The Lauda Years

There are few stories quite like Niki Lauda’s time at Ferrari during the mid-1970s.

From title wins to fireballs to disagreements over driver selection, the four-season relationship had an array of highs and lows. Lauda had paid for his previous drives at March and then BRM before joining Ferrari on the recommendation of new Ferrari recruit Clay Regazzoni in 1974, the duo working together at BRM.

The Austrian showed his potential early on with a second place at Round One in Argentina before taking Ferrari’s first victory in two years at the Spanish Grand Prix three races later. He would remain a challenger through the year on his way to fourth place in standings and picking up another win in Holland before the season was out. Lauda also gained a reputation during his first year at Ferrari for being studious of engineering and car setup and would work tirelessly to improve the car during his time in Maranello.

1975 would start slowly as the first four races would yield finishes no higher than fifth, but Ferrari’s updates put him back on track. He would win four of the next five races to put himself clear at the top of the title standings. Further points finishes in Germany and Austria would give him a chance to clinch a World Drivers’ Championship for Ferrari on their home soil. Third place gave him his first career World Championship and Ferrari’s first Constructors’ win since 1964 as teammate Regazzoni won the race at Monza.

Author: Lothar Spurzem

Lauda started 1976 in dominant fashion and swept all before him in the first six races – his worst finish being second twice during that period. Title rival James Hunt had shown flashes of brilliance in the early part of the year, but his McLaren was often unpredictable and also struggled with reliability during the early part of the season.

Round ten was the now infamous German Grand Prix. Lauda lobbied with other drivers to boycott the rain-soaked Grand Prix but was outnumbered. In a tragic irony he then crashed, and his Ferrari ignited. He was pulled eventually from the burning wreckage but extensive damage was done. He had suffered burns to his face and arms including losing most of his right ear, lost his eyelids and damaged his tear ducts which would affect him in further races and lost his scalp. That was supposed to be that. For his championship, for his career and possibly for his life.

Lauda didn’t follow the script and unexpected to almost everyone in the paddock, he returned – bandages and all – at the Italian Grand Prix just four races later. He took fourth, unable to blink with his skin-grafted eyelids and in obvious pain while Hunt had reduced his arrears during Lauda’s lay-off.

The Canadian Grand Prix went Hunt’s way as the maverick Briton won while Lauda finished out of the points in eighth, while in the USA Hunt won again but was joined his friend and rival. The 1976 Japanese Grand Prix was a race as wet as the fateful German Grand Prix and Lauda, still affected by his injuries, withdrew on safety grounds. That left Hunt needing third place to snatch the title away from Lauda, and after pitting from the lead he eventually worked his way back up to take the World Drivers’ Championship by a point. His decision to retire from that race didn’t sit well with Ferrari and his relationship with the team became more strained going into what would turn out to be his last year with the team. 

Despite taking just three wins in 1977 Lauda’s consistency against his rivals made his third title straightforward, but he announced his decision to join Brabham anyway. The Austrian was irked by his team’s decision to replace Regazzoni with Carlos Reutemann, with whom he did not enjoy a friendship as with Regazzoni. But he didn’t even make the end of the season. Upset with the team fielding a third car with then-unknown Gilles Villeneuve, Lauda walked out at the Canadian Grand Prix two races from the end of the season.

Lauda won 15 races and two World Drivers’ Championships at Ferrari, but his time there will be remembered for so much more than just his accolades. It will also be remembered for his sheer bravery and battle to return against the odds.

 

 

The Ferrari Driver Academy

The Ferrari Driver Academy, while not boasting a history quite as illustrious as the junior programme of, say, Red Bull, can trace its history back to 2002. It unofficially began with Ferrari’s grooming of Felipe Massa as they readied him for a shot in a race seat, which he would eventually take in 2006. However, it wasn’t until 2010 that the academy was formally created, with the late Jules Bianchi becoming the FDA’s inaugural member. He is, to date, the only driver to make it to Formula 1 as part of the programme.

SILVERSTONE (GRAN BRETAGNA) 09/07/2014
© FOTO STUDIO COLOMBO X FERRARI

Currently, the Ferrari Driver Academy boasts six racers. Brazilian Enzo Fittipaldi (grandson of the two-time Formula 1 world champion) and New Zealand born Marcus Armstrong are both competing in Formula 4, and are new additions to the programme for 2017. Formula 2 driver Antonio Fuoco has been a member since 2013, and Chinese driver Guanyu Zhou (racing in the European Formula 3 championship) since 2014. Last year the FDA recruited Guiliano Alesi (son of former Formula 1 driver Jean Alesi), currently racing in GP3, and man of the moment Charles Leclerc, who is partnering Fuoco in Formula 2. It is interesting to note that all of these drivers are currently competing in their respective series with the junior outfit Prema Powerteam, with the exception of Alesi, but this may have more to do with the fact that Prema do not currently run a team in GP3.

With the vast resources of a legendary team such as Ferrari, and the apparent arrangement with a junior team as successful as Prema, the few drivers who are lucky enough to be a part of the Ferrari Driver Academy seem to be well placed to make a swift ascent to Formula 1, and eventually to a hallowed seat at Ferrari itself. But is this really the case?

The FDA’s track record would certainly suggest otherwise. Since the official creation of the Ferrari Driver Academy, only one driver has ever made it to Formula 1 as part of the system, and while it is almost certain that Bianchi would have earned himself a Ferrari seat, had it not been for his tragic and fatal accident, his is a lone and outlying example. The mission statement for the junior program quotes Enzo Ferrari – “I love to think that Ferrari can create drivers as much as cars” – but it is debatable whether the team itself has bought into this philosophy.

While it is undeniable that the FDA can equip a driver well for his journey up the single seater ladder, in terms of training both in and out of the car, even the drivers themselves seem to question whether the junior program can take them all the way. Current Formula 1 driver Lance Stroll was a member for five years, leaving the Ferrari Driver Academy in 2015 so he could join Williams’ junior team. To many it might have seemed like a step down, to move from a front runner such as Ferrari to a midfield team like Williams. But clearly the Canadian saw that better opportunities for progression lay elsewhere, and his promotion to Formula 1 proves that was exactly the case.

Unlike Red Bull, whose junior program is perhaps the most well established and successful, they do not have a de facto ‘B Team’ like the Austrian team do with Toro Rosso. However, Mercedes do not either, but they successfully managed to get two of their junior drivers; Pascal Wehrlein and Esteban Ocon, onto the 2017 grid. Maybe Ferrari feel secure in the knowledge that they will rarely have a problem filling their seats – a drive with the coveted Italian team is probably the most sought after in motorsport. But they would do well to prove that they have belief in their young protégées, and deploy the appropriate resources. Having successful drivers from their stable should be as treasured of an achievement as race wins.

So what can Ferrari do to make the most out of their driver academy? The most obvious is to take a chance on their young drivers. Ferrari is traditionally conservative in their driver choices, preferring to invest in known quantities than rookies. But this comes at the detriment of its own young drivers. While no one is suggesting they promote one of their drivers to a Ferrari seat immediately, to be seen actively pursuing a race seat for some of them would go a long way.

Although it is not something that is always within their control, if Ferrari could use one of the teams they supply engines to as a stepping stone to develop their young drivers, in a similar way to how Red Bull use Toro Rosso, then that would be ideal. Sauber, with the announcement that they will, after all, be using Ferrari engines in 2018, are well placed to do just this. Of course, it may not be the direction Sauber want their team to go in, but from Ferrari’s point of view, it is the perfect continuation of the FDA.

So have Ferrari taken steps to instil more confidence in their junior drivers? Evidence wouldn’t suggest so. And perhaps they haven’t needed to. Until 2017, none of their junior drivers were realistically in line for a F1 seat, let alone a seat at Ferrari. But signing up GP2 graduate Antonio Giovinazzi as their third driver for this year gave them someone who was in a position to step up. And now the unexpected dominance of 2016 GP3 champion Charles Leclerc has brought another figure into the frame

Suddenly Ferrari are faced with a dilemma they have never encountered before. They have two drivers whom, ideally, they should be finding race seats for. Both Leclerc and Giovinazzi have expressed their total faith in Ferrari to do what’s best for them. Yet there seems to be an unwillingness from Ferrari’s part to exert some influence in using the FDA to take their drivers all the way.

 

The future of Ferrari lies in such drivers, but it is the team itself that seems to fail to see that.

John Barnard and the Ferrari gearbox that revolutionised Formula One

Formula One steering wheels are now awash with buttons including engine map settings, brake bias settings and paddles to shift gears. These are all now things we take for granted as Formula One cars become more like computers and get more and more complicated. As with everything in Formula One, it took one piece of genius to set the ball rolling with this technological innovation that we now see as the norm.

Ferrari 640 Cockpit (Unattributed)

Ferrari have been pioneers for a lot of things in Formula One but one of the most ground-breaking was the semi-automatic, electronic gear shift system that we now know as the flappy-paddle gearbox. After fabled designer John Barnard joined Ferrari from McLaren in 1987, the Englishman quickly set to work on what became Ferrari’s 1989 challenger after arriving too late to influence the 1987 car and reliability issues with new transmission hampering 1988. With 1988 being the last of the turbo years, Barnard wanted to focus in detail on 1989 and beyond.
Formula One cars used to have a clutch pedal and stick shift as are in most road cars and Ferrari’s technical chief felt that the wider cockpits that came with this system unnecessarily increased drag. The system was fist tested during 1988 and hit reliability problems as Ferrari’s pioneering technology encountered the expected hiccups. Despite that, Barnard elected to run the F1-89, or 640, with the revolutionary transmission from the start of 1989, although not expecting it to make the finish of the season-opening Brazilian Grand Prix. Even with the low expectations, the F1-89 was the most eagerly anticipated car of 1989 as teams and drivers watched and wondered about the new technology. Both Williams’ of Thierry Boutsen and Ricciardo Patrese fell by the wayside while Ayrton Senna also hit mechanical strife to leave Nigel Mansell out front.
Mansell wasn’t expected to stay there as in testing the gearbox had only lasted around half a race distance, but to the surprise of many including a large number of Ferrari personnel the Brit held off Alain Prost’s McLaren and the semi-automatic transmission won on debut. That would be the only points for the Scuderia until Round Seven at the French Grand Prix as they sought to solve the gearbox teething problems. The problem was found to be a lack of power from the battery to the electrical gearbox, and results including a further two victories came with reliability as the car proved to be fast.
For 1990 Ferrari challenged for the title with Alain Prost and had a clear head start in electronic transmission, but the years 1991-94 proved to be fruitless and other teams caught up in the new electronic era of Formula One. Every team had electronic gearshift technology by 1995, and the concept is now a staple of the modern motorsport world. The equipment has even made it onto many road cars we use today.
And it all came from a drawing in a workshop in Guildford.