Matters of moment, March 2016

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Jean Todt was a welcome guest speaker at the annual Motor Sport Safety Fund lecture during the Autosport International Show in January. The FIA president freely admits he prefers a low profile, despite his role as the head of world motor sport, but he has an answer to his critics: “Sometimes people complain I don’t communicate enough. Maybe I’m wrong, but I’m more interested in achieving a result.”

Bluntness was always a Todt trait, but there’s a mischievous humour laced within his impatience to most questions. Rather than lecture his audience, Todt chose to be interviewed at the NEC and was in relaxed mood as he reflected on his professional life. His genuine love of motor sport – perhaps easy for us to forget in the wake of a sometimes controversial career – was a common theme, and eyebrows were raised when he name-checked Jim Clark and Dan Gurney as his personal heroes. A sure sign his heart must be in the right place.

“I started my rally career in 1966, so it’s half a century,” said the former co-driver. “And it’s scary. You think of that, but you are still motivated and passionate. When I look at me I’m still fresh.”

The same could not be said of his throat. “My nickname when I was co-driving for Des O’Dell’s Talbot team in 1981 when we were World Champions was ‘Tea-bag’,” he said as he sipped at his brew. “I have a bad throat, so if I want to go to the end of the lecture I need some refuelling.”

But every now and then the comfy chat was pierced by Todt’s characteristic needle. He revels in puncturing expectations and presumptions.

When asked if winning Le Mans twice in the 1990s as the boss of Peugeot was among his greatest satisfactions, he shrugged back: “No, not really…” Even on Michael Schumacher, whom he thinks of as “family” and was due to visit upon leaving Birmingham, he refuses to say what some might want to hear. When it was put to him that Schumacher went the extra mile to get to know and appreciate all members of his Ferrari team, Todt snapped: “That’s a journalist’s story because the reality was not like that. Michael is a great leader, motivator and personality but he was coming quite rarely to the factory. It’s not exceptional to honour those with whom you work. Honestly, I don’t think it’s something very special. I would not give a special credit to that.”

As Bernie Ecclestone has found over the years, the president is no pushover. Again, his answer to 21 Grands Prix a season being excessive in number appeared aggressive, a rebuke to those who work in Formula 1.

“If you do this job, if you consider what is happening around the world, you should consider yourself lucky to do 20 or 21 races,” he said solemnly. “It is a privilege. It is a bad question to complain about a privilege.”

Then there’s the matter of women in motor sport. As the MSA and Susie Wolff launched a new ‘Dare to be Different’ campaign to promote women working and competing in racing, Todt had no hesitation in voicing his doubts about equality – with the caveat that he could be wrong.

“I have a lot of admiration and respect for women,” he said. “In a lot of areas women are better than men. But… I’m not sure that in certain categories women may not have the same advantage as men. Sometimes I think we must admit a woman would not be as powerful as a man. [But then] you have the example of Michèle Mouton fighting against Walter Röhrl, so maybe I’m wrong in that. We should try to identify a strong lady driver and ask her to
drive a Formula 1 Mercedes to get an answer, and maybe we would have a surprise. But it’s not up to me to make that chance.”

That’s very Todt. On the one hand, direct and forthright – but on the other  the archetype politician, adept at delegating responsibility. He believes it’s “presumptuous” for him to speak of legacy, but this complicated man will leave one whether he likes it or not. What it will be, half a century into his racing life, still remains to be seen.

***

All Isle of Man TT riders deserve our unending respect and admiration, but men such as Ian Hutchinson are a breed apart again. We all love a great comeback, and the Yorkshireman’s tale takes some beating.

Those who’ve seen the acclaimed Closer to the Edge documentary will remember the slight, fair-haired Hutchinson and the bleak note his story appeared to end on before the credits rolled. Within a few months he went from winning an incredible five TTs in one week to the precipice, when an awful British Supersport accident at Silverstone left him facing the amputation of his left leg. His refusal to accept the surgeon’s verdict and subsequently painful return culminated in a trio of TT victories back on the island last June. That he would ride again seemed unlikely; that he’d win again seemed frankly ridiculous.

Such feats don’t require awards to confirm their worth, but still it was good to see Hutchinson recognised by the Royal Automobile Club in January, with the presentation of the Torrens Trophy for his outstanding contribution to motorcycling. The Torrens, created in memory of respected journalist Arthur Bourne, has only been awarded nine times since its creation in
the late 1970s, the previous four occasions spanning the past eight years – which says much about the RAC’s renewed embrace of its motoring roots. But no justification is required for Hutchinson’s addition to the short list of winners.

On receiving the Torrens tankard, Ian described his return to racing as “A bit like a hangover. At first you say you’ll never drink again. But you forget that as soon as you recover.” He said his doctor unwittingly sparked the comeback with an unlikely solution. Clearly ignorant of motorcycles, he asked why Ian couldn’t change gear with his right foot to avoid the strain on his weakened left. Specially built bikes have allowed him to claw back his speed – “now I want to make it compulsory,” he said with a smile.

Quite reasonably given his haul in 2010, Hutchinson reckons his lost four years as a front-runner cost him a potential 20 wins at the TT. At 36, he’s in a race against time if he wants to catch John McGuinness on 23 or the revered Joey Dunlop and his record of 26. He’ll be aiming for his 12th on the island – and at least a couple more – come June.

***

Some exciting news here at Motor Sport: we’re looking to expand our editorial team to match our growth in print and online publishing. As you might have noticed, there’s a bit more to Motor Sport than a simple monthly magazine these days. ‘One-shot’ specials such as our GP Legends, 1960s in Focus and F1 review kept us on full throttle during 2015 and more are planned for the year ahead, while our website – including the ever-expanding archive and exciting new Database – needs increasing amounts of care and attention. Last year we were beginning to feel the strain – and fortunately somebody has noticed!

The role is for a new deputy editor, with an expanded job spec to match. The current incumbent, one G Cruickshank, is entering his 34th year at Motor Sport – and happily for everyone, he’s not going anywhere. As he puts it, “The business has changed so much over that time, it doesn’t feel like the same job.” That’s never been more the case than in the past few years, which makes it extra important that GC continues as the magazine’s stoic guardian, as he has been since Keke Rosberg became world champion.

Details of the new role can be found on page 59.