Op-Ed: Todt’s ‘friends’ (another FIA legacy begins)

Jean Todt’s election as FIA president is perhaps no large surprise to many as he was outgoing president Max Mosley’s endorsed candidate. The head of the FIA Foundation was allegedly shilling for Todt on company resources and time and Mosley was said to have sent threatening letters to member clubs insisting they support Todt.

Todt yeoh

No surprise that Todt’s endorsement can be traced back to the nepotism of F1 and the desire to find a candidate, groom them for the FIA, CVC and FOM’s purposes and demand a election outcome from its members. A simple fact is that F1 has its group of power brokers and political lightning rods. The legacy of Mosley will be a looming shadow over the Todt cabinet which will eternally operate in the penumbra of the most galvanizing man to ever have held the position.

But perhaps we can borrow a pencil and connect a few more dots if we try hard enough. Mosley recently allowed Team Lotus F1 the sacred last slot for the 2010 grid. This left the BMW-Sauber team bereft of a position for 2010. Before we light our Molotov cocktails and pitch them in the general direction of the Place de la Concorde; there is some justification behind the decision.

BMW had not signed the 2010 Concorde Agreement extension as they knew it committed them to participate in the series until 2012 with a penalty for early withdrawal. They announced their departure from the sport at the end of the 2009 season but did communicate a desire to sell the team and kept the FIA apprised of their progress. With time running out, the FIA made the decision as they had no guarantee the team would be sold in a timely manner.

What did this bring us? The return of Team Lotus F1 to the sport. Now let me be very frank here; I am elated with the idea of Lotus back in F1. I think it’s terrific and am really looking forward to it. If we take a deeper dive though, we find that it is sometimes good to be a friend of Jean Todt. Especially as Todt had the full endorsement of the man who chose Lotus as the last team to enter F1 in 2010.

Danny Bahar, whom Todt hired as Ferrari brand manager, left the Italian team to join Lotus F1 earlier this year. Bahar is not the only Todt friend to have been hired by Team Lotus F1. They announced this week that Claudio Berro, former press officer for Ferrari, has joined Team Lotus F1 as well. Berro is a close friend and supporter of Todt and worked for the Frenchman at Peugeot and Ferrari.

It seems it is good to be friends with Todt. Todt’s long-time partner Michelle Yeoh, born in Malaysia (then Malaya) has a good reputation and connection with the country and is an FIA ambassador. Todt has been very involved in Malaysian efforts and rewarded for that commitment. In July 2006, Todt was given the official Malaysian royal title of ‘Datuk’ by Sultan of Terengganu, which is the Malaysian equivalent of a British knighthood. He is addressed Datuk Seri Jean Todt. Todt joined the Malaysia My Second Home Programme (MM2H) in April 2009. On 13 May 2009, Datuk Seri Jean Todt was named as the Malaysia’s Tourism Ambassador.

Oh, lest I forget, controlling interest of Lotus Group International LTD is owned by Proton. Proton is the Malaysian national automobile manufacturer started by Prime Minister Dr. Mahathir Mohamad and government owned. Also, Todt competed as a co-driver in the world rally championship and won the manufacturers’ title with Talbot Lotus.

That’s a lot of dot connecting but in the end, it happens because that is F1. Politics, big-boy blazer club, connections, governments, FIA, member clubs, club ties, money, bravado and rhetoric. The entirety of the FIA exists because it has convinced people of its own importance and created a revenue source that demands respect in political circles. A sort of system that feeds off the racing series it governs and uses that cash to perpetuate its existence and create even more important roles for itself within governments and industry. Had the FOTA breakaway series happened, the FIA would have been in serious trouble financially in my opinion.

It has become what it at the hands of Mosley and Bernie Ecclestone (commercial rights boss representing commercial rights holder CVC). It will continue to be what it is at the hands of Todt and if anyone doubts the political prowess of Jean Todt I can assure you he is as masterful as anyone. As a Ferrari fan I was on the receiving end of that political machine and Todt is among the very best.

He is in place as president for a host of reasons that have little to do with the desire of F1 fans. But that is F1. You can put your pencils down now but know that very little ever just happens in F1. The money is too big, the politics too powerful and the “regime” that Ari Vatanen, Todt competitor for the presidency, is almost impervious to change as it has been litigated for insulation and protection of its own first and governing and safety business second. It represents what is worst in European politics.

Regardless, let us welcome Team Lotus F1 as a terrific addition to the 2010 grid. I, for one, am excited about their prospects and they do have/will have an entire government behind them through Proton so lets not underestimate their potential. Oh…and keep that pencil handy because I feel we have just begun connecting the Todt-era dots within the FIA.

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