The Ferrari Challenge Asia Pacific is celebrating its tenth anniversary this year, bolstered by steadily growing numbers and approval ratings. The series, which involves many Far Eastern countries, this year had the pleasure of giving the new 488 Challenge Evo its competitive debut in the first round of the season, held at the Bahrain circuit. We discuss this with Filippo Zanier, Head of Corse Clienti Asia Pacific, who manages the brand's closed-wheel activities in the Asia Pacific region. For over sixteen years, Filippo has been able to indulge his great passion for motorsport by visiting paddocks all around the world.
Q: In the past, you have held communication roles. How useful is this experience in your current job?
A: “I’ve always thought that one of the assets that define a good journalist is the ability to bring readers a different interpretation of facts, make them see things under a new light. I like to think that my experience in this line of work gave me this attitude to never settle for the easy answer, and analyze data and trends more in depth. Apart from this, it’s clearly useful in the relations with the media who follow our championship, as well as with the colleagues of the Communications and Marketing departments, to discuss together initiatives aimed at keeping brand awareness at the highest level”.
Q: The Asia Pacific Championship was the first to give the 488 Challenge Evo its debut: what sort of the customer feedback did you receive?
A: “Probably Bahrain isn’t the most suited track to evaluate the new car’s behavior as the sand layer left on the tarmac every night by the wind has quite a bad effect on the overall grip available, as well as on tyre wear. Despite this our customers got acquainted quickly with the 488 Challenge EVO and their feedback was enthusiastic. They all felt that the balance of the car has been shifted towards the front of the car, to get a more aggressive turn-in, and that was one of the main aims of the Technical Team in developing the car, so it’s definitely good news. The new Pirelli tyres have also confirmed an improvement in durability that allows a faster pace in the second half of the race. And we are just at the beginning of this “discovery process”. The EVO allows much more freedom in setting the aero balance of the car, so we expect that the customers feeling will get better and better as they will gradually find their perfect setup”.
Q: What are the differences between the APAC Challenge and the other Prancing Horse one-make series?
A: “Differently from Challenge Europe and North America, and from most of the championships I had the chance to attend during my career in motorsport, Challenge APAC is a mono-operator series. This means that instead of having different racing teams to field the cars of the participants, there is only one technical team to take care of all the cars entered in the championship. It’s an impressive effort from a logistics standpoint, as for each and every race we move between 30 and 40 mechanics and 6 engineers. They’re all chosen among the best Challenge and GT3 specialists, to make sure we offer an unparalleled level of service.
For our customers it means the guarantee that all cars are prepared with the same degree of attention and that nobody has a technical advantage, driving talent will make the difference.
Such manpower proves also very useful when, in the rare case of heavy damage from an accident on the track, we need to quickly repair a car in time for the following session. Over the years we have seen some miraculous efforts, with drivers who were sure that their weekend was over and instead were delivered a perfectly efficient car just a few hours after the accident. As much as we are happy that this kind of need arises very rarely, when it happens it strengthens the bond with the customer and it makes us proud of the quality of our service”.
Q: What makes the APAC Challenge different from the other championships you've been to?
A: “Undoubtedly the atmosphere in the paddock, that is basically devoid of strong rivalries. As much as they can fight fiercely on the track, the APAC drivers don’t bring any bitterness out of the car, all is forgotten as soon as they take off helmet and balaclava. I believe that is down to the single-operator management we discussed earlier, whose effects stretch way outside of the technical compartment. All our model is indeed based on getting customers to share special experiences, from the 5-star accommodation to gala dinners, from high-level hospitality to the commuting from the hotel to the track, that is arranged by our organization like everything else. This creates a virtuous circle, putting customers in the best possible mood to make the most of the experience and at the same time giving them many opportunities to spend time with their fellow competitors. This creates durable friendships, and sometimes even business partnerships. Overall, it makes Challenge APAC’s the most pleasant paddock I had the chance to work in”.
Q: This year's championship, at least in its original configuration, offered fascinating tracks. On what basis are they chosen?
A: “When we create a calendar, we have to take into account a great variety of factors. Obviously it’s paramount to choose tracks where our customers like to race, circuits with history, most of the times currently included in the current F1 calendar and offering a challenging layout for the driver. We also try to introduce new tracks every year, like we did with Bahrain this year, an absolute premiere for APAC. Obviously we are not completely free in our choices, we need to coordinate with circuits to check the available dates and we try to avoid as much as possible clashes with other Ferrari gatherings or with major events in which our drivers may want to take part. The important thing is for the final result to be the right mix of prestige, variety and tradition.
Since a few years the highlight of the season is the Singapore weekend, where we race as support to the F1 GP. It has become a mainstay of the Challenge APAC calendar, our drivers love to live the atmosphere of the F1 Circus, and they have the unique opportunity to meet the Scuderia drivers and bring home a cherished memory. And then there’s Finali Mondiali, events where Ferrari shows all its might, where you can feel and see the heritage, the trophies and titles conquered over the decades, and stand close to cars that made the history of our sport. Mugello 2019 was my first Finali as an insider, and I have to admit that nothing I had seen before comes even close to what our team delivered on that weekend. It’s maybe the moment when I really realized what ‘EssereFerrari’ means”.
Q: What was the biggest challenge you have had to overcome in this role?
A: “Our first race in Bahrain this March has probably been one of the biggest challenges I faced so far. Covid-19 had started appearing outside of Mainland China, and while nobody could yet foresee how big its impact was going to be, with just one week to the event traveling started to be affected. In order to protect themselves from cases coming from Iran, Dubai and Bahrain nearly closed the borders and reduced inbound flights to a minimum. We immediately made contact with the Bahraini authorities as well as with Bahrain International Circuit, and upon receiving reassurance that the number of cases in the Kingdom was extremely low, we agreed with them that the safety conditions to hold the event could still be respected, provided that some additional measures could be implemented. Those measures included a swab test for all the participants (staff, drivers, guests) to be carried out in a specific quarantine zone at the airport immediately after landing. At the same time, we had to arrange special entry permits and help all the involved personnel to rebook on the few available flights and get to Bahrain.
Thanks to the coordination between our organization and the headquarter in Maranello, the Bahraini Immigration authorities the Bahrain International Circuit staff we managed to guarantee the safety of all the involved personnel so that the event could be held as planned, much to the satisfaction of our customers. I’d like to take this opportunity to thank the BIC CEO, Shaikh Salman bin Isa Al Khalifa and all his staff for their support in those challenging times. In a broader way, It’s an ongoing challenge. The “Drive for Excellence” can be felt within the company, as the level of perfection of the final service we are looking for can only be obtained by applying the same degree of excellence to all areas of management, which requires a certain degree of constant self-questioning. Then, very specific to this role is the geographical extension of the region: for our Corse Clienti and Sporting Activities GT departments, Asia Pacific includes the Middle East, obviously the whole of Asia, Australia and New Zealand. It’s an impressive variety of Countries and cultures, and you definitely need an open mind to be able to fulfill different degrees of customers’ expectations. It’s a challenge, but it’s also one of the aspects that make this role extremely interesting”.
Q: How did you feel at the start of your first race in this role?
A: “I’m lucky enough to do something I like very much and work in an environment that fuels my passion, so emotion is definitely a part of it. As far as I’m concerned nothing beats the moment when, after months of preparations, we finally get to the track for the first race of the season. The moment when the drivers wait for the start of the first free practice session, cars in line waiting for the green light at the end of the pit-lane, is kind of magic: drivers come from at least a couple of months without any racing if not more, and in their gestures and in their eyes you can see this mix of tension and eagerness to get back on track after the winter break. When the green light finally comes on and the cars jump forward, the engines finally free to scream, it’s like a moment of collective joy and I can’t help but smile”.
Q: The success of the APAC series is also due to the people and sponsors who support it. How do you deal with a group like that?
A: “Without the continued support of our sponsors, partners and suppliers nothing of what we do would be possible. Overall, the Challenge APAC workforce on an event is around the 100 mark, coming from all over the world. We have a strong Italian contingent, but we have also staff from France, Mainland China, Malaysia, Hong Kong and Singapore just to name a few. The machine can work only if every single member is aware of the duties and boundaries of his role, and that is possible only if the organization is stable. That is why we make sure to keep a close and positive relationship with our partners in region, that are the same since a few years. This guarantees that the teams develop a certain chemistry, with a clear positive outcome on the quality of our services.
From a sponsorship standpoint, apart from the brands that support Challenge worldwide, we are lucky to have the support of two regional partners, Ohno Associates and EstatePlan: with them we organize activities at each race weekend and we are grateful as they give us the opportunity to bring Challenge to a wider audience”.
Q: The pandemic has had a powerful impact on the region and the calendar. What do you think the restart will look like?
A: “As you said earlier, Challenge APAC had prepared an amazing calendar for 2020, but the pandemic forced us to change our plans. As of today, it would seem that Asia is progressing step by step towards the containment of the virus, but it’s difficult to foresee when we will be able to restart racing. Currently, basically all the countries that may host one of our events are in immigration lockdown and those who aren’t are applying a 14-day quarantine instead. Furthermore, our first concern is obviously the safety of all the individuals involved in the championship, and on such a delicate matter we can only trust the health authorities of the concerned countries, with whom we are in contact to get regularly updated projections on the end date of the lockdown.
What is of the utmost importance to us now, is that all the Challenge APAC actors, drivers, staff and partners, are healthy and are staying safe with their loved ones. They count on our full commitment to be back on track as soon as the conditions will allow”.