This weekend has seen a PR blitz by Jean Todt as the campaign to be elected FIA president enters the final stages. The election is less than a month away and Todt has made his first visit to the F1 paddock since announcing his candidacy.
Outgoing FIA president Max Mosley has already publicly endorsed him and this week belittled his rival Ari Vatanen. Also this week Bernie Ecclestone came out strongly in support of Todt. This is no surprise; it was Ecclestone who persuaded Ferrari president Luca di Montezemolo to hire Todt back in 1993 when he was at Peugeot.
In everything that he has done lately Todt has strived to look presidential. He has been clever, using his status as an FIA official on the Keep Roads Safe campaign, to do a series of high profile FIA-sponsored events, making it very easy for people to imagine him the president’s role. In fact he looks like he is already!
There was a fascinating little cameo on the grid on Sunday, picked up by the world feed cameras, where Todt was proceeding down the grid, like a president, with people around him, including Ecclestone when Ari Vatanen pushed Bernie from behind as he jostled to be in on the group. You heard Bernie snap at him, “Hey, don’t push” and Vatanen looked such an outsider in that group.
Vatanen looks like an outsider in every sense, someone who talks a good game, but who has no direct experience of leading a large organisation. But the outsider is the role he has chosen for himself, the question is, does he have enough support? Max Mosley criticised him for never having run anything in the past, even his own rally car and it is true that it would take a leap of imagination to see him match Todt for leadership qualities. But Todt has a lot of baggage and carries the endorsement of Mosley and Ecclestone, which is a mixed blessing in the eyes of some. Vatanen represents a complete change of culture.
The key for Todt is whether he can decouple his instinct and track record of ruthless competitiveness from his broader management skills. There is no question that he is one of the great managers of sporting history, possibly the greatest in F1 in terms of results, but he pushed everything to the limit and sometimes beyond in his relentless pursuit of victory. In this new role there would be no place for that side of him, even though he would be required to fight the FIA’s corner, but the sport would clearly benefit from his ability to get things done.
Would he present the face he presented to the other teams at Indianapolis in 2005, where the Michelin teams ended up not running because he would not countenance any changes to the track which might allow them to? Or would he bring the same ability to win the day to benefit the FIA and the sport as a whole?
Todt is closely aligned with Mosley and Ecclestone and although he would bring about important structural changes – such as the F1 commissioner and the disciplinary panel – which I think are excellent ideas, would he be prepared to bring about a cultural change too?
The question then is whether the key members of the FIA have the stomach for an overhaul of the way things work. If Vatanen can get enough of the right people to want to bring about that change he will be put in a unique and privileged position, but if he can’t find some game-changing moves soon, he could just be steamrollered by the Todt establishment.
Some of the biggest names from the motorsport scene around the world came out for Todt this weekend, men like Michael Schumacher, Alain Prost and Mario Andretti. None of them has a vote on the FIA presidency, but their voices resonate widely.
One of them, legendary Amercian team owner Roger Penske said,
“One of Jean’s great abilities has been his level of commitment to encouraging the very best performance from his team. He was 1000% committed to team Peugeot, 1000% committed to team Ferrari and in the future will be 1000% committed to team FIA. For Jean nothing less than this commitment is enough and if he only achieves a fraction of the success at the FIA as he has done in motor sport competition, we can expect great things from the governing body in the future.”
Ecclestone’s endorsement is significant, even if it is slightly odd that he would come out on the side of one candidate. He usually backs a winner, though.
“I have known Jean for many years,” Ecclestone said on Friday. “He is a most reliable, gifted and trustworthy person. He is determined and dedicated to whatever goals he sets himself and I admire and respect him greatly for everything he has achieved. The FIA needs a president that is strong, capable and with experience at the highest levels of motor sport.
“Jean is by far the most knowledgeable and capable candidate for this vitally important role. I hope everybody will support his candidacy,”
Meanwhile Todt has this weekend met with the teams through FOTA and with the Grand Prix Drivers’ Association. There is some concern among the FOTA hardcore about a Todt presidency and Toyota’s John Howett has already expressed his view that the president should not be someone with such strong links to F1 and to one team in particular, F1′s most important team historically and financially.
It’s interesting and significant that the two most awkward team principals, as far as a Todt presidency would be concerned, have now left the sport; Ron Dennis and Flavio Briatore. Todt would not have been able to come in to the job and get rid of them and without them his life as president would be much easier.
The drivers have often felt that the FIA doesn’t really listen to their concerns, although Mosley always denied that and sought several high profile meetings with them over certain issues. Todt also hinted that some of the FIA frontline figures in F1 might be moved on,
“I am ready to start from a white sheet of paper at all levels, ” he said. “I will forget that I had a problem with a team because it would be inappropriate. So starting from a white piece of paper, if some people are now involved in the administration of the FIA [it's because they are] they are good, I can only respect them.
“If I feel that some people are not appropriate or should be put in another position it is something I will discuss with the team. And it needs to be reinforced.”
The election is on October 23rd.