Musings on the Motoring World

Stefano Domenicali – The man who tamed The Bull

Just when you thought that the dramas of the 2020 season of Formula One couldn’t get any more exciting, it ratchets up a notch with the appointment of former Ferrari team principal, Stefano Domenicali, as the new chief executive of Formula One from next year.

Formula One’s man in charge

Already speculation of the sport’s future with an ex-Ferrari man in charge has gone into overdrive. The 2020 season, and most probably the next, is looking to be the Prancing Horse’s worst since the 1980s. With Ferrari’s championship hopes now depending on the infinite power of Christ, Stefano Domenicali’s appointment as a leading figure in the sport sounds like a Hail Mary to conspiracy theorists.

Will Domenicali extend an olive branch to the team that unceremoniously booted him out in 2014? Or will they discover he is one to hold a six-year grudge? As exciting as those questions sound, it is nothing more than spicy rumours for an already dramatic season.  

It also ignores the fact that Domenicali has been president of the FIA single-seater commission since leaving the sport. A role that governs all Formula racing series, including defining F1’s rules. Also, not forgetting, the president of the FIA himself is a former Ferrari team principal, Jean Todt. And Formula One’s head of motorsport, Ross Brawn, was also an ex-Ferrari technical director.

It is not like team leaders of the current grid are crying blood at the news of Domenicali’s appointment either. Most of them are excited to see him return to Formula One. However, this article isn’t about his role in the future of the sport. Instead, I’m more interested in the company he is leaving behind, Lamborghini.

Strange beginnings

Stefano Domenicali’s journey to Lamborghini started midway through Ferrari’s abysmal winless 2014 season. Despite leading the team to one driver’s and two constructor’s championships, Domenicali’s leadership was put into question after failing to stop Sebastian Vettel’s dominance between 2009 and 2013.

When the turbo-hybrid era began in 2014 and the scarlet team struggled to land podiums, Ferrari’s management had enough and Domenicali was forced to step down.

Out of the blue, Audi swooped in to sign him up to work “in the areas of service and mobility”. For a man whose 23-year career was focused on competition and performance, the role itself was an odd one, and his move raised eyebrows everywhere.

Rumours were rife that Audi’s appointment of a man of Domenicali’s background was proof that Audi, or the Volkswagen Group, were planning a foray into Formula One. Insider reports claim that the company was on the verge of joining the sport before Dieselgate altered its fortunes. Nevertheless, it is speculation that Domenicali still denies.

We may never know for sure what Audi had in mind for Domenicali, his brief time at Audi was shrouded in secrecy, to say the least. Two years later, he was bumped up to the top role at Lamborghini, replacing Stephan Winkelmann who was moved to Audi to lead the rebranded Audi Sport performance division. 

Building the brand and numbers

According to a brief news release from Lamborghini on his departure, Domenicali time as the head of the company was marked as leading “Lamborghini through a crucial period of exceptional transformation”. The article only attributes the introduction of the Urus, expansion of the company, and doubling global sales to him. A very formal description that doesn’t do his term justice.

Although Domenicali arrived just in time to debut the Urus in 2017, the pieces were already in place prior to his arrival. That aside, considering how every ultraluxury brand is printing fat stacks off the backs of SUVs, celebrating ones success in doubling sales is as self-congratulatory as U2’s Bono receiving the Bono Humanitarian Award from Bono.

From a business perspective, it is understandable to measure a leader’s success from sales and headcount increases. Achievements from a brand perspective, on the other hand, is much harder to assess. And this is where Domenicali had left a far more notable mark.

Reshaping The Bull

Ever since Old Man Enzo kindly told a humble tractor salesman to “bugger off”, Lamborghini has always positioned itself as the anti-thesis to Ferrari. While Ferrari attracted aristocrats or people who were deep into motorsports lore, Lamborghini was the choice of anti-establishment rock stars and the nouveau riche.

Both companies may have come from Modena’s supercar valley and made its name in building stunning exotic cars. However, for much of Lamborghini’s 57-year history, there was little overlap in ethos between it and the Prancing Horse. That is, until Domenicali’s arrival in 2016.

It is uncertain how much influence Domenicali had in the 2017 Huracan Performante and its trick aerodynamic system. However, Lamborghini’s sudden obsession with gunning for Nürburgring records certainly happened on his watch.

A year later, the company would repeat this trend with the Aventador SVJ. Sparking with it an internal competition with fellow VW Group sub-brand Porsche. It was clear that Domenicali was weaving in a penchant for track competition into Sant’Agata’s modus operandi.

Not only that. Domenicali broke away from his predecessor’s time-honoured method of creating limited-edition models by rebodying existing cars. Limited-edition cars like the Sian and the Essenza SCV12 served as platforms to introduce new engineering elements.

The Sian introduced a super capacitor-based hybrid system whereas the track-focused Essenza utilised a RAM aerodynamic effect to extra more performance. In a mirror of Ferrari’s XX programme, Lamborghini also adopted a factory storage and support model for Essenza owners.

Returning to its founding principles

In four short years, Stefano Domenicali had done more than release a money-generating SUV. The former Ferrari man transformed Lamborghini from a carmaker for posters and poseurs into a proper “off-track” rival to Ferrari.

That isn’t to say Domenicali had tamed the wild ways of Ferruccio Lamborghini’s 57-year-old two-finger salute to Modena. Rather, he realigned Lamborghini back to Ferruccio’s original intent of making better-engineered cars than what Ferrari was making. All the while maintaining the glam and extroverted image that the company picked up from the 1980s.

All of this bodes well for Lamborghini’s fortunes as it stands at the cusp of a new and uncertain era. Will the future Aventador or Huracan replacement sport a hybridised drivetrain? Or dare we say full-electric propulsion? We won’t know till it happens, but we can be sure that a quiet and thoughtful man from Imola has set the foundations right.