Enzo Ferrari has been dead these past 32 years so we came to Rome to meet the man who is the living embodiment of the most famous motor racing team the world has known.
Across the desk — just turned 73, trim as a greyhound, wearing a bespoke blazer — sits Luca Cordero di Montezemolo.
An Italian aristocrat, born in Bologna, Montezemolo wants to give this rare interview because, on Sunday, Ferrari will compete in their 1,000th race, a unique feat, at the Tuscan Grand Prix in Mugello. And, his family apart, Ferrari is the love of his life.
Luca di Montezemolo gave a rare interview to Sportsmail on the eve of Ferrari’s 1,000th F1 race
The former Ferrari president spoke to Sportsmail’s Jonathan McEvoy from his office in Rome
In two stints, amounting to 29 years, as team manager and later as chairman, Montezemolo led the Scuderia to 19 world titles, and many near misses, to cement their standing as the most successful name in Formula One history.
He enters the room and greets me like a lost son. It is no reflection on my status but simply the Montezemolo way. An expression of the charm for which he is famed.
He calls his secretary and tells her not to accept any interruptions while we chat. That is not entirely observed because his phone buzzes with a message from the Pope’s assistant. And a brief chat with the chief executive of Italy’s largest bank.
On the sideboard rests the famous picture of Muhammad Ali standing over the prostrate Sonny Liston. It is signed and dedicated to Montezemolo. ‘Muhammad didn’t really like cars,’ he says. ‘We talked about his gold medal at the 1960 Olympics in Rome and he told me that Ferrari was a myth — the only car he loved.’
I remind Montezemolo of the tribute Bernie Ecclestone paid him when he left Ferrari forever in 2014, the casualty of a power struggle with the now deceased Sergio Marchionne, a stern, taciturn, bullying presence compared to his own extravagant elan.
The 73-year-old left the Scuderia in 2014 but still loves the famous Italian team
Di Montzemolo believes it will take Ferrari two years to get back up to speed in the sport
‘When I think of Ferrari,’ said Ecclestone, ‘I think of Enzo Ferrari and of Luca Montezemolo, and nobody else.’ Montezemolo closes his eyes at the lustiness of that comment.
These days he runs his Italo trains business, and guides other portfolios such as his family’s private equity firm. His fingers are in many pies — he masterminded Italia 90 — and his influence is such that he was long courted for the presidency of Italy.
Sundays are not so kind on his emotions now. For Ferrari go into this weekend’s landmark race way off the pace, a pale shadow of past glories, for no want of money. It is a failure of organisation and leadership. Montezemolo warns me he does not want to launch into a polemic about the current state of the team, but he laments that it will take at least two years to turn it around, even with the right people at the helm.
‘We were always contesting the championship to the last race, but that has not been the case for a number of seasons now,’ he says.
But, first, to the start of it all. That came when Montezemolo was asked on to a radio phone-in as a young, promising rally driver. ‘The listeners could ask anything,’ he recalls. ‘They could use bad language, anything.
Along with Michael Schumacher, Di Montezemolo visited the Pope at the Vatican in 2005
Di Montezemolo was key to Ferrari’s domination of Formula One in the early 2000s that saw them pick up five straight drivers’ championships up until 2004 with Schumacher (above)
‘One person said motor racing is for rich people, it is dangerous and bad for the environment. I answered those claims, pointing out people who had come from nowhere to be drivers. Lorenzo Bandini was a mechanic before he drove for Ferrari.
‘Now, Enzo always had the radio on at Maranello and he said, “Who is this guy? He is ballsy. I want to meet him”.’ Montezemolo went in to see the ‘Old Man’ and, after completing his post-graduate studies at Columbia University in New York, became Enzo’s right-hand man, reporting back to his irascible boss — who never flew or even took a lift — on Ferrari’s F1 progress. He was 24, a close associate of Gianni Agnelli, and soon appointed team manager.
He analysed everything in minute detail, set up a clear structure of command and brought in his first world champion, a young Austrian called Niki Lauda, to partner Clay Regazzoni for the 1974 season, a blend of youth and experience.
One of the pictures on the wall is of the first win he orchestrated —Lauda at Jarama in Spain that year. Montezemolo is leaping high into the air as he watches the win from the trackside. There followed world titles in 1975 — at Monza, joy of joys — after a 12-year hiatus going back to John Surtees, and again in 1977.
The 1976 season contained the remarkable accident to Lauda at the Nurburgring, where his car caught fire and he was seconds from being burned to death. Montezemolo was at the scene.
Di Montzemolo had been involved at Ferrari as far back as 1974, pictured with Niki Lauda
‘The doctor said to me Niki can survive if he is able to react himself and not go to sleep. It was not a problem of the face and the burns. They are superficial. He will not die because of those.
‘The problem is the gas he had breathed in. Niki told me, “Luca, I heard what the doctor said and I did not want to sleep. I decided not to sleep”. Niki survived thanks to himself. I shall never forget when he came back at Monza, just a few weeks later. I can speak to you for three days about this. He was getting ready and a little bit of fresh blood came down from his face on to the white balaclava.
‘In Japan, in the last race when he lost the championship to James Hunt by half a point, he came in and said it was impossible to see anything in the rain. I said we can say there was a problem with the car, not that you decided to stop. “No”, he said. “I decided to stop, because it is impossible to race in these conditions. We are not masochists”.
‘Niki is one of the great friends of my life. I spoke to him one week before he died. I miss him always.’
Montezemolo left F1 in 1977 and spread his wings — running the drinks company, Cinzano, and launching Italy’s America’s Cup bid, among other enterprises. He took control of Juventus, a rare failure and the one year he would like to expunge from his life.
Di Montezemolo was key to turning Ferrari around from a crisis during the 1990s
But football’s loss was Ferrari’s boon. In 1991, three years after Enzo’s death, the place was in gloom and disarray.
The last championship was way back in 1979 for Jody Scheckter.
Chaos reigned. Who designed the car, asked Montezemolo?
Nobody knew. He had to go back to the drawing board, revitalising both the road car business and racing team. In came Jean Todt — who, horror of horrors, turned up for his interview in a blue Mercedes — Ross Brawn and designer Rory Byrne. And, of course, Michael Schumacher. This was the dream line-up who dominated the early years of the century. ‘Michael came at the perfect time. He was the ultimate team driver. He liked that environment. He gave everything to the team and had their loyalty in return.
‘He spent as much time as he could at Maranello and ate at the restaurant by the factory.
Schumacher arrived in 1996 at Ferrari as Di Montezemolo put together a winning team
‘I was pleased his son Mick won the F2 race the other day at Monza. I remember when he was tiny. They were at my house for dinner and there were mosquitoes. Michael put a covering on his cot to protect him from being bitten.
‘And every five minutes Michael got up from the table to lift the blanket to see that Mick was fine.’
I ask him who stands out among Ferrari drivers. Schumacher and Lauda lead the way, along with Alberto Ascari. Kimi Raikkonen, the last Ferrari champion in 2007, is another he liked. ‘He was silent, a good man, a team man,’ he said. Gerhard Berger, he says, contributed important wins.
Nigel Mansell’s hearty driving he appreciated, too.
He says: ‘Fernando Alonso was possibly as good as Michael in the race. In the race.’ Yes, but too troublesome. That is a Montezemolo no-no. Sebastian Vettel, the outgoing No 1, he says turned up for his interview with a box of Swiss chocolates — the last major driver appointment he brokered.
But who is the greatest ever? ‘Jimmy Clark is my hero, Jackie Stewart also fantastic, and Ayrton Senna, of course. Alain Prost was very, very good. But he was a small fraction below the best, best, best.
The Italian admitted he spoke to Ayrton Senna about a Ferrari drive just days before the Brazilian’s tragic death at the Sam Marino Grand Prix in 1994
He also praised current world champion Lewis Hamilton as ‘one of the best drivers in history’
‘I invited Ayrton to my house on the Wednesday before Imola in 1994. He said he wanted to drive for Ferrari. I said I wanted him to drive for Ferrari. He was pleased I was against electronic aides, which he thought made average drivers seem as good as him. Three days later he died.’
I wonder whether he could see Lewis Hamilton at Ferrari. He slightly dodges the question, but I am left with the impression that if Montezemelo were still in charge, the Briton would be dressed in red.
‘Listen, Lewis is one of the best drivers in history,’ he says. ‘I have sold him some Ferraris. He is very correct. A good person and a good driver. The other one I like is Max Verstappen.’
Montezemolo, who will attend a celebration dinner in Mugello on Saturday night, has broken a number of television sets in anger over the years — when Schumacher crashed in Jerez in 1997 and when Hamilton beat Felipe Massa to the title on the last lap in Brazil in 2008. ‘That is what it means to me,’ he says. ‘I love Formula One and I love Ferrari, and that will never change.’