The man who made modern Ferrari
Flavio Manzoni plays a careful balancing act between tradition and moving forward
By MATT BUBBERS
Special to The Globe and Mail
Friday, May 25, 2018 Print Edition, Page D10
GENEVA -- When Flavio Manzoni arrived to lead Ferrari's design centre in 2010, the creative team in Maranello consisted of four people in a small office. He had to start from scratch.
The weight of the task, of the brand, was not lost on him.
Ferrari is a dream, a symbol for Italy and speed and wealth and la dolce vita.
It is the house that Enzo built.
In Ferrari's back catalog is the most valuable car sold at auction, the 250 GTO for US$38.1-million.
The racing team has won the Formula One constructor's title 16 times, making it the most successful in history. Ferrari consistently ranks among the most valuable, most recognized brands in the world.
Globe Drive spoke to Manzoni about the dream and nightmare that is his job, at the unveiling of the company's latest supercar, the 488 Pista, at the Geneva Motor Show in March.
What was your first day on the job at Ferrari like?
It was an incredible challenge because I had to start from scratch.
There was nothing, apart from a very small creative team. Ferrari mainly used to work with Pininfarina and other coachbuilders like Giugiaro or Zagato and so on - but especially Pininfarina.
Why the change? Why did Ferrari break with decades of tradition and bring design in-house?
The decision was based on the idea to create a new Ferrari philosophy and, let's say, a new design language. But also, it was a necessity to work all together to create synergy with other departments.
That was almost impossible with designers working in Turin and engineers working in Maranello.
It's, I would say, a combination between science and art, or technology and form. If you didn't have the possibility to dialogue everyday with the engineering department, the aerodynamic department, you could never do something like this. [He points at the 488 Pista on display next to us.] Where do you draw the line between science and art, technology and form?
I think design is applied art. For me, there is a distinction between design and styling. If you work on a shape, trying to emphasize certain lines because you want to achieve a fashionable effect, this is styling. And this doesn't fit the Ferrari philosophy. Ferrari is design. That means you start from objectives regarding performance: weight, aerodynamic efficiency, materials - and then you create the set of technical solutions which are able to achieve those objectives. The form cannot be thought of any more as a cover you style afterwards. The form is a kind of organic part of the object.
Did you study to be a car designer?
No, I studied architecture, specializing in industrial design, in Florence. But I was born in Sardinia. I lived there until I was 19. My father - he was an architect - he was my first teacher. I learned sketching from him.
Did cars make an early impression on you?
When I was a child, I was really crazy for cars, but I was eclectic. In the dreams of a child, I thought maybe I could do whatever: be an architect and a sculptor and an artist and a car designer.
You're still very eclectic it seems, sketching spaceships and watches and furniture. Where do you find inspiration?
If you are too focused on car design, you risk becoming banal or repetitive. The car is a very mature product; it's not easy to transform it. Inspiration can come from architecture, or an installation by Anish Kapoor, or from music, or from the masterpieces of Italian designers like [Achille] Castiglioni or [Marco] Zanuso. The TV set by Zanuso for Brionvega, or the famous Arco Lamp by Castiglioni: These are really the perfect combination between function and art. There is poetry in them.
Do you remember how you felt, getting the job at Ferrari?
I was in Wolfsburg, working for Volkswagen. At the beginning, it seemed strange. It was a dream.
But, once in the job, the feeling of responsibility was more important. One thing is the dream of a child; the other is the job you have to do. If you want to create a dream, you have to work very hard. It's sometimes also a nightmare.
How do you balance the tradition, the history of the brand, with the need to do something new and move it forward?
Ferrari has this incredible quality: Every new product is a new chapter in its history. You can really rethink the object. At Ferrari, we have to know how to combine the beauty of tradition and the courage of innovation. If you are too close to tradition, you become a slave to it. This is a problem. But, never forget the DNA of the brand.
An exercise we do every time [we make a new car] is to analyze the evolution of the brand through several generations of cars. If we're able to imagine the next steps in a very logical way, a kind of natural evolution, this is the best.
What was the first car you did at Ferrari?
The first was the F12berlinetta [unveiled in 2012]. It was still in co-operation with Pininfarina.
The design centre was still very green. The first complete inhouse project was LaFerrari [unveiled in 2013]. We started that project at the end of 2010. There was a competition between the Ferrari design team and the Pininfarina team, and we won the competition. It felt good. It was also a nightmare, working day and night.
What are your favourite classic cars, from Ferrari and other brands?
There are so many. I usually mention the Ferrari 330 P3/P4. Absolutely beautiful is the 350 CanAm, and the  GTO. In the past, I was very keen on Jaguar EType, for example, and the Citroen DS - it's a masterpiece.
The future of the automobile suddenly seems full of new possibilities. How will Ferrari fit in?
If a car has new technology, a new layout of technical components, the external shape should reflect it in a very emotional, but very frank way. The problem is when you see electric cars in the world, they're very conservative. This is something I don't understand.
When we are in front of an innovation, there is always a peak of creativity. Always.
How big is the design department at Ferrari today?
Now, we are more than 80 people.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
The Ferrari 488 Pista, the company's latest supercar, sits on a stage at the Geneva Motor Show in March.