File picture: Max Rossi / Reuters.

Sergio Marchionne, the emblematic head of Fiat Chrysler who helped reignite mighty Ferrari as a Formula 1 superpower, was described as a "colossal visionary" on Wednesday as the sport mourned his death.

Marchionne took over as chief in September 2014 from Luca di Montezemolo when it had been seven years since Kimi Raikkonen had delivered the 15th - and still most recent - of its world driver's titles.

Three years later, the team was back knocking on the door with Sebastian Vettel finshing runner-up to Lewis Hamilton.

"Sergio achieved a colossal amount for the automotive industry and motorsport worldwide," said ex-Ferrari principal Jean Todt, now the president of FIA.

"He dedicated himself fully to turn around the Fiat-Chrysler group and put all his energy to bring Ferrari back to the top. 

"He was an endearing, upstanding and brave man, an unconventional and visionary leader."

Ferrari tweeted on Wednesday: "All of us at Ferrari feel privileged to have worked alongside a courageous leader like Sergio Marchionne, a man of enormous humanity and intelligence. 

"In this moment of sadness, we join with his family in remembering him with immense affection."

Those thoughts were also echoed by Toto Wolff, the team boss of Hamilton's outfit Mercedes.

"This is a sad day for all of us in @F1. We have a lost a huge supporter of our sport, a fierce competitor, an ally and a friend," Wolff tweeted.

"Our heartfelt sympathies are with Sergio's family and all at @ScuderiaFerrari at this difficult time."

Genuine contender

Vettel, who is leading Ferrari's challenge to Mercedes, was out in front of this year's championship until last weekend when a crash at Hockenheim allowed fellow four-time champion Hamilton to leapfrog him again at the top of the standings.

Despite that, Ferrari looks a genuine title contender having struggled to regain a meaningful foothold in the period after 2014 when the sport made the controversial switch to hybrid cars.

Away from the track, Marchionne was a key player in the high stakes political and commercial sub-plots that dominate the paddock.

When the FIA threatened a budget cap to put the brakes on the spiralling costs of Formula 1, the Ferrari chief threatened to withdraw the Italian marque from the world championship where they had been a fixture since 1950.

Marchionne also took a close interest in the careers of young drivers, notably Monaco's Charles Leclerc, part of the Ferrari Driver Academy who currently drives for Sauber and is tipped to join the Italian giants even as early as next year.

Marchionne, 66, suffered serious complications following surgery on his right shoulder last month and passed away on Wednesday.

Two-time world champion Fernando Alonso, who drove for Ferrari from 2010-14, added his tribute.

"Sad news today. RIP Sergio. Great man and always very supportive. My condolences to his family and friends, and all the Ferrari family."

Agence France-Presse