Fred Vasseur’s move to Ferrari was the headline item from this week’s Formula One management merry-go-round.
There were four moves in under 24 hours. After Jost Capito left his role at Williams on Monday, three followed on Tuesday — Vasseur’s expected move to Ferrari as Mattia Binotto’s replacement, and McLaren’s decision to promote Andrea Stella to F1 team principal after Andreas Seidl’s departure to the Sauber Group. The Williams job remains vacant.
The moves follow what was also a dramatic driver market in terms of movement over the past few months.
Here we look at how the most recent moves came to be and what they mean for F1 in 2023 and beyond.
Vasseur steps into the big time
After six years with one of F1’s least competitive teams, Vasseur has moved into what is probably the most difficult job in all of motor racing: Ferrari team principal. It is unlike any other job in that it carries the expectation of an entire nation as well as just a fanbase or a board of directors.
Ferrari’s championship drought now stretches over 15 years — Stefano Domenicali, Marco Mattiacci, Maurizio Arrivabene and now Binotto have come and gone without ending it. The pressure seems to grow every year that number increases.
It is the biggest challenge of Vasseur’s career to date. It would be easy to glance over the Frenchman’s F1 record and completely write him off. He’s not overseen a race win or podium finish in either his 2016 with Renault or the six following seasons with Sauber/Alfa Romeo. But those statistics are misleading.
Vasseur is one of the most respected team bosses in the paddock. He won multiple championships in junior categories before joining F1. Ferrari superstar Charles Leclerc won his GP3 and Formula 2 titles with the ART team Vasseur co-founded, before the two worked together in the Monaco native’s rookie season at Alfa in 2018. Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg also won the GP2 title with the ART team before stepping up to F1.
Leclerc, who won two of the first three events of 2022, was clearly irritated by Ferrari’s mistakes and his radio messages over the final months of the season were increasingly despondent. He will no doubt welcome reuniting with Vasseur, who he has spoken highly of in the past. The appointment of Vasseur can be seen as a move to keep Leclerc happy at a time he could likely command a big contract offer from any other team on the grid.
That high regard extends beyond Leclerc. The job Vasseur has done with the small Swiss-based outfit, which for so long has struggled to be competitive in the F1 landscape, has not gone unnoticed in the paddock. This year it climbed to sixth, the Sauber team’s best finish since 2012.
Much of Alfa’s press release confirming Vasseur’s departure was glowing praise.
“Through relentless work, belief in the team’s own potential and shrewd management, things improved under Fred’s watch: points became a regular target; partners started adorning the once-blank bodywork of the car; employee numbers kept ticking up”, it read at one point, adding: “he leaves as a friend, a mentor, a boss that could extract the best out of his charges”.
Ferrari actually denied Italian media reports Vasseur was being brought in to replace Binotto ahead of the season-ending Abu Dhabi Grand Prix in November — dismissing it as speculation “totally without foundation” — only for that exact scenario to play out a couple of weeks later. Clearly Ferrari identified Vasseur as the man to replace Binotto some time ago.
Vasseur’s approach to management is well respected in F1 and he joins a team which took a battering from fans and the media in the second half of 2022, given how its title challenge fell apart so quickly. While that campaign was frustrating to watch Ferrari is still in the best position it has been in for years. The team developed one of the standout cars under the new regulations and the baseline of that is carried over into the next few seasons. Ferrari won four races and claimed 12 pole positions. The gap to the front is not insurmountable. Red Bull’s windtunnel reduction, a punishment for overspending on the 2021 budget cap, also makes the world champions more vulnerable than they might otherwise have been.
Vasseur’s biggest and most immediate challenge will be identifying and addressing the deep-rooted problems which seem to have plagued Ferrari for so long. The whole race operation appears to be in desperate need of a shake-up, while culturally there are questions about whether Ferrari deals with mistakes and setbacks as well internally as Red Bull and Mercedes have in their recent spells of success.
Vasseur move prompts Stella’s early elevation
Binotto’s departure and Vasseur’s move to Ferrari accelerated movement elsewhere.
Speaking on a media conference call on Tuesday afternoon alongside new McLaren team boss Stella, company CEO Zak Brown explained Seidl had already confirmed he would leave the team at the end of his current deal in 2025. Brown would not confirm exactly when that conversation took place but said it was obvious Audi’s new F1 project was the destination for the man who worked with sister Volkswagen company Porsche before he joined McLaren in 2019. Brown praised Seidl for his transparency in the process.
However, when it became clear over the past few weeks Ferrari had lined up Vasseur, Sauber Group co-owner Finn Rausing called Brown to ask if Seidl would be released early. Brown then spoke to Stella, McLaren’s racing executive and the man he had already wanted to replace Seidl in 2026 had the timeline played out as originally expected, to check he wanted the job for 2023. When Stella accepted, Seidl was free to leave.
It speaks to how well respected Seidl is respected within the McLaren organisation that Brown let him walk from a contract early without any period of gardening leave. Daniel Ricciardo also left McLaren this year feeling as though Brown had done right by him in terms of his exit settlement, having seen his racing contract cut short by a year.
“The initial intention was to continue business as usual,” Brown said about how the whole situation played out. “As far as gardening leave, we have a great relationship.
“I know a lot of teams play the gardening leave card, but I think as we’ve demonstrated at McLaren, there are ways to dissolve a relationship, whether that’s with racing drivers, or employees, where you can do things on very workable terms for everyone.”
Seidl is a big coup for the Sauber Group and a perfect fit for the organisation. Much like Vasseur, Seidl has a great reputation in F1 and is credited with spearheading the resurgence McLaren has enjoyed since 2019. He arrived in F1 having overseen Porsche’s dominance of the World Endurance Championship in the mid-2010s which included three victories at the Le Mans 24 Hours.
Seidl wanted to step back from the day-to-day running of F1 and he will now be able to do that, with much of his attention likely to be preparing Sauber for the arrival of Audi in 2026.
Alfa Romeo will appoint a new team principal in due course to work beneath Seidl.
Unlike Ferrari and Sauber, McLaren decided to promote from within. Brown described Stella as a “continuity candidate”. Stella has never worked in a team principal role but worked under Jean Todt during Ferrari’s period of dominance, as well as Domenicali, Eric Boullier and, most recently, Seidl.
In the media call with Brown, Stella described how he has learned different traits from the different team bosses he’s worked under – the “incredible dedication” of Todt, the “people person” Domenicali teaching him the importance of bringing a team together internally, and how Seidl shook up and improved every aspect of the race team at every level. It remains to be seen whether Stella can be as successful at the helm as his predecessor.
McLaren faces an interesting 2023, with recent reports of delays to its long-awaited new windtunnel. The team has not been in championship contention since 2012 and, despite recent improvements, is still well behind the established top three of Red Bull, Ferrari and Mercedes. The team also has one of F1’s most exciting talents in Lando Norris. Keeping the young British driver, who is contracted through 2025, convinced about McLaren’s ambitions to return to the front will be one of the key priorities for Stella and Brown over the next few years.
Speaking of Stella’s elevation, Brown said: “The response I’ve had from the racing team about Andrea’s appointment has been predictably very well received. And I think as we try and build a team to get back to competing for the world championships it has to be a team effort, and this feels like we won’t miss a beat versus introducing someone from the outside because it takes quite a ways to get up to speed.
“If we didn’t have Andrea that maybe would have been an alternative to look at, but it was very clear to us very quickly that Andrea was who we wanted to have run the team.”
Williams post remains vacant
Unlike the other three teams who made moves this week, Williams so far only has news in the outgoing tray. Capito’s departure with technical director François-Xavier Demaison came after the team slipped from eighth in 2021 to last this year. Team owners Dorilton Capital were underwhelmed with the team’s performance this year and clearly did not believe in Capito’s long-term vision.
There are no obvious candidates to fill the vacancy. Unlike other sports, there is never usually a carousel of former team principals waiting in the wings in F1. Binotto is likely on a period of gardening leave at Ferrari and may not relish the prospect of dropping to the rear end of the field — a move to Alfa Romeo might make more sense for Binotto, given its current Ferrari links. Bob Fernley has fairly recent experience with Force India and became head of the FIA’s single-seater commission after Stefano Domenicali was named F1 boss in late 2020.
Former Williams test driver Susie Wolff could also be a candidate, having been a team boss for Formula E outfit Venturi from 2018 until 2021. Wolff became CEO of the team in late 2021 but left earlier this year.
Is Vasseur the man to end Ferrari’s championship drought?