The toothless ruler: FIA President Jean Todt has an impressive record in motorsport to his name. However, he seems powerless in his battle for saving Formula 1.
Click here to subscribe to our print edition!
Jean Todt was born a doctor’s son in France’s Auvergne region in 1946 and has always been hugely enthusiastic about cars and motor racing. During his studies at the EDC business school in Paris, he spent most of his spare time tuning cars. The petrolhead was a devoted fan of racing greats Jim Clark and Dan Gurney and soon took on racing himself. However, he quickly figured out that his greatest strength was as a co-driver.
Glorious rally days
His talent for calculation, strategy and organisation quickly made him a sought-after rally navigator and by 1969, Todt was best mates with world-class drivers like Jean-Pierre Nicolas, Rauno Aaltonen, Ove Andersson and Hannu Mikkola. During his rallying days, the Frenchman increasingly moved into team management and working with the sport’s governing body FIA. In 1981, he withdrew from competing and was appointed Director of Racing for Peugeot. He created Peugeot Talbot Sport and became the mastermind behind the Peugeot 205 Turbo 16 success. Timo Salonen and then Juha Kankkunen won back-to-back manufacturers’ World Championship titles in 1984 and 85.
From 1987 to 1990, he enjoyed dazzling success with four successive victories in the Paris-Dakar with Ari Vatanen and Juha Kankkunen. Todt moved to road racing and in 1992, he won the Le Mans 24 Hours with the Peugeot 905 driven by Derek Warwick, Yannick Dalmas and Mark Blundell, and managed to defend the title for the French manufacturers in 1993, when Geoff Brabham, Christophe Bouchut and Eric Hélary swept the field with a 1-2-3 victory.
The Ferrari saga
In 1993, aged 47, Todt was recruited by Ferrari President Luca di Montezemolo to help rejuvenate the struggling Scuderia. He became the first non-Italian ever to head the team and at the same time, the second most successful manager ever next to Enzo Ferrari himself. The mythical Italian team was hampered by infrastructural deficits and internal quarrels, not having won a driver’s championship since 1979. Jean Todt decided to completely restructure the management of the Racing Division. Barely a year after his takeover, in Germany Gerhard Berger gave Ferrari its first win in four years and at the end of the 1995 season, Todt lured German double world champion Michael Schumacher to Maranello. Not only did the pair establish a deep friendship, but they dominated the sport for the next decade.
They started to think that it is normal for a car to crash at 200km/h and for no one to get hurt.
Todt also hired the former Benetton designer and aerodynamics specialist Rory Byrne and technical director Ross Brawn, who had already been instrumental in Schumi’s previous success. Ferrari moved up to being a title contender again and Todt achieved his goal of reviving Ferrari’s legendary status by winning five consecutive world championships (2000, 2001, 2002, 2003 and 2004). When Schumacher retired after the 2006 season, Todt took up a new post as a Special Advisor for the Scuderia Ferrari, and finally parted ways with the Italians in March 2009, after winning 14 world titles, claiming 106 victories and even starring as Schumacher’s (“Schumix”) team boss in the movie Asterix at the Olympic Games.
The hardest job
In October the same year, Todt was elected President of the Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile by 135 votes against 49, and re-elected for a new four-year term in December 2013. Despite sounding like a much more quite post than his previous professions, Todt had to discover that presiding the sport’s governing body was possibly his most difficult task so far. 2014 was not a good year for Todt.
While Formula 1 promoter Bernie Ecclestone’s power has been growing steadily, contrary to some experts’ belief, and the Brit has been milking it, Todt was so far unsuccessfully trying to implement regulations for making Formula 1 more affordable. Todt was convinced, he could make some headway with Mercedes-Benz, Ferrari and Renault to lower the prices for their engine supply. “We had to introduce a new power unit, because Formula One is the pinnacle of motorsport and we must be an example to society and give a strong message. But I am going to fight over the price of the engines for the small teams in order for them to have a more affordable car”, Todt said. However, his first attempts have failed.
I have to divide the thing in two: my responsibilities as President of the FIA and my feelings.
The trio, who have spent one billion Euros between them developing the new 1.6-litre V6 turbo-charged hybrid power units, insisted on recouping much of those costs from their customers like Sauber, Force India or Lotus. Moreover, the FIA President has come under fire over alcohol sponsorship in Formula One, since the European Union is on the verge of issuing a ban on drinks advertising in sports. Such a move would put Formula 1’s small teams under even greater threat. In addition to long-time friend Michael Schumacher’s severe skiing accident, Todt also had to deal with a personal drama at his “office”. At the 2014 Japan GP, Ferrari Junior Jules Bianchi, who is managed by Todt’s son Nicolas, suffered life-threatening injuries, when crashing into a recovery vehicle in torrential rain. “I have to divide the thing in two: my responsibilities as President of the FIA and my feelings. I see my son devastated by the fact that someone he thinks of like a brother is in this situation,” Todt said.
“People have seen many years where terrible accidents happened and the driver walked away. They started to think that it is normal for a car to crash at 200km/h and for no one to get hurt. But it wasn’t, it the result of an astonishing amount of work.” And much more work seems to be lying ahead of him.