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An Old-Fashioned Jean Todt Knows It’s Important Not to Be

Category: Other Sports,Sports

Jean Todt concedes that he is old-fashioned in some respects. He still reads a newspaper, and he had to be cajoled into opening a Twitter account.

Yet the president of the International Automobile Federation, known by its French abbreviation F.I.A., is impressed with the evolution of Formula One that has taken place since the arrival of its new owners, Liberty Media Corporation.

Todt, now in his third and final four-year term in office, endured a roller-coaster relationship with Bernie Ecclestone, who ran Formula One for 43 years before Liberty took charge in January 2017.

Todt claims he has developed “a positive relationship” with Chase Carey, a vice chairman of 21st Century Fox and Ecclestone’s successor at Formula One Management.

“My relationship with the commercial rights holder has changed,” Todt, the former Ferrari team principal, said in an interview.

“Bernie is the one who gave me access to be in Formula One by suggesting my name to Ferrari. When I became president of the F.I.A., a different kind of relationship developed because he had a different kind of guy in front of him,” he said. “At the end of the day, with his style and my style, it somehow worked.

“Now we have new people. Some I already know, like Ross Brawn,” Todt said of the managing director of motorsports. “Others are new, and I honestly like them. I very much like Chase Carey, I trust him, and I do think he trusts me.

“We have the same wish, which is the success of promoting Formula One. It doesn’t mean we will always agree, but our intentions are similar, as are our responsibilities.”

Liberty has been proactive, in particular, in its approach to social media, opening up Formula One to a new, younger audience. The contrast to Ecclestone is not lost on Todt.

“Bernie did things with his style, on his own, with a limited group of people,” Todt said. “Liberty Media has hired a completely different team, chaired by Chase, a talented manager who has a lot of experience in running a big entertainment company and placed around him a well-structured group of people.

“It’s completely different. With Bernie, it was a boutique hotel; with Chase, it’s like a big Four Seasons hotel. They’re different, but each has its own charm, although I must say the way Formula One is moving now is in a way that something of its dimension should move. Times are changing, and that’s not just in motor racing, that’s everywhere.”

Todt added: “Old people like me still read a paper. Other people read their news on their iPads or mobiles. Some people have never picked up and dirtied their hands with a paper in their life. But things have changed.

“I remember I was convinced to open up a Twitter account. I didn’t know what Twitter was. I said, ‘If you feel it’s good, it’s O.K., then fine.’ I control what is put on my Twitter account, but I don’t do it myself. I’ve tried to get into it, but for other people it’s natural.

“So when it comes to the evolution of the sport, and you cannot blame Bernie for that, or me, that’s why it is important to have around us people who have this modern-thinking approach.”

Todt was given firsthand experience of the iPhone generation at a small presentation event in Venice he attended with Carey before the recent Italian Grand Prix. He said “there were eight people, and six of them were focused on their iPhones.”

Although suggesting that “people don’t communicate anymore, and I love communication,” he added, “On the other hand, I understand it creates solutions, and for Formula One it is important in order to attract new interests, new viewers.

“Clearly, Liberty Media is ideal for that. People like Bernie and I are not ideal for that. It’s just a change of generation. So if the business is moving, it is vital we have experts who have the vision for what is needed now and what will be needed in the next 10 years.

“Of course, we have no special agreement with the fans, so we must ensure we continue to create interest for them with attractive cars and regulations that are acceptable to society; in terms of being as environmentally friendly as possible, as well as considering costs.”

Todt still has plenty of issues to resolve.

Under his stewardship, safety in Formula One has improved with the introduction of the halo cockpit device that protects drivers, which has now been praised by previous skeptics.

Otmar Szafnauer, the Force India team principal, said, “Jean was adamant about the halo, which I must say I wasn’t a huge fan of at the beginning.”

Referring to the crash at the start of the Belgian Grand Prix last month, where the halo on the car of Charles Leclerc, a driver for Sauber, protected him from the McLaren of Fernando Alonso, Szafnauer added: “After that, to me, one of his biggest credits is the halo. I’ve changed my mind.”

Todt recently confirmed that new power unit regulations for 2021 would be announced this year. But Brawn wrote in the Belgian Grand Prix prerace magazine that it might be better to delay the move “until we can be certain a major regulation change will bring fresh blood into the sport,” referring to new manufacturers.

Toto Wolff, the Mercedes motorsport boss, said, “We have been arguing along the line that if we are able to convince another supplier, a great brand, then we need to listen and ask, ‘Is there something we need to do?’ But at the moment it doesn’t look like anybody is able to commit to 2021.”

One area of concern for Todt is the cost of competing and the disparity between what the top teams spend and those at the rear of the standings. Mercedes and Ferrari have budgets of around $300 million a year. Teams like Force India and Haas operate with $100 million.

Liberty wants to introduce a budget cap for 2021. The F.I.A. has twice tried and failed to do so, including during Todt’s reign in 2014. Both times, the teams blocked its introduction.

When Force India fell into administration in July, before being saved by a consortium led by Lawrence Stroll, the father of the Williams driver Lance, it showed that even a well-run, competitive team could struggle financially.

“It’s not a new problem, but it is a big concern that Formula One should be made as affordable as possible,” Todt said. “We need to find appropriate solutions, but there is no magic stick.

“We will definitely do the best out of it, but I don’t believe in miracles.”

Szafnauer feels the next three years are important for Todt.

“That’s when the president of the F.I.A., along with the commercial rights holder and the teams, will all have to come together to define the future of the sport, and that’s a huge role which will play out between now and 2021,” Szafnauer said.

“So for sure, Jean will have a huge role to play.”


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