Exclusive: FIA president Jean Todt on how motorsport will survive the pandemic

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In deliberating the activities of the FIA it is all too easy to overlook that the global mandate of the Paris-based body extends well beyond Formula 1 or even all motorsport. The FIA oversees every aspect of motoring, from touring through road safety and government consultation to four-wheeled activities, whether for leisure, commuting or sport.

And, as Jean Todt (74), president of motoring’s governing body revealed to RaceFans during an exclusive video interview, the FIA is in talks with FIM, the motorcycling equivalent, to streamline their respective commissions and foster closer links between the two- and four-wheel brigades.

“We are working very closely together,” he said. “I invited [FIM President] Jorge Viegas to our high-level panel. We are [also] working on developing a homologated cheap helmet for mobility, for motorbike riders.”

The panel referred to is the FIA’s ‘High-Level Panel’ think-tank of over 150 luminaries from all walks who can be tapped for advice and guidance on specific topics. The list, seen by RaceFans, includes such as former Chile president Michelle Bachelet, WHO Secretary-General Dr Tedros Ghebreyesus, various UN high-ranking officials and IOC President Thomas Bach, and Christian Peugeot of the eponymous car company.

Todt will reach the end of the final of three terms in December 2021. Not least because the former world champion rally co-driver and record-setting team boss of Peugeot (rally, sports car and rally raid) and Ferrari (F1) will have served the maximum number of permitted of mandates, and by then will be beyond the under-75 age limit as prescribed by FIA statutes. Tellingly, Todt himself called for these restrictions after taking office.

Todt arrived in F1 with Ferrari in 1993
Pre-Covid 19, such timing conveniently provided a 12-month window for Todt to preside over the 2020-21 transition period from the Bernie Ecclestone-era to new owner of F1’s commercial rights holder Liberty Media which plans a radical revamp of F1’s sporting, technical and commercial covenants, with revised regulations planned for introduction in the 2021 season.

However, one of the FIA and F1’s first moves after Covid-19 struck was to delay the ‘new era’ by a year, clearly complicating this time frame. Thus, an early question during the interview is whether it makes sense for Todt’s final mandate to be extended by 12 months to enable top-level stability and an orderly transition.

His response and details on the co-operation between FIA and F1 were reported here, but it suffices to say it is clear that he would need to be persuaded to remain in office, and certainly not for a full fourth mandate.

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However, it makes perfect sense, for global motor sport is on hold, and even if, as hoped, events are staged later this season, much has been lost, and major changes are scheduled: Apart from F1, the World Endurance Championship plans radical changes to its hypercar class, as does the World Rallycross Championship with Projekt E.

Toyota TS050, Le Mans, 2019
WEC is planning a major rules shake-up
A hefty to-do list for Todt’s successor.

He admits Covid has forced change on the FIA, but one gains the impression that much of it was due in any event and that the epidemic accelerated the process.

“We will reduce travelling, for obvious reasons, but not only us. You know, this Zoom video conferencing and all that is clearly something new and very efficient, so we learn out of that,” he says, adding that the FIA has agreed a partnership with the International Red Cross, which extends well beyond the current crisis.

“They will be our partners to [assist] the people who will participate in motor racing in future, with the head of the medical department of the FIA in discussions with them. We are engaging in programmes also to support [member] countries” he explains.

Once motorsport resumes – prevailing wisdom suggests an early-July start for most categories – calendars are expected to be over-crowded as categories squeeze a maximum number of events into what is left of their seasons. Surely the result will be unwelcome cannibalisation of events and championships?

“We will accept much more easily an overlap [of events],” he acknowledges, and it is clear the FIA sporting department will be more flexible. “In a way it’s a good way of demonstrating the motoring spirit, and to help each other.

“We must help promoters, we must work closely with our championships, with the national promoters,” adding, “Because if you are in the shit, it’s here where you can make the difference…”

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Covid-19 has ravaged businesses across the world, and the obvious question is whether the FIA has been affected given that income is derived largely from member clubs (funded by their members) and driver and team licence fees. A decade ago, before Todt assumed office, the body was believed to be strapped, so the $200m question is whether the FIA can survive Covid-19?

“We are a non-profit organisation, fortunately we have stable finances, and in all our plans we have some reserves which will allow us to go through such a crisis,” he says.

Toto Wolff, Christian Horner, Albert Park, 2020
Some teams resisted budget cap reductions
“Even if we were not expecting the crisis, we were expecting that it was important to have some reserves for the future.”

A 2019 FIA coup had been to persuade the three major F1 teams to accept an annual budget cap of $175m (with certain exceptions) from 2021, but there is now further pressure to reduce that, with a three-year (2021/22/23) glide path of $145m/$135m/$130m up for a team vote as this is written.

Todt won’t be drawn on the chance of success, saying only, “I cannot go into specific detail because at the moment it’s a work-in-process. But it’s a question of days,” adding, “We also made one emergency article in our statutes, the International Sporting Code, in order to be able to adapt new rules with a 60% majority.”

Previously unanimity had been required for changes less than 12 months hence, which invariably bogged down processes – and this measure points to Todt’s determination to break the stranglehold and power of major teams.

“Clearly this pandemic has reinforced our wish, our energy, to make more drastic decisions for the future, in a way to resist even more the resistance which was occurring for certain teams” – an unsubtle and clear dig at the Ferrari/Mercedes/Red Bull axis, aligned against swingeing cuts.

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Top of F1’s pre-crisis agenda had been formalising the 2020-5 Concorde Agreement, which outlines the obligations of commercial rights holder Liberty Media and teams and the governance process. The history of this document is as convoluted as that of the Parisian square it is named after but suffice to say it was initially a bilateral agreement (FIA/teams), then tripartite (FIA/F1/teams) before being reduced to bilateral (F1/teams) in 2013-20.

A separate agreement, known as the Concorde Implementation Agreement, outlines the prevailing FIA/F1 working relationship. This too expires at the end of 2020, and the belief was the FIA would revert to full tripartite signatory status.

Carey has said Concorde Agreement discussions are on hold
However, during a recent investor call Liberty Media/F1 CEO Chase Carey stated that Concorde discussions had been placed “on the back burner.”

“We had been in the final stages of completing the Concorde Agreement when the coronavirus crisis turned everything on its head,” he said, adding, “We decided to put the Concorde on the back burner for the short-term, and prioritise addressing issues relating to 2020 first.

“As we move forward with the 2020 calendar and finalise regulatory changes with the teams, we will once again return to completing the Concorde Agreement in the future.”

So, the question is: How has the current situation affected progress from an FIA perspective?

“You don’t need to sign the Concorde Agreement,” Todt states matter-of-factly, pointing out that, “We did not sign the Concorde Agreement at the last renewal. It’s only an agreement between FOM and the teams. We don’t have any agreement with the teams.

“The agreement of the teams is with FOM, and as you have seen we are now (note) under no specific governance to implement the regulations after 2020,” he says, citing the change to the ISC regulations.

“Nothing has been decided on that,” he says when asked a follow-up question about the exact structure (bilateral/tripartite) of the incoming agreement but is adamant that the agreement will not be delayed due to Covid-19 and that the clauses will not change materially.

While Todt is confident the FIA’s future is secure, the same cannot be said of a number of F1 teams. Indeed, in the latest edition of AUTO, the FIA’s in-house magazine, he voices concern, saying, “I don’t think the priority now for a manufacturer is to secure continuity in motor racing. I’m sure some teams, suppliers and manufacturers may have to review their programs.

“I hope team owners and sponsors will keep the motivation. We must encourage them to feel they still like it and need it. On that, we have a responsibility. That’s why we should listen to everybody.”

Manufacturers quit F1 in a hurry after 2008 crisis
I put it to him that current agreements commit F1 teams only through to end-2020, and that Covid could thus trigger an exodus as occurred during the 2008/9 global economic crisis, when Honda, BMW, Renault and Toyota departed F1 when presented with the 2010-12 agreement – just before he took office…

“We know there is the risk, there is a risk that teams may decide to go. That’s why we are trying to make the best package in order to keep the small and to keep the big, and the medium. It is not an easy exercise.

Is he concerned that certain manufacturer teams might not sign up?

“As I said, to run a championship we (the FIA) don’t need this agreement to be signed… but even if the agreement is signed… it’s not a question of [whether] the agreement [is] signed or not, which would make the teams leaving or staying.

“It’s two completely different, separate things. We know there is the risk that teams may decide to go. That’s why we are trying to make the best package in order to keep the small and to keep the big, and the medium. It is not an easy exercise.”

Surely, then, the answer to have in place mechanism to attract incoming teams, whether to F1 or other series?

“We must be optimistic,” he says. “We must be positive. And it’s also for them to be interested. We have tried to create the most exciting post-2020 Formula One Championship. We have agreed to delay what we feel are very good regulations to 2022, due to the situation, which was for me a rational, logical decision, which was supported by everybody. The future looks good.”

Finally, talking personally, how does he see his work rate changing post-Covid, particularly in view of the punishing travel schedules he maintained, which shade those of F1 drivers, possibly all of them combined?

Claire Williams, Albert Park, Melbourne, 2020
Fans will have to stay way from races for the time being
“You know, I will be very honest, finally I became more lazy! I am fortunate to be in a comfortable, nice place which I have been enjoying very much.

“And I could stay here more, if it were not the situation. So if I travel so much, it is because I am the President of the FIA, because of the UN Secretary General’s Special Envoy for Road Safety, so my responsibilities make me travelling. I’m a committed person; I do it more by commitment than by enjoyment.”

Which brings us neatly to road safety and the current crisis. While media outlets continuously report on the horrific death tolls from the pathogen, the average year-to-date global mortality rate of 2000 deaths per day is still approximately 50% of the road accident rate – estimated at 3,800 deaths per day. Does Todt believe the epidemic will result in renewed focus on the sanctity of life?

“Of course, I am not wanting to draw comparisons,” he says sympathetically, “road deaths have fallen in line with restrictions during this terrible crisis. What is clear is that we have seen that, with the right prescriptions, things that didn’t seem possible can be achieved.”

However, he believes that “Nobody could have predicted that the world would be almost free from traffic jams and pollution for a period.

“On one hand people have realised how important freedom is, and I hope they remember that,” he says.

But I must say I am also sceptical on how long some of the [environmental] impacts will last. Already it seems clear people won’t like getting on public transportation, so they’ll probably end up taking their own transport, creating jams and increasing pollution again.”

Finally, when he steps down – whether at the end of 2021 or 2022 – what legacy would Todt – the only man in history to lead world championship-winnings teams in rally, cross-country, endurance racing and F1 – like to leave the global motorsport community?

“Not an easy question!” he smiles. “Honestly, to make it as safe as possible. As safe as possible, and also as large as possible. I mean, we’ve put in place pyramids in single-seater racing, we want to do the same in rallying. We want a strong and safe motorsport, starting from grassroots all the way to the pinnacle.”

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Author information

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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  • 4 comments on “Exclusive: FIA president Jean Todt on how motorsport will survive the pandemic”

    1. Biskit Boy (@sean-p-newmanlive-co-uk)
      13th May 2020, 14:21

      Never liked the man. The sooner he goes the better.

      Do I think the Ferrari engine irregularity would have been disclosed with another at the helm?

      YES!

      1. That’s not even related to this article at all. But since you still want to talk about it…

        You think the decision was entirely down to Todt’s call?
        He worked for Ferrari for a while, so he will do everything he can to help them? If that were the case, why didn’t he just declare the engine legal?
        Nothing was proven, so the FIA got rid of the (thus far only alleged) problem in a different way – a win for everyone.

        F1 is never short of a conspiracy theory where FIA and/or Ferrari are involved.

        1. Biskit Boy (@sean-p-newmanlive-co-uk)
          15th May 2020, 11:28

          It is related. His term is ending soon. Not soon enough for me.

          He is the President. If something goes wrong or bad decisions are made the buck stops with him. The FIA have collectively made some really bad decisions, admittedly subjectively, in my view. He has to take some responsibility.

          He’s a nice man. Some may think he’s done a good job, I do not. I wish him well, but F1 has had a succession of bad figure heads, it needs a good one next.

          As for the Ferrari engine thing I just picked that one out of the hat. Did I infer it was because he was ex Ferrari? Not specifically, the FIA always seems to pander to Ferrari, the problem is he’s done nothing to change that. Make up your own mind.

          It’s not really a conspiracy theory regarding the legalities of the Ferrari engine is it? Based on the performance change of their engine they must have been breaking the rules. When further steps were taken to measure fuel flow they slowed down. They just found a flaw in the measurement method. In my view they were caught cheating, not red handed maybe, but cheating never the less.

    2. Really good interview. This actually make me feel we got some things from Todt which I didn’t expect.

    Comments are closed.