LONDON/MILAN (Reuters) - Ferrari’s timely return to the front row of the Formula One grid bodes well for the luxury sportscar maker as it prepares to list shares and split from parent Fiat Chrysler Automobiles. (FCHA.MI) (FCAU.N)
After years of under achievement, the world’s most successful motor racing team has been on the podium in each of the first five grand prix this season, with driver Sebastian Vettel securing a long overdue victory in Malaysia in March.
That win ended a moral-sapping run of 34 races without success dating back to May 2013 -- the longest losing streak for the celebrated champions in two decades.
The turnaround gives FCA Chief Executive Sergio Marchionne a lift as he seeks to convince investors that Ferrari merits a valuation of at least 10 billion euros ($11 billion) -- at the top end or even above a range of 4-10 billion euros floated by bankers for the luxury carmaker and its prancing horse logo.
Formula One symbolises what Ferrari stands for: ultimate performance, groundbreaking technology, the best in terms of design and a legacy of racing wins, said Manfredi Ricca, head of brand consulting group Interbrand’s Italian office.
“A successful Formula One team adds some incremental value to the Ferrari brand and the brand is going to be a key component of Ferrari’s valuation in the IPO,” he said.
“It’s the most effective advertising. It’s about keeping a promise and bringing it to a global audience.”
Marchionne, who took over as Ferrari chairman last September, has said he plans to sell around 10 percent of the firm in a initial public offering later this year.
He is the first to acknowledge that victories on the race track make little impact on sales of its road cars, which are capped at around 7,000 a year and have a healthy waiting list.
“Win Sunday, sell Monday is an argument that may work when you’re selling motorbikes. It doesn’t make a bloody difference to Ferrari,” he said in March, in typically forthright fashion.
But he recognises the team’s importance to the brand’s DNA. “Ferrari defines itself in terms of its racing ability. When it loses, the house doesn’t feel good,” he said.
Ferrari, the only surviving team from the original motor racing series that started in 1950, has endured lean periods in the past, notably before German Michael Schumacher ended a 21-year wait for a drivers’ title with the first of a record-breaking five successive world championships in 2000.
It is now seven years since a Ferrari driver won a world title and, following a disagreement over strategy and results, Marchionne replaced the more flamboyant Luca Cordero di Montezemolo as chairman eight months ago.
Profits were not the only important thing for the iconic car firm, Marchionne said at the time. Winning on the Formula One track was also “an essential part” of the Ferrari brand and a “non-negotiable target” for the group.
The senior management team has been radically overhauled this past year, while engineers involved in many aspects of the ultra-sophisticated cars were also changed.
Ferrari’s engine, no match for Mercedes last season, has been revamped and retired triple world champion Niki Lauda, who won two titles for Ferrari in 1975 and 1977, estimated the cars now had 40 horsepower more.
Enzo Ferrari, the late founder who made road cars to fund the race team, liked to say he built engines and attached wheels to them. The engine-dominated formula still stands.
“Initially it was the engine and now it’s still the engine,” new principal Maurizio Arrivabene said after Ferrari driver Kimi Raikkonen, a former world champion, was second in Bahrain in April -- his first top three finish since 2013.
“But afterwards ... you need to have a good chassis, a good aerodynamics and so on.”
Arrivabene, plucked from Philip Morris-owned team sponsor Marlboro, joined in November as Ferrari’s third principal in barely eight months. The team now has a very different feel to it, more collegiate and less political, observers said.
“Marchionne did a good job putting new people in the right place ... they are working all together without any friction and this is the secret,” said Lauda, who now serves as a non-executive chairman at Mercedes.
While the Prancing Horse has undoubtedly raised its game, no one is claiming that Ferrari is yet in a position to dominate Mercedes, which has won four of the five opening races this season, as well as securing every pole position.
“They have a bit more horsepower than us and a bit more downforce than us and until we’ve closed those two gaps it’s not realistic to talk about title challenges,” said Ferrari’s technical director James Allison, the son of a British Air Chief Marshal.
This weekend’s Monaco Grand Prix, the glamorous showcase race attended by a who‘s-who of corporate big hitters, will give Ferrari another chance to narrow the difference with its main rival in this year’s constructor standings.
While FCA discloses few financial details about Ferrari, analysts estimate the racing team generates around 10-15 percent of the unit’s 2.76 billion euros revenues, mainly from Formula One income and sponsorship.
Nearly all of that goes back into the team -- spent on engine and technology development and general racing costs -- meaning the division is probably loss making most of the time.
Marchionne would probably struggle to cut costs there, but industry analysts expect him to look for ways to boost profits at the division, whose impact is felt throughout the company.
The engine and aerodynamic technology developed for Formula One are applied to the road cars and the marketing impact of races, which attract more than 400 million global television viewers each season, is vast, also helping to propel the sales of an array of Ferrari merchandise in stores across the world.
Consultancy firm Brand Finance named Ferrari as the world’s most powerful brand in 2014, but dropped it to ninth in its list in January because of the poor showing on the race track.
“The sheen of glory from its ... golden era is wearing slightly thin,” it wrote in its annual report, released ahead of the new season. Even so, it estimated the value of the brand alone at some $4.7 billion, with considerable upside.
“The Ferrari brand clearly has huge untapped commercial potential and Marchionne’s open-minded approach bodes well for investors,” the consultancy said in its survey.
Marchionne, widely credited with rescuing both Fiat and Chrysler, has already announced his intention of turning Ferrari into a true luxury goods stock, hinting that the cars might one day no longer be the driving force behind company profitability.
However, in any move he makes, having a winning Formula One team again can only help.
“They had bad years, which can happen to anybody, and thank God, for the sport (but) not for Mercedes, they have recovered,” Lauda told Reuters, as he doffed his trademark red cap to the sport’s most storied team.
Editing by Crispian Balmer