Home Featured How an F4 team with Ethiopian origins plans to join Swiss racing history

How an F4 team with Ethiopian origins plans to join Swiss racing history

by Ida Wood

Photos: ACI Sport & Maffi Racing

Maffi Racing is a brand new team to the Italian Formula 4 championship this year, except it’s a name that already has a long history in racing and particularly in Ethiopia. Its founders explain their 2022 plan

Despite initial fears that the increased cost of buying and running new cars would decrease interest in Italian F4 this year, the arrival of the second-generation chassis in the championship has in fact brought in several new teams. And one of those is Maffi Racing, a Geneva-based outfit currently running Swiss karting graduate Elia Sperandio and planning to add two more drivers to its line-up before the end of the season.

The team takes its name from the family that runs it, with brothers Cristian (chief technical officer) and Danny Maffi (team principal) at the helm alongside the unrelated Alex Thouvenin (managing director). Back in 1969, the brothers’ father Giorgio started Maffi Racing in Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa and it competed in rallying before success in circuit racing and karting.

Alongside F4, Maffi Racing has karts it plans to race this year in alliance with Swiss karting firm KartBox and its long-term plan is to build a karting track in Switzerland that would be able to host international competitions. With this week’s news that the country’s motorsport ban will be lifted, it’s the perfect time to make efforts to grow the sport locally.

Formula Scout spoke to the team about its ambitions, starting with the karting track as Maffi “came up with that plan before F4”. It will be a “big undertaking” for the team, but also one on the back-burners for now as F4 has taken priority and the team does “not want to take any shortcuts” when it come to its circuit plan. “Persistence pays off,” they summarise.

The idea behind the track now is two-fold says Thouvenin, to “change a bit the mentality about racing in Switzerland” and also “because we can train our own drivers inside our own country so it’s a whole process we have to build up to” by now establishing the F4 and karting teams first. While “karting is getting bigger and bigger in Switzerland, the level has been rising every year”, the Swiss Karting Championship and similarly high-profile Vega Trofeo competition take place primarily on French and Italian tracks “because actually there is no track in Switzerland capable of hosting such races”.

The topic of geography is frequently revisited, with the team’s Geneva location posing challenges but key to its identity.

“One thing we can say for sure is we’re probably an atypical team,” Thouvenin says. “Also because we’re not going into racing with money as the priority, we’re going into racing with something that we all three hold in our hearts which is even chances. And try to [give] career breaks, and break stereotyping and things like that. We would like to really give women the possibility to race, but also to work as mechanics. And we’re not just saying it, we’re doing it.

“We finished our rounds of interviews of staff, the majority will be women. We’re extremely proud of that.”

Recently the team made its first high-profile signing, bringing in former Ferrari Driver Academy technical director and Formula 1 race engineer Francesco Pon (pictured below) as its own technical director.

“On the driver side, again we’re doing something different. We’re aiming at having a Swiss driver, at least one woman driver, although we do not want to separate by gender. We don’t think that should be the case, it should be a driver and that’s it. And then as a third driver we would like to have an international driver. It will be great to have someone from Africa or Asia, an Indian driver, why not? So this is our aim, we’re hoping to achieve that. It all depends also on the availability and the capacity and the readiness of these drivers. So we’re discussing, the door is open, that’s 100% our target.

“If you go to a karting track today, you’ll see 90% of the racers are guys. If we managed to change that, I think it’s entirely possible then that in a few years it’s actually a field which is 50/50 [gender split]. And that’s what we want to show, that there’s no reasons for females not to compete with men. And they can totally beat them. It’s just talent we look for, we don’t care if it’s male or female. In the end it’s only the stopwatch [counts].”

Seeking to give chances to drivers that would maybe find it more difficult to land themselves an F4 seat in Europe has instigated the launching of a ‘Maffi Racing Association’ which intends to “help young talented women and men from diverse backgrounds, who aspire to build their career in motorsports and related industries, but who have difficulties pursuing their career dreams due to their limited financial capabilites”.

“The association will attract donors and members that could contribute. With that contribution going towards allowing the drivers to race for our team as a priority. And if there’s any surplus, then we would like to give an opportunity to other Swiss teams once our team is fully [established].”

To highlight what happens to those drivers whose dreams may be achieved via the association, and to document what racing in F4 is like behind the scenes, Maffi Racing is planning a video series (to be published on several online platforms) which will be made by “a small team following us on a few of our races this year”.

Switzerland has a high cost of living, in part down to having a different currency to its European neighbours but also a reflection of its international and wealthy population which can afford such a lifestyle, and has a lot of untapped talent in engineering that Maffi seeks to utilise. Thouvenin is an engineering graduate of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Lausanne (EPFL), and wants to partner up with that insitution and others in the country for the staffing of the team.

“That’s the aim, because there’s a lot of potential in Switzerland. We have very good universities on the mechanical and engineering side, so of course being in that region with so much talent, the aim is to form partnerships and have those young people, young graduates coming from EPFL having a chance to get their first experience in the real racing world. That would be the ultimate achievement. At least for me it would be very nice. To create that sort of continuity between people who study and who have a passion for racing, and actually coming to that real world where they’re working on the track. To have like a concrete application of what they’re learning at the school.

“So we’re trying to find a good combination between experienced mechanics and also having a few apprentices who will learn and always be paired up with the most experienced mechanics so we can form in-house are own new engineers and mechanics. Maybe partnering up with [multiple] universities.”

The team: Thouvenin (white shirt), Danny Maffi (left of Sperandio), Cristian Maffi (right of Sperandio)

Not many who work for racing teams live in Switzerland, what with few teams based there, no race weekends in the country and the cost of living, so Maffi needs to establish a healthy amount of factory time early in the season to build the working relationships within the team so it can become less dependant on needing its international workforce to commute to Geneva as frequently thereafter. And of course some crew members also work for different teams in other motorsport series too.

Cristian Maffi combined an academic learning with his practical automotive experience, but being raised in Ethiopia he had a very different school of engineering prior to studying at motorsport specialist Cranfield University in England where he “was proposing theories, then we were in the labs testing them” with a 50/50 split between theory and practice.

“Initially the automotive industry, or motorsport, was taught by my father,” he says. “He was telling me this is the way you should be doing things if you want them to work. Some aspects, I didn’t have any theoretical explanation behind it. But when you complement this with studies, it’s all really [valuable] afterwards. You see the beauty of that experience, and also the academic experience.”

Danny Maffi adds that their upbringing, where they helped in Ethiopia’s motorsport federation which was co-founded by their father alongside the family’s own team, meant that in addition to seeing how Maffi Racing Ethiopia operated they also learned “from the organisational, safety aspect, the federation and the regulatory aspects” to get “a whole [education]”.

And Ethiopian motorsport, all on street circuits, is a little different to the type of action seen in Europe.

“They’re very enthusiastic, they like the sport. It was crazy because they were racing in the streets, basically.

“I have some pictures and video. People were finding buildings and light poles to have access to watch the races there. We thought football was a big thing, but the racing really was something else.”

Photos: Maffi Racing

Most of the racing featured touring cars, or a more accurate description would be using road cars that they had but with some modifications (pictured above), and “it was really doing more with less; it’s a very pure form of racing”.

“I think it’s one of the only countries where second-hand cars costs more than a first-hand car. There is the added value [of racing pedigree].”

Because Swiss motorsport requires a different approach to the rest of the continent, having such a distinctive background in Ethopia actually helped the Maffi brothers then adapt to its uniqueness, and appreciate the standards set in Europe.

“We didn’t have escape roads like you have in the circuits in Europe, you had grass basically as protection, and tyres. We had people in the middle of hairpins and the fast corners. Then we had our own brother [Roberto] who was racing in Ethiopia. He was involved in a big shunt, and that changed his life, so we take the safety aspect as our first priority. We learned a lot about safety…

“So when you experience racing in Africa, and then you come to Europe, I believe [that experience is super valuable].”

Giorgo Maffi recalls: “In Ethiopia you had government support when motorsport was organsied. We had the federal police stay with us while we were doing the races. And for the higher-level rallies, because we did more than 2000 kilometres, at each checkpoint you would have soldiers allowing spectators to [spectate safely]. And all these years you’d never see an accident or casualties [besides animal crossings] because of this.”

Maffi Racing Ethiopia “were doing everything, rallies, motorcycles, and circuits”, and the multi-discipline ambitions of the new Swiss franchise may also include a step up the single-seater ladder and rallying as it “is something that we will be looking at” in the future and there are already less restrictions on that type of motorsport in Switzerland. A return to racing in Ethiopia isn’t on the cards, but…

“What we would love to achieve is to have the African kids coming race for our team, because that is definitely doable. They’re probably not exposed to motor racing, maybe because of driver funds, maybe because of restrictions, different things, but there are talents. In Ethiopia, as it is in Africa. If you see Kenya for example, the driving talent in rally and so on – the Safari Rally showed [last year] – there are so many talents.”

Thouvenin says “the goal is really to be international” and “to create something which is capable of hosting anyone, and everyone should feel welcome to come and talk any language”, and “that the great point of being in Geneva is that it’s an international city”.

After racing in Italian F4, which visits Austria and Belgium for two of its seven rounds, Maffi Racing will start 2023 by racing in the F4 United Arab Emirates championship. It also hasn’t ruled out cameoing in other series which utilise the same Tatuus T-421 car and Abarth engine, such as Spanish F4, as more racing means more experience.

“We have a lot to learn, so our first priority is to learn as fast as possible,” says Thouvenin. “The first year is not all about the results, it’s more about the improvement that we want to see. I think for me I will stress the success if we start top 20 but we finish in the top five. That’s improvement and that’s positive to take.”

Maffi Racing’s inaugural Italian F4 campaign began with 23rd, 17th and 19th place finishes for its sole driver Sperandio at Imola, and its second race event takes place at Misano this weekend.