Motor racing is second nature to Jean Todt: the president of Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile (FIA) and former Ferrari boss started his career as a rally co-driver in 1966. He and Maurice Lévy, chief executive, Publicis Groupe, discuss the future of Formula 1.
Maurice Lévy: Jean Todt, can you explain what the FIA is?
Jean Todt: We’re the regulator, the legislator of motor racing at the international level, covering every kind of car racing. The FIA is present in 150 countries and there are 250 member clubs. As president, I have long made global road safety a priority, because road accidents are a pandemic not being addressed by society. Unlike malaria, Aids, Ebola (for which there’s medical commitment and financial contribution from society) when it comes to road safety there’s no leadership. So I decided the FIA had to position itself as leader. That’s when I approached the United Nations and [secretary general] Ban Ki-moon. In April, he appointed me special envoy for road safety.
ML: Today, there’s a sort of tug-of-war between man, pushing engines to run at ever higher speeds, and the parallel mission to impose speed limits in cities and on motorways. How do you reconcile these two phenomena?
JT: One of the roles of the FIA is to improve safety in terms of circuits, cars and parts. It’s also one of the reasons why we got involved with the ICM [Institut du Cerveau et de la Moelle Epinière, a brain and spinal cord research group]. In our field, we consider ourselves privileged and wish to give something back. Having seen accident victims first hand, we felt we could send a strong message to society to address the issues affecting our profession. This is something I have been able to do, and explains why I’m active in the Aung San Suu Kyi Foundation, and why we are trying to do the same thing with road safety.
ML: What purpose does motor racing serve today − besides breaking records and generating noise, fury and danger?
JT: It benefits thousands of people, bringing pleasure and emotion: that’s what motor racing is all about. And, through prototypes, it contributes to incredible technological progress.
ML: Looking back, did Formula 1 serve Renault well, and is it serving Mercedes well today?
JT: The answer varies according to the car manufacturer. When it comes to Ferrari, motor racing and related products were what turned it into a brand.
ML: Yes, but a brand apart.
JT: That’s true. But you could say the same thing about manufacturers that have larger volumes of production, such as Porsche, for instance. Without motor racing, Porsche would not be what it is today.
ML: Still, Porsche set out making sports cars, whereas Ford, which was very much involved in racing, or Mercedes or Renault or even Peugeot, are more generalist − they make family cars.
JT: Formula 1 test beds are irreplaceable because, when they’re well managed, they’re extraordinary in terms of global image. It’s true that if a brand ends up not winning – which is the reason why some car manufacturers get into car racing – they get out. We saw what happened when Toyota got into Formula 1. It was hard. What’s also hard, in the case of an engine manufacturer like Renault, is that whenever it won – because it has an extraordinary track record – the victory was attributed to the car and [the sponsor] Red Bull, and when it lost, it was blamed on the engine. That’s a real problem.
If you’re a generalist car manufacturer and you get into motor racing, it’s profitable only if there’s a good parallel publicity operation. If you don’t advertise what you do, you shouldn’t be doing it. You have to be ready to commit significantly to let the consumer know.
ML: Would you say the same thing about sponsors?
JT: Of course, the same goes for everyone. If you do something, you have to let people know. That’s why, when I was in charge of looking for sponsors, at Ferrari for example, I always asked: are you willing to give 100 per cent in order to publicise it?
ML: Are there sponsors who have managed motor sports better than others?
JT: I can think of one: Vodafone. It was a very wellknown German telephone brand when it came to see me and said ‘we want to change name, and we want to use Formula 1 to let everyone know’. Vodafone’s presence in Formula 1 was an incredible accelerating factor in making the brand known.
ML: Perhaps this is an essentially European or even French phenomenon, but Formula 1 is losing television viewership. Why is this?
JT: That’s true. First of all, when you switch from a free terrestrial channel like TF1 to Canal Plus, you know your audience is going to drop. You’re going to go from three or four million, depending on the day’s totals, to less than one million. Secondly, nowadays you can follow a race on an iPad, on an iPhone: there are many ways to watch. Television, which used to be the only way to watch a race, no longer has exclusivity. The same is true of radio.
ML: Environmentally speaking, isn’t it a crime to have a race car using so much fuel? Will we see an electric motor race one day?
JT: We started a new electric car championship, which is not in any way intended as a substitute, but is a new championship that takes place in cities. We know that cars pollute cities a great deal, and that electric energy allows very little [driving] autonomy. So for me, the present and the medium-term future is a city electric car in every category, including Formula 1.
ML: When you refer to electric cars, is there a single car in the world that can beat the Tesla?
JT: It’s probably the best compromise in terms of a private car today, even if they’re talking about 500 kilometres of autonomy, and they’d be lucky to manage half that... But I can’t see a comparable high-end private car. There are lots of other cars. Take Renault, with the Zoe. They’re less high-end.
ML: What’s the future of motor racing? Will we see a race that combines every category?
JT: No, we’ll never combine, because there are different interests. On the contrary, people tend to be curious, so they like new disciplines. We’ve just created a spectacular rallycross championship. Drifting is appearing on the scene. There are lots of new categories emerging. So we’re actually seeing the opposite phenomenon. Today, there are more motor racing events than ever before.
Translation by Farah Nayeri
This interview was first published in The Drum's Cannes issue, guest edited by Maurice Lévy.