With the 2023 F1 season barely underway, the heat is already burning high at Scuderia Ferrari. There may be new leadership under ex-Alfa Romeo Team Principal Frederic Vasseur, but the same Ferrari pressures will seemingly nag at their new boss as they did their last.
Ferrari's struggles during the 2022 season are well documented. The wake of Mattia Binotto's late-2022 departure from the top of Scuderia Ferrari continues to ripple into the start of the 2023 season, and not just on the track. Charles Leclerc's retirement in Bahrain and subsequent engine penalty in only Round 2 of the new championship year is a very visible source of strain for the squad. Yet that may be the tip of this Italian iceberg.
Italy's newspapers aren't well-known for patience or supporting their country's national pride through tough times, but their knife-sharpening coming so soon into 2023 is, on the surface, surprising. The troubled on-track start doesn't even seem to be the problem. Instead, the news that Head of Vehicle Concept, David Sanchez has quit with immediate effect, likely heading to McLaren, has brought the tabloid papers' honing steel out.
Details on whether Sanchez leaving was a pre-planned arrangement in 2022 or a knee-jerk reaction to Binotto's stepping down will no doubt emerge in time. The brain behind Ferrari's 2022 and 2023 cars does have a history with McLaren, leaving the British team in favor of Ferrari back in 2012. A known quantity is often a less risky hire, no matter what business you operate.
McLaren's promotion of Andreas Stella to Team Principal may also have helped lure Sanchez away from the Scuderia. Stella and Sanchez shared Ferrari colors for a few seasons in the early 2010s, and the new McLaren boss will want to stamp some authority in his new role.
Irrespective of Sanchez leaving, rumors of internal Ferrari frustrations, particularly with CEO Benedetto Vigna, have waited until the season started to emerge. That suggests that the press were disproportionately alarmed at the Bahrain GP or, more likely, sitting on news from Ferrari insiders to maximize any stories' reach.
Much like Washington politics' symbiotic relationship with journalists, where The White House uses some 'leaks' as tools to sway opinion, Ferrari and the Italian media similarly exist. Italian news outlets reported plenty of discontent amongst the ranks within Maranello, but only after the season-opening Bahrain GP passed.
If these leaks tell any story, it suggests that personnel who have worn the famous scarlet red much longer than Vasseur aren't happy at Vigna's alleged meddling in the F1 team. Vigna is Ferrari's CEO, and although Scuderia Ferrari, the F1 constructor, falls underneath Ferrari, the two are not the same beast.
Might the Italian papers' news be a very public warning from inside Ferrari to Vigna that Sanchez might not be the only key member to walk away if things stay as they are? Time will tell, and Vasseur is already having to fend off the suggestion that Racing Director Laurent Mekies is also looking to leave.
Should Mekies join Sanchez in abandoning ship, others will undoubtedly follow should you believe reports of Scuderia Ferrari staff, including their engineers, courting the paddock for a new employer. Indeed, long-standing Maranello names like Gino Rosato, who joined Ferrari in 1991, and 2013 hire Jonathan Giacobazzi have already left. This pair had nothing to do with the car development, so the race performance won't be affected, but their departure might suggest some unrest within the team.
Personnel switching teams is nothing new to F1, and the sport operates much like any other industry with a niche pot of names that chop and change over time. However, Ferrari is a little different, with many team members, especially junior roles, solely coming from Italy rather than the heavily U.K.-focused majority of their competitors.
Regardless of where senior members like Sanchez and possibly Mekies end up, other Ferrari staff from the lower ranks heading away would begin to look like a mutiny. With Vasseur new to the role, that level of discontent would not stem from his stewardship, meaning Vigna is the most likely trigger. Keeping close tabs on any Ferrari figures, not just those at the top, will be telling in 2023.
Dismissing these rumors' importance is not how Vasseur would've hoped to have spent his days after completing his first race as Ferrari Team Principal. Yet it is a very typical Ferrari welcome. Alfa Romeo may also be an Italian luxury car manufacturer, but expectations of success don't come with a Team Principal role at the team that merely rebadged Sauber. Ferrari, however, has the passionate Tifosi fan base and the hopes of an entire country pinned to their Formula One success. Today, the Frenchman's job is to deliver on track to placate the press's quick-to-hunger stomach.
Vasseur, for now, doesn't appear to be on the media's menu, but if frustration at Ferrari is this high so soon in 2023, he'll need to calm nerves fast — on track and off it — else Sanchez might be the first of many to wave goodbye.