"It's absurd to spend so much money”

Formula 1 excess? It aggravates Jean Todt as much as it winds up the wider world, but how do you address it when teams won’t change their ways? Just one of the topics the FIA president addressed in Motor Sport’s exclusive interview. Will he stand again? Did Max Mosley do a good job? Read on...

The striking thing about the vocalised thoughts of the FIA president is how much he agrees with this magazine and many of its readers about what is wrong with Formula 1 – the absurd costs, the excessive level of teams’ control over drivers, the way that personalities are drowned out by commercial considerations, the artificiality of some recent ‘solutions’. Even some of the more radical suggestions from this magazine’s recent ‘F1 manifesto’ (see April 2014 issue) meet with his apparent approval, such as banning all team-to-driver communications during a race. But underlying the link between Jean Todt’s thoughts and actions is the conviction that he rules by consensus and, as such, his views will not necessarily inform his actions, perhaps only guide them where possible. In the following interview he steers almost every question back to the process, the governance and what he feels is within his power. It was Bismarck who remarked that politics is the art of the possible, but he also once said that though a statesman cannot do anything by himself, sometimes he might hear the steps of God sounding through events, in which case the statesman should leap up and grab the hem of His garment. So the changes we’d like to see in F1 are probably not going to be initiated by Todt – but if events should begin to move things in a direction where opportunity is in the air, we get the feeling that this president’s heart is in the right place to respond. He’s a fan of the sport. In his Paris office – where this interview was conducted – he has pictures of Jim Clark’s Lotus 49 upon the wall, as well as others from his own career in rallying.

Motor Sport: While acknowledging that the FIA has many responsibilities, what is your vision for F1 by the end of your second term?

Jean Todt: “Formula 1 is the pinnacle of motor sport and is due to remain the pinnacle. Saying that, I’m in favour of encouraging many other categories of motor sport because we are represented in 141 countries but have only 20 Grands Prix each year – so there is space for other categories. Looking at single-seaters, for me one of the priorities was to rebuild the pyramid from karts to F1. I’d say we have started well – now we have a promoter covering the karting championship and we are introducing a national F4 category that we want to develop. We have re-established F3. We still have to cover the space around F2, even if I respect two very good commercial series – Renault 3.5 and GP2. Then there’s F1.

“To have a good F1 you need all the pyramid to be healthy and that’s very difficult, because motor sport costs a significant amount of money. The tendency is for the costs to grow and, even if the situation has stabilised in recent years, I realise that the introduction of F1’s new engine formula has increased the outlay – and that has not been good. Knowing we were introducing new technologies that are very good for the pinnacle of motor sport, I was hoping manufacturers would control costs more effectively. But overall I think the new formula, which was initiated by my predecessor, has been constructive.

“Some people’s default is a resistance to change, others like constant change. I’m not in favour of change for the sake of it, but for constructive reasons only. If F1 had not embraced the new technology, I think we would have lost Renault and Mercedes – and Honda would never have come. We’d be looking at Ferrari and Cosworth supplying all the engines. Now we have these manufacturers and I’m convinced more will join. For me the new powertrain is a positive change and I know that people who complain are much more vocal than those who are happy. This is normal.

“When we introduced the new World Endurance Championship, we had one or two manufacturers – Audi and Peugeot. Now we have Audi, Toyota and Porsche with Nissan coming back next year – all with new technologies, all with ‘funny’ engine noises. Nobody has complained. Porsche, which is probably one of the most advanced companies for technology, is using a four-cylinder engine. So we’ve had to face some irrational comments about the noise in F1, but not in sports cars. But that’s racing.

“Concerning the cost of engines, the manufacturers had a lot of freedom working together with the FIA. Regulations are decided through co-operation and the FIA’s role is often to co-ordinate. So that’s why I was a bit frustrated when there was this big opposition [in 2010, principally from Ferrari] when we introduced rules for the four-cylinder turbo. But this had been the manufacturers’ proposal, not something I had autocratically dictated!

“It was done with consultation. I was a bit surprised to see the four-cylinder solution, but if everybody was happy, then fine. Often one of the problems with teams is that the representative is not the decision maker. So they propose things but, when it comes to the final step, the decision makers want something different, or else change their minds, having not been well informed during the course of discussion. Some manufacturers then said they didn’t want four cylinders, but six. So at that stage we had to move and delay by one year the new engine’s introduction.

“We have probably authorised too much freedom – and not evaluating it enough has led to the increase in costs. We should probably have been more restrictive. But from the beginning it was a very good decision by my predecessor Max Mosley, who decided to freeze the engines and limit the number per season to eight. Now we had a further step because for 2014 it was five engines and after that four, for the whole season. So you would hope that the total cost might have been quite close to before, but in fact it is not. What is secured is rule stability – and I feel that’s essential. The regulations are stable now until 2020.

“To return to your question, I wish for F1 to remain at the highest level and have 12 healthy teams. But there is such a discrepancy between the biggest teams and the smallest, and on that the FIA cannot do anything. The money is coming from the commercial rights holder making specific agreements with the teams, but it’s a commercial deal, nothing to do with the FIA.”

MS: So the FIA cannot act, even if it believes that those terms – the agreement between the commercial rights holder and the teams – are damaging?

JT: “I remember when I was in another position [as sporting director of Ferrari]. I was fighting to get more money from the commercial rights holder and I must say it has changed significantly in recent years. Not so long ago even the top teams used to get very little return, so in a way everyone is getting a bigger share but it’s true to say – from what I understand, because I’m not directly involved – that the big teams get much more than the smaller ones. But you could say there is some logic in that. Sometimes, if you produce a movie, the big names get much more than the smaller names.”

MS: There may be an academic logic to it, but some smaller teams are struggling to survive at present.

JT: “But then you might say, being cynical, you should not do it if you cannot afford it.”

MS: But if they don’t do it we are left relying on fewer teams and the whole thing becomes very fragile.

JT: “That’s a good point and it’s something we are addressing. I’m committed by the end of June to propose a solution to the World Motorsport Council. But this will only be after going through our governance, which has been established and agreed. If you establish a structure – which we have – you must respect it. So we have this strategy group: six teams, five there for historical reasons, the sixth the best placed of the others, which at the moment is Lotus. Then the commercial rights holder: six votes. The FIA: six votes. Here we debate, then we go to the F1 commission, where all the teams are represented and there are also a representative for a promoter, a technical supplier and a commercial partner. Then once all that has been agreed, it goes for final authorisation to the World Motorsport Council [on June 26] for introduction in 2015.” [as Motor Sport went to press all the indications were that nothing on cost cutting would be mandated into the 2015 rules as the teams had failed to reach agreement and there is seemingly an ever-more insistent move towards the big teams running third cars if and when the small teams expire.]

MS: You were very critical of the strategy group teams’ cost-saving proposals of May 1.

JT: “Yes, they were a joke. I said so in Spain. We need to be looking at things to save tens of millions and they were suggesting things that might save two million. But at the end of the day it is their business.

“Again being cynical, the FIA is just a regulator. I want F1 to be as healthy as possible, but at the end of the day the teams should agree between themselves how much they want to spend. Which in a way they started, when they created FOTA a few years ago. They agreed to a limit but it did not last. The interests of each team are so different. I want to support reducing the costs as much as possible, because I feel it’s absurd to spend so much money for 19-20 races with two cars and limited testing. I’m amazed to see the level of freight that has to be transported. It seems crazy, but they seem happy with it.”

MS: They might be happy, but what if it isn’t sustainable?

JT: “Then they have to be responsible, too. Why should the governing body be responsible for those who compete? In a way I’m happy to co-ordinate as much as possible, have as much dialogue as possible. But if most of them don’t want that…”

MS: But if you see the participants going down a route that’s unhealthy, can you exert pressure and guidance?

JT: “We are the legislator and regulator. If the actors are happy about the situation, it’s their money.”

MS: But if the money stops?

JT: “Then it’s in the interest of the commercial rights holder. Because again, being cynical, the FIA could live without F1. For the teams, it is their business. And it is the commercial rights holder’s business – and he has done very well out of it. So I don’t feel it would be fair to say it’s only an FIA matter. That’s why I was pleased about this new governance – because I think it’s quite balanced. This group should be able to come up with good proposals. I think it would be unbalanced if it was only the FIA who took the lead with all those participants.”

MS: A lot of these difficult circumstances arise from the 100-year commercial rights deal, done by your predecessor with Bernie Ecclestone. What did you feel then and what do you feel now about that deal?

JT: “First of all, that is the past. When you are elected you get the keys for a limited amount of time, so it would be completely absurd to say he did not do well. A lot of good things have happened – including safety, which is very dear to me at all levels. If you think back to ’82 [when there were two deaths in F1], then nothing between ’82 and ’94, then the tragedy in ’94 and since then nothing – touching wood – in F1.
But in Scotland recently we lost three spectators at the Jim Clark Rally – safety is always on your mind. It would be very arrogant to say we are peaceful in F1. We are not. In 2001 it was decided to sell the commercial rights for a figure that now seems quite low. But it was in 2001. After I was elected I felt that the FIA deserved to have more income from F1. The negotiation to change that for the next period, covering 2013-2020, was quite tough and I think we now have a much better deal; not only financially, but in governance as well. The FIA now has a stronger position on governance than when I was first elected. We have a stronger contribution on the costs. Then somebody one day will take over, have to ensure the continuity and might say I did not contribute enough. At the time I did it, I did the best I could in the most transparent way with strong people. So I must make sure I act in a way where in future I can answer any kind of criticism or comments.”

MS: Your management style seems different at the FIA to how it was at Ferrari.

JT: “I smile when I see this – because it is not true. If you speak with my people when I was building a team at Peugeot or Ferrari, I was not a dictator. I don’t know what the perception of me at the FIA is; I hear that I’m not prominent. I never have been. When I was at Ferrari it was always the president who did much more talking – he still is, incidentally…

“I prefer to act rather than talk. The FIA is a heavy machine, the heaviest I’ve had to lead. In previous circumstances I was a very well-paid manager, first as a co-driver, then I created a sporting organisation [Peugeot Sport], then I rebuilt an iconic organisation that was in bad shape. But I was chosen and paid. Here I was elected, representing 141 countries, with one headquarters here in Paris, another in Geneva, with two kinds of umbrellas, one legislating and organising motor sport, the other supporting motorists around the world. So it’s much wider. I have to deal with quite a limited amount of employed and elected people. So of course my job is different and my style might look different. I wish I could say I’m the same – but I’m older. Maybe I make more concessions than I used to, because you learn.”

MS: Motor Sport magazine did a feature about our F1 idyll, which got a big reader response, particularly about the drivers being too controlled, the environment being too corporate and how we no longer see the drivers’ personalities emerge. Do you see their point?

JT: “I can, yes. But it’s evolution. Change is not always in the direction of the dream, but the evolution of the world. The business has become much more professional. The consequences around the world are much higher than they were in the past. For example, I saw this comment from Lewis Hamilton about his background, where he was living when he was a kid – and all of a sudden this is a huge story, out of all proportion probably to what he meant. Poor guy, he was just talking about his background and it became this big story. So next time he will be more cautious.

“In the past everyone was doing more things – Jim Clark driving F2, sports cars, Indianapolis, touring cars. Now you can hardly get a driver to sign an autograph because he’s so busy. Times change. Is it good or bad? I feel nostalgia for how it was, but things are moving. If you see the size of motorhomes from 20 years ago to now, you could say it’s irrational.”

MS: It might be natural evolution, but is there not a case to be made for intervention? What about the idea of the driver not being controlled by the team at all, having to make all his own decisions on fuel use, tyre use, how to drive the car – and to express himself freely out of it?

JT: “I would not be against that. I think we could get by without telemetry, but the teams disagree. Do you need now to have all those teams of people in the factory while they are racing? Their answer is that we save money and we get more sponsors. I must say it’s true we have more new IT sponsors than before. Money used to come from tobacco, then that was banned and new commercial partners have arrived, many of them IT. So I can sympathise with the teams when they say these partners are very interested in the link between the car, the garage and the factory. I have to take their word for that.

“I was always more attracted by proper testing on a circuit rather than simulators, CFD and tunnel. But you have to accept or run the risk of being told you’re too old, that you don’t accept progress. Each single thing has been evolution. That’s why in a way I do accept it. It doesn’t mean I like it and I’m surprised when I hear on other matters that people would like things to remain the same. If everything is moving, everything should move. We should not be selective. But it is true that the world and motor sport are moving and, being the pinnacle, I think F1 should have the lead in all those things.

“I think this leads to my point about how we haven’t communicated with the fans very well. We didn’t do the best job in explaining the new engine formula, for example. I read that it was a formula for taxi drivers – this is so untrue. If you speak with the drivers, they drive flat out now but it’s true they have to exploit in the most efficient way what they have available – the tyres, fuel, the flow limit and all that probably has not been well enough explained. It’s our responsibility to educate the fan better – I mean the responsibility of the FIA, the commercial rights holder, the media, the teams and the partners. Together we didn’t do the best job on that. It was an own goal.”

MS: Some of the key players – Mr Ecclestone, Mr di Montezemolo, some circuit promoters – actually went the other way and criticised it. Was that a frustration for you?

JT: “It was, yes. Because we were all around the table making the decisions about the future and no one said, ‘That’s no good, let’s go in this direction.’ So we did it – and only then did we get the criticism. As I said, it was an own goal.

“Also there was a lot of controversy about the double points final race. I wouldn’t have expected it to create such emotion, so maybe it wasn’t a good decision and is something we need to reconsider. Sometimes you do something and you will not expect it to create such a big noise.”

MS: People do not like the artificiality of double points. Authenticity is important.

JT: “True. On the other side, what d’you do? It’s the nature of motor sport. It’s in the nature of F1 if you spend three days putting the quickest car on the front of the grid, the slowest at the back and they start in this order, how to you expect to create overtaking in the race? Which are the most fascinating races? When one of the leaders has a problem and starts from the back. Should we find a handicap, like touring cars or GP2? Or is this artificial? I don’t know.”

MS: Research suggests that F1’s fan base is ageing, that it isn’t attracting young people in the way it used to. Is that a concern?

JT: “There are lots of things now available that we didn’t have in the past, so it’s natural there is a drop in interest in any one thing – including F1. But F1 isn’t alone in this. I hear soccer has fewer viewers than in the past, too. F1 needs to adapt to the revolution in entertainment – how it is consumed. But again, this is not the direct responsibility of the FIA. Bernie has evolved TV a lot when you think of how much better it is now than 20-30 years ago. It would be unfair to say nothing has changed, but we can probably do more.”

MS: Will you stand for a third term?

JT: “I don’t know how I will feel when the time comes. I still have the passion for motor sport and there is much still to do in the world of road safety. One and a half million killed on roads each year, 50 million injured. I’m a volunteer – if I should be elected and if I should be willing and still have the motivation, then perhaps.”

So, there is the essence of the president’s views on F1. He is not about to force through his vision, but he does have sympathy for the views outlined here a few months ago. His style is way less adversarial or proactive than Max Mosley’s and he’s managed to implement a major change of formula against the wishes of a significant proportion of the teams, yet without alienating them. That says much for his political skills. He’s aware of the challenges ahead and vows to do his utmost while in possession of the keys. But any fundamental change in direction will have to impose itself on the sport by outside events. The FIA, under Todt, is not about to take it by the scruff of the neck.

Questions of a former racer
When we told Damon Hill we were interviewing Jean Todt, we asked the 1996 world champion what he’d like to know. Typically, the Sky F1 pundit gave it some serious thought.

DH: Where will Formula E leave F1?

JT: “F1 is F1 and will remain the pinnacle. Formula E is a completely different category and much cheaper. It’s like asking if the market can accommodate a sports car and a city car? Yes, of course it can, there is space for both. I am surprised by how much interest Formula E has generated.”

DH: Can the FIA rescind the commercial rights holder if the commercial rights holder is proven to have acted illegally?

JT: “I want to ensure we do what we can rather than trying to do what we can’t. If we are talking about renegotiating the Concorde Agreement, everything has already been looked at about what was done and what we could do. All that has been done by the FIA on this was done properly and legally. Clearly, I’m very cautious on this.”

DH: Is the Grand Prix Drivers’ Association (GPDA) represented on the FIA? If not, why not?

JT: “No, not formally. The GPDA is an independent body. But we are always open for dialogue and discussion. If they make proposals we can take them on board and I’m happy to be available to the GPDA. But it’s not in the protocol of the governance to include an unofficial body in the voting procedure.”