x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

All eyes on F1's 'Napoleon'

The FIA president has two conflicting reputations: as a superb manager, beloved by his staff, and as the Napoleon of the Sands, not afraid to put noses out of joint to get his way. But which will come to the fore in his new position?

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Jean Todt, the new president of the Fédération Internationale de l'Automobile, motorsport's governing body, is a superstitious man and his habit of touching wood was more in evidence than usual last week in the build-up to his successful election to replace Max Mosley. In his pocket, he carries a wooden box, which he used to touch for good luck ahead of every Formula One grand prix while at the helm at Ferrari, and which once again came to the fore at FIA headquarters in Paris.

For such a methodical man - as a co-driver and team boss at Peugeot and Ferrari, he was renowned for leaving no stone unturned - superstition is a surprising trait. In fact, well-oiled electioneering rather than luck played the key role in his bid to become Mosley's successor, with 135 votes of the 196 cast. For Todt, it marks the ultimate achievement in a motorsport career that started at school, although the role was never on his initial career path. As a youngster, he dreamed of emulating his Formula One idols, the American Dan Gurney and the British world champion Jim Clark.

Todt's father, a Polish-born Jew, moved to France as a 17-year-old, and became a doctor. He had hoped for his son to follow suit or pursue a career as an architect or lawyer but Todt had a passion for motorsport. With no financial backing, Todt decided that rallying was the best way forward, despite initially believing that "I was going to be the most talented F1 driver ever". As a 17-year-old, studying at a school in the Paris suburbs, he borrowed his father's Mini Cooper S with Jean-Claude Lefebvre and entered a rally. From day one he was hooked, and steadily climbed up the ranks.

After graduating from the School of Business and Economics in Paris, he co-drove for some of the biggest names in the sport at the time, among them Ove Andersson, Rauno Aaltonen and Hannu Mikkola. But his most successful partnership came with Guy Frequelin, and the pair helped guide Talbot to the World Rally manufacturers' title before Todt hung up his racing overalls at the age of 35. In October 1981, an ambitious Todt was asked by Peugeot chief Jean Boillot to start a new rallying division from scratch and the Peugeot Talbot Sport team was born.

Ironically, Todt enjoyed his greatest World Rally Championship success with Ari Vatanen, his recent, acrimonious rival in the FIA presidential campaign. At the wheel of the Peugeot 205 Turbo 16, Vatanen bagged the team's first victory in 1984 and sealed two dominant title victories in 1985 and 1986. During the 1986 season, however, the FIA announced it was scrapping Group B rallying cars following a spate of accidents, thus bringing an end to Peugeot's dominance.

Todt took the FIA to court and lost, leading to a war of words with then-FIA president Jean-Marie Balestre, who nicknamed the diminutive Todt "the Napoleon of the Sands". By then, Todt had switched Peugeot's attention to the legendary Paris-Dakar race, which the marque dominated through Vatanen and, later, Juha Kankunnen. Perhaps the most notable win came in 1989 when Vatanen and Jacky Ickx, both driving Peugeots, left the rest of the field trailing.

In a recent interview Todt revealed: "They both told me 'we are driving at crazy speeds, you must do something'. My main concern was not to have anyone killed." Todt's solution was to decide the winner on the toss of a 10-franc coin, which landed in Vatanen's favour. The Frenchman's final role with Peugeot was in sportscar racing and, in particular, at the Le Mans 24 Hours. The team had a disastrous start in 1990, but Todt overhauled the staff and the results began, reaching a climax with a Peugeot one-two-three in 1993 and paving the way for the most successful time of his career.

Ferrari's chairman, Luca di Montezemolo, decided Todt was the perfect candidate, as a complete outsider, to recapture the prancing horse's glory days and help them shake off their chaotic image. Todt's countryman Alain Prost, who had driven for the team in 1990 and 1991, tried to dissuade him from taking the post and Todt, as a Frenchman in an Italian team, knew he was not a popular choice. Todt admitted years later that he had fully expected to be fired within a year, describing just holding on to his job "as the biggest achievement of my career".

He quietly went about his business and gradually overcame his critics. His cause was helped by a lucky first win by Gerhard Berger at Hockenheim in 1994 - the team's first for three seasons. Greater things followed as Todt played an integral role in luring Michael Schumacher to the team in 1996, the German managing three wins for the team in his first season, along with Ross Brawn - now principal of 2009's victorious Brawn team - and the designer Rory Byrne the following year.

The Schumacher-Brawn-Byrne-Todt axis was the key to Ferrari's dramatic turnaround, and Todt still likens his relationship with the seven-time world champion to "that of a father and son". Todt had a photograph of every Ferrari victory put up in his office in the team motorhome at race weekends, photographs that had to be resized and rehung due to Schumacher's dominance. In all, Schumacher notched up 72 race wins for Ferrari, with 2004 his most notable season when he won 13 of the season's 18 races.

During his time at Ferrari, Todt became massively popular within the team, where he was praised for his loyalty and management skills, but equally unpopular outside it. Ferrari, and Todt in particular, earned a reputation for saying "no" in team meetings. Perhaps the most telling "no" of Todt's career came in 2008 when he refused to sign a no-confidence letter regarding Mosley after a sex scandal, thereby saving Mosley's skin.

It remains unclear how vital that move was in the ensuing presidential race, Mosley marking out Todt as the perfect successor following the end to his 16-year reign. Fears that Todt, who finally stepped down from all Ferrari duties in March, might be little more than a Mosley lackey made many of the teams on the grid nervous; previously they had been hopeful of an end to recent FIA acrimony. Tellingly, Todt then distanced himself from the current FIA president insisting he was his own man and building his election bid on one of "consensus not confrontation".

F1 in particular will be watching closely to see which Todt comes to the fore - the much-loved loyal servant at Ferrari or the hard-nosed businessman who alienated much of the rest of the grid with his desire to win at all costs. As it stands, the signs are mixed. Todt has made the right noises by suggesting the introduction of commissioners for F1, rallying and touring cars. Schumacher himself has been linked to the F1 role, but more likely it will go to Alan Donnelly, another Mosley sidekick, which may make the F1 teams a tad anxious.

What is clear is that Todt will give his life to the job, such was his singular focus at both Peugeot and Ferrari. Despite his workaholic nature, Todt has still made time for a private life. He has a son, Nicolas, 31, who is also immersed in F1 as the manager of Ferrari's Felipe Massa. Todt can also thank Ferrari for his relationship with the actress and former Bond girl Michelle Yeoh, whom he met at a promotional event organised by the team in Shanghai in 2004. He has briefly dallied with acting, with a bit part alongside Schumacher in Asterix and the Olympics, but looks unlikely to return to the silver screen as he tries to bring harmony to F1.

* The National