Stefano Domenicali enjoyed a stellar motorsport career with Ferrari before resigning his sporting director role in early 2014, taking full responsibility for Ferrari’s poor performance at the start of the hybrid era. That he chose to take the fall rather than blame a subordinate speaks volumes about him.
After F1 CEO and chairman Chase Carey achieved his stated objective of renewing the (2021-25) Concorde Agreement, F1’s commercial rights holder Liberty Media sought a replacement for the retiring then-66-year-old US media executive. As RaceFans revealed last November, Domenicali was recruited to the position of CEO and president of F1, with Carey taking a non-executive chairman role.
Rather than embark on a media blitz immediately after assuming office Domenicali chose to re-acquaint himself with the F1 Group. Thus, almost six months later we connect on Zoom for one of his first exclusive interviews in the run-up to the Styrian Grand Prix.
What are the three biggest changes in F1 that he’s noticed since departing the sport a little over seven years ago, I ask.
The internal dynamics have, he says, remained similar, but “I would say the relationship between teams, the commercial right holders and the FIA are for sure different. There is more involvement [in the overall process] now.
“The second point is there are more drivers that are incredibly strong and an asset for the future. There were a few [top level drivers] in the past, but in terms of quantity and quality it is really much higher.
“The third one is that in terms of the fundamentals, you can see the teams are thinking in different ways, mainly the big teams. When I left Formula 1 the top teams had basically no limit in terms of budget, no limit in terms of approach.
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“I already see now that these teams are thinking of Formula 1 in a different way, and the smaller teams now can see the Formula 1 of the future being an asset on which they can develop a real business.”
One of the biggest changes during his ‘absence’ was the change of commercial rights holder – from venture fund CVC Capital Partners to Liberty, which triggered a management change from Bernie Ecclestone and his coterie to a team of professionals appointed by Liberty. Was Domenicali comfortable with the manner in which the changes were managed?
“We must not forget one thing: Bernie created Formula 1, and when there was this change of management or ownership from the one who created [something], it was logical that it would be different. It’s human, and business-wise it’s also different.
He believes Carey did it “the right way because you cannot do a sort of ‘copy and paste’ of Bernie and the style of Bernie. Chase took responsibility in a situation that was not easy at all, he did an incredible transfer to what is today Formula 1 from what was created by Bernie and during the CVC time. It has evolved in the right way, and I see a very strong future.”
How, then, does Domenicali see the immediate future, particularly given that the current engine regulations expire in 2024 and Concorde runs a year beyond that?
“I think this year will be very important for many factors. From a sporting point of view we see incredible energy: [F1] is back again, the races are very, very interesting. There are new ways of presenting Formula 1 through different platforms, engaging new fans in a different way.
“Formula 1 is once again in the spotlight – we will have new grands prix, new venues and we will have the possibility of involving other partners in the future to make sure that the future of Formula 1 is great from the show point of view.”
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“We must not forget that we are entertainment with a pillar of technology, of course,” he continues, emphasising the tech angle. “We are in a transition phase where we want to keep ahead of that because we don’t want to forget one thing: In terms of efficiency Formula 1 has been always ahead; we were the [sport] that introduced hybrid technology in 2014, when no one thought it was the right direction to go.
“Now we have an increased level of hybridisation and sustainable fuels that will represent an [alternative] for the transition [from fossil fuels] because there are so many internal combustion engines around the world that it will be impossible to think that there is only one way [forward].
“Formula 1 will once again be the leader in this direction; I think there are incredible years [ahead] where we will once again have the possibility of, internationally speaking, being at the [cutting] edge and at the top of world motor sport.”
Having variously analysed the topic of sustainable fuels and the global ICE park I follow his logic and largely subscribe to it. But on the day before our interview, his former employer Audi announced its last ICE-powered European model would be launched in 2026, and that the marque will go full electric thereafter. Is it realistic to believe manufacturers will enter F1 under such circumstances?
“You will see very, very soon,” he smiles, the implication being something is bubbling under. As for the electric ‘threat’ to F1: “I can say what I’m saying because I’m a responsible guy, [but] everything I hear about the numbers about full electric [cars] is not real. But this is not my business.
“I just want to make sure that our platform can offer a different way of meeting global [sustainability] objectives in a realistic way.”
Is he 100 percent sure an incoming manufacturer will come in? “No, I’m saying that other manufacturers are interested in attending these discussion, because they feel this is a great opportunity to be involved. It depends on all of us to ensure the platform is the right one for everyone.”
Shortly after our interview it emerges that a power unit summit will be held during the Austrian Grand Prix, attended by Ola Källenius (Mercedes), John Elkann (Ferrari), Luca de Meo (Renault), the latest member of F1’s engine club, Red Bull owner Dietrich Mateschitz, plus, crucially, Oliver Blume (Porsche) and Marcus Duesmann (Audi), FIA president Jean Todt, Domenicali and other FIA and F1 luminaries. Still, attendance at a summit does not presage commitment to F1’s future engine regulations. The two VW Group brands regularly attended engine discussions in the past, yet did not reach for their pens.
There has been considerable speculation Formula 1 and Formula E could merge eventually. Domenicali’s response indicates this is not a priority for him.
“I say in life, ‘never say never’. I think that today for Formula 1 and Formula 2, Formula 3, all the formats we have in our platform, are very strong and very solid. I think Formula E, with respect, will have to think about its future, and if that future is interesting for Formula 1, I think we’ll be ready to discuss [convergence] but it is something that’s not on our agenda.”
Next year sees all change in terms of Formula 1’s technical regulations –The latest iteration of the expected product of the rules is due to be officially revealed shortly. It’s designed to encourage overtaking, but will 2022 really deliver what fans have craved for many years now?
“I think that in terms of performance one of the things that was discussed during the changing of the car is to ensure that in terms of technical challenges all the good drivers can have the right way to show who they are,” says Domenicali. “The objective is to make sure that the gaps between the last team and the first team is smaller.
“Maybe in the beginning it will be difficult because we are in a process of transition, but the new regulations will allow, and this is the intention, for the teams to be closer and to make sure that if there is a difference that the gap will be [tighter]. By doing that we’re going to have the drivers [displaying] the skills they have.”
Domenicali suggests that F1 may not expand to 25 races – the 24 outlined in the Concorde Agreement plus one which can be added by full team consent – which implies either losing some venues or rotation of circuits. Clearly, though, he hopes to retain all events, but concedes some may not be willing to “invest with us, which is fair enough.”
“We have a lot of requests that can fill the calendar gap,” he explains. “I give you one example: Zandvoort. They have an incredible business model with a private organiser who can do the business in a profitable way without governmental funds.
“So, it’s the time for everyone after Covid to maximise our business in the right way, now is the time to be creative. I think it’s time to show that there is a possibility to be in this business and make money.”
F1 must guard against believing that its traditional methods and structures are perfect, he says, citing experimentation with the sprint format as an example.
“Sometimes it’s better to think that, without reinventing the wheel. The idea of this year doing something different in terms of race format is connected to the fact that we cannot sit here thinking that what we have is always perfect. That [philosophy] must be applied to future calendars.”
But are races too driver-dependent? Would Zandvoort have a sustainable business model without the Max Verstappen factor?
The Nürburgring and Hockenheim flourished during Michael Schumacher’s heyday. But would Silverstone be expecting a race day crowd of 140,000 next month without Lewis Hamilton?
“You’re definitely right,” he concedes, then points to his opening comments regarding the number of top-level drivers which in turn enables the sport to grow in more regions.
“It will be great to see in the future an American driver, we’re going to have a Chinese driver… So, these are countries where the link of the growth is not only linked to the growth of the show itself but is also linked to the fact that people recognise the [local] face.”
Formula 1’s first ‘Sprint’ race will take place next month with the backing of a major new sponsors yesterday, cryptocurrency platform Crypto.com. Domenicali indicates the innovations won’t stop there.
“We don’t see [sprints] happening every race,” he confirms. “But what we can see is that we can [experiment] on different points, or with a trophy or titles in the last event we can create the atmosphere of special occasions that give an extra taste on what we are offering.”
Thus, F1 could conceivably introduce European or Americas or Asian Cups, while additional points for selected races cannot be ruled out. Given this year’s financial regulations, introduction of the sprint format and next year’s swingeing regulation changes, could these not alienate traditional fans, particularly given the rate and pace of change?
“If you look back, how many technical regulation changes have we had? How many qualifying format changes? When I [returned to F1] I did this kind of exercise [to remind] me how many things we did in 30 years, and we have been positively surprised by the fact that so many [changes] have happened. I think that’s the right approach.
“Traditional fans shouldn’t be worried because we are keeping the face of what we’ve done in the past.”
December sees the end of Todt’s reign as FIA president, under the governing body’s statutory term and age limits. Given all three presidents (Jean-Marie Balestre, Max Mosley and Todt) during Domenicali’s F1 tenure significantly influenced the shape of F1, is he concerned about the impact of the elections on F1? The next president could conceivably be, I suggest, an electric mobility advocate…
“As we know, the FIA has to take care of all motorsport, and the mobility side. It’s a big institution with a lot of different [responsibilities]. We are a little bit selfish in thinking we are very important due to the fact that we represent a portfolio of different championships and Formula 1 is, with respect to the other championships, I would say the most important one.
“Traditionally the relationship has been very strong despite different personalities [of presidents]. This is, of course, the case today with Jean Todt, the current president. As far as we know there are two candidates that have presented their programmes, and it will be relevant to understand from them what are their ideas.
“We’re going to discuss, we are going to listen with a lot of attention to what is in their programmes, and it will be vital that Formula 1 stays at the centre of the interest of the FIA, knowing that they have to do a lot of [different] things.
“I’m sure that we’re going to find the right relationship for the future,” he concludes.
Is Domenicali concerned about the future? “No,” he states, “because I think that we have the knowledge to ensure that the future will be very strong for Formula 1.”
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