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Ferrari’s move to appoint Binotto leaves key questions to be answered

Ferrari has confirmed technical chief Mattia Binotto has replaced Maurizio Arrivabene as team principal.

Such a drastic move on the eve of the new season will inevitably raise questions about how the team’s season will be affected, given that the Italian outfit seems likely to be Mercedes’ closest challenger this year. But it is hardly a surprising move given the events of the team’s recent past.

Reports of a rift between Arrivabene and Binotto lingered throughout 2018. Arrivabene labelled these as “fake news” in November last year, but it was hardly a secret in the final months of the campaign that there was significant disharmony within the Italian team. The capitulation fans witnessed on the track seemed to mirror the mood at the team after the death of president Sergio Marchionne in July.

While much was made of Sebastian Vettel’s errors last year, Arrivabene was also culpable for Ferrari’s failure to win either title after a series of operational mistakes from the pit-wall which he ultimately oversaw as team boss. Italian media reports also suggested Arrivabene and Vettel’s relationship had deteriorated by the end of the campaign.

Many believe Binotto has played a crucial role in the team’s resurgence of the recent past. In his previous role as head of the power unit, he helped Ferrari recover from its disastrous start to the V6 turbo era and close the gap to Mercedes in terms of engine power. In 2016 he replaced James Allison as technical chief and then delivered two of Ferrari’s best cars in recent memory — his 2018 challenger should have won the championship.

The most interesting question will be how the change in management styles affects the team. The abrasive Arrivabene — who clashed with the press on numerous occasions in 2018 — came from a marketing and sales background, having risen through the ranks of Phillip Morris, working with the F1 team through sponsorship before becoming team boss ahead of the 2015 season.

By contrast, Binotto is an engineer with over 20 years of experience with Ferrari, having risen from the role of test engineer to the highest job within the racing team. In fact, it is easy to see parallels between Binotto and Ferrari legend Ross Brawn, who came from a similar background and displayed similar leadership qualities — Brawn helped turn Ferrari into the dominant force of the early 2000s.

Binotto will be spearheading a team also welcoming a new driver, with exciting academy product Charles Leclerc promoted to partner Sebastian Vettel this season. Leclerc’s elevation proved several things: one, that Ferrari believes Leclerc can live up to his billing as motor racing’s next big thing, and two, that Vettel’s position as defacto number one in the team is far from guaranteed after his capitulation in 2018. Vettel’s preference was for the team to continue with close friend Kimi Raikkonen for another season.

While Leclerc is likely to be willing to play the team game, the combination of an ultra-competitive youngster alongside a multiple champion has previously been a recipe for disaster in F1, most famously demonstrated by Lewis Hamilton and Fernando Alonso at McLaren in 2007. One of Binotto’s most obvious tasks this year will be to ensure this situation never escalates into anything damaging to the team.

Given how different Ferrari will look coming into the new year, it’s worth comparing that to the team it hopes to dethrone in 2019.

Mercedes’ dominance of the recent era has been guided by stability. When Nico Rosberg suddenly retired after winning the 2016 title, the team signed the quiet and unassuming Valtteri Bottas when the likes of Alonso were available — the harmony of the past two seasons between Bottas and Hamilton has vindicated that decision. While some key figures have left — notably technical chief Paddy Lowe to Williams — they have been quietly and efficiently replaced and the powerhouse operation has continued.

In that case, Lowe was replaced by Binotto’s predecessor as technical director, James Allison, who appears to have fit seamlessly into the system below Mercedes boss Toto Wolff. It remains unclear who will fill the void left by Binotto’s promotion from technical director. Binotto’s challenge this year will be to replicate Wolff’s effective management style while also beating the Austrian’s team on the track.

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