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

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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.

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.

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“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?

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“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.

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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.

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Dieter Rencken
Dieter Rencken has held full FIA Formula 1 media accreditation since 2000, during which period he has reported from over 300 grands prix, plus...

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  • 27 comments on “‘We want a champion to show skill, not how good the car is’: Jean Todt interview”

    1. Biskit Boy (@sean-p-newmanlive-co-uk)
      8th May 2019, 12:46

      We want a champion to show skill, not how good the car is

      Well then create a true world championship for drivers then!

      As much as I love F1, I’ve long thought it rather presumptuous that the F1 champ is called the “World Champion Driver” as if that is the only driving discipline that counts.

      If a driver was to show great skill in many forms of motor sport in one season then they could claim to be a true world driver champion driver.

      Imagine Lewis, Seb and co in rallycross cars, Saloon cars or on a oval or rally stage. That would be worth watching.

      1. ColdFly (@)
        8th May 2019, 13:21

        ROC

        1. Biskit Boy (@sean-p-newmanlive-co-uk)
          8th May 2019, 13:33

          Not Really. ROC is a chicken chaser event!

      2. Tommy Scragend
        9th May 2019, 12:00

        That was the thinking in the 50s behind making the Indianapolis 500 a World Championship event. It was supposed to promote crossover and drivers competing in different categories. Didn’t catch on though.

    2. Toto needs to have a talk with Todt and convince him that Lewis is already winning the championship in a much slower car compared to the trailblazing Ferrari.

      1. Except, it’s Bottas ‘winning’ the championship.

        1. ColdFly (@)
          8th May 2019, 13:21

          ;)

        2. I stand corrected then my friend. Lets see if its Bottas 2.0 or Lewis ‘The Mega Blessed’ Hamilton leading the championship halfway through the season.

        3. @psynrg Won’t last. This is the same story we saw last season, where Bottas should have been leading Hamilton comfortably in the championship after 4 races, but as per usual, Hamilton will find another gear, while Bottas will find the reverse gear.

      2. @knightameer Well last year Hamilton most certainly did yes. Vettel had the better car, but 7 (!) races of crashing into other cars, spinning off on his own or landing himself dumb grid penalties gave Hamilton the opportunity to beat him nonetheless.

    3. The best teams want the best drivers and the best drivers want to drive the best cars. It is a natural situation that has never changed, with few exceptions…notably Stirling Moss preferring British teams to Ferrari (although he probably would have ended in Maranello sooner or later if it wasn’t for Goodwood). The only remedy is the one Formula 1 steadfastly refuses to adopt for various reasons…equitable distribution of revenue to create much more level playing field, which should make it impossible for one team to devastatingly dominate for years…as in Mercedes AMG winning more than three-quarters of races held since 2014. I agree with Todt that it should be simple…but it never is and it remains to be seen, whether the sport is really moving in the right direction with this.

    4. And then they’ll carry on with keeping MGU-H and the status quo of the current top teams. In the dawn of recent news about Wolff becoming a potential Liberty man, something tells me that F1’s becoming a well oiled machine of the biggest automotive groups and they’re not even trying to hide it.

    5. I’m not an expert on this, but i feel the FIA have let down Africa previously, with the Safari rally losing its WRC status and Paris-Dakar moving to South America. Also, No F1 race since 1993.

      Only positives are Formula-E and World Touring cars in Marrakech.

      1. @emu55, to be fair, the FIA can’t really do anything about the Dakar Rally – the Amaury Sport Organisation (ASO), which is the organiser of the Dakar Rally, is not part of the FIA.

        The ASO is a subsidiary of Groupe EPA, one of the largest media groups in France, and specialises in organising sports events on behalf of Groupe EPA. With that, the FIA has had very little involvement with the Dakar Rally – I believe that they did act as an arbitrator between a competitor and the FFSA, which is a member of the FIA, back in 2016, and recently they did advise the ASO on improvements to the roll cage design in their cars – otherwise, the ASO has largely operated as its own independent organisation and there is little the FIA can do to encourage the ASO to return to the original route.

        As for the Safari Rally, although it fell off the calendar due to financial issues and organisational problems, the FIA are actively working to restoring it to the WRC (with Jean Todt being one of the main drivers of that proposal). The FIA signed a deal with the organisers in June 2018 to make the 2019 event an official WRC ‘candidate event’, with the FIA sending two technical delegates to review and assist the organisers of the Safari Rally in March this year.

        If all goes well – and the initial feedback seems to have been quite positive – the expectation is that the Safari Rally will become a full WRC event again in 2020.

    6. But F1’s always been like that, though.

      1. Yeah, it sounds good at first glance, but a team sport means that it is not just the drivers ; in fact, one could say that this year, the points accurately reflect which race team, including the drivers, have done the best, and worst jobs, certainly at the top @jerejj

    7. Pretty sure we could put lance stroll in Lewis Hamilton’s place at Mercedes and he wouldn’t win a championship. Isn’t the whole point of f1 is for a team to try and build the best car? Or have I missed something. Fact is the only thing liberty media care about is getting more money for themselves and todt is just an idiot.

    8. DAllein (@)
      8th May 2019, 18:13

      We want a champion to show skill, not how good the car is

      Mr.Todt,
      do you want F1 to become 370kmph go-carts?..
      In the last 1001 F1 races best drivers still drove best cars, and drivers and cars are inseparable.
      History doesn’t know Champions in bad cars…

    9. F1 is not a skills race, you can put any Tom, Dick or Harry in a Mercedes and they will most likely win or you can put the best driver in the world in one of the back marker cars and they will have no chance of winning, If you want to see the skill of a driver invert the field before the race like Sat. night races, that will at least show some skills but as it is right now, you don’t have to be a good driver to win racea, you just need a good car. I don’t even know why a driver gets any points at all, all the points should go to the car.

    10. I don’t think Todt is necessarily talking about a spec series, but an F1 in which the performance of all the teams is so close that the driver can make a difference. Essentially, think of it as F1 without any of the “big three”. In the midfield, any combination of car or driver could win on their day. If Sainz has a blinding weekend for example, more often than not, he will come best of the rest, or at least challenging up there. If Verstappen does the same, it just means that he’ll still finish 5th, barring any issues for the cars ahead.

    11. Is only one way to make it happen.
      Rotate the drivers.
      Then you can see what kind of driver really Hamilton is.

    12. I don’t think f1 actually has the biggest issues with unequal equipment. Due to the nature of the sport f1 is pretty much exactly what it is supposed to be. Teams building their own cars and winning is not just about the driver showing his best skills but also the engineering team. It is a team effort. The technical regulations have two different goals. Produce technical rules that create closely matched cars and good racing. And allow the teams to build better cars that the opponent by being smarter. It is competition on track and off track.

      The real issue becomes the worse and the more visible the lower you go in the racing ladder. Even in karting you have poor teams who build their engines on kitchen table and barely have enough tires to get through weekend. At the same time some local mini millionaire can come to the track in his mini motorhome with 13 brand new spare engines and unlimited brand new tires. Whereas the poor driver is tired and stressed from having to spend all his spare time trying find sponsors the ricj kids come to the rest fully rested after having done lots of practice with top level instructors honing his driving skills. And when you get to single seaters the issues become expotentially worse. Practice vs no practice, best engines vs the engine they ran last season, excellent driver coaching vs double shifts at walmart and endless sponsoship hunting, daddy as mechanic who also does double shifts vs millionaire daddy who can afford to spend 100-1000x more money per season… car setup tuned by professional race engineers vs using what worked last time we were out… and so forth… If it does not work out for the poor kid his parents maybe just blew all their savings and all they have left is debt and memories. The rich kid can just quit and become a ceo in his daddy’s business if things do go that well.

      Stroll managed to do f1 level car development in f3. They had williams design new mirrors and engine dynos and whatever other advantages. The competitors had much less. And that is international f3. There are lots of steps between karts and international f3. And massive differences between the small family units doing karting like hamilton’s and raikkonen’s parents and the strolls who can buy every competitive advantage and more. In f1 kimi and lewis can drive around lance because raw skills means more in f1 than they do at formula 4 level for example. At least at the top. But at karting or f4 level kimi and lewis could not beat strolls.

    13. You don’t need an official organisation for “cross-border touring”.

    14. So 2001 to 2005 was show how good Ferrari was.

    15. roberto giacometti
      9th May 2019, 5:51

      As per usual , Mr FIA President has his head buried deeply in the sand. The best line in that whole article was the bit about how good he is at “using other people’s money” !!!
      You don’t say !!!

    16. does it not take a skill to drive home the car ? vettel clearly is fumbling..

      or did MS have no skills and just that the car was so good that anyone could drive and be a WDC..

    17. I cant stand this hypocritical little punk. He’s the one that gave us this horrific “power unit” debacle we’ve been in the past 1/2 decade… he’s the moron that came up with the stupid “token” system for the engines all but guaranteeing Merc would win 4-5 in a row.
      We get crap sounding motors to save fuel all the while this arrogant little man goes flying around the world in his private jet… what a crock. Want a drivers champion JT? Then why have rules where all the drivers are doing is saving fuel and managing tires.
      Then of course he gave us the abomination that is Halo…all so he can sleep a little better after his team failed to throw a red flag at Suzuka but instead allowed a car to crash into a crane. That was the problem JT, you parked a friggin crane recovering a car that had gone off… jeez dont ya think another car might just do the same thing?? EXACTLY as Martin predicted about 2 laps earlier.

      Get rid of this jackass. He has singlehandedly ruined F1.

    Comments are closed.