Vettel at Ferrari - following a legend; chasing a legacy
Piero Ferrari met him a long time before he joined the team. They had a private chat, which was enough to leave Piero intrigued. "There's something about him," he said. "It's not often you meet a driver who is so considerate and reasoned in his thought processes. I liked him. You never know, one day he just might end up driving for us..."
And now, Sebastian Vettel is a key protagonist in the latest chapter of Ferrari, which has the aim of recreating the dominant glory days of the Michael Schumacher era. One German takes the baton from another. Of course, if we widen the net, there was a high-profile German-speaking Ferrari champion before Schumacher: Austrian Niki Lauda, who sparked the team's first golden era in the 1970s. The second one began when Schumacher arrived in 1996. The third is yet to happen.
I've watched nearly all of Vettel's victories in Formula 1. I've often been caught up in the emotion, and even more often admired him. But I was curious when I found out that after joining Ferrari, in the final few months of 2014, he stayed overnight at a special house on the infield of Fiorano. It was a place I knew well, even though the last time I was there was February 1988, just over five months before the Commendatore died. We were editing the four volumes of Ferrari Tales, which chronicled the most important episodes of the Old Man's life.
Enzo Ferrari was meticulous, occasionally argumentative, and often ironic: he threw himself into the project, with very strong views about the design and layout of what would become his final testament, with contributions from many of the drivers he had employed. The work that took place in that small house on the Fiorano infield where Vettel chose to sleep would begin in the small office on the ground floor. After lunch, we would retire to the sitting room, where there were comfortable sofas, a big table for meetings, a bookcase and a television. Once coffee had been taken, the Commendatore always insisted on a drop of whisky. "Try it, it's very good," he always urged. "Jackie Stewart sends it to me every year."
When I found out, years later, that the room had been made into a bedroom, where Michael Schumacher slept from time to time, it seemed like heresy. But time and people change, and even Piero Ferrari - who remains devoted to his father's memory - said: "Things evolve: you can't remain constantly trapped in a vision of how everything once was. It's only right to move on."
Vettel first slept in the 'little house' last November. It has become normal for Ferrari's champions to stay there, with Vettel the current occupant of Schumacher's bed.
Two Germans have entered Maranello's most intimate history. When Michael arrived, he knew very little of Ferrari's heritage. Sebastian is the opposite, having immersed himself in the legend - he has been buying books about Ferrari on eBay, to better understand what it must have been like back in the 1950s and '60s. Two world champions, who at the age of 27 decided to reinvent themselves with the team that boasts the most history and emotion of them all. Because although Enzo Ferrari has been dead for 27 years, his presence is still found in every corner and office at Maranello: a lingering inspiration and critic, whose philosophy is law.
Many people have compared Vettel's first months at Ferrari with those of Michael Schumacher, but I believe his inauguration at the team is more reminiscent to that of Fernando Alonso, during the winter of 2009-10.
Back then, despite Kimi Raikkoenen's title two years earlier, there was a sense that things were sliding out of control within Ferrari, and radical changes were afoot. The old guard from the Schumacher era were disappearing and, at the time, Stefano Domenicali's senior management team was nowhere near as well known.
Alonso took a gamble on Ferrari entering a new era of success, with him at the helm. The technical and economic resources were in place and Luca di Montezemolo was eager to emerge as an architect of triumph. Alonso, with the advantage of his perfect Italian, was a frequent and enamoured visitor to the Gestione Sportiva, keeping a close eye on every phase of the F10's development. He had questions, suggestions and intense conversations with the engineers, while he almost immediately knew all the mechanics by name.
As the team celebrated their traditional Christmas lunch together, Domenicali said: "Fernando is an exceptional character, blessed with the sort of technical ability I never imagined. What he brings to the team is absolutely immense."
When Alonso won the first race of 2010, in Bahrain, Ferrari knew they had the driving phenomenon that they had always hoped for; di Montezemolo's praise for Alonso filled not only the sports pages but also made the national news.
This is a snapshot of what has happened to Vettel, too, lured to Maranello to bring a world title back to Italy. Vettel won on his second time out in Malaysia, creating enormous expectation - and probably premature hope - within a team that was still new, with a completely fresh structure.