Ferrari this week marked the 25th anniversary of the death of their founder with predictable dignity, yet amid the sombre platitudes it was hard not to wonder what the man known as “Il Commendatore” would have made of the progress of the Scuderia over the last quarter of a century.
When Enzo Ferrari passed away on August 14, 1988 at the grand old age of 90, he left behind a legacy in both road car manufacture and motor racing that remains unsurpassed.
Just four weeks later, the esteem with which he was regarded by the team’s passionate fans was pushed to something approaching god-like status as Ferrari drivers Gerhard Berger and Michele Alboreto raced to an emotional one-two finish on home soil at the Italian Grand Prix.
The result would stand as Ferrari’s only victory in a 1988 season otherwise completely dominated by McLaren, and its timing prompted even the most atheistic Ferrari followers to question whether some greater power had been at work.
Although the team began life in 1929, for many followers of F1, September 11 1988 stands out as one of those seminal days when the mystique and allure of Ferrari was forever assured. Yet Berger’s win also papered over what was in truth a barren time for the only team that has been a part of the F1 world championship since the first race in 1950.
At the time of Ferrari’s death, Jody Scheckter was the team’s most recent world champion, in 1979, after which the likes of Brabham, Williams and McLaren had dominated.
The team’s decline through the 1980s was mere prelude to what would follow Ferrari’s death, with 12 long years elapsing before Michael Schumacher brought the drivers’ crown back to Maranello in 2000.
Schumacher went on to dominate the early part of the new century, winning five world titles in a row through to 2004 with Ferrari but his triumphs in that period can hardly be viewed as part of a wider sequence of Ferrari dominance.
Indeed since Schumacher’s last title win, Ferrari have won the drivers’ championship just once, with Kimi Raikkonen in 2007, since when both Felipe Massa and Fernando Alonso have come agonisingly close only to fall just short in the final reckoning. But such an absence of tangible success is hardly a new thing for Ferrari.
In three decades from the start of the F1 world championship through to 1979, Ferrari boasted seven different drivers’ champions in the form of Alberto Ascari, Juan Manuel Fangio, Mike Hawthorn, Phil Hill, John Surtees, Niki Lauda and Scheckter. In the three decades since, Schumacher and Raikkonen stand as the only men have won the title for Ferrari.
The five titles of the Schumacher years could even be viewed as a blip – a perfect storm comprising the greatest driver of his generation paired with the greatest engineering team, and competing against opposition in decline.
It is of course folly to try to water down Schumacher’s achievements during that era, yet it begs the question of what Enzo Ferrari would have made of the fact that his team’s biggest period of success since their heyday in the 1950s and 1960s was so utterly dependent on the brilliance of one driver. There would be frustration, naturally, that the titles had not come as freely as they had done in the early years of the world championship, but no doubt satisfaction that Ferrari remained relevant and important to people in the second decade of the 21st Century. And, while the world champions might have been thin on the ground, race wins have never been far from the Scuderia’s grasp – with their current tally of 221 putting them comfortably clear of nearest challengers McLaren. And winning races was simply what Enzo Ferrari was about.
A generation on, his drive and spirit continues to infuse the workers at Maranello.
“It’s impossible to sum up in a few words what Enzo Ferrari has meant to me,” Ferrari president Luca di Montezemolo told www.ferrari.com this week.
“I owe so much to him, to his courage, to his ability to always look ahead, even at the most difficult moments, both on a personal and a professional level.
“Next to my desk in Maranello, I have a photo of the founder. At times when I have to take an important decision, I instinctively find myself looking at it and asking myself what he would have done.
“Twenty-five years on, he would be happy to see a unique industrial and racing institution, which represents Italian excellence and continues to enchant millions and millions of fans.”