Frédéric Vasseur knows all about pressure.
In January, he was appointed general manager and team principal of Ferrari, one of the most demanding positions in motorsport due to the team’s popularity. But in 1996, Vasseur started his own team and said there were times when he struggled to make ends meet.
“I probably had more pressure when I started with ASM 30 years ago,” Vasseur said in an interview about the team. “I needed to get paid by the driver every Monday to avoid bankruptcy. (At this level of racing, drivers pay teams.)
When Vasseur, who was Sauber Group CEO and Alfa Romeo team principal last year, was approached by Ferrari to replace Mattia Binotto, who resigned at the end of the seasonhe had to consider the pressure he knew would be placed on his family.
“I knew it wouldn’t affect me or scare me,” he said. “It’s just more challenging and I didn’t want to expose them to it. It’s one thing for me, but another thing for my family. I had to make a decision.”
Vasseur said it took him a day because of his wife, Marie Laura. “I have four children, my youngest just turned 15, he’s at school and I knew it was going to be a big change for him,” he said.
“But my wife was more convinced than I was. She said, “What do you want? Why do you hesitate?'”
He said that Ferrari was so famous that “it’s completely impossible to say no”.
It wasn’t an easy start for Vasseur. After the team and its drivers Charles Leclerc, who is from Monaco, both finished second in the championship last season, Ferrari were expected to challenge the championship team Red Bull this year.
But after five Grands Prix, Ferrari is sputtering. He has one podium finish and is fourth in the Constructors’ Cup, 146 points behind Red Bull.
After roughly four months in charge, France’s Vasseur has had little time to impress the team or make major changes. “The main problem I had is that I joined fairly late,” he said.
“There was only four weeks between my first day and the launch of the new car. You have a huge wave of things to digest.”
Vasseur, who spent around six years at Sauber and Alfa Romeo, said: “If you look, all the teams take a long time to build something strong.”
“But when we were in a difficult situation,” he said of Ferrari, “the team’s reaction was calm, they tried to understand, they corrected step by step, they didn’t want to change everything right away.”
Red Bull team principal Christian Horner said he was surprised Ferrari had failed to challenge this season. The car was quick during one lap in qualifying, but struggled in the Grand Prix.
“You can never write anybody off,” Horner said.
His team finished first and second four times in five Grands Prix. “It was the best start we’ve ever had and we feel we’ve made a good step from last year’s car to this year’s,” he said. “It’s a move you’d expect.
“I feel that the others have lost their footing. I’m sure they are working hard on it and the big profits could come pretty quickly. But we are surprised that others may not have delivered compared to last year.”
Vasseur has been active in motorsport for almost 30 years. After founding ASM and winning the Formula 3 Euro Series title four times between 2004 and 2007, including Lewis Hamilton in 2005, Vasseur helped create a second successful team, ART Grand Prix, in 2004.
Vasseur helped Leclerc win the GP3 title in 2016 before mentoring him in his first season in Formula 1 at Sauber two years later.
Leclerc has developed a strong relationship with Vasseur, which has allowed the driver to “trust him fully” now that they are working together again.
“Until now, he basically tried to analyze the situation as quickly as he could to make the best possible changes for the future,” Leclerc said. “He will be doing much of his work from now on.
“Obviously I talk a lot with Fréd and I know his medium and long-term plans for the team and I’m fully behind him.
But Leclerc is struggling. Last season contributed to him after the crashes dropped out of contention for the drivers’ titlehe has been to three incidents this year.
At the Australian Grand Prix, he collided with Aston Martin’s Lance Stroll on the first lap and crashed in practice and qualifying for the Miami race.
Leclerc said after qualifying that he was “really mad” at himself and that he “should ride at a higher level”. He is 85 points behind Verstappen. After five Grand Prix last year, he led the championship by 19 points.
The question is how much time will Vasseur get to finally end Ferrari’s long wait for success. His last constructors’ title was in 2008 and his last drivers’ championship was won by Kimi Räikkönen in 2007.
“It’s a no-name project,” Vasseur said of his plans to improve the team. “It will never be Frédo Vasseur’s team.
“The Ferrari team will always come first.” It will have my touch, I will have to make some changes and the approach will be different, but it is important for me to be sure that we are going in the right direction.”
Carlos Sainz, the team’s second driver, said he also had a “very good relationship” with Vasseur, but found the car “very inconsistent” to drive during the Grand Prix. His best finish was fourth in the first race in Bahrain and he is 75 points behind Verstappen.
Vasseur acknowledged that Red Bull had a “top speed deficit”.
“Compared to Bahrain, we’ve made up 50 percent of the gap, but the advantage is still there,” Vasseur said.
“We bring updates, but not even Red Bull sleeps. They will get better and very often it’s a lot easier to get better when you’re in their situation, when you’re confident, than when you’re chasing someone.”
He said there was potential in the car because of Ferrari’s speed in qualifying. Vasseur wants to unlock the performance for a longer Grand Prix, where the team has problems with tire degradation. Ferrari qualified in the top three in all but one Grand Prix, but the team did not translate this into top-place finishes except in Azerbaijanwhere Leclerc qualified first and finished third in the race.
Vasseur said Ferrari’s top management, including John Elkann, chairman of the board, and Benedetto Vigno, chief executive, did not interfere in his decision.
“Never in the past have I had the kind of relationship with an organization above me that I have now,” said Vasseur, who was team principal at Renault and Alfa Romeo.
“I know that if I need their support, they are there. On the other hand, I have the freedom to manage the team the way I have to.”
But then there are the adoring Ferrari fans to contend with. “It is the only team in the world where they are waiting for you every morning when you go to the factory and they are waiting for you when you leave in the evening. That’s the reality.
“But somehow it’s good because it gives you extra motivation.