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CAR interviews Ferrari CEO Amedeo Felisa (2011)

Published: 11 October 2011

This week CAR is publishing a string of interviews with Ferrari management. Today we speak to Ferrari CEO Amedeo Felisa, a trained engineer who now runs Ferrari day-to-day. CAR’s October 2011 issue – on sale now – contains a VIP tour of Ferrari and interviews with the company’s top brass: president di Montezemolo, Ferrari CEO and engineer Amedeo Felisa and design chief Flavio Manzoni.

We covered so many fascinating topics that some great material could have finished up on the cutting room floor. Instead we’ll publish the full transcripts of the interviews this week. Read on for the full conversation with Felisa, and for the pictures of our access all areas visit, pick up the October issue of CAR (free digital preview here).

CAR: What did you make of the recent British tests pitching the 458 Italia against the McLaren 12C?

Amedeo Felisa: ‘We have very good results especially because it was UK journalists, we were expecting some comment veering in the direction of the McLaren. We were surprised.’

Do you really think the British media lack objectivity?

‘Well, only you British can find a certain level of performance in Aston Martins!’

Ferrari recently commissioned 50 design schools from around the world to design the hypercar of 2025. What did you make of the results?

‘This was the second time Ferrari has done such a competition. Last time the brief was more general and we got [a wide-ranging] perception of Ferrari from young people: some were speaking of F1 cars, some sedans, GT and so on. Perhaps our brief was too specific this time. We asked creative people: ‘think of the Ferrari [hypercar] 20 years from now’. It’s interesting to get the mind of people who are not connected [with Ferrari], what they think of the future for this special brand. The young often speak of green cars, for example.’

What other trends did you see?

‘The students concentrated on hyper technological performance cars. That’s probably the area where we have enough information and ideas!’

Ferrari has just launched the 458 Spider at Frankfurt. What can we expect from this car?

‘The 458 Spider is different to the 430 Spider, it has a rigid hard top. We decided several years ago that the Spider’s future was in that direction. Now it’s easier to make the development of the rigid hard top that in the past was really difficult; the technology is now in the hands of the designers. The problem in the past was the investment, the cost, due to the different linkage between the top and the body was very difficult, it needed lots of tests and tooling to prepare that. Now with new technology and our suppliers, we can do it. The top is totally is different from the California’s: it’s not as complex and the 458 Spider’s is two piece. Easier to move, quicker to open and close, and [needs less] space. I think it’s the first Spider with a rigid hard top [on a mid/rear engined car].’

Which roof supplier did you use?

‘Webasto.’

How much of a weight penalty is there over the canvas roof 430 Spider?

‘More or less the weight increase is close to what we’ve had in the past, [perhaps] a little better. This is important because everyone expects a rigid hard top to have a higher weight and that’s not the case. It’s a good result because it’s not easy to engineer. It’s very clever.’

Does the roof retract on the move?

‘Some manufacturers add that [feature] but we don’t understand why you’d want to open or close it when you’re driving.’

It’s very useful in the UK, with our schizophrenic weather...

‘But you can stop the car. Frankly speaking that feature is not really adding value to the customer. It’s technically feasible but we think it’s not that interesting.’

How long does the roof mechaism take?

‘Fourteen seconds. Three-quarters of the car is like the coupe except the rear deck is different. On the coupe we have the glass [window] at the back, but here we have decided on a diferent style. In some respects it won’t exactly be the Spider of the coupe as the back part is different. [So far] we’ve had good sucess with all the people we’ve presented the car to.’

So it weighs the same as the coupe?

‘We still have about 50kg more than on the Coupe. But the impact on performance is very low. The character of the Spider customer is different, maybe they’re not expecting as much performance as the coupe. The customer will like to drive and uyse the car in a quick way, but he’s not asking for the ultimate performance like the ones who buy the coupe.’

Do lots of Ferrari customers have both Spider and fixed-head?

‘In the past, 10-15% of customers bought both. Normally we have more customers for the Spider, especially in the US, our best market. In the UK we sell more Spiders than coupes; in Italy we prefer the coupe. The handling is very close; in some ways, the Spider is more comfortable than the coupe. The customer [still] wants to have the performance but they want the open air feeling more than the best timed lap at Fiorano. It’s a bit softer but you have to look very closely to feel that. Stiffness of chassis is diferent but you have enough stiffness to get the good dynamics. The Spider has enough stiffness [for this kind of car, and convertible] customers do not like to have the same damper rigidity as the coupe’s.’

>> Click 'Next' to read more of CAR Magazine's interview with Ferrari chief Amedeo Felisa

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Talking of chassis rigidity, can you see a time when Ferrari’s V8 cars make the switch to carbonfibre?

‘Aluminium chassis are good enough for the cars of which we are speaking. Unless you are moving to really extreme cars. The benefits from having carbonfibre are not worthwhile if you compare with the cost, and the [reduced] rate of production. We can make 20 458s today. And if you go to the [composites] we use in F1 you have better performance and lighter weight but if you have an accident it’s not comparable. Today we assume that the weight benefit you can have with the tech you can lose with the daily rate we need for 458, so the benefit is low. We will present in Frankfurt a chassis done in aluminium that is very close to the McLaren 12C’s weight; then of course we have not the same [impact] on production and costs, so if we use that [approach], it doesn’t make sense to use compsoites. If you speak of the very high performance cars like the Enzo, production per day is one, less than one, then the cost is accepetable as the cost of cars is very high, the technology of the composite is a good one today. Probably future the technology is moving in a different direction but not today.’

How have you refined the aluminium chassis with the Frankfurt show car?

‘We have used different [blends of] alloys, diferent ways to link them, changed the suspension strut, the extrusions for the bumper, sills. It’s knowledge we’ve been working on for 15 years.’

And how does the production process compare with the Enzo’s?

‘That chassis was done by an external supplier; for the new one we will use the technology inside the F1 department, use the same materials and technology. In that case production will be done internally.’

Gordon Murray told CAR he wouldn’t change a nut or bolt on the McLaren F1. Ten years on from the Enzo, was there anything you might have done differently?

‘When you’re at the end of [any] project, you understand what you’ve done in the wrong ways, or specific issues for the new cars;  every time we finish a project we reflect on what we could do better, there’s a lot of that. Sometimes to do the project you need 3 years or 3½ years, normally you learn a lot of other expertise, so I think always at the end you’re able to say if I go back to the start I’d do it in a different way. This is the way we do our innovation, we continue to evolve, we do not stop to evolve because we have ended the project. We work together on the best solution we have at that moment, and for sure one year later you have something better coming from different deptartmens within the company. It’s normal to have something better than you originally think. If I had time I would do it differently but this is normal for the engineer. You don’t necessarily do something wrong, you just think it could be better.’

Ferrari seems to have given new design direction Flavio Manzoni more freedom than his predecessors Frank Stephenson and Donato Coco. What made you want to change your internal design resource and why was Manzoni the man to do it?

‘You’re right, what we have done in one year with Manzoni is different to what we got with his predecessors. I think the differences are coming from Manzoni – he’s different from his predecessors. And  second we are continuing to evolve. We decided that six or seven years ago to have our own styling centre, and we continue to understand how to do that in a better way; for sure Manzoni with his characteristics and his experience has added something but the decision for developing an internal styling centre was done a lot of years ago. We still continue to work with Pininfarina so it’s not a matter of cancelling the cooperation with them, but why not have  internal stylists to do our special research project, to do our investigation in new styles. To have people internally it’s a freedom you can have not to go to someone else and ask him for that.’

Manzoni told me Pininfarina was great for pushing his team along, for providing competition...

‘It’s better to have not only one group of people working on these [projects], but that was [true] in the past. Having more than one [design team] challenges the other one to get the best solution, this is normal.’

Could be a time when we don’t see a Pininfarina badge on a Ferrari GT car?

‘When the internal styling is better than Pininfarina then yes, or why would you do it? That’s the ideal [outcome] of a design contest. But Pininfarina is a company that’s been working with us for 40, 50, 60 years, so we really have a strong partnership with them. We’re not forced to go with Pininfarina: we expect to give them winning reward to the best [work].’

The Pininfarina business is loaded with debt: is this a concern? Is the internal resource a critical safety net?

‘We always have other alternatives. A bigger challenge is the fact that having added the California, a fourth model in the range, while keeping the same timetable to develop our cars. We are asking the people for more work to be done.’

Are you increasing the pace of the replacement cycle?

‘Each model lasts eight years: four years plus four years. In the middle we do a big modification normally: we do not chage the architecture but we change some part of the performance, chasiss, suspension, engine. The 458 is the new generation with the 8 cylinder in the back; the 430 was the modification of the 360. If you remember 360 to 430, then with 458 you understand the differences with the new generation. If you remember the 430 had a new engine, modification on the suspension, the dynamics of car were different, and we modified mainly the exterior and then the interiors. What is not changing for sure is the architecture. We do not move the bias of the weight, but style and performance is normally a huge difference.’

Has Manzoni met your expectations?

‘Manzoni was at the Fiat Group [before VW], we knew him very well, he’s not someone we took without having any knowledge. It was not a risky choice. Nor for him, to go back to the Italian way of working!’

Manzoni said the family approach contrasted starkly with Ferrari’s more radical way of working.

‘For Ferrari, we don’t use a family feel between the models. All the other brands, they have a way which they use in a different shape, stretching or enlarging. Our rule is not to use that. On every car you can have some iconic touches coming from previous models, but in other ways we don’t like to have a family feel. The German way is to be more process oriented, we are more creative. I think this is the big difference Manzoni found here compared with Volkswagen. The styling is totally different, the process is different, and I am in favour of our process rather than the German one!’

Former designer Donato Coco went to Lotus. Could they become a threat to Ferrari?

‘As with McLaren, we are not afraid of the competition. Competition is part of our life. If you imagine the activities of the F1 team, it’s not another part of the company, it’s still the way Ferrari appraoches busines. I think the answer would be yes if we stop the evolution, if we lose knowledge and lose some competence this will affect our results but as you can see now we are continuing to change and modify, so it’s not a real risk.’

Is Ferrari on course for a record year?

‘Wait ’til the end of the year! We have to save the money for the future development and we have a lot of ideas so we need more money.’

How much does Ferrari invest in R&D?

‘Between 14-15%. [And with revenues growing], the absolute value is increasing year by year. Formula 1 is not included. There’s only one P&L sheet but every department has control otherwise we don’t understand where we put the money, what we’ve spent it on or invested in.’

How is the hyrbid project progressing?

‘A big part of our investment is done on hybrid. For sure at some moment in the future we have to do this because of the regulations. We ask for the modification on the architecture of the car, we have to look into the future, we have to prepare a lot of sub-system. On the other side we have to develop the batteries, the electric motors, how to couple the electric engine with the internal combustion engine so it’s really a big activity. Batteries will continue to change, everything which is connected to electric engine is moving, it’s a huge activity done with our strategic supplier. We are using a lot of experience done by F1 for KERS but what we have in mind is not KERS; it’s more complex. But we are catching the ideas and experience of ther F1 team.’

>> Click 'Next' to read more of CAR Magazine's interview with Ferrari chief Amedeo Felisa

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Will you only use it on front-engined GT cars?

‘Both.’

So that means it can be used on V8 cars...

‘The reason is to reduce the emission because of the regulation, the car that needs it in the very short term is the 12-cylinder. But for sure the requirements [will keep getting stricter]: it’s not only the 12s, every new model has to be developed in a different eway. For sure, we think that the first app will be done on the 12 but we have to spread out the solution on others.’

Can you see the 12-cylinder being downsized or phased out?

‘We would prefer to maintain the 12-cylinder in our range of products. The first [hybrid] application is on the 12 but for sure the regulation asked for reducing the displacement and probably a 1.5-litre 12-cylinder is [asking] too much! In the short term the answer will be no, but in the future probably. We fight a lot with FIA not to have the four cylinder [in F1] but to move on the six; for sure to have a four-cylinder ferrai you have to wait 50 years [laughs!] but probably six is more affordable. Also at the moment we don’t have any ideas to make a six cylinder Ferrari except the F1.’

What is your emissions goal?

‘We always have targets. The 12-cylinder with hybridisation you can go to 200g/km. You have a lot of space to move. The California emits 299g/km, if you do the hybrid 12 you can go lower than the V8.’

Will the next 12-cylinder GT have the hybrid from beginning?

‘We are looking to the regulation. Hybridisation of the car is asking for higher weight and high cost, why do it unless forced by the regulation? We’re still in the process to continue to reduce emission using other technology. The next move is not the hybrid, we have another one or two moves first but we are preparing ourself for the hybrid becasue we have to define what the future should be in a very safe way, we have to prepare ourselves and then see what will be the evolution of the regulators’ mindset. Today I think this solution is high cost and high weight, question should be why do you have to do it, for sure you will be reducing the emmission, for sports cars the emissions is important, but as we explained to the regulators it’s not Ferrari that is affecting the greenhouse gases. We have decided that we have to play our part, but frankly speaking we are not the solution to the problem.’

What do the Eurocrats say, do they listen?

‘They are understanding and we are discussing with them what the [next step] should be. Ferrari is a low volume manufacturer, and the likes of Ferrari, Lamborghini and McLaren do not really affect the result as much as say BMW or Fiat. They understand that and i think they agree with all of us, because we are all giving them the same story. We need to evolve, we need to follow the path but we are not driving that. We are not the solution, but if you want the technology it’s more easily developed for large volume than low volume. But it’s a technological challenge so why not participtate and try to do out part. We started in 2007, and I think today our emissions are down 30 – 40%. We are evolving probably better than others but at the same time increasing the performance of our cars.’

Ferrari will likely pass the 7000 sales barrier in 2011. Is this psychologically a big thing?

‘We are following the requests coming from the markets, we are not increasing volumes because we need to gain more money. The indictaor we look to for developing the company is the return on sales. We don’t need to increase volumes to go in that direction. We cannot say no to the people who are asking for our cars. Our volumes are related to the market and how many wealthy people on the market. Our philosophy is not to be forced to increase volume. This is the best practice. If the market asks for 10 cars we build 10 cars. If you are doing that you can maintain the exclusivity. If you start from the opposite and [make] 20 cars which you have to sell it’s difficult to speak in a proper way about exclusivity.’

So 7000 cars isn’t a big deal?

‘It’s not really important for us. The founder said one car less than the maket demands and we maintain that. It’s probably one of the reasons for our success.’

What will Ferrari do with its €650m cash pile?

‘We are spending a lot in new development. And we have very good shareholders. They are giving us all the freedom and money that we need. If i remember correctly, the first time we gave a dividend was in 2004 when Fiat was in a very bad shape, I think over the previous 10 years we never gave them anything. We have very good sharholders: they don’t ask for a dividend and they leave the money with the company.’

Won’t Fiat need cash to turn around Chrysler? That’s a big tanker to turn…

‘For sure it was a big move and hopefully it will be successful. So far it’s been a very clever idea. For Fiat it’s a good way to reach the total volumes that a large manufacturer has to have to maintain a safe business. For us, we are small and we try to maintain our position. The new markets for sure are asking for higher volumes, China is booming. India is the latest, then I think we have very few other countries left. We will maybe sell 40 cars in India this year. India is not like China, so we are not expecting it to do the same [numbers initially]. But probably in 15-20 years from now, India will be a very large market. It’s at a lower level of development than China for now.’

Are India and China drawn towards the FF?

‘We’ll have to wait and see. For sure we have different kinds of customer. That’s why we enlarged the range of products. There’s not one specific kind of cutsomer: collectors, the technology minded and performance buyers, ones that want GT cars, older ones who want 12 cylinders, younger ones have the 8s, it’s a mix.’

Will the FF’s performance eclipse the 612’s?

‘If you look to the character of the car, the FF is not the new 612. It has 4x4, two big rear seats, a big space for luuggage: we expect to enlarge the number of cutomers that will be interested. At this moment, we are short of statistics, but the expectation is that we will enlarge the numbers versus the Scaglietti.’

Why did the product planners take the FF route?

‘The idea is that the mindset of people is changing. In the past people might have been satisfied with a real sports car; in the future because of driving conditions and emissions they might ask for somehting different. It’s still a Ferrari car. They always want the performance, the driving emotion, but maybe they’re asking for something different. So for the 612 [replacement], we thought we would have to do something more in the direction of the people who want to use the car daily or do a large trip. The FF concept is for two people to [manage] two weeks of holiday, or four people to have the luggage space for a weekend. Again the idea was to have the possibility to use the car in every weather condition: ‘today it’s snowing so we can’t take the Ferrari we take the Cayenne!’ And the customers’ thinking has changed: 10 years ago a 12-cylinder 2+2 like the 456 was enough; now they want more pspace, more luggage, more practicality, this is why we decided to have 4x4, to enlarge the boot, moveable seats in the back. Perhaps a son would buy a 458 and his father buy the FF. We have to prepare ourselves to serve many different customers.’

Are expectations of 599 customers changing too?

‘They want to have more. CO2 is an issue. They want to have somehting more dynamic, an [enhanced] driving experience, they are probably not asking for a higher level of top speed but they want more sportiness but without losing comfort. When you’ve experienced something, when you move on you want more. You want something better than the past and this is what we try to deliver.’

>> Click 'Add your comment' to sound off on our interview with Ferrari's CEO

By Phil McNamara

Editor-in-chief of CAR magazine

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