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Should F1 take Ferrari's quit threat seriously?

Being Christmas, you've probably got a pinch of salt in the house. I suggest taking a rather large one when reading the latest edict from the chairman of Ferrari.

Sergio Marchionne is following tradition in more ways than one. The Ferrari pre-Christmas lunch and briefing for chosen members of the Italian F1 media has always been an opportunity for mischief making. The environment may be relaxed compared to the usual hurly-burly of a race weekend but, despite the seasonal bonhomie, the intent can be just as serious.

Ferrari boss Sergio Marchionne with team principal Maurizio Arrivabene and technical director Mattia Binotto. Ferrari
Observers have learned not to be misled by the avuncular sweaters Marchionne makes a habit of wearing, even if his latest F1 edict gives the impression of coming from an irascible old man. The more the world at large raises collective eyeballs and goes 'Yeah, right' to threats of Ferrari quitting, the more Marchionne appears to get stoked.

Whether Christmas spirit (in the liquid sense) played any part at Monday's annual gathering I don't know, but the boss raised the emotional stakes by saying those in charge of F1 ought to take this seriously otherwise they (Liberty Media) are 'playing with fire'. So, there! It doesn't take much to imagine a stamping of feet at the same time.

So far, this has represented a modern-day caricature of Enzo Ferrari and his theatrical threats issued at the drop of a hat back in the day when the Prancing Horse had more clout than it does now. With grids sometimes reduced to less than 15 cars, the absence of a pair of striking red ones really hit the mark for spectators and promoters alike.

It's true that an entry list today without the most significant F1 team in a historical sense would be all the poorer. But times have changed to the extent that F1 has become bigger than Ferrari.

Marchionne's bias probably does not allow him to see it that way but less understandable and potentially more harmful is the shift into a higher gear as he makes the debate personal by taking a pop at Ross Brawn. Marchionne accuses F1's managing director (and, significantly perhaps, Ferrari's technical chief between 1997 and 2006) of giving F1 a direction that is "not the in DNA of the sport"; a reference in broad terms to Brawn favouring entertainment over technology.

Enzo Ferrari's statements always depended on which way the wind was blowing. Not much appears to have changed since the death of the Old Man in 1988. Let me quote Luca de Montezemolo when he was chairman in 2014.

"Formula 1 isn't working," pouted the aristocratic Italian. "It's declining because the FIA have forgotten that people watch the racing for the excitement. Nobody watches for the efficiency...come on! No-one wants to watch a driver save gas or tyres. They want to see them push from here to there. It's a sport, yes, but also a show."

DNA? What DNA? Moving on...

Taking this latest threat to quit and the possibility of Ferrari being part of a rival series at face value, it's interesting to consider the possible knock-on effect. Thanks to Marchionne, the Ferrari marque is well established in the market place and the image could probably survive without F1. But what about the financial aspect? Specifically, the ridiculous £100m granted each year to the Scuderia for simply being Ferrari?

That substantial bonus is not going flutter down from a money tree in the Maranello garden each autumn. In fact, this is probably the unspoken cause of Marchionne's irritation as Liberty Media (and others) have dared to begin questioning the wisdom of the windfall.

So, Ferrari quit and a breakaway is mooted. How does that work? Where does Ferrari go? Indycar would be of limited use; Formula E, the same; WEC (or similar) would hardly earn the coverage and, in any case, the world at large half expects Ferrari to race their sports cars in any case.

So, we have a single-seater formula full of trick technology. Who is going to organise and run it? It's difficult to see Ferrari (or Mercedes, Renault or whomever) having the time or the inclination to take that on.

At this distance, you have to say that Marchionne's attempt at intimidation has the aloof hallmark of an arrogance that, unfortunately, began to characterise his flagship racing team some time ago.

Marchionne is unquestionable skilful when overseeing the road car division and turning a tidy profit for the shareholders in such a competitive business. The mistake is believing he has a similar understanding of how motor racing works. Or, even worse, believing he is Enzo Ferrari when, plainly, he is anything but.

Pass the salt, please.

Author: Maurice Hamilton, ESPN UK

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