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THE LUNCH

Rachel Idzerda for The Globe and Mail

Ferrari’s former boss switches lanes

Luca Cordero di Montezemolo, chairman of Alitalia, on leaving the luxury auto maker and pitching Rome’s Olympic bid

The raffish Luca Cordero di Montezemolo, the former chairman of both Ferrari and Fiat and current chairman of Alitalia and the Rome 2024 Olympic bid, is a hard man to pin down. At least twice since the autumn, interviews that I had set up with him were cancelled. In early March, the interview was on again, but the location changed three times over a 24-hour period.

At first, it was supposed to be at Rome 2024’s makeshift offices at the Foro Italico – the city’s 1960 Olympic site. Boring, I thought. Then it was to be at his swanky apartment in the bourgeois northern Roman neighbourhood of Parioli. Knowing that his apartment is full of Ferrari memorabilia and fine modern art, including works by German photographer Andreas Gursky and mirror paintings by Michelangelo Pistoletto, I was thrilled.

At the last minute, the location was changed again, this time to Casina Valadier, the elegant 19th century villa renowned for its stunning views of Renaissance and Baroque Rome. Not a bad consolation prize. But what to wear? Mr. Montezemolo is famous for being one of Italy’s best-dressed men and favours hand-sewn suits from master tailor Sartoria Campagna of Milan. I put on my best Italian suit, which I am sure Mr. Montezemolo would not consider worthy of buffing his Ferrari FF or the decks of his 33-metre yacht Marhaba.

Mr. Montezemolo bounds into Valadier’s third-floor restaurant about 20 minutes late. He is full of apologies, not so much for being late, but for the switch to the Valadier. “I’m sorry,” he says. “I invited you to have lunch at my home, but a pipe broke and my home is full of water.”

Mr. Montezemolo is 68, full of energy and speaks rapidly in a mix of Italian and English. His full last name is Cordero di Montezemolo but, in the interests of economy, he’s happy to be called Mr. Montezemolo. His senior employees call him “ avvocato” – lawyer. The same nickname was famously given to Gianni Agnelli, the Fiat tycoon, playboy and international fashion plate who was Italy’s richest man until his death in 2003. Mr. Agnelli was Mr. Montezemolo’s mentor, employer and, by all accounts, treated him as a son.

As a gift for his second wedding in 2000 to jewellery designer Ludovica Andreoni, now 43, Mr. Agnelli gave Mr. Montezemolo a one-off Ferrari 360 Barchetta. The silver-gray beauty lies in the Ferrari Museum in Maranello. “There is no other one in the world,” he says. “I will never sell this car because it was a gift from Gianni Agnelli.”

Mr. Montezemolo, shown in 2004 at Fiat's museum in Turin.

Mr. Montezemolo, shown in 2004 at Fiat’s museum in Turin.

Alberto Ramella/AP

Mr. Montezemolo, trim and compact with the long hair of a teenage boy, wears a dapper dark grey suit, white shirt with blue stripes from Brooks Brothers, one of his favourite brands, and a wide, blue polka dot tie. A white handkerchief peeks out from his breast pocket and his left lapel sports a Cavaliere della Repubblica pin, the Italian state honour that would be the equivalent of the Order of Canada.

Our restaurant table would have had a magnificent view of Rome, but today it’s obscured by grim, wet weather. To start, Mr. Montezemolo orders Culatello prosciutto – one of Italy’s finest cured hams – followed by a fresh tonnarelli pasta with artichokes. I opt for the steak tartare, followed by calamari over grilled vegetables. Everything is delicious, as you might expect from one of Rome’s most expensive restaurants. At first, Mr. Montezemolo resists wine. “I never drink wine at lunch,” he says. “But go ahead.”

When I tell him I hate to drink alone, he caves in and orders a crisp chardonnay from Friuli, the region in Italy’s extreme northeast, just beyond Venice. I tell him that my mother was born in Friuli and he beams. Suddenly, his Canadian journalist lunch guest has been transformed into an Italian and he seems to relax.

Mr. Montezemolo is a brand in his own right in Italy, a serial entrepreneur and executive who, at various times, has been the right-hand man of Mr. Agnelli and, more recently, of Serigo Marchionne, the Italian-Canadian CEO of Fiat Chrysler Automobiles who pushed him out of the Ferrari racing stable in late 2014, ahead of Ferrari’s initial public offering on the New York Stock Exchange. He has also toyed with politics but never summoned the nerve to run for prime minister.

Sergio Marchionne, left, is shown with Luca Cordero di Montezemolo at a 2004 press conference.

Sergio Marchionne, left, is shown with Mr. Montezemolo at a 2004 press conference.

Daniele La Monaca/Reuters

For all his executive titles and board memberships, he is associated most with Ferrari and the team’s glory years, when Michael Schumacher steered Ferrari to five consecutive Formula 1 championships between 2000 and 2004.

I ask him about Mr. Schumacher’s health – he suffered a traumatic brain injury in December, 2013, while skiing in the French Alps. When reporters asked Mr. Montezemolo in early February about Mr. Schumacher, he said “I have news and unfortunately it is not good,” offering no details. All he would tell me is that “Michael is a fighter. He’s a very strong guy. He’s fighting. … So I am confident.”

I don’t push him for more information. But I do want to know about his sensational falling out with Mr. Marchionne.

Mr. Montezemolo joined Ferrari, which was the highest-profile member of the Fiat portfolio between 1969 and last year’s IPO, in 1973. He was the assistant to Ferrari founder Enzo Ferrari and became team manager a year later. The mid-1970s were Formula 1’s wild years. The rivalry between Ferrari’s Niki Lauda and James Hunt, who raced for Hesketh and McLaren, transformed Formula 1 into a riveting, global sport full of spectacular crashes and glamorous off-piste romances. It also put Mr. Montezemolo into the public spotlight while he was still in this 20s. In 1975 and 1977, Mr. Lauda won two championships for Ferrari.

Mr. Montezemolo left Ferrari in 1977 and rose through the Fiat ranks, becoming chairman in 2004. Mr. Agnelli thrust him back into Ferrari in 1991, three years after Enzo’s death. At the time, Ferrari needed rebuilding from the wheels up and Mr. Montezemolo delivered. Between 1999 and 2008, Ferrari utterly dominated the Formula 1 circuit, winning six drivers’ championship titles and eight constructors’ titles. Since then, Ferrari has taken the slow lane – Formula 1 has been owned by the Red Bull and Mercedes teams in recent years.

CURRICULUM VITAE

Born: Aug. 31, 1947, in Bologna into an aristocratic family from Piedmont (area around Turin). Among his relatives is cousin Andrea Cordero di Montezemolo, a Roman Catholic cardinal.

Education: Law degree from Rome’s La Sapienza university in 1971; master’s in international commercial law from New York’s Columbia University.

Family: Five children, ages 5 to 37, from two marriages.

Big-boy toys: Two Ferraris, one a 4-seat FF, the other a 360 Barchetta; two Fiat Pandas; a Land Rover Discovery; a Vespa 250 scooter; and a 33-metre yacht called Marhaba, which means “welcome” in Arabic.

Homes: In Rome, Bologna, Anacapri (on the island of Capri), Cortina D’Ampezzo (Italian Dolomite mountains) and Abu Dhabi.

Favourite films: Paris, Texas, directed by Wim Wenders; and Un Homme et Une Femme, by Claude Lelouch.

Quote (on his career at Ferrari): “I am happy at what I did. I will never forget my last day, when 2,000 workers clapped for me. I created value, I made good cars, I made a lot of money for the shareholders.”

Ferrari’s post-2008 trophy drought certainly won Mr. Montezemolo few points with Mr. Marchionne. But that does not appear to be the reason why the two car nuts parted ways. Mr. Montezemolo admits that, while he understood that Mr. Marchionne needed to use the extraordinarily rich Ferrari IPO to raise cash to fund Fiat’s ambitious new development plans, including the relaunch of Alfa Romeo, he worried that turning Ferrari into a U.S.-listed company owned by profit-obsessed shareholders might damage the carefully nurtured Ferrari brand. “At the end of the day [after the IPO], you have to answer to the market, you have to increase the volumes, which is difficult if you want to maintain the brand at the highest level,” he says. “My Ferrari worked very close with the collectors, with the clients, to maintain or even increase the value of the used cars on the market. … My slogan was to make less cars and more money.”

I ask him bluntly if he was fired or whether he quit. “At the end of the day, he fired me in this way: He said no one is indispensable.”

While he admits Ferrari remains at the centre of his identity, Mr. Montezemolo has moved on. He is busy rebuilding another brand – Alitalia, now 49 per cent owned by Etihad Airways of Abu Dhabi – and working as the unpaid point man on the Rome 2024 Olympic bid.

Rome is going up against Paris, Budapest and Los Angeles and seems a long shot, given the country’s reputation for corruption and general organizational chaos, even if the 2006 Turin winter games were a success. Followers of the arcane bidding process think the 2024 Games will be Paris’s to lose – it has come close to host-city status no fewer than three times in recent decades. But the fiercely competitive Mr. Montezemolo would not have taken the job unless he thought Rome had a fighting chance.

There is no doubt his vision for the Rome games is alluring: Medal ceremonies in the Colosseum; competitions in the Circus Maximus, where the chariot races were held, and the Baths of Caracalla, the vast, romantic ruins of the third century public bathhouses; a “marathon of peace” that would wind its way past the Vatican, a mosque, a synagogue and finish under the Arch of Constantine in the heart of ancient Rome; sailboat races in the crystal waters off Sardinia.

“These will be the games of culture and beauty,” he says, adding that two-thirds of the sites from Rome’s 1960 games would be reused, cutting down on costs.

By the time our lunch finishes, the rain stops and the sun breaks through, making the Eternal City – Caput Mundi – and its ochre, cream and rose palaces, churches and human-scale apartment buildings glow. There are no dreary glass-clad skyscrapers in sight. Si, si, I think; Rome would be a magical spot for the Olympics.

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