Stefano Domenicali interview: Bernie was great but F1 was losing its way – we had to move on
Stefano Domenicali looks back out over the Circuit of the Americas from our vantage point at the top of its famous first turn and smiles. “Look at that,” says Formula One’s chief executive, approvingly. It is quite a scene. Lights twinkle in the dusk; fans swarm about the circuit like ants; away to our right we can hear Green Day warming up for their set at COTA’s 14,000-seater amphitheatre. The following night it will be Ed Sheeran’s turn to entertain the crowds. “Beautiful, no?” Domenicali adds.
The Italian is referring to more than just the view. He is talking about the state of Formula One in general. This is his vision for the sport.
The weekend just gone saw a record 440,000 fans descend on this bit of scrubland outside of Austin for the United States Grand Prix - the highest attendance of the year - with television viewing figures also hitting new heights. Having struggled for so long to gain a foothold in the States, F1 is well and truly living the American dream now.
By the end of 2023 there will be three races on US soil, with a night race in Las Vegas joining Miami and Austin on a groaning 24-race calendar. “It wasn’t so long ago we were thinking ‘Is it really right to keep investing in F1 in the US?” Domenicali notes. “Now look at it. It’s incredible.”
Not everyone would agree. There are plenty out there who believe F1 is chasing the dollar too hard; that Netflix is shaping the narrative rather than simply recording it; that F1 these days is about entertainment first and sport second. F1's 'traditionalists' would certainly not have been impressed by the presence of Hollywood heavyweights Brad Pitt and Jerry Bruckheimer in the COTA paddock last weekend, discussing the big-budget movie they are planning to shoot next year.
What they do care about is the thought of losing a Spa or a Monaco from the calendar (both took a while to agree new deals but ended up staying) in favour of yet more grands prix in places like China or Vegas or Azerbaijan.
Domenicali accepts there will always be doubters; those who want to turn back the clock. But he is focused very much on the future. As we walk the track together - a ritual he performs every race weekend to “clear the head” - the Italian buzzes excitedly about the latest technological advancements his team are trialling: drones, gyroscopic cameras, helmet cameras. “Different cuts, different angles,” he says. “It’s exciting.”
Domenicali says he cannot stop to listen to naysayers. "If I listened, I wouldn't get anything done,” he says. “It’s always easier to say ‘no' to everything. Comfort zone. Perfect. But [doing that] you will never grow. You will die."
Was F1 in danger of dying? "I would say F1 was in danger of [losing its way],” he replies. "From the sporting perspective, from the commercial perspective. Now you see big multinational companies investing a lot in the sport. It shows the platform is very healthy."
Aware it may look as if he's criticising the sport's previous ruler Bernie Ecclestone, he adds: "I think Bernie did an incredible job to build F1 up. But like everything in life, there comes a time when you have to move on. It’s like when you’re a kid, then you become a teenager, then you are an adult. I think we are in a phase now that the kid - big kid - becomes an adult and we need to have a different perspective."
It is hard not to like Domenicali. One of the most affable of men; friendly with everyone in the paddock. I remind him how he used to have a reputation, back when he was running Ferrari, of being “too nice” for F1. Some thought a lack of killer instinct might be an issue when he took over from Chase Carey at the start of last year, having taken a few years away to run Audi and Lamborghini. Unsurprisingly, he begs to differ.
"To be honest I hate this stereotype that if you are rude, aggressive, you are the best manager,” he says. “I don’t have to wear a mask. Like it or not, I’m what you see. And I can go to sleep at night knowing I did the maximum I could.”
Those close to Domenicali suggest he is plenty tough enough; that he may be charming and affable and friendly but he is not afraid to ruffle a few feathers to deliver on his vision. Austin was pretty close to the dream; a race that not only delivered on the track but off it.
“Our traditional fans have a voice and we must listen to them," he says. "But the world is changing and it is up to us to recognise that and react to it.
“It’s not any more only about racing. Today we want to have people come here, to have a fun experience. Of course, the focus is still on the racing - good racing otherwise they won't come back - but then afterwards have the chance to stay connected, to do something more."
As he seeks to raise standards across the board, Domenicali has not been afraid to play chicken with races such as Spa and Monaco, forcing them to up their game so as not to be left behind.
“As for the people saying ‘Historic grand prix, historic grand prix’, again I don’t want to be disrespectful to anyone… but there were places that were stuck in the past. Now they understand that if they don’t [move with the times], the law of competition means they will lose their race. No exceptions."
We are nearly back at the pits. A few fans stop him to ask Domenicali for selfies. Of course he is happy to oblige.
He allows that F1 has much it can improve on; that last year’s Abu Dhabi finale was a disaster which shook many fans' belief in the sport's governance; that the ongoing budget cap row paints F1 in a bad light; that fans cannot be waiting hours for confirmed race results or final grid orders.
But he sees those issues as separate to the sport’s health as a whole which he believes is thriving. He has little time for those saying 24 races next season is too many (“We need to keep perspective. We are all privileged to do what we do.”), or that F1 is too in thrall to Netflix.
“Netflix didn’t change the racing on the track," he says. "Social media didn’t change the racing. Post-race concerts didn’t change the racing.
"Believe me if the system was false, I wouldn’t be here. I used to run a team. If I had had any doubts back when I was running Ferrari, that we lost some races or championships because there was something against us… I would have walked.
As long as the racing is fair, and exciting - and I think it is - then I don’t see the problem with trying to maximise everything around it. I think the two things are totally separate, no?"
Ultimately, he says, he is satisfied that the sport is on the right path.
“Of course there are things we can do better,” he says when asked about recent issues such as the safety vehicle at Suzuka, or the budget cap row. “I think it would not be correct on my side to point fingers, but I take your point. Everyone of us needs to make sure we are at our best.
“But I want to focus on the bigger picture. I have to say that at this moment, I feel really positive. I believe there is a lot of trust in me; from all the teams, and all the drivers, on what we are doing. We are in a good place."