Interview

Benedetto Vigna is the man leading Maranello into the future. Here's where it's going…

Benedetto Vigna’s appointment as CEO of Ferrari in June 2021 caught the world by surprise. A physicist by education, the 53-year old Italian national had been running a division of STMicroelectronics, a Geneva-based technology and semi-conductor company. His specialism was in motion sensors, originally integral to airbags in cars, later more profitably applied to the world of gaming – if you’ve ever played the Nintendo Wii, you’ll have had first-hand experience. Vigna has personally patented more than 100 concepts.

Not your standard car guy, then, whatever that means in 2022. For all that Ferrari has a fearsome reputation for powertrain and materials innovation, it’s off the pace when it comes to connectivity and class-leading HMI in its cars. Vigna’s knowledge, the company declared unambiguously upon his appointment, “will accelerate Ferrari’s ability to pioneer the application of next generation technologies”.

TopGear.com meets him in his office, a glassy edifice at the opposite end of the campus from the famous old entrance on Via Abetone. We don’t have time to cover everything we want to discuss, but we are keen to see what makes the man tick. He is warm, welcoming, and not immediately as intimidating as at least two of his predecessors. But his brain clearly functions at 5,000mph, and woe betide the Ferrari engineer who can’t keep up.

TopGear.com: You are technically an inventor. That sounds good…

Benedetto Vigna: I prefer to say innovator. A lot of the time inventors are just thinking, but innovators conceive new things and make them happen. You can invent something but innovation is bigger because you have to make it happen. How? By working with people. Which is why, if I have to define myself, I say innovator. I believe that the progress of humankind is about optimisation and continuous innovation. I mean, you have to keep improving. And that idea is one I found ingrained in the DNA of the people working at Ferrari.

TG.com: How often do you drive the cars?

BV: I’m on the track every few weeks. I drove the Purosangue as soon as I arrived. During the night, too. I remember a session past midnight.

TG.com: Did you change anything on the car?

BV: We optimised a few things, let’s say. I don’t want to be too specific, and it’s not something that’s visible. Something under the hood and behind the screen…

TG.com: Launching a car like the Purosangue – I won’t call it an SUV – with a V12 but no hybrid is punchy. Does Ferrari risk a perception problem here, even if the purists and enthusiasts are happy?

BV: Look, I’ll repeat what I said at the recent analysts’ call. When we disclosed that the Purosangue would have a naturally aspirated V12, the traction from customers was very strong. I don’t know what your impression is, but the ostracism of internal combustion engines is… changing a little bit. Did you read what Elon Musk said in a speech a few weeks ago? [At a conference in Norway, he claimed that ‘civilisation will crumble’ if the world stops using oil and natural gas too suddenly, and that the transition to green energy will take decades.] It’s true that some people will not like the V12, because it’s an ICE, and people tell you it should be a hybrid or electric. But the perception so far is very good.

TG.com: What about the new era of near-2,000bhp pure electric hypercars? No-one really needs that much power, but do your clients want it?

BV: It could be unmanageable. The motion you feel is coming from linear acceleration and lateral acceleration. This weekend I was with a Ferrari and there was another car, an electric one. It could compete with me on a straight line but lost momentum in the corners. We’re doing in-depth work and using all our experience so that we can deliver a continuous, consistent and authentic Ferrari driving experience; 2025’s electric Ferrari will be unique, a true Ferrari. There is some space over there. The beauty of our job is in combining the tradition with innovation. We are working a lot to maintain the soul of the machine.

TG.com: You are a physicist by education and joined Ferrari from STMicroelectronics. What did you make of the culture in Maranello, and the automotive culture in general?

BV: [Smiles] Ferrari is not automotive. Let me explain. I have been dealing with automotive OEMs since 1997. I worked on airbag sensors and vehicle dynamic controls. Remember the elk test that was causing the Mercedes A-Class to flip over? That was very important for me, because when I read about that I said, ‘we have to make a gyroscope, because it helps to stabilise’. From 1995 to 2001, my primary interface was with automotive customers. I was proposing a solution for active and passive safety. The problem is that they were very slow. So I decided to go outside the market, to look at gaming, look at mobile phones, I kept investing. I found new customers who were more dynamic. I remember talking to the CTO of a big company and telling him, ‘look, if you come with us you can find two things, firstly the dedication and willingness to progress and fix the problem, secondly, speed’. He looked at me and said, ‘Benedetto, I don’t care about the speed…’

Let me put it this way: I don’t like to be in orbit, looking down on Earth from the spaceship

TG.com: The car business must seem very ponderous compared to what you’re used to…

BV: I have a presentation from 2006 in which I outline a proposal to put sensors on a car to improve the dynamics. Do you know when it went into production? 2018. Ferrari is not an automotive company, because the speed is much faster. The world I have come from is much more dynamic, and Ferrari is closer to that world. I felt at home from day one, being a fan of Ferrari, and I also understand the culture because my wife is from this region. But I see the difference, too. The response time. When I came here, I thought from reading reports that Ferrari was really behind on electrification, and it’s not true. Because we started in 2009, with KERS. My team was working to provide all the electronics. Then we had the LaFerrari and the hybrid cars. The competence I found here – among the electrical engineers and the software engineers – is unique. I don’t think it’s arrogant to say that there are competencies here and most importantly a will to progress that is the best guarantee for the future, for our ability to address whatever comes up.

TG.com: Describe your management style.

BV: I like to manage being close to the people. So I know all the buildings, all the people, I like to have meetings everywhere. Let me put it this way: I don’t like to be in orbit, looking down on Earth from the spaceship, because it will look like a perfect sphere from up there. I like to be in the middle of it all. For me, there are three types of company. There are those where the people work for the boss, the ones where the people work for the company, and then there is the sort beyond that, where the people are working for the myth or the spirit. You can feel it here. It’s an atmosphere, something you breathe in. And when you have that you can surf all the waves you can find.

BV: I come from a world where you go to sleep at night and wake up the next morning and the world is different. Things are always changing, but it depends how you manage the change. For us, change presents the opportunity to do better. Today that change has the name ‘electrification’. In 10 years’ time it will have a different name. We know everything today, it’s all there on Facebook or Google. So when we have an event that catches us by surprise, something that is abnormal – a pandemic or a war – then we are lost. Because we are losing the ability to manage change. Something that is deeply rooted here is that the people are very good at that. If we have a meeting, and we change direction, the response time of the team here is very fast. We have an advantage because we are all in the same place, but it’s still not easy. I’ve come from a world where things changed daily. You need to address this with the right team, with the right mood, with confident humility.

BV: For sure I care. If we are here it’s because the past has worked well. We fully recognise the efforts of the people who came before us. We’re managing the tension between the tradition and the innovation. There are advantages and disadvantages to being a start-up. You don’t have to worry about the brand, you don’t have to take care of the heritage. But without that heritage they cannot sell the dream, they are missing something unique. Bringing the two together is like meshing two gears. The Purosangue is a good example. There is tradition here – it’s powered by a V12 engine, it’s naturally aspirated – but there is innovation, too.

TG.com: There’s an assumption that all Italians automatically love Ferrari. Are you a ‘car guy’? Does that even matter these days?

BV: Running Ferrari is a big honour, and a big responsibility. I remember my Ferrari backpack from my days at elementary school. The driver had a yellow crash helmet. I lived in a small place, and as a teenager I was spending time with older kids, who could already drive. They were big Ferrari fans, like I was, and I suggested going to Imola to watch a Grand Prix [in 1983]. I didn’t think of telling my mother or father, even though it was 500 miles away, and there was no cell phone, no WhatsApp. The place I’m from [he grew up in a village called Pietrapertosa, in the southern Italian region of Basilicata] is surrounded by big rocks, so quite often there was no signal on the television when we wanted to watch the racing. That meant we had to fix the antenna, and to do that we had to stand on the roof.

TG.com: And have you owned many interesting cars?

BV: When I was a teenager, I set up a small operation with two other guys fixing motorbikes. We had fun with cars, we took Fiat 600s and chopped the roofs off them, made them into Spiders, and then painted them with bright colours. This was the late Seventies and early Eighties, before computer games, and cars were an expression of creativity for people. Later, I was working in Milan, and I had a problem with the engine on my car, I needed to replace it. I had a 1300 and switched to a 1600, but I thought I might need some spares. So I ended up keeping the pieces under the bed in my room. The first time my wife visited me she discovered that I had most of an engine under the bed. She still tells our friends about it today.

Keyword: "Ferrari is not an automotive company," says new CEO

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