the ice, “but my life was also heavily conditioned.” Today Piero is vice-chairman of the Prancing Horse, owns 10 per cent of Ferrari and is a proud grandfather. He works closely with Luca di Montezemolo, the architect of the continuation of his father’s extraordinary legacy. And that legacy is no longer a burden to him, but an honour of which he is proud.
So how did he succeed in what must have been an extremely difficult time?
He knew how to handle these very difficult periods. He did some good manoeuvring during the war to defend his company and his employees, though he was forced to transform production: he made grinding machines to serve the war effort. This was something he had to do to keep his technicians and workers together. In the Ferrari archives I found the drawing of a gran turismo dated 1942. It was quite a rounded little car, like the cars of the time were, but it had a 12-cylinder engine. He was already thinking about it: he made machine-tools, but he was really thinking about cars, his passion.
He was a good driver himself, wasn’t he? He raced with champions and then became head of Alfa Romeo before setting up his own team.
I don’t know about his driving career, but I know how he drove! He had a hard, impetuous driving style. He would hit the brake pedal very hard, while he went easy on the engine because he said he didn’t like to hear the car suffer. That may have limited him as a driver. Those are my memories of dad the driver: to be honest, I couldn’t wait to reach 18 and be able to drive, because being a passenger with him driving made me feel sick.
Was he trying to show that he knew how to go fast?
Yes, definitely. He liked it. When we went along the old Abetone road he went up there with tyres screeching on every bend. But he never took any risks. He was very skilful: he drove until he was 82.
His other passion was women…
That’s true. It’s something I’ve had to reconstruct in retrospect because he kept it all very private, as people did in those days. People are still discovering the adventures of celebrities from back in the 1950s and 60s – the Kennedys for example and our politicians, too. Those who did know, didn’t say anything. It wasn’t a conspiracy of silence, it was out of respect for privacy. Private life was separate from public life. In public my father was an entrepreneur and a sportsman, but when he left the Maranello factory he had his other life. He managed his image in a unique way. He gave little away to journalists, he knew how to measure out his appearances, but he also knew how to express himself.
[Laughing] Perhaps he was a bit of a journalist at heart himself?
Well, he certainly liked to write and let everybody know how he saw things. He used to say he liked playing the journalist because he wanted to get across what was on his mind: he came in for criticism in the press and he would have loved to have been able to counterattack. His passion was not writing, however, but making cars.
Before he became a constructor he had sold racing cars to customers, hadn’t he?
He was a very good salesman. He was really skilled at it: he knew how to convince people that his product was the best. The results on the track and in the market are testimony to this. He could sell cars to celebrities – from the film director Rossellini to the Shah of Persia – when Ferrari was still a very small company. In the Fifties he started to build the Ferrari California, the spider that became the famous actors’ car. It was seen in films with Marcello Mastroianni and Sophia Loren. It was a huge hit in terms of image even though it came from one of the smallest Italian companies.
Was that success just due to the momentum from the racing?
With Pininfarina he made only beautiful cars. Sergio Scaglietti used to tell him: ‘You’ve got to make cars beautiful, because making them beautiful or ugly costs the same.’ Dad always placed a lot of importance on style, believing in a winning formula that still works today. He had a very good eye and knew how to choose the people he worked with. When he went to Scaglietti’s he looked over the bodywork and if there was a defect he would spot it.
He used to call himself a mover of men.
After just a short conversation he knew which people to choose. He had the ability to assess people he worked with immediately. He recognised intelligence and potential. He was good with people and above all knew how to put pressure on people in the right way to get the best out of them.
Emilia-Romagna is known as “the land of the engine”, but when he went into business he paid a lot of attention to style, didn’t he?
He was born a mechanic, he understood mechanics and though he knew less about aerodynamics, he never ignored it. In the history of Ferrari, important innovations have also been made in this field. For example, we can safely say that the first sports car with a truncated tail was made at Maranello – it was in the 1960s, when Chiti the engineer was there. He had given up the ‘wasp’s tail’ as Scaglietti called it. We had a tiny wind tunnel. We still have photos of it. I remember the little 250 Le Mans: in 1964 not many cars were designed in the wind tunnel.
Which car did he consider the most beautiful?
Ha, he used to say the next one! He liked the berlinettas a lot: in the Fifties the Tour de France or, more recently, the SWB, road cars with a lot of racing features.
And the F40? It was an extreme car, the latest technological expression?
Oh yes, he loved the F40. It was the last one he presented, in 1987.
VIPs were delighted to visit Maranello and see your father, even such luminaries as the Pope and the Italian president.
Pope John Paul II got out of the helicopter and the schedule included a lap of Fiorano in the ‘pope- mobile’ to greet the crowd. When the pontiff saw the pope-mobile, which was a Toyota, parked there, he said: ‘Why don’t we have a Ferrari?’ So I sent a test driver to get a spider and the Pope did the lap in that. That was a nice gesture, I didn’t do it for marketing reasons. Unfortunately, dad was in bed with a high fever and couldn’t meet his Holiness but they did speak on the phone.
Dad liked to behave as if he was someone who didn’t really observe religious traditions and he was often critical, but there were churchmen he talked to and confided in. He never talked to me about religion, but he kept me informed.
Do you mean a lot of things weren’t said directly? Why not?
He never sat down next to me to calmly explain something. On the one hand he didn’t want to influence me too much in my choices and on the other there was a certain shyness when it came to opening up to me. He was a multi-sided person with many different facets.
Perhaps these contradictions are what made him great?
After he died I was sent letters from people who had been helped by my father. A man from Modena told me that his father was a union member who had lost his job. My father helped him set up a business and never asked for the money back.
Did he get on well with the unions?
No doubt about it. I don’t remember the year, but there was a contract renewal issue that had been dragging on and my father made a provisional agreement with the Ferrari unions. If the national agreement turned out to be better he would recognise it, otherwise the agreement would stand.
I remember a year in the 1970s during the ‘Hot Autumn’ of strikes all across the factories and industrial centres in Northern Italy, no one was working at Ferrari. The workers were picketing, but they were still respectful. They put benches in front of the gate and sat down, but when my father arrived they said to him, ‘Good morning, we are not working today’, but they got up and let him through.
One of the few people your father didn’t have a good relationship with was Sandro Pertini, the first President of the Republic, despite Pertini bestowing public honour on him. Why was that?
He just didn’t hit it off with Pertini. Many people thought that two people of that age would have a lot of memories in common and a lot to say to each other. But their face-to-face meeting barely lasted three minutes. There was talk about the fact that Pertini turned up at Maranello in a Maserati, but my father had got over that. I don’t think it was a determining factor, even though it was very unusual. I think it’s more likely that the issue was that Pertini used to kiss and hug everybody. My father wanted to avoid that contact because he was a bit stiff. He was never seen giving out kisses or being effusive in any way. When Pertini got out of the car, he welcomed him with his hand outstretched to keep him at a distance.
The Vatican newspaper L’Osservatore Romano compared him to the god Saturn, who consumed his sons, after one of his drivers had died on the track…
That started after the de Portago tragedy at the Mille Miglia. He suffered a lot at that time: he went to court and his passport was taken away from him. I went with him to the hearings. In terms of the court case everything went well, but there were the furious attacks from the press he had to go through.
“He never sat down next to me to calmly explain something. On the one hand he didn’t want to influence me too much in my choices and on the other there was a certain shyness when it came to opening up to me”
And then, after the Bandini tragedy in 1967, it got even worse?
That was a very, very tough time. It wasn’t just the fact that Lorenzo was an Italian driver. He was a young guy who used to come to our house. After that tragedy my father said to me: ‘Don’t make friends with drivers. They’ll make you suffer either way: if they die, it’s a great tragedy, otherwise sooner or later they’ll go and race for someone else’. He was right – you get close to these young men in the prime of their lives and then if something happens to them…
He also never got on well with Fangio?
I wasn’t there but I’ve been told about it. I met Fangio when he was an old man and I must say he was never very friendly in person, unlike Gonzales, another Argentine who was a great character. Fangio was a champion who would just choose the best car every year and so he never really bonded with the teams. Racing for Ferrari was something that was valued. It wasn’t just any other team.
So was that a problem when Lauda left?
I wasn’t expecting it, for sure. But it was a different situation. Lauda came to the Via Trento e Trieste offices. We were waiting for him to arrive from Milan and I was there with Forghieri. Dad was agitated, asking: ‘How much do you think he’ll ask for? Double what he’s getting?’ In the end there was no negotiation, he closed the door. He had already decided he was going to join Bernie Ecclestone at Brabham, with a Parmalat contract.
They say there was one driver he didn’t take on because he turned up with a lawyer?
Yes, that was Eddie Cheever. He was only 19, so he turned up at Maranello with a legal representative. My father didn’t like that at all and didn’t take it any further, even though Eddie was quick. But often he would take a chance on young people. He hired Mauro Forghieri, the son of a Ferrari employee who’d just got his degree, as technical director. My father liked to back young people, because they were the future and he would be able to help guide them in their development. He didn’t want mercenaries, but people who were loyal.
And the Villeneuve story – how did that start and who first pointed him out to you?
Gilles was the big gamble. He had had one race at Silverstone with McLaren, but a friend of mine in Canada had been saying good things about him for some time because he was dominating the Formula Atlantic. We knew that he was a phenomenon born on a motorsled! My father was curious and got him a trial at Fiorano. We really wanted Jody Scheckter, who was still tied down by Wolf for a year and would have been available only in 1979. While waiting for the South African we decided to take a chance on Gilles.
Villeneuve was hot-headed and had a lot of accidents. Did you almost let him go in 1979?
Well, that’s right, we wanted a Scheckter- Reutemann team and to let Villeneuve go, maybe to Renault. Marco Piccinini and I were about to tell Gilles that there wouldn’t be a place for him on the team the coming year, when Franco Gozzi, who had been having a meeting at the same time with my father and Carlos Reutemann, rushed up from the floor below to tell us that Reutemann had already signed a contract with Williams. We changed our plans. It was really a question of minutes…
Would he have departed in 1982 even without the ‘disappointment’ at Imola, where he was offended by Pironi (who won after disobeying the order to stay behind Villeneuve)?
My father had already heard the rumours, as we say today, that Villeneuve wanted to set up a team of his own. So he decided he wouldn’t have him back the following year even if he became world champion.
But didn’t he love drivers who pushed the boundaries?
Yes, but dad also understood it was unlikely Villeneuve would be a world champion, because he had no respect for the car. A champion has to go fast, but he has to use his brain – the perfect combination of these two things is Michael Schumacher. Gilles was too instinctive and didn’t have much common sense.
What happened when it looked like Ford wanted to purchase Ferrari in 1964?
My father wanted a big corporation behind him so he wouldn’t have to worry about the industrial issues and could dedicate all his time to racing, fully autonomously. Ford accepted this autonomy, except in one detail, which was the approval of the annual budget. My father couldn’t accept that any budget overshoot would have to be approved in Detroit. That’s what made him break it off.
It was five more years before an agreement was reached with Fiat and Gianni Agnelli.
Agnelli had always been a Ferrari customer. He had had special cars built for him since the early 1950s. Also my father got on very well with Gaudenzio Bono, who managed the company in the interval between Valletta and Gianni Agnelli. The collaboration on the Dino followed, with Fiat producing the engines to the Ferrari design.
And Enzo named that car after Dino?
Yes, that’s right. Because Ferraris had 12 cylinders and on that smaller car they could use only six, it wasn’t given the Ferrari name. In any case, Dino had been closely involved in the first six-cylinder projects so it seemed right to name it after him.
You were the one who pushed for John Barnard to join the company?
That was my fault, yes. The guy was very competent in some aspects, although he knew nothing at all about engines. Right from the start of the negotiations he told me he would never come to work at Maranello. John said he could do everything from England. I told my father and Marco Piccinini we should accept [that arrangement] as I was sure we could convince him. But he turned out to be a difficult person, a very arrogant person who didn’t accept the company’s way of doing things. So the problems started immediately. And it was impossible to know how much he knew. He was very good at building cars, while in the tuning on the track he seemed to us to be very weak and incompetent. And so, jokingly, we wondered whether it was Ron Dennis who was actually setting up McLaren cars!
Did your father make you regret that choice?
Barnard made himself more famous than he deserved. The semi-automatic gearbox project already existed at Maranello: it had been considered by the young De Silvestri and sprung from an idea Forghieri had in the late Seventies. A test was carried out in 1979, but was blocked by Villeneuve who said: “I want a gear stick, otherwise I won’t enjoy myself and I won’t race.”
What was your father’s legacy?
There are things I will never know for sure, like whether he undervalued or overvalued me. As for the position he gave me in the company, he kept me low down as they say in Modena, so in that respect he undervalued me. On the other hand, he may have been protecting me as a father because perhaps at the time I wasn’t up to it.
What do you miss about your dad?
He had the last word on any decision. He was the boss, everybody acknowledged that. That’s what I miss. Luca di Montezemolo has since achieved great results and I must say he is certainly the best man for the job. But my father was my father…