‘We want a champion to show skill, not how good the car is’: Jean Todt interview

FIA President Jean Todt (73), whom we interviewed exclusively in the South African resort of Sun City during the annual FIA Conference last week, is one of world motorsport’s highest-ever achievers, having been a winning WRC-standard co-driver, boss of Peugeots rally/Dakar/Pikes Peak/WEC teams and chief architect of Ferrari’s record-setting 2000s hegemony.

Jean Todt

As outlined here last year, such conferences were introduced under the Frenchman’s watch in 2013 as one of the channels by which motorsport’s governing body communicated its visions and future plans via a series of plenary sessions and workshops to national sporting authorities, known as ASNs.

It’s all too easy to overlook that, where FIFA administers only ball games – albeit different contests – and IOC concentrates on quadrennial track and field activities (plus a few others), the FIA has a vastly diverse palette, with Mobility activities ranging from domestic and cross-border touring through road safety and mobility to administering a range of utterly diverse global motorsport categories.

This conference was the first to feature both Sport and Mobility platforms, with it being clear during the week that global motoring – whether for sport, leisure or mobility – is coming under increasing pressure from environmental and other pressure groups, and thus a united front is required to overcome the challenges of the future (see our previous coverage for more).

This year’s FIA Conference was, though, unique in not headlining F1 and various other world championship categories – instead the focus was on motorsport development programmes. Clearly such topics are relevant in developing territories such as Asia and Africa, but, apart from those considerations, without grassroots motorsport categories there simply would be no F1 as we know it.

Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen did not simply step out of school and into a Mercedes or Red Bull, but worked their respective ways up motorsport’s staircase. Hailing from countries with developed motorsport cultures made their formidable climbs substantially easier than for those who do not have that advantage.

Jean Todt, Chase Carey, Shanghai International Circuit, 2019
Todt says the FIA and Liberty get along perfectly

Thus, much as F1 was not listed on the agenda, when I sit down with FIA President Jean Todt for an exclusive interview in his office in Sun City’s massive conference complex, my opening question is about exactly that: How has the relationship between the FIA and Liberty Media developed?

“The relationship between the FIA and Liberty Media is perfect. Myself, [the relationship] with Chase Carey, [from] my side is perfect. I like him. I think he’s a very [trustworthy] person,” Todt says with hesitation.

Although his comments are to be expected, over the years the relationships between governing body and commercial rights holders (of all genre, including F1) have at times been fractious, so both sides value harmony.

“I think sometimes [Carey] is facing unpredictable situations,” Todt continues. “He’s a gentleman; he’s had success as the CEO of a big [media] company called Fox, and suddenly he arrived in a sometimes strange world where people never agree, which is kind of for me that’s the unpleasant thing of Formula 1.

Daniel Ricciardo, Renault, Baku City Circuit, 2019
Too little action? Baku was “thrilling”, says Todt

“I love Formula One. [We had] a thrilling race in Baku. I enjoyed it. Of course, I would have preferred 200 overtakes, but it doesn’t happen in Formula One. For obvious reasons.

“What I don’t like in Formula 1 is the sort of closed, golden universe where there is too often unnecessary conflict, controversy. I think it should be very simple. So the good thing with my relationship with Chase Carey: he’s straightforward; I’m straightforward. That’s the way it is. I think you should ask him the question, what he thinks about his relationship with the FIA.”

Liberty, of course, the holder of F1’s commercial rights via a long-term (113-year) agreement entered into between the FIA (then under Max Mosley) and Bernie Ecclestone, with the rights then variously being hawked at ever-increasing (and eye-watering) sums despite shrinking duration… is the FIA comfortable with this arrangement, I ask Todt.

“It’s a 100-year agreement. So I’m applying the best I can to the 100-year agreement as president of the FIA. I did not sign the contract. I never said it’s a good contract or a bad contract. My job is to make sure that with the contract, which was signed, [that] my team and myself do the best job in the interest of the FIA, of the Championship, of the members of the FIA.

“When I will give back the keys to the FIA, then I hope the new President of the FIA will be happy about the legacy I leave him. It’s like in any government, in anything, so the Federation is a global organisation, a government is a national organisation, and it moves from one to another one. And each one kind of gives it a stamp.”

Todt’s third terms of office expires at end-2021 – a year after Liberty’s much-vaunted ‘New-Gen’ F1 comes into play – and comments about his successor provide the perfect introduction for my next question: You mentioned ‘government’ – In some countries the presidents ‘choose’ their successors. Where do you stand on this?

“You know, in a democratic country, or in a democratic organisation, the electorate [in this case the FIA membership] decide who is their president.”

So Todt will leave it open to the vote rather than anointing a successor, particularly given that he instituted a change of statutes that restrict FIA presidencies to three terms?

“You know, it’s still… my first ‘office job’. I was running Peugeot [Motorsport]. I left Peugeot the 30th of June ’93, the first of July I arrived at Ferrari. When I left Ferrari it was a bit different, because after 16 years where I was focussed 100% on my job I took some time off before finalising my decision to tender for the FIA election.

Ross Brawn, Bahrain International Circuit, 2019
Todt isn’t prepared to pick a successor – yet

“So it’s still more than two and a half years before that. I mean of course I’ve been putting so much personal effort in trying to make the strongest FIA possible. Again, with other inputs which are important, which take also a lot of my time, such as [a road safety envoy role] in the United Nations, in the other things that I do. And all that I do now is giving back.”

Todt, the son of a doctor, digresses slightly, mentioning the Brain and Spine Research Institute founded by the FIA and its Medical Commission President Dr Gérard Saillant, and is back to full flow:

“That’s my new life, to give something back. So I really hope I will give the best FIA, that situation with Sport, Mobility, and I hope that the FIA will keep progressing, but I will be out of it. Now, when I understand a little bit more about what could be the future, I will then decide of what should be in the interest of the FIA.”

Talking of succession, I fly a slightly mischievous kite: Given Todt’s successes in motorsport (winning WRC co-driver, boss of Peugeots rally/Dakar/Pikes Peak/WEC teams and chief architect of Ferrari’s record-setting 2000s hegemony), could he see high achievers such as Toto Wolff or Ross Brawn eventually succeeding him?

Pause for thought, then: “Each one is doing very well, with their own style, own management capacity. I don’t know what are their aspirations. You are talking about so many people, and again, if I compare myself, I’m quite conscious about what I’ve been doing.

“But I’ve never been a businessman, I’ve been a manager, I’ve been a leader, but I’ve always used the money of others. You know, I do admire personal success. Very often it’s not linked to money but it’s linked to what you give. I admire doctors, I admire people like that because they put their talent at the disposal of humanity. So I’m not doing philosophy, but that is what impresses me the most.Go ad-free for just £1 per month>> Find out more and sign up

On Roborace: “I’m not interested in cars without drivers”

How much scope does Todt see for motorsport in developing countries?

“It’s not so easy in developing countries to have strong mobility organisations who can be influential to the government, which is what we need. I can give them some more strengths to develop and to have a position in their country. You were talking about karting, electric . We want to develop karting because it’s the cheapest way to do motorsport.

“We want to develop drifting, we want to develop motorsport from grassroots.

“When, for example – with the input of Chase [Carey], who had the vision towards the Formula 1 Grand Prix in Vietnam, which has a 90 million population – I see the interest, the motivation of the leaders to do it – I [also] see the potential to have a very strong, committed, young, fresh sporting federation.

He mentions an FIA road safety initiative, which saw 10,000 helmets distributed to Vietnamese off the back of the F1 project, using F1 drivers as example on the basis of “if they wear helmets, so should you…’.

“With my style, I’ve been trying to create harmony, unity and synergy between Sport and Mobility.”

Valtteri Bottas, Jean Todt, Shanghai International Circuit, 2019
Todt with 1,000th championship race pole sitter Bottas

At a previous conference, when I broached the subject of autonomous racing (aka Roborace), Todt dismissed the concept, saying, “[Motorsport] is [about] drivers, it’s competitors. Our members on the sport side have a racing license, so we don’t give a racing license to a robot.”, yet in Sun City one of the plenaries included input from Roborace Chief Technology Officer Bryn Balcombe.

Why the step change?

“The FIA is a motoring organisation. So of course we are very supportive of any development. For me motor racing is [a development platform], not only a show.

“Saying that, I do believe the development of the connected car, the autonomous car, clearly depending [on] where we are in Africa, it will take decades before we achieve that.”

Obviously Todt is referring here to driving standards and motoring infrastructures in Africa – which I, as a son of the Continent, understand only too well, and take not as criticism, but his observations of the challenges of motoring in the region: “Clearly [such territories] are 50 years behind what we call a ‘developed’ country.

“So, the same for autonomous cars. Motor racing without a driver… for me the beauty of motor racing is this complex mixture, the man and the machine and the team.

Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes, Baku City Circuit, 2019
We want somebody showing his skills. We don’t want him to show us how good his car is”

“So I don’t say you cannot think of autonomous cars [in] racing, but it’s not something which is kind of in my dream to see, because I’m not interested to see cars without drivers racing. Again, when we say on a normal car, a normal driver, we want to give him as much driver aid as possible.

“But in a racing car, as little as possible. We want a champion. We want somebody showing his specific skills. We don’t want him to show us how good his car is. And unfortunately that’s a bit of a problem with motor racing. Because whoever is the driver, if he had not the car, he will not be able to do the job.”

That, in a nutshell, perfectly illustrates the difference between Sport and Mobility, and why the FIA as the world’s motoring authority faces such challenges from both micro and macro factors. The conference was aimed at bridging those challenges, and the mere fact that it attracted over 700 delegates from across the world underscores its relevance.

Source: Racefans. Story by Dieter Rencken