Former Ferrari F1 test team director Luigi Mazzola has joined the Venturi Formula E team as technical director.
The 54-year-old Italian has been brought on board by team owner Gildo Pastor to work alongside “team coordinator” Franck Baldet (team boss, in other words). His remit is to help turn Venturi from a technology incubator and innovator into a fully-fledged racing team, although he may also oversee the squad’s future powertrain development
While Mazzola will officially take up his new role at the Long Beach round, he has been present at the previous two Formula E races to absorb the format and observe the team and paddock at work. He spoke at length to Current E in Mexico about his F1 experience, what he learned from Alain Prost and how he intends to shape Venturi’s future.
“I started with Ferrari in 1988,” Mazzola says. He’s a tall man with long greying hair that whips around wildly in the breezy Mexican afternoon. We’re stood in the paddock of the Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez, enjoying the afternoon sunshine a couple of days before the Formula E race gets underway.
After gaining a PhD from the Politecnico di Torino university in Italy, Mazzolo went to work immediately for Ferrari. He would remain at the red team almost exclusively until 2009, working with a constellation of luminaries including Prost, Schumacher, Raikkonen, Brawn and Todt.
“I started as race engineer with Prost in 1990, then moved to Sauber in 1992 and 1993, then came back to Ferrari. I gradually worked towards a situation where I was in charge of performance development for the car, working together with Ross Brawn. Ross was technical director in the race and I was helping in testing. We built up a big team in testing at Ferrari and we started after that to win for 10 years: 14 titles. It was a magic situation.”
Fresh from university, a highly unusual situation at that time, Mazzola was merely a year into his Ferrari career when he was appointed race engineer to Alain Prost. “Prost was three times world champion and he has this new, very young race engineer,” Mazzola recalls. “I had no experience at all in the race. But, after a few months, he came to me and said – I understand what you’re doing so we can go.”
Mazzola cites his time working with Prost as a major influence on his technical understanding and philosophy. “He can describe the car (he could back then and I think he still can) in all situations,” says Mazzola. “He could separate mechanical problems from aerodynamic problems, tyres, all situations. He could tell you: ‘This is important, this is important, this is important’. I would say, ‘If I do some calculation, it’s not really true’. He would say, ‘I guarantee you, this is important’. I would accept. Then through the rest of my career, I ended up proving that those things were important after all! Prost was phenomenal. He was a teacher, a friend, a leader – and very, very humble. He didn’t treat me as a kid. He treated me at the same level. I have to say thanks to him. ”
Prost is now a key member of the dominant Renault e.dams Formula E team, of course, so at least Mazzola knows what Venturi is up against. But Prost may be taking note himself, however.
“I was sitting in Jean Todt’s office in 1994. He said to me: ‘Tell me what we should do to improve the car’. I had a vision. I said: ‘Let’s create a race test team. It’s the only way we can develop the car, to make sure it’s fast and reliable in the race. The same team cannot do testing and racing, we’ll just kill the guys. We need a structure to do it.’ He asked if I wanted to do it and I said yes. Why not?”
A quick look at Ferrari’s record from the mid-nineties goes some way to vindicating that approach of searching for continual development. Mazzola, however, became disappointed that the technical marvels his team were capable of weren’t finding their way to the race track. (“You test with such good things and then you can’t work with them,” he said. “I didn’t like it anymore.”) He left the sport and started a business consultancy, training leaders.
“Business is so different to sport,” he explains. “With business, you compare yourself to last year: we have to make plus five per cent for the next year. This is our objective. You cannot work like that in F1. Even if you improve yourself by 5%, you don’t know what’s going on with the competitors. So actually you have to do your maximum. That’s what I learned from Ross Brawn, Alain Prost, Valentina Rossi, Michael Schumacher, even Ayrton Senna. You cannot stay at the same level, even for a second. You have always to improve.”
It’s that mindset that Mazzolo aims to introduce to Venturi. “It’s mentality,” he says. “The confidence is there but it’s the mentality you have to create to be a real racer. A racer does not want to lose. If he’s second, he’s the first of the losers. You have to build up this mentality: we want to win, not participate. Everyone has to know that Venturi is going to win, not yourself. A technician needs to be more than just a good technical. This is motor sport. A technical needs to work to win. This is the first thing you have to teach.”
The previous two rounds have given the Italian father of two an opportunity to assess which parts of the team to begin tweaking. “At the moment I want to understand what the situation is,” he says. “I don’t want to destroy what’s already there. You need to understand the reality of where you are. You know what you want. That’s the delta, what we have to do. If it’s hire new people, you hire new people. It it’s changing methodology, you change the methodology. In the limit of the budget. The driver has a budget, with the energy. This is what I like about Formula E. Formula E is different to F1 or other competitors, where there is performance and we are all focused on performance. Here, there is performance but there is also energy. It’s a nice challenge.”
Asked whether he thinks Ferrari may consider a Formula E entry in the future, the former development boss says: “Why not? They are already using this kind of hybrid engine. It’s not something that takes away from F1. It’s a completely different environment. I would think about it if I was Ferrari. They have to open their minds. It could be not Ferrari – it could be Alfa Romeo. It would be just marvellous. This is the vision we need to have. Then sponsors will come, sponsors will come, more drivers will come – and then boom.”
For now, however, Mazzola is focused on improving Venturi’s performance for the remainder of the second Formula E season: “This is the team. You just try to do your best with this fact, not dream about something you don’t have. There is a lot of knowledge here. Good people, good environment.”