Returning to the scene of past glories for another crack at success tends to be fraught with jeopardy, especially for those who hit the greatest heights first time around. The stronger the previous record, the higher the risk of falling flat. That’s why it’s only natural to wonder at the wisdom of Jean Todt’s apparent Ferrari comeback – if stories claiming that it’s happening turn into solid fact.
Reports have suggested for some weeks that the now-former FIA president is set for a consultancy role at Maranello, 15 years after he left in the wake of a record-breaking period of sustained success with his friend Michael Schumacher. The records have since been beaten or equalled by Mercedes-AMG and Lewis Hamilton, but still – those times remain an awesome benchmark to live up to.
Reigniting old flames is a regular storyline in sport, particularly it seems in football. I’m thinking most recently of Frank Lampard, club legend at Chelsea, returning to manage the side only to find himself getting the sack after just 18 months in the job. The outcome was inevitable in such a trigger-happy environment, but still – just a year and a half in? Wince-inducing stuff, especially when Chelsea won the Champions League under new boss Thomas Tuchel a few short months later.
Then again, and this is key for the Todt-Ferrari example, has Lampard’s standing at Chelsea been diminished by his failure? Not in the eyes of most fans. He’s still the club’s all-time top scorer, and falling short as a manager, in a job in which far more experienced coaches have fallen just as hard, doesn’t change that. The same is true for Todt: if he does go back and if Ferrari fails to win another championship, it won’t sully the previous achievements: six consecutive constructors’ crowns between 1999 and 2004, five drivers’ titles for Michael from 2000. Perhaps you can overplay the risk factor for Todt himself.
There’s also the Niki Lauda example to consider: did his 1990s stint as a consultant – perhaps similar to what Ferrari might now have in mind for Todt – diminish what he achieved in the cockpit during the mid-1970s? Of course not. And anyway, Lauda didn’t see eye to eye with Todt, which eventually spelt the end of his involvement, but he’s been credited with recommending and recognising the Frenchman’s abilities – so perhaps ultimately he was more effective and successful than he’s given credit for.
Would Todt be concerned about perceived damage to past legacies? He’s certainly sensitive to retrospective criticism, as we can attest first-hand… But there are other questions: should he go back? Why would he want to? Does he really need the pressure and scrutiny that comes with any role at Ferrari? At 75, and with absolutely nothing left to prove in motor sport, what’s in it for him?
“’Sébastien Ogier, I make myself available if you want,’ said Todt. We think he was joking.”
We can probably bundle an answer to all those into one simple response: because the fire still burns. Todt is clearly not the kind of man to stop, put his feet up and enjoy a well-earned retirement in his dotage.
That much was evident at the FIA Prize Giving in December, his final appearance as president. Naturally, tributes were paid after his 12 years in office and there was a running theme that here was a man who would not go gentle into that good night.
In a tribute video, old Ferrari compadre Ross Brawn said: “I’m sure other chapters will be opening. You are not a man to rest.”
“I wish you could start resting,” his son Nicolas Todt added. “But I doubt that you will because you have some beautiful chapters to write.”
Stefano Domenicali, F1 CEO and another old friend from Ferrari days, spoke about “a different Jean for the next step for the future of your career”, mentioning Todt’s passion for improving safety in racing and bigger-picture human rights – but added pointedly: “We will not miss you because you will stay with us, I’m sure.”
Todt himself was emotional as he received gifts from Domenicali on behalf of F1 and also from the FIA – crash helmets from every driver on the current grid and an FIA helmet signed by every racing code’s world champion crowned during his three terms in office. When he spoke he started with a quip, responding to Sébastien Ogier’s retiring co-driver Julien Ingrassia, who earlier in the evening had challenged the audience on who would replace him. “Julien did not see me… I lifted my hand,” said Todt of a return to his first motor sport role. “Sébastien Ogier, I make myself available if you want.” We think he was joking.
Todt spoke lovingly of Schumacher, then touched obliquely on his future: “I still have the same passion. I am blessed. I still love motor racing, I will still follow everything.” He spoke about “giving something back”, which you could argue was his core remit as FIA president. “It’s rewarding to do for others after years of doing things for me… I will see what comes. I’m blessed because I’m an old man, but in good form.”
Were those the words of a man about to dive back into team management? In one sense a return to Ferrari would be a selfish act, going back to old, familiar territory. It might be seen as a retrograde, conservative step, lacking Todt’s usual tendency to forge ahead into new territories. Then again, perhaps the role wouldn’t be full time – perhaps he’d still have capacity to try new projects, maybe in partnership with his wife, the actor and activist Michelle Yeoh. As for his relationship with Ferrari, there was an undercurrent of acrimony when he left in 2007, but mainly because of tensions with chairman Luca di Montezemolo – now long gone from Maranello. At face value, there is nothing to prevent a return.
Two successful co-drivers hung up their intercoms after the 1981 RAC Rally. Men with an eye for detail and their career paths mapped. They were: the immaculately coiffed David…
But what would it mean for Ferrari, and more specifically for Mattia Binotto? This is what really counts, beyond the personal journey of an old-school motor sport heavyweight. Again, football offers warning signals. It’s approaching a decade since Sir Alex Ferguson retired as manager of Manchester United, but the club has yet to properly move on from its greatest eras. Coaches continue to come and go, but Fergie’s presence – in the stands, within Old Trafford, helping convince Cristiano Ronaldo to return – is a constant. He’s become a shadow over this great club, as Matt Busby was before him, arguably to its detriment. The past can become a burden, no matter how great it might be, especially when it isn’t truly left behind.
But in the case of Ferrari, does Binotto need Todt? Would his appointment release pressure or increase it? There are no easy solutions to poor form in F1. What would Todt bring to the table? Clearly, he won’t make the car quicker, but perhaps he could help the culture at the Scuderia, the mentality – the things he influenced, nurtured and changed last time around. He could be a galvanising force, although even his friends point out he isn’t an easy man to live with. He might be just what Binotto needs, to watch his back as he plots a course through this decade. Then again, Todt might spell the beginning of the end of his tenure as team principal.
When it comes to it, re-hiring Jean Todt in any guise is not much of a risk for the man himself. The risk is all Ferrari’s – and it’s a genuine risk too. Should it really look to the past for answers to its current malaise, or would it be better to pursue fresh avenues with fresh blood in its quest to return to the sharp end? Beyond the most pressing question – has the Scuderia got its sums right on the new car regulations for 2022? – what happens next in Maranello’s corridors of power will indicate the true state of play at Ferrari. Crucial times and crucial moves loom for F1’s most famous team.