Where do we come from? What’s in store for the universe? The goals of the research by Guido Tonelli (Italian physicist and a key player in the discovery of the Higgs boson, the “God particle” identified at CERN in Geneva at the end of 2011) appear abstract, almost philosophical, and far removed from the pragmatism of Michael Leiters, Chief Technology Officer at Ferrari, the man in charge of co-ordinating the work of engineers when it comes to designing new Prancing Horse models.
The two have met up in Maranello, to discuss and compare two worlds that are apparently separate, though with some intriguing parallels. Certainly Tonelli’s adventure shares similarities with the endeavours of the Scuderia Ferrari. The race against time to beat the Americans to a particle speculated about 50 years earlier, yet never demonstrated scientifically, and the competition with the twin Atlas mission.
Tonelli nods. ‘The importance of the result meant two independent measurements, involving technology, software and totally different people who are racing towards the same finishing line. A bit like Ferrari in Formula One. If the same result is achieved, it means that the measurement is right.’
Tonelli described in his recent book La Nascita Imperfetta Delle Cose (The Imperfect Birth Of Things) how an unexpected event in physics can turn the tables. It’s the sort of thing that happens at Ferrari too, as Leiters explains. ‘It can be a problem or an opportunity, but once we’ve taken in the theory and formulas, it’s important to understand how we can apply this physical effect and put it on an industrial footing. In the end we have to focus and build a car.’
A particle detector is as big as a five-storey building and contains millions of sensors, materials never used previously, optical fibres and state-of-the-art microprocessors. All this is created ad-hoc and brought together. ‘You work with the world’s top companies and push them beyond their limits,’ Tonelli says. ‘Their initial reaction is to say, “You’re asking the impossible.” Then an engineer may have a light-bulb moment and you discover that, by working together, a solution can be found. Until you get to the point where you have to make a choice.’
However, at a certain point a line has to be drawn and the project closed. Leiters uses the example of hybrid cars: ‘Another risky moment is when a new technology arrives. It’s difficult to decide when to change.
‘Hybrid technology will definitely gain in importance, but for Ferrari this is more an opportunity than an obligation or problem. Our approach to innovation is this: we’re probably not the first to adopt a technology; we prefer to opt for one already developed, but the way in which we apply it is innovative. For this reason, when time allows, we will be able to change direction and do it in Ferrari style, ie, innovating in relation to the others.’
Tonelli smiles: ‘It’s a special company. I’m sure that as soon as you create the perfect car you’ll immediately start looking for something better. That’s just the right attitude. The people who do this work are always driven by passion.
‘Naturally, career, money and motivation carry some weight, but there’s something you don’t find in every company or research centre, a sacred fire that burns inside. It’s what enables you to get over the very bad days, the endless shifts, the Saturdays or Sundays spent working, or even the routine of boring meetings. The exciting and satisfying moments are rare, but when they come they make up for everything.’
Leiters agrees. ‘Passion really is the most important thing. Everyone has passion here at Ferrari, not just for the end product, the car or races, but for their own work. The task of those in management is to ensure everyone is in a place where they can give the most.’