The Knock on the Door

By Thomas O'Keefe, U.S.A.
Atlas F1 Senior Writer

It is said that Bernie Ecclestone, who turned 73 years old on October 28, 2003, has told his wife Slavica, that when he dies, she should expect three people to be knocking on her door, seeking to replace him as the head of Formula One Management, Ltd.

Until now, the identities of the three successors to Bernie were not known, leaving those in the know to speculate on the three men-in-waiting. Who could they be? Max Mosley? Juergen Hubbert of Mercedes-Benz? Patrick Faure or Flavio Briatore of Renault? David Richards, the BAR team manager and a businessman/racer who fancies himself to be in the mold of Bernie? Luca di Montezemolo of Ferrari? Ron Dennis of McLaren? All of these candidates have a certain logic to commend them, but it appears that no, none of them will be the Dauphin.

Bernie EcclestoneInstead, the New Bernie is rumored to be a Roman by way of Monaco, 51 year-old Marco Piccinini, the personal selection of Bernie, who back in 1978, was the personal selection of Enzo Ferrari. Piccinini, then 26 years old, whose main motorsports experience had been to manage his own F3 car called the MP301 in Italian F3 racing, was appointed by the Commendatore as Ferrari's Sporting Director/Team Manager in 1978, a position he held until Enzo Ferrari's death in 1988. Piccinini's decade of service as Sporting Director followed the short but spectacular first stint of Luca di Montezemolo as Ferrari Sporting Director during 1974-75, the highlight of which was Niki Lauda's 1975 World Drivers' Championship and Ferrari's Constructor's Championship.

Indeed, other than Jean Todt, who took over as Sporting Director of Ferrari in 1993, no one has held the reins of the Prancing Horse longer than Marco Piccinini.

And Piccinini served at Ferrari in tumultuous times, during which he got to know Bernie, who was the owner for much of that period of the Brabham Formula One Team as well as the prime mover behind the Formula One Constructor's Association ("FOCA"). Although Ecclestone and Piccinini were competitors on the track and often on opposite sides of the table in what Don Capps calls the FIASCO Wars of the 1980's between FOCA and FISA, they obviously grew to know and trust one another and with an old-fashioned guy like Bernie that means a lot.

Interestingly, the two men must be an example of the law of Physics that opposites attract since they could not be more different as to origins, character and style. Ecclestone is the son of a trawler captain who became a billionaire on his own steam, bypassing fancy colleges in favor of the school of hard knocks, exercising his entrepreneurial acumen by trading up from motorcycles to used cars, real estate, driver management, team ownership and ultimately to become the single most powerful man in Formula One.

Piccinini by contrast was a patrician by birth, who could easily have spent his life in the family business - banking - but instead has spent much of his life in sport, both motorsport and yacht racing. Ivan Rendall in The Power Game, summarizes Piccinini's career as follows:

"Ferrari took on a new sporting director in 1978, Marco Piccinini, the son of a banking family in Monaco. The family bank, the Principe Societe de Banque de Monaco, was believed to have financial links with Enzo Ferrari who needed a loyal emissary who could go to races and report on the teams performance. Piccinini was a consummate diplomat and by starting out close to Enzo Ferrari, he got to know how Ferrari wanted matters reported and handled. Piccinini became a courtier, a buffer between the old man and reality, smoothing his master's passage through disputes both internally and in relations with the other branches of the Formula family."

As an instructed ambassador from the Court of Maranello Piccinini became the intermediary between the secretive and reclusive Enzo Ferrari and everyone else, whether it was the FIA officialdom like Jean-Marie Balestre, who held sway as head of the Federation Internationale de l' Automobile (FISA) through most of Piccinini's tenure as Sporting Director, to Bernie Ecclestone and Max Mosley, who represented the garagistes from FOCA who were the insurgents of the time, always on the opposite side of the table from the manufacturer's group made up of Ferrari, Alfa Romeo and Renault on the issues of the day that divided the sport, such as turbos and the aerodynamic sealing devices called "skirts".

Enzo FerrariIndeed, there is a striking Forrest Gump-like quality to Piccinini's career, with the Italian banker-turned-sportsman always popping up amidst the action as the box of chocolates was being opened and handed out and history about to be made.

In 1979, Piccinini presided over Ferrari when Jody Scheckter took the World Drivers' Championship in his Ferrari 312T4, with Ferrari teammate Gilles Villeneuve a close second to help Ferrari win the World Constructors' Championship; winning both titles was a considerable achievement, and one that would not be repeated again until the year 2000 with Michael Schumacher and Jean Todt.

In 1980 and 1981, in the struggle for power between FISA and FOCA, Piccinini proved to be an adroit player, maintaining his lines of communication with Balestre and throwing Ferrari's support behind FISA in many skirmishes but ultimately coming over to Max and Bernie's side when it came to hammering out a solution to the tensions between the sporting authority and the teams. Piccinini is credited with organizing a 13-hour pre-season meeting of all the race teams on January 19, 1981 in Maranello under the auspices of Enzo Ferrari; that marathon session resulted in the outline of terms that would come to be signed in Paris in March 1981 as the Concorde Agreement. So Piccinini has been there from the beginning, a Founding Father of modern Formula One.

In 1982, in his role as Ferrari Sporting Director he was a key player in the death spiral that unfolded at Imola, Italy and Zolder, Belgium, as his Ferrari drivers, Gilles Villeneuve and Didier Pironi, attempted to best one another for supremacy within the team, with tragic results.

The 1982 San Marino Grand Prix at Imola, held on April 25, 1982, was a charade within a charade. The British teams boycotted the race except for Ken Tyrrell who had sponsorship obligations that led to his team's participation. The boycott was based upon a ruling by FISA, in response to a challenge by Ferrari and Renault that the British cars, by using various machinations, were racing below the 580 kilogram weight limit, which was measured with oil and water on board but without fuel.

As a result of the British staying home, 14 cars took to the grid, the minimum necessary to run the 1982 San Marino Grand Prix: two cars each from Ferrari, Renault and Alfa Romeo, two Tyrrells and a scattering of other lesser teams. In the early stages of the race, the Renault and Ferrari teams traded the lead to put on a good show for the Italian crowd, but by lap 44 of the 60-lap race, both Renaults were out and the two Ferraris were circulating nose-to-tail in a procession, Villeneuve in first, place and Pironi in second.

With about a dozen laps left to run and the main competition sidelined, Marco Piccinini hung out the pit board marked "SLOW" to his two drivers, signaling, Villeneuve thought, that he and Pironi were to continue to maintain their positions until the end of the race. Whether Pironi saw the pitboard is open to conjecture. In any event, to Villeneuve's amazement and fury, Pironi ignored the "SLOW" sign, passed Villeneuve and never let Villeneuve back into first place, "stealing" the race in Villeneuve's view.

Worse still, Marco Piccinini backed Pironi's view of the matter, saying that there had been a misinterpretation of the word "slow", by which he simply meant to tell the drivers to save the car, not necessarily to order them to hold position. Did Piccinini favor Pironi over Villeneuve in this controversy? Neither Gilles Villeneuve nor his wife Joann were pleased to discover later on that Piccinini's was best man when Pironi had been wed earlier in April 1982, a wedding that the Villeneuve's had not even been invited to!

In later days, after both drivers were dead, Piccinini continued to maintain his neutrality as to what happened that day at Imola, as reported by Gerald Donaldson in his biography, Gilles Villeneuve:

Piccinini and Ecclestone"It was Mario Piccinini's task to try to smooth the troubled waters after Imola, and he remains reluctant to apportion blame. 'I have never said who was right or who was wrong and it would certainly not be productive at this stage. And also, the two people involved are not alive any more and it would not be loyal and not correct.

I have a clear view of what I think happened and was sorry about what happened afterwards. Maybe it was because of the reduced pressure they had, with only fourteen cars racing and both Renault's stopping. Maybe that led them to forget they were in the same family. That's what I think happened.'

Pironi was 'very sorry for the situation which was generated and the two drivers met with Mr. Ferrari, his son, and myself after the race in Mr. Ferrari's office at Fiorano. We discussed the situation and I think at the end of the day something was also linked to the environment - the press, their friends, etc. - of each driver which maybe generated a certain degree of misunderstanding'."

Whatever the merits of the case, thirteen days later Gilles Villeneuve died after getting into an accident while attempting to outdo Pironi in qualifying for the very next race, the Belgian Grand Prix at Zolder. And, ironically, less than three months later, Pironi too would be the victim of a freak and serious accident during a wet Saturday practice at Hockenheim for the 1982 German Grand Prix where he would have been on pole; though he would eventually recover from the horrible leg injuries suffered in the crash Pironi never drove a Ferrari again, later dying in a speedboat accident in 1987.

Notwithstanding these misfortunes, Piccinini and the team soldiered on that Hockenheim weekend in 1982 with Patrick Tambay, the lone Ferrari driver who ended up winning the race, the last victory for Ferrari in this sad season.

In 1983, Ecclestone's Brabham team, the Brabham-BMW turbo BT52 in the hands of Nelson Piquet, bested Piccinini's Ferrari team, through Rene Arnoux in the Ferrari 126C2 turbo was in contention until the last race of the season.

Throughout the balance of his tenure at Ferrari Piccinini presided over a succession of foreign engineers, including Harvey Postlethwaite and John Barnard, and hired and fired a United Nations of drivers from Alboreto and Andretti to Johansson to Berger, but the English teams dominated throughout this period; Piccinini's teams never again enjoyed the success Scheckter had brought to Ferrari in the very first year of the Piccinini era.

But throughout this decade, despite the less than stellar performance of the Ferrari team on the racetrack, Piccinini still wielded power as the representative of Ferrari, right up until Enzo Ferrari's death on Sunday, August 14, 1988. Indeed, earlier in the summer of 1988, Piccinini exercised his diplomatic skills, this time with the Vatican, and orchestrated a visit by Pope John Paul II to Ferrari's headquarters at Maranello. The Pope blessed the Ferrari factory and said Holy Mass at Fiorano. The Commendatore was in difficult health straits even then - June 4, 1988 - and was not able to greet the Pope but talked to him by phone while the Pope toured the property.

The next day the newspapers showed the Pope taking a lap at Fiorano in a Ferrari Mondiale 8 driven by Enzo's son, Piero Ferrari. Amazingly the Pope's blessing worked and on September 11, 1988, one month after Enzo died and as a fitting swan song for the Piccinini era, Ferrari won the Italian Grand Prix at Monza in a season so dominated by the McLaren-Honda team that McLaren won 15 of the 16 races that year.

Pironi celebrates as Villeneuve looksAfter Ferrari's death Fiat asserted its position as the then-90% shareholder in Ferrari and Piccinini turned over the reins of the Prancing Horse to a Fiat man, Cesare Fiorio, who had been a team manager for Fiat and Lancia in rallies and endurance racing. With a new Sporting Director appointed Piccinini was off (through he returned for a brief interregnum in 1991 before Luca di Montezemolo was named President of Ferrari in November 1991); not to the unemployment lines but to begin another phase of his motorsports career, this time in the political realm.

Although Piccinini returned to serving on the boards of various banks and companies after he left Ferrari in 1993 he was asked to assume responsibility for running the CSAI, the Automobile Club of Italy, and as a consequence he took a seat on the FIA's World Motor Sport Council, which functions as the Board of Directors of the FIA. In 1994, there was a controversy after Senna's death at Imola as to the safety of the Monza track for the Italian Grand Prix, scheduled for September 11, 1994.

Piccinini believed that the safety measures introduced at Monza after the deaths of Ayrton Senna and Roland Ratzenberger were not stringent enough. In announcing the cancellation of the race on behalf of the CSAI, Piccinini said: "If in September a grave accident occurs, public opinion and the authorities of our country would not be able to fathom it." It will be remembered that at that time the Bologna prosecutor had launched a criminal investigation into the death of Senna, indicting Frank Williams and Adrian Newey; Piccinini was mindful of the consequences of another fatal accident for the future of Formula One in Italy.

But however principled and courageous the position taken by Piccinini may have been within weeks a plan was developed, recommended by then-Ferrari driver Gerhard Berger, for the removal of 500 trees around the track and, on that basis, the Italian Grand Prix was reinstated. Piccinini resigned his post as the head of Italy's Motor Sports Federation.

Piccinini continues to be a member of the FIA's World Council, and has been a Deputy President of the FIA (Sport) since being elected in 1998, a position second only to Max Mosley on the World Council.

In 1997, Piccinini and Ecclestone revived their long-standing relationship publicly when Marco Piccinini was identified as one of the people who would be in management had the Formula One flotation gone forward. As it turned out the pedency of the European Commission anti-trust case against the FIA and Formula One meant that the flotation idea had to be shelved. But in identifying Piccinini, then 45, as a future manager of the commercial interests of Formula One Bernie was signaling his ultimate plan for Piccinini.

As Max Mosley opined on November 24, 1998, when asked about Bernie's successor: "If Ecclestone decides to retire, the former Ferrari team chief Marco Piccinini will be the first candidate to replace him."

While waiting for the call from Bernie, Piccinini continues to be involved in another of his passions, America's Cup yacht racing. In March 2000 Piccinini served as one of three board members of the Italian Yacht Club Punto Ala, which had been by appointed by the Royal New Zealand Yacht Squadron to select the best challenger for the America's Cup, which turned out to be the Prada boat. Indeed, it is said that Bernie Ecclestone, Marco Piccinini and some of their friends, including King Constantine of Greece, many years ago formed a body jocularly known as the Gstaad Yacht Club while seeing each other on holiday in landlocked Switzerland. Today Alinghi, a Swiss boat owned by one of their members, Ernesto Bertarelli, is the defender of the America's Cup; these people somehow make unlikely things happen.

Piccinini's other outside interests include his appointment to the Board of Directors of the Ferrari-Maserati Group in August 2002, when Ferrari was listed as a stock on the Milan Stock Exchange; Luca di Montezemolo and Jean Todt are also on the Board. He also serves on the Board of Directors and on the Executive Committee of a Swiss Bank called Finter Bank Zurich, where he is listed as coming from Monte Carlo. Piccinini is likewise a director of the Italcementi Group, an Italian cement and ready mixed concrete company based in Bergamo, Italy with construction projects throughout Europe.

Luca di MontezemoloWhy is Bernie's apparent anointment of Marco Piccinini as his possible successor a significant one for the future of Formula One? As usual, it is all about Ferrari. For two years now the manufacturers - Fiat, Renault, Ford, Mercedes-Benz and BMW - have kept up the drumbeat that they are sick and tired of getting so little of the revenues thrown off by Formula One and are bound and determined to do something about it, using Bernie's mortality and the expiration of the Concorde Agreement on December 31, 2007, as the twin pretexts for threatening to start their own series, tentatively called the Grand Prix World Championship ("GPWC"). Since the GPWC would have to file its own set of regulations and otherwise organize a series in time to be up and running for 2008, a decision must be made soon as to whether the manufacturers are going to stay in Formula One and amend the Concorde Agreement in 2007 or go their own way and form the GPWC.

Parenthetically it should be noted that Bernie and Max once attempted to start a rival series, announcing the World Federation of Motor Sports (WFMS) in November 1980. The WFMS lasted about a month, but it did lead to the meeting Piccinini orchestrated in Maranello in January 1981 and the drafting of the Concorde Agreement in March 1981, so the WFMS had served its purpose: is history repeating itself with the formation of the GPWC by the manufacturers?

One further complication that did not exist in 1981 is the presence of major banks who own a 75% interest in SLEC, which is the entity through which Bernie runs Formula One. These banks did not choose to become investors in Formula One but only got here by dint of loans made to their borrowers to the extent of over $1 billion, which are now in default but were collateralised by the SLEC stock the banks now own. The banks need to sell their holdings in SLEC to realize on their collateral.

The obvious purchasers are either Bernie (who still owns 25%) and the very same manufacturers who are threatening to start the rival series, since owning 75% of SLEC would obviously put them in the driver's seat, or a combination of Bernie and the manufacturers. To date, Luca di Montezemolo, who occasionally acts as spokesman for GPWC (though he has been quiet about it recently) has had the following to say about Bernie and the banks, in a December 2001 interview with the Sunday Times:

"Bernie has done an excellent job transforming F1 but he has not dramatically changed the picture and it's his biggest mistake. He wanted too much for himself. As a manager he got more than the teams because he was good, but now the car manufacturers are not prepared to fund the banks, they prefer to have it in their own pockets. Without us in 2008 the banks will own 100% of nothing. We are preparing a new championship without banks, without Bernie, and with a far bigger slice of the cake for the manufacturers. It's not blackmail, it's our right to expand." (Emphasis added.)

Given Montezemolo's mind set I believe that Bernie floating the name of a dyed-in-the-wool Ferrari man, Marco Piccinini, is the signal he thinks Montezemolo needs to call off the GPWC threat knowing that in the end, when Bernie goes, an Italian-by-way-of-Monaco and fully marinated in Maranello will be in charge. If Montezemolo accepts that reassurance, then buying some portion of the SLEC shareholdings now held by the banks to insure control is presumably the next step, which would guarantee the teams that they would receive their fair share in the future and not be beholden to whatever Bernie chooses to pay the teams.

This has all the elements of an arranged marriage of the kind that used to occupy Kings and Queens in Elizabethan times; planning their children's futures when who married whom settled jurisdictional disputes and established defensive alliances, as well as getting two people married. Marco Piccinini is the subject of this arranged marriage, and even as you read this the potentates are discussing in board rooms from Stuttgart to Detroit to Turin whether they are willing to tie the knot and accept the dowry Bernie has offered or prefer to venture off into the unknown with the GPWC, at a time when the worldwide economic slump affecting their own car companies is surely enough uncertainty for one lifetime.

In putting forward Marco Piccinini, a man who is a link both to Enzo Ferrari himself and to the financial and sporting institutions of Europe, Bernie has made it easy for them. Will they meet him halfway?

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Volume 9, Issue 45
November 5th 2003

Atlas F1 Special

The Knock on the Door
by Thomas O'Keefe

2003 Season Review

The Season of What If
by Marcel Schot

How Would F1 Score in Other Series
by Marcel Borsboom


The Fuel Stop
by Reginald Kincaid

Rear View Mirror
by Don Capps

Bookworm Critique
by Mark Glendenning

On the Road
by Garry Martin

Elsewhere in Racing
by David Wright & Mark Alan Jones

The Weekly Grapevine
by Tom Keeble

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