MARANELLO, Italy -- The Auditorium Enzo Ferrari stands proudly on one side of Maranello's central piazza. It's not the prettiest building in Northern Italy -- far from it -- but its yellow stucco is immaculately maintained and free of the graffiti that plagues the surrounding streets. It is also a point of pilgrimage each year for Ferrari's most dedicated fans -- the tifosi -- who, midway through Italy's coldest month, huddle outside the large wooden doors waiting to be let in. Two members of the local Carabinieri do their best to stop the crowd spilling into the street, but soon accept the inevitable and switch their attention to diverting traffic around the growing mushroom of red jackets.
Once inside, the loyal fans will watch the launch of Ferrari's new car, the SF90, via a video link from the factory down the road. The drivers will swing by just before lunch to raise hopes and sign memorabilia, before going back to the factory to speak to the international media. The next 12 months of emotions rest on the performance of the car that is about to be unveiled, and the passion running through the crowd is almost tangible.
"Ferrari is everything," says one life-long fan. "It is the first and the last -- there is nothing else without Ferrari. La febbre Ferrari [fever Ferrari], we say in Italian."
But even the most dedicated tifosi have started to grow restless in recent years. It's been over a decade since Ferrari last won a title and last year's failure, which could so easily have been a success, seems to have dented confidence among the ranks. Despite their undimmed passion for Ferrari, there is an ingrained belief that the reigning five-times world champions, Mercedes, will start the season with the faster car. The glory years of Michael Schumacher in the early 2000s seem awfully distant.
But there is also a new hope this year in the form of a new team principal. Maurizio Arrivabene was ousted by Ferrari's top management over the winter and replaced by technical director Mattia Binotto. The two men spent the last four years working alongside one another but, significantly, they couldn't be more different.
'Enjoyment' and 'fun' key to Binotto's Ferrari
Arrivabene was a marketing man who had previously worked for Ferrari's title sponsor Philip Morris before taking the top job. To the outside world he projected a man-of-steel persona, but in reality he was inaccessible, distant and autocratic in his style of leadership. Binotto, a personable engineer who has worked his way up through the ranks at Ferrari over a 25-year career, promises to be the opposite.
"It is several years we have been working all together, trying to improve step by step, season by season," he said following Friday's launch. "I think the philosophy for next season is to try to enjoy -- that's possibly something we were missing in the past.
"Certainly you can enjoy through winning, but I think you can simply enjoy by trying to be teammates -- that's something we are trying to constantly achieve."
Although Binotto is too modest to admit it, he is largely responsible for the progress Ferrari made in recent years. It shouldn't be forgotten that in 2014 the team finished fourth in the constructors' championship after a disastrous start to life under a new set of engine regulations. Arrivabene may have been the team principal during the period of improvement that followed, but it was the technical structure Binotto introduced that yielded the results.
Prior to becoming technical director midway through 2016, Binotto oversaw Ferrari's big improvement in engine performance, which ultimately proved key to taking the fight to Mercedes over the past two years. And when former technical director James Allison left the team midway through 2016, Binotto, under the orders of former chairman Sergio Marchionne, conducted a complete review of Maranello's F1 operation.
Rather than the top-down approach that existed before, Binotto encouraged ideas to develop among junior members of the design office, allowing the best innovations to filter up and onto the car. In the last two years, some of the aerodynamic developments that have emerged from Maranello under his watch, especially around the sidepods and side-impact structures, have been imitated up and down the grid -- the sincerest form of flattery in the paddock. But despite the leaps in car development, something was still missing.
In 2018 there was little doubt that Ferrari had a car capable of winning both championships, yet it fell well short in a head-to-head battle with Mercedes and Lewis Hamilton. Some of the lost points were down to Sebastian Vettel's mistakes on track, but some were down to strategy mistakes from the pit wall and wrong turns in car development towards the end of the year. But regardless of the origin of the mistakes, once Ferrari's downward spiral started the team was unable to recover. By the end of the season, updates from the factory started to have a negative impact on performance and it was only when developments added to the car from the Singapore Grand Prix onwards were removed, that Ferrari returned to a race-winning level of performance.
And at the top of it all, overseeing the downward spiral, Arrivabene offered no answers. His style of leadership had team members looking over their shoulders rather than at solutions, and in his rare media appearances he said his team had developed a "fear of winning". What he failed to recognise was that a fear of losing -- and the ill feeling in the team that followed -- was the real factor holding Ferrari back. The hope now is that Binotto can offer a healthier environment, which is cabale of absorbing pressure rather than buckling underneath it.
"During the last seasons we didn't win, but we were so close, so it's not about a revolution," Binotto says. "What is my approach? I'm not the player on the field, the drivers are our players on the field, our technicians -- I want to ensure the best conditions so that they can do their best.
"So far I have been a part of the technical side -- I will still be in charge of the technical side -- but I have a new role now and my first duty is ensuring the best conditions for the drivers so they can do their best.
"I think this peace of mind is best for them because they really want to have fun, enjoy driving on the track, and this is true for the drivers and the whole organisation. It's about building up our team spirit and our hashtag 'essere Ferrari' means 'being Ferrari'; teamwork, team spirit, innovation, passion."
Is Sebastian Vettel still the right driver for the job?
But Binotto will also have to make difficult decisions. At the launch he made clear that Vettel is the team's "northern light" and that in 50/50 situations he, and not new teammate Charles Leclerc, will get preference. Things may change if the points tally gets skewed in Leclerc's favour, but in Binotto's eyes Vettel is the man to end Ferrari's title drought.
Sat next to his new boss, Vettel was visibly relaxed after a winter spent "mostly at home recharging batteries". Although it was never expressed explicitly, it became clear towards the end of last year that the relationship between Vettel and Arrivabene had degraded significantly. Under Binotto's plan to ensure the "best conditions" for his drivers, Vettel should be given all the tools he needs to right the wrongs of last year.
"At times for sure it was quite difficult last year and there were hard times to go through and overcome, but I think you can always learn something," Vettel told ESPN. "I think I have an idea, so let's see how I am able to execute that plan. I think time will tell.
"Overall, the spirit in the team feels right, we all are excited. At this point of the year there are a lot of hopes. Looking forward to getting into the car and seeing how it feels. We've all seen how it looks, I think it looks great but we obviously have to prove it on track.
"I'm quite sure with the team that we were able to build in the last couple of years -- and there's a progression for this year moving in the same direction and trying to improve and ultimately come up with a car that is competitive until the end of the season -- allows us to fight for the championship the way we want to fight.
"I think we got in a fight over the last couple of years, sometimes closer, sometimes further away, but overall I think things are moving in the right direction. Things have not been turned upside down since the beginning of January, Mattia has taken the leadership of the team but I think it's more of a natural progression. The mood in the team right now is good and we're all excited, so I'm looking forward to jumping in the car now."
Whether Ferrari's new direction under Binotto is enough to beat the opposition in 2019, only time will tell. But the Ferrari team entering the new season in 2019 already appears to be a healthier, happier outfit than it was 12 months ago. The car still needs to be up to the same standard as the very best on the grid, but in Binotto the Scuderia and the tifosi have an inspirational leader they can rally behind.