Matters of moment, August 2014

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To his credit, Jean Todt rarely shied away from facing the press when he was sporting director at Ferrari. A few hours after most Grands Prix, he would make himself available for questions, and in the era of Michael Schumacher and Ferrari domination that would often mean facing something contentious to talk about. How he would answer such questions would often be more instructive than anything he actually said.

Todt, you see, was terrible at hiding his impatience with reporters who asked anything he considered crass or stupid. Human nature, of course, meant this was red rag to a bull and those of a mischievous nature would prod him mercilessly for a reaction. Invariably this would be a dead-eyed stare, a heavy silence and then a withering response dripping with scorn.

For a man clearly talented in the dark arts of politics, Todt was surprisingly an open book in this regard.

Since his election to the presidency of motor sport’s governing body in 2009, the former rally co-driver has been much less accessible. He was always going to be low-key compared to his predecessor, given Max Mosley’s predilection for engaging the press for his own ends. But still, the level of contrast between their approaches to the FIA’s top job has been marked.

Communication with the wider world is surely essential now, more than ever, as motor sport adapts to a fast-changing world. Strong and clear leadership is required, particularly in Formula 1 (from which every other level of the sport should feed). Motor Sport has stated categorically where we believe the biggest stress fractures lie in racing’s structure, and we’ve even offered solutions to heal them (see our F1 manifesto in the April issue). Our readers, most of whom are lifelong motor racing enthusiasts, appear to share our concerns and have this year expressed a level of disenchantment with Grand Prix racing that has surprised even us.

So what does Todt think? Does he acknowledge our collective concerns and concede that a ‘revolution’ is required? We asked him for an audience and, again to his credit, he agreed. GP editor Mark Hughes met the president in his Paris office to conduct the interview you can read in these pages.

Unlike those distant Ferrari days, there would be nothing adversarial about this interview. Mark had straight questions to ask and, in the main, he received straight answers from a gracious host.

Each response was, of course, couched within the careful confines of political language. But in its own, subtle way the interview is quite startling.

As you’ll read, Todt appears genuinely surprised at the public dismay over double points for the F1 season finale. To misjudge what fans would accept by such a margin, after a lifetime in competition… really? And then, while accepting almost every concern put to him, he is almost laissez-faire in his attitudes to what should be done to ‘fix’ what is broken.

Everything in his answers comes back to the limitations of his office and you might well find it profoundly frustrating to read what he has to say. Yet Todt appears quite sanguine in accepting the narrow remit within which as an elected official he must work. For a man who appears to care greatly about the sport in which he has made his name and fortune, that’s odd.

To borrow from his own imagery, Todt “holds the keys” to motor sport and its F1 pinnacle. But does he have the power to use them and unlock the solutions we crave? There’s a short answer to that one.

So having addressed the FIA president, we’ll now try to engage the teams and promoter through the so-called ‘Strategy Working Group’, as described by Todt in the interview. Our ‘manifesto for change’ was created as a genuine kick-off point for debate on the future of F1. Luca di Montezemolo has invited the leading players to further such talks at Maranello ahead of the Italian GP in September (we’ve sent him a copy of the April issue, just in case he missed it…), and with that in mind we urge you to support our campaign for a sustainable future.

No one else appears willing to stand up and be counted with proactive, genuine solutions to the problems the sport faces. For 90 years Motor Sport has never been short of conviction during crucial eras of change, and while I’d never claim the magazine has always got it right (Jenks vs Jackie Stewart’s safety crusade!), we are convinced our ideas this time merit consideration.

The manifesto is on our website (www.motorsportmagazine.com). Please log on, read it and, if you agree, lodge your support. If we shout loud enough, with one voice, they might even deign to hear us. As Todt would surely agree, action means more than words.

Up the revolution!

As Jean Todt acknowledges in Mark’s interview, the tragedy that played out at the recent Jim Clark Rally, in which three onlookers were killed, is evidence once again that safety can never be far from the top of the agenda in motor sport. We understand the ongoing police enquiry is extensive and its conclusions, combined with the efforts of the Motor Sports Association and the Scottish Government’s own review, should eventually help us understand the particular circumstances of this accident. If tough lessons need to be learned, for legislators, promoters or competitors, they will be.

Our first thoughts remain with the individuals involved and the devastation this accident has wrought on their families. Beyond the personal, human tragedy, we also consider how sad it is that such a disaster should occur on this particular rally at this particular time.

The Jim Clark has been the beacon of the MSA’s ‘closed roads movement’, which has undertaken a consultation process to allow local authorities to close public roads for competitive events. If successful, proposed legislation would remove the need for a time-consuming and expensive Act of Parliament for promoters to run such events. Now this accident, just days before the Queen’s Speech in which it was hoped new legislation would be included, may have set back the cause.

We sincerely hope that the tragedy does not lead to a knee-jerk reaction and assume that the matter is still on the table for the future. But if the new law is eventually passed that opens up the possibility of new competitive events – as we hope it will be – it would be quite proper that any conclusions from such a sad incident contribute to how the legislation is put into action.

Clarification: In my report from the Grand Prix Historique Monaco last month, it seems I wasn’t clear enough on where blame should be apportioned in the accident between Richard Smeeton’s March and John Goodman’s Ferrari during the 1966-72 F1 race. So for the record, let it be known Mr Smeeton was very much the victim and not the perpetrator in a shunt that left major damage to both cars, if thankfully not to the drivers.

Contributors

Fifty years after winning his eighth world title, John Surtees has co-written a book that dissects his long and successful career. Our extract – including details of how his own team once protested him – starts on p100. Andrew Frankel has a habit of turning others a shade of green, such is his ability to park his backside in desirable racing cars. This month we’re a particular shade of green: turn to p90 to find out why. Doug Nye had the privilege of knowing Sir Jack Brabham well and pays fulsome tribute to his late friend (p80). And Ed Foster examines the potential crossover between motor sport and ocean racing (p96) – a few pointers, perhaps, as he prepares for a pedalo trip around the Scottish coast. As you do…