Is Bernie toying with Todt?
The Bahrain Grand Prix saga has left us questioning the balance of power between Jean Todt, Bernie Ecclestone and the teams, represented by FOTA — and the FIA president certainly seems to have come off worst.
Todt has close links to Bahrain and wanted the race to happen. Shaikh Abdullah, the second son of the King of Bahrain, was a key ally during his election campaign. Todt subsequently made him head of the CIK, the karting commission, which gives him a seat on the World Motor Sport Council.
It’s Ecclestone’s job to set the calendar, which is then formalised by the WMSC, of which he is a member. Since the postponement of the original Bahrain date he had been lobbying to squeeze the race back onto the schedule and proposed switching the inaugural Indian GP from October 30 to December 11, putting Bahrain into the former slot.
The teams told him that was impossible. In addition to obvious concerns about human rights and safety issues in Bahrain, extending the season wouldn’t work for logistical reasons. In Monaco Ecclestone apparently assured them that he would express their views at the WMSC.
But when the calendar came up for discussion at the Barcelona meeting Bernie kept quiet, to the surprise of team principals and fellow WMSC members Stefano Domenicali and Vijay Mallya. With Shaikh Abdullah in the room it was an awkward situation, and before they knew it, the decision to change the calendar had been rubber-stamped. FOTA’s Martin Whitmarsh has studied a transcript: “A show of hands for and against was requested, and after an apparent verbal silence Jean says, ‘So it’s unanimous then?’ and
no one said, ‘No, it isn’t.’ I don’t have a video, I only have a transcript. In fairness to Jean, he asked and he got a unanimous judgement.”
Just days later, after a strong reaction against the race from the public, politicians and human rights activists — plus further discussions with the team bosses — Ecclestone told the media the race couldn’t happen. He backed the teams when they sent a letter stating their views to the FIA, Bahrain and Bernie himself.
Max Mosley appeared on the BBC, criticising the decision and citing the obscure Article 66 of the International Sporting Code as the reason why the calendar could not be changed.
Todt was forced into a U-turn and the Bahrainis were allowed to save face by issuing a statement withdrawing the GP. The Frenchman said that the teams have no say in the calendar and that it is up to Ecclestone to sort out any problems before presenting it to the WMSC.
The ETA’s press statements, constructed with good legal advice, suggest Todt played it by the book. But during the crisis he appears to have lost control, and many observers feel he has been left weakened. The teams, which behaved with surprising cohesion, appear stronger.
Clearly there is a bigger picture here, with one senior Fl person saying Ecclestone had “led Todt into a trap”, leaving him to appear responsible for the PR disaster the sport faced.
“A lot of different people used that situation for different private agendas,” says Domenicali. “And that was not really good for Fl.” Exactly why Ecclestone played this game with Todt is unclear. There are a lot of issues on the table right now — the 2013 rules, the future Concorde Agreement —and it will be fascinating to see how it all unfolds. Adam Cooper