Formula 1’s new boss Stefano Domenicali has assumed his role in challenging circumstances and will need every element of his experience and genial personality to achieve the goals he has provisionally set.
Domenicali, an ex-Ferrari F1 team principal, is taking charge amid a pandemic but also at a time the championship has major sporting potential but faces a technological crossroads.
As a long-time Ferrari man, Domenicali is well-known to the F1 paddock and also to fans. Domenicali the F1 CEO, leading the championship into a new era, dealing with a range of challenges and reporting to bosses who have invested heavily in this acquisition, is more of an unknown.
But in an extensive interview with Sky Sports F1 last week, Domenicali began to reveal more of what kind of CEO he intends to be. Here is what we learned from his first ‘address’.
Priorities in place to spark ‘renaissance’
Over the course of an interview broadcast for more than 20 minutes, it was clear Domenicali has a good handle on what his immediate and longer-term priorities are at F1.
In fact, in outlining his goals, he spoke eloquently and enthusiastically for four minutes and 28 seconds. This was not some short, glib recital of a corporate line – even if the mission statement was lacking in specific detail.
Domenicali spoke about putting the drivers at the centre of the championship, waxing lyrically about the quality of the current grid: stating it is the best F1 has had for the last decade.
He talked about the necessity to give teams the platform to thrive, not just survive, in the cost cap era and for years to come.
He reinforced F1’s commitment to sustainability and wants F1 to continue to champion other important social issues, rather than allowing the championship to slip back into its bubble and turn a blind eye to matters such as diversity (which emerged prominently in 2020 against the backdrop of global civil unrest).
“These are at the centre of our strategic plan,” he says. But this mission statement did not overlook the short-term requirements either, namely the execution of the 2021 season with the coronavirus pandemic still causing major problems around the world.
Domenicali recognises that without a sensible, flexible plan to get through 2021, a lot of what he wants F1 to embrace longer-term risks being undermined by the problems that a chaotic season would bring.
But he is clearly keen to address short-term challenges without taking his eye off the bigger picture. There’s a strong impression that Domenicali has a roadmap for F1 and to get there he wants to augment his priorities with an understanding of what F1’s various stakeholders want and need as well.
That way, he says, “we can take the benefit out of it and be ready for the relaunch, for the renaissance, of our life”.
The calendar dilemma
There seems little sign of F1’s calendar challenges ending in the short-term and Domenicali intends to follow Liberty’s 2020 example by doing whatever it takes to make the season work in the face of the ongoing pandemic.
He is aiming for a “transitional” year, which will probably include fans not being allowed at some races, before returning to normality next season.
A 23-race season seems optimistic in the circumstances but it’s not just a one-off attempt. With Liberty having the option for as many as 25 grands prix, F1 must brace itself for longer-than-ever seasons in the Domenicali era.
Especially as it’s clear that Domenicali buys into the argument for such a long championship, calling 23 races an “important number” and highlighting the “attention” it brings F1.
However, there is a glimmer of hope that Domenicali sees the problem of the current long schedule and is willing to act on it if necessary.
Liberty has been open to the prospect of ‘rotating’ races on the schedule before, so it is probably inaccurate to suggest this is a Domenicali proposal.
But it does seem like something he’s on board with. Which means if the proposed 23-race season is too much – either because of burnout or oversaturation – it seems unlikely he will push on with it for the sake of it.
He promises that the validity of such a long schedule is something F1 intends to think very carefully about this year.
F1 set for a collision course over its values
What seems unavoidable from what Domenicali says is that F1, whether it likes it or not, is set for a collision course over some of its stated values.
Domenicali says F1 does not want to be “political because that’s not our business, but we want to highlight the values of the society”.
However, the addition of Saudi Arabia to the calendar means another escalation in the championship’s participation in ‘sportswashing’ (in the eyes of some organisations and onlookers). While F1 will look to avoid direct parallels as much as possible, fans and critics will not give it the leniency to do so.
If F1 is serious about equality and diversity then it will have a hard time going to places like Saudi Arabia or revisiting China or Bahrain or Azerbaijan without serious questions being asked about the validity of that message.
Likewise, those in F1 with a social media presence cannot have failed to notice the uproar triggered by Haas driver Nikita Mazepin uploading a video of himself groping a young woman and then avoiding any kind of discernible public consequence for that action.
Domenicali has promised that We Race As One will give various issues the opportunity for prominence again this year.
“We will use this moment to make sure that everyone will understand that Formula 1 is not living out of this world, but wants to have an active role in enhancing these values,” he says.
But that also means F1 has to be braced for the response if/when Mazepin is brandishing that slogan or engaging in activity promoting it, given many F1 fans believe his actions (and the lack of a response from F1 and the FIA) undermined We Race As One entirely.
There will need to be action to prove it’s not just a meaningless platitude given the new-found push for equality failed at its first serious hurdle late last year.
New manufacturers targeted but uncertainty remains
Domenicali has picked up the rhetoric that F1’s next-generation engine needs to be introduced sooner than planned, so at least by 2025 rather than 2026.
But there remains a lack of detail over exactly how F1 will achieve its stated aim of considering the cost of the next-generation engine, rather than just the technology.
All Domenicali has offered so far is a repeat of the belief F1 made mistakes with its approach to the V6 turbo-hybrid era. Sustainability, he reiterates, is vital. But there must be a cheaper way of pursuing that road-relevant approach.
At the moment Domenicali has only aligned himself with the commonly held view that F1 has a “big margin” to reduce costs and that it is “not possible” for the power unit to be this expensive in the future. He promises that manufacturers will continue to be an important voice in that discussion.
What is fresh for F1 is Domenicali’s experience as Lamborghini boss, which gives him a direct understanding of the challenges and priorities for high-quality automotive manufacturers.
Domenicali inherits an F1 with only three engine makers, and another narrative he has picked up from his predecessor Chase Carey is the optimism that new manufacturers can be tempted in.
But given his Lamborghini experience, Domenicali is probably better-placed to judge whether F1 seriously has a platform that can appeal to new manufacturers.
“We are in discussion with other manufacturers that for the moment prefer to stay quiet,” he says.
“But the good news is that there are other very important companies that are really keen to understand what is the value of using the F1 platform, not only in terms of technology.
“I think that one of the biggest challenges that automotive manufacturers have today is to be [viewed as] younger. There is this kind of fight between the old school of OEM [original equipment manufacturer] and the new OEM that are coming in the mobility side.
“We are not part of the mobility side, in terms of what we want to achieve as a sport. But I think that the OEM can use that platform to also change the fresh image they may need for the future.”
F1 ‘can’t be ultra-reverential’ over traditions like format
Domenicali has given off a strong understanding that F1 must avoid any kind of complacency over its audience.
While addressing the importance of modern media consumption habits, using social platforms, and not taking media relationships for granted, are relatively simple and obvious points to make, Domenicali sounds like he buys into them.
He recognises the value of providing as many ways to capture an audience, whether it’s existing or new, so that F1 casts a wider net – and then entertains a wider variety of the people it catches.
“If we are boring in what we offer then people switch off and change not only the channel but the subject,” he says.
To that end, the subject of revised formats is unlikely to die. This was pushed hard by Liberty last year, having initially emerged in 2019 in the form of a reverse-grid sprint race at some events, but that was ultimately defeated. Domenicali sounds primed to continue the desire to consider change.
“We need to be sure that we don’t lose any opportunity, and we need to be sure that we are not ultra-reverential in what we are offering, because this will be a big mistake.”
The type of leader he’ll be is clear
Domenicali is a motorsport man and that’s what marks him out from his predecessor Chase Carey. He said with a smile that he has to check whether his career is “true or not”, such is the enthusiasm and affection he has for racing, and taking charge of F1 is a huge responsibility and privilege for him.
That flows from Domenicali with every answer. For example, when Domenicali was still in charge of Ferrari, F1 went through a phase of six world champions on the grid: Michael Schumacher, Sebastian Vettel, Fernando Alonso, Kimi Raikkonen, Lewis Hamilton, Jenson Button.
That shows the regard in which Domenicali views the current crop, as while the return of Alonso boosts F1 2021’s title-winning crop to four (Hamilton, Vettel and Raikkonen being the others) it’s the next-generation group including Max Verstappen, Charles Leclerc, Lando Norris and George Russell, not to mention experienced heads like Daniel Ricciardo and now Carlos Sainz Jr, who Domenicali believes underpin the potential for F1 to have gladiatorial value in the coming years.
While some might consider Liberty to be a ruthless organisation that’s interested in decisions that only result in a tangible financial game, Domenicali will offer a bit more heart. Chances are he will not be able to make decisions simply for the sake of his friends and colleagues in F1 but the prospect of imbuing the priorities with greater consideration is greater now.
Domenicali has a vested interest in this role and that will manifest itself in the kind of CEO he will be. He’ll attend every race, seeing the quality of the offering on the ground and meeting stakeholders face-to-face. And he will likely try to see every situation with an optimistic perspective.
“Sometimes I’m quite disappointed to hear some negativity around our business,” he says.
“The platform is really, really solid. It’s clear that we have challenges in front of us. That has to be our priority. But I think that the health is really good.
“It’s time to talk seriously positive about who we are and what we are offering.”