Sergio Marchionne, former president of Ferrari and Fiat Chrysler, was not a racing person, although he enjoyed driving fast cars and owned several Ferrari road cars. He first became involved in the Ferrari company in 2004 when he was appointed CEO of Fiat, which was then the Ferrari parent company.
In the latter years of his life, Marchionne also made his mark in Formula 1.
On Wednesday, Marchionne, 66, died in Italy from what were said to be complications from shoulder surgery performed three weeks ago.
"Unfortunately, what we feared has come to pass. Sergio Marchionne, man and friend, is gone," said new company chairman John Elkann in a press release.
When Marchionne became involved with Ferrari in 2004, Fiat chairman Luca Montezemolo was the chairman; it was Montezemolo who played the major role in running the supercar business and the Formula 1 team. Ferrari was still on a high in Formula 1, with Michael Schumacher winning his fifth consecutive World Championship and Ferrari picking up its sixth straight Constructors' title.
Marchionne's direct involvement in Ferrari F1 activities did not begin until after Montezemolo was replaced as Fiat chairman by John Elkann in April 2010. After this key switch, Marchionne and Montezemolo clashed over how Ferrari should be developed, with Montezemolo keen to cap annual production at 7,000 cars to maintain the exclusivity of the Ferrari brand, while Marchionne wanted to expand, ramping up production and planning for a Ferrari sport-utility vehicle. It did not help Montezemolo's case that Ferrari's F1 program had slipped into the doldrums, the team winning its last title in 2008.
In the end, Marchionne won the battle. In 2014, Montezmeolo resigned as Ferrari chairman and CEO and Marchionne took over.
“We had in the recent past some recent serious disagreements, but I never called into question Sergio’s courage, ability and vision that made the saving and re-launch possible,” Montezemolo said in a statement.
Soon after he became chairman, Marchionne moved to improve the F1 team and fired Marco Mattiacci, who had been in charge of Ferrari Gestione Sportiva for just a few months. Significantly, it was Mattiacci who had orchestrated the deal to replace Fernando Alonso with Sebastian Vettel before the axe swung. Marchionne chose Maurizio Arrivabene as Mattiacci's replacement, which seemed an odd decision.
“We decided to appoint Maurizio Arrivabene because we need a person with a thorough understanding not just of Ferrari but also of the governance mechanisms and requirements of the sport,” Marchionne said at the time. "Maurizio has a unique wealth of knowledge: he has been extremely close to the Scuderia for years and, as a member of the F1 Commission, is also keenly aware of the challenges we are facing. He has been a constant source of innovative ideas focused on revitalisation of Formula One. His managerial experience on a highly complex and closely regulated market is also of great importance, and will help him manage and motivate the team."
In reality, it soon became clear that Marchionne was calling the shots on everything.
Ferrari was floated on the New York Stock Exchange in 2015, under the RACE ticker. Share price rose in value dramatically, but Ferrari was out on its own, no longer under the Fiat umbrella. It had to survive on its own — and Formula 1 was an important part of that, being Ferrari's only advertising platform.
In 2016, Marchionne was at his most brutal when he forced the resignation of Ferrari F1 technical director James Allison, who had just lost his wife and needed time to be with his family. Marchionne ruled Ferrari by fear, his reputation for firing people at will keeping everyone on their toes and silent towards the media.
"This is a sad day for all of us in F1," said Mercedes boss Toto Wolff. "We have a lost a huge supporter of our sport, a fierce competitor, an ally and a friend. Our heartfelt sympathies are with Sergio's family and all at Scuderia Ferrari at this difficult time."
Formula 1 chairman Chase Carey said that Marchionne was "a “great leader of not just Formula 1 and the automobile world, but the business world overall. He led with great passion, energy and insight, and inspired all around him. His contributions to Formula 1 are immeasurable. He was also a true friend to all of us and he will be deeply missed."
It remains to be seen what impact the death of Marchionne will have within Formula 1, but the first likely indication will come when the Scuderia picks it second driver for 2019. Marchionne was keen to promote youngster Charles Leclerc to challenge Sebastian Vettel and create a stronger Ferrari challenge in the Constructors' title, but the new management may decide not to take a risk and to keep Kimi Raikkonen.