We’ve reached a new level’ Ferrari’s tech boss on how staying small helps the company move fast and prioritise performance
The CAR inquisition
MICHAEL HUGO LEITERS CHIEF TECHNOLOGY OFFICER, FERRARI
It’s late evening in Maranello. The sun has long packed up and gone home for the night but Michael Leiters is still hard at work. You get the impression that’s not an unusual occurrence as he strides in to meet CAR, wearing a suit as sharp as his sideburns and apologising for being late.
As chief technology officer since January 2014 at one of the planet’s more technologically adventurous automotive companies, Leiters has plenty on his plate. Imminently, there’s the Purosangue, Ferrari’s first SUV. Then there’s the SF90, its first plug-in hybrid, plus ever-stronger competition from rivals old and new, and ever tighter regulations. The dynamic magic in Ferrari’s current line-up suggest he’s managing just fine.
‘Ferrari is a small company, we’re compact, and we have all the levers in our hands. With that comes the possibility to move quickly,’ he says. ‘With the SF90 we started from scratch and, within a few years, we had created a car for a new segment that didn’t exist before. I can’t speak for other companies, but I suspect this is something only Ferrari can do.’
He knows one of Ferrari’s famous foes pretty well. Prior to joining Maranello he held a series of positions at Porsche from 2000 to 2013, including heading up its SUV product line in 2010 – background that’ll come in handy as Ferrari readies its first SUV. Presumably the culture feels quite different at Maranello compared to Stuttgart?
‘Some things are easier here, some things are more difficult. Ferrari is less spread out, more compact, and, yes, there are cultural differences between German engineering and Italian engineering, with the pros and cons on both sides.’
He’s here to show us around the Roma, the front-engined V8 unveiled late last year and set to go up against the likes of Aston’s Vantage and DB11 when it goes on sale. ‘It’s a more understated style of Ferrari, to attract new customers from other car makers,’ he says. While the Roma has evolved from the same platform as the existing Portofino droptop, bringing it into being has involved rather more than sticking a fixed roof on top.
‘The wheelbase and architecture is the same but we have replaced or modified 70 per cent of the components. From an engineering point of view, the thing we are most proud of is the driving dynamics. It’s almost 100kg lighter [than the Portofino], and by making the spaceframe more rigid we’ve reached a new level of dynamic ability for a GT car. It’s fantastic to drive.’
While Leiters has previously ruled out an all-electric Ferrari – for the time being, at least – he’s enthused about the possibilities of torque vectoring enabled by electric motors in hybrid powertrains. ‘This is a brilliant thing. Maybe this is an advantage of our brand: while others have to use hybridisation for what you might call rational reasons, we can use it to increase driving emotions. I think emotions are easier to sell than rational things. We can really exaggerate concepts and use them in a unique, Ferrari way.’
With a frontline Formula 1 team on the same site, do the road-car engineers ever ask the Grand Prix guys to help out? ‘F1 and road cars are different worlds, but in some areas you can use the same know-how. In aerodynamics, the timing we have between a design model and the final elevation is so quick. This is definitely something we learned from F1. I didn’t experience this in other companies.
‘I won’t tell you how many people work in my team but it is small, and that is one of our strengths. My engineers have a very broad experience and education. We don’t have, let’s say, 10 specialists who design exterior mirrors their whole life. We have one guy doing all the assembled parts on the exterior: seals, windows and so on: a much broader responsibility. ‘People [here] have a holistic view of the car. We never follow technologies only to have the technology for the sake of it. We want to create performance. That does not only mean horsepower.
And for the Roma’s interior, the philosophy is ‘hands on the wheel, eyes on the road’. We developed a new way to measure distraction, to see how much the driver has to take their eyes from the road. This holistic view of our engineers helps us to optimise the whole project, not one single part.’ With that, he has to go, stepping smartly into the factory’s dark courtyard and back towards his team of holistically minded engineers and the tasks at hand. No doubt there’ll be many more long days and nights ahead, but you get the impression Leiters wouldn’t have it any other way.
Six questions only we would ask
What was your ﬁrst car?
‘It was an Opel Corsa, 1.2 litres, blue metallic. I called it Interceptor. I got the highest speeding ﬁne of my life in that car…’
What achievement makes you most proud?
‘I have a clear imagination of what I want to reach for Ferrari. When I reach this, this will be my proudest achievement.’
Tell us about a time you screwed up…
‘The other side of the answer above – my biggest mistake is that I am still not there.’
What’s the best thing you’ve ever done in a car?
‘To hear the sound of a V12.’
Supercar or classic car?
‘Supercar. Only one answer to that!’
Company curveball: what percentage sold of Ferraris are red? ‘It’s about 50 per cent.’ [Almost. The answer is 45 per cent. In the ’90s, it was 90 per cent.]