SAFETY FIRST. Jean Todt is a French motor racing executive and former rally co-driver. He was Peugeot Talbot Sport’s director and then Scuderia Ferrari Formula 1 team principal, before being appointed CEO of Ferrari from 2004 to 2008. From 2009 to 2021 he served as the 9th president of the Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile (FIA). UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon appointed Todt as the United Nations’ Special Envoy for Road Safety in 2015, a role to which he was reappointed by António Guterres in 2018. In January 2018 Todt was appointed to the Board of the Ban Ki-moon Centre for Global Citizens. He also sits on the boards of Gaumont, the Groupe Lucien Barrière and Edmond de Rothschild SA.
You can listen to the podcast of this interview here
Jean Todt, you are a doctor’s son. Why did you decide to become a co-driver in rallies?
My father arrived in France from Poland in around 1930 and studied medicine in a French University. I was born in Pierrefort, a village in the countryside in the centre of France, and in childhood I was fascinated by cars and by motor racing. My dream was to become a famous driver; I had heroes like Jim Clark and Dan Gurney. Starting as a rally co-driver was the easiest way without having financial support, and I very quickly developed a certain reputation. Soon I decided against becoming a driver myself, but the co-driving career was also a unique opportunity to learn and to complete my racing education with the hope of one day running a motor racing department. This happened in 1981 when I was appointed by the President of Peugeot, Jean Boillot, to create a rally department. We simultaneously presented the iconic 205 road car and the 205 Turbo 16 rally car.
Being a co-driver in the most famous rallies in the world must have been exciting. Why did you stop?
Life is made up of chapters. When I was 35 I had done my time sitting next to somebody, organizing and reading notes, even if I was driving with the best drivers and best teams at the time. Being French I was very French minded and I never expected that I would get a proposal from other than a French company, so either from Renault or Peugeot. As Renault was already well engaged in motorsport in Formula One my only opportunity was with Peugeot, and that came about.
You were with Peugeot for 12 years and had a lot of great results?
We started with the World Rally Championship between ‘84, ‘85, ‘86. It was the famous period of the Group B car and we were competing against Audi or Lancia, who were the best in the class. We won the drivers’ and manufacturers’ championships in ‘85 and ‘86, and then Group B was banned, and we moved to cross country rallies like the Dakar. We started Dakar ‘87, ‘88, ‘89, ‘90, ‘91 and we won all of them, and we also participated in other cross country rallies and each rally we participated in we won. So we thought we needed to do something else and got involved with Sports Car racing. The most well-known event is Le Mans 24 hours. So that was the end of ‘91, and in ‘92 and ‘93 we won Le Mans. I wanted to progress and to do something else, and I received a proposal to join Ferrari to run its team in Formula One.
Who was it at Ferrari that called you?
Among the people I got to know at the international level was Bernie Ecclestone, who at the time was running the commercial rights of Formula One. Of course, I had contacts in all the teams and the most important team in Formula One has always been Ferrari. But unfortunately, at the time, Ferrari was not successful. A healthy Formula One needs a successful Ferrari, and as Ferrari was struggling, Bernie Ecclestone suggested my name to Avvocato Agnelli, to Cesare Romiti who was Managing Director of Group Fiat, and to Luca di Montezemolo who was just hired as the President of Ferrari. Around August ‘92 I was asked to meet Luca di Montezemolo in his house in Bologna, for reasons of confidentiality, and we had discussions for more than six months until I was hired as the head of Scuderia Ferrari in Maranello.
“The most important team in Formula One has always been Ferrari.”
Jean Todt, your name is linked to Ferrari for many years in this new chapter of your life. Did your great achievements, reorganising the team and bringing in the driver Michael Schumacher, happen quickly?
It was not simple and quick. I arrived at Ferrari on July 1st ‘93 and Ferrari had not won a drivers’ championship since ’79, with Jody Scheckter from South Africa. It had not won a constructors’ title since 1983. There were often changes of leadership at Scuderia Ferrari, and people expected me to join for one or two years and then be fired, particularly because I had the disadvantage of not having experience with Formula One and not being Italian. I was the first non-Italian hired to run the iconic Italian team. The second part of ‘93 and ‘94 and ‘95 were the rebuilding years. There was a very big expectation around Ferrari’s success in Formula One, and it did not come as quickly as people expected and I often thought that we would not be able to move forward.
Was the problem the car or the driver, or both?
For success you need to have a great team and a great car. Then you can bring in the driver and he will be able to deliver. But most essential is the level of the team and the car which is supplied to the driver. When I joined we had Gerhard Berger and Jean Alesi and a bad car. The whole combination could not work, so we rebuilt the team and by the end of ‘95 we thought we were ready to have a driver with the skill-level of Michael Schumacher, the world champion in ‘94 and ‘95.
Did you also follow the development of the car?
I was globally responsible for Scuderia Ferrari. I tried to get the best people available, or to convince them to join us even if they were not on the market. I hired Ross Brawn, who was the technical director of Benetton, and then I also hired Rory Byrne, the great chief designer who I had known for years. I hired other people who used to work with me at the engine department. We completely rebuilt the team, the facilities, everything. When I arrived in ‘93, one department designing the Ferrari was in the UK, which I thought was not possible for an Italian team, and we brought everything back to Maranello.
After all this work you brought in the great champion driver Michael Schumacher?
Exactly. The car was probably not where we wanted to have it, but by 1994 we were ready to have the best driver on the market, Ayrton Senna or Michael Schumacher. Unfortunately Ayrton Senna had a fatal accident in Imola in ’94. Michael was attracted by the challenge. He knew that driving for Ferrari would be completely different. At the time he was driving for Benetton.
Was it difficult to convince him?
We met in Monte Carlo around the end of July ‘95, and it took one day to finalise an agreement.
Did victories start to come when he joined?
It took time. In ‘96 we won three Grand Prix, but the car was not yet performing at its best and the team was not completely ready. ‘96 was a learning year. ‘97 we were in a better situation, but unfortunately there was a bad accident in the last race. Michael was competing with Jacques Villeneuve in a Williams for the lead of the championship, and they hit each other. The wild movement from Michael caused a lot of controversy and suffering, but we became stronger because nobody abandoned the other. In ‘98, we lost the championship at the last race again, which was becoming painful but we were much more competitive. Then ‘99, unfortunately, at Silverstone Michael had an accident because the brakes failed, and he broke his leg. We had a very good car and our second driver Eddie Irvine took the lead of the championship but we lost the championship at the last race again. ‘97, ‘98, and ‘99 we lost at the last race, but fortunately in ‘99, for the first time since 1983, Ferrari became manufacturers’ world champion. And then came 2000. There was quite a difficult start to the season, but nevertheless Michael became world champion, and we were, for the second time in a row, manufacturers’ world champion. And then it was a succession. We were unbeatable: 2000. 2001. 2002. 2003. 2004.
Who was your main competitor?
McLaren, who won in ‘97 and ’98, and also BMW and Toyota. Mika Häkkinen, Kimi Räikkönen, and Fernando Alonso were the competing drivers.
Do you remember a particular race, either for the good or the bad?
The worst memory is Michael’s terrible Silverstone accident. We did not know what the outcome was going to be. Fortunately he only broke one leg, but it could have been much worse. Then a bad memory from 2006 when Michael lost the championship at the last race. And 2008, where Felipe Massa lost at the last corner. When he finished the race he was champion, until Lewis Hamilton passed another car in the final corner and took the title by one point. That was probably the most painful experience. The best by far is 2000, because after 21 years we made it, and that’s why we were hired, to bring success to Ferrari. In 2000 at Suzuka we achieved what we wanted to achieve.
“Whoever the driver is, if he doesn’t have the best car and the best team he will not be able to deliver.”
Jean Todt, what are the most important qualities for a driver?
Talent. Engagement. Work. Commitment. Input in the team. Solidarity to the team.
What makes the difference between an excellent driver and a champion?
All drivers in Formula One are excellent. A few, maybe three or four, have extra talent. It’s a gift that they have, and probably an engagement which is unique compared to others. But whoever the driver is, if he doesn’t have the best car and the best team he will not be able to deliver.
What are your own primary capabilities?
I am very committed. I’m passionate, ambitious, a hard worker. I never take anything for granted. I’ve tried to be humble, to think that you always can do better. Only the mediocre have reached their maximum. You can always deliver more.
How do you feel when you lose?
Firstly, you need to protect and give time to your team. It is very important. I am impatient, but if you feel that you have the people to deliver you must leave them the time to deliver, so I have always been very close to the teams, being with them all the time and protecting them, which is absolutely essential.
Racing can be very dangerous, with many drivers severely injured or killed. Is it still the case?
Motorsport has been dangerous over the years, that’s why I am passionate about my role as the UN Secretary-General’s Special Envoy for Road Safety. Motor racing isn’t only a sport but also a learning laboratory of technology and of safety. Over the decades of motor racing, and particularly in Formula One, we’ve learnt from accidents at the level of the car, of the circuits, of the equipment, of the drivers. Now Formula One is much safer. Ayrton Senna and Roland Ratzenberger passed away on the same weekend in Imola in ’94, but between ‘94 and 2022 there has been only one fatality in Formula One, Jules Bianchi in 2015. One is too much, but clearly we owe that it is only one in 28 years to all the efforts which have been made. For example, you will have heard about the Halo head protection. And remember the accident in Bahrain in 2020, when Romain Grosjean’s car exploded. If the same accident were to occur now, the car would not explode.
Now there is also the electric racing car, which doesn’t have the same music as the old cars. Will people be as interested in their races?
Cars are quite new. It has only been 125 years, and the progress which has been achieved decade by decade is absolutely fascinating. With all the effort on climate change, on pollution, a lot has been achieved recently. New mobility, new energy, new technology, and the electric car is part of that. For around the past eight years, Formula One is using a very efficient hybrid engine. I really believe a lot in hybrid technology, and manufacturers have been working very heavily to develop it.
With the electric car, we have a new format of racing that takes place in cities, in order to attract people to buy electric cars for cities. It provides a good show, different to other forms of auto sport, but with close racing, which makes it very attractive.
Even though you left Ferrari a few years ago do you still follow their races?
Growing up I always had a passion for Ferrari. Ferrari is more special than any other brand. When I joined Ferrari, of course it was my job, but still Ferrari was a very special company to work for. When I was president of the Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile (FIA) I had to be neutral, but now I am more of a free man and I follow Ferrari with a special heart.
“I and my colleagues at the United Nations want to make sure that we put road safety at the top of government agendas.”
Jean Todt, what responsibility did you have in that important role as President of FIA?
I started in my career in 1966, so for 43 years between 1966 until 2009 I had many different roles in the motor industry. I had some success so I needed to give something back, which is why I founded a medical institute called ICM, the Brain and Spinal Cord Institute, in 2010. We have 25,000 square metres and 750 research people in Paris. In the same way, as I got so much out of the motor industry, I thought the FIA could be one way for me to contribute as well. The FIA is the regulator of motorsport in all categories around the world, present in 150 countries. The other pillar of the FIA is mobility. The members of the FIA are automobile clubs – like the Automobile Club of Italia, or the Touring Club of Switzerland – and automobile associations all over the world that supply services to road users. I was very interested to develop different categories of motorsport, to make motorsport stronger and to make mobility stronger. That’s also the reason that I wanted to put road safety on top of the list.
Is road safety something that you are focussed on in your role at the UN?
Every year, 1.3 million people die on the roads worldwide. Every year 30 to 50 million people are injured with disability. It is the No. 1 cause of deaths and injuries to youth between 5 to 29 years old. In addition to the tragic loss of loved ones, road crashes draw the most vulnerable into a vicious cycle of poverty.
There isn’t enough awareness of that. People feel that a road crash is an unavoidable accident, but that’s not true. You can prevent crashes from happening. So I became passionate about this. Those of us who live in the most developed countries are blessed, because in some countries in Africa, in Asia or in Latin America, the situation is tragic. There is little road safety education, little law enforcement. Vehicles are old, roads are bad and post-crash care is bad as well. In my capacity as UN Secretary-General’s Special Envoy for Road Safety I work with global organisations and with governments to make sure that more attention is given to road users in those countries. 92% of the figure that I gave you occur in low- and middle-income countries.
We often talk about SDGs (sustainable development goals), and unfortunately there is no access to public transportation for about 2 billion people on earth. That’s why we are promoting the use of affordable helmets with proper UN standards for motorbikes in the developing world. Because unfortunately, as you have poor public transportation you often have 3 to 4 people on the same motorbike without helmets, which is very dangerous. I and my colleagues at the United Nations want to make sure that we put road safety at the top of government agendas.
Does your wife Michelle Yeoh support you in this?
I met my wife in Shanghai. She was born in Malaysia, her father was a lawyer, and she studied ballet in U.K., until she became an actress. Like me she is very engaged, and she’s also a goodwill ambassador for the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). We come from different worlds, but we have a lot of common passions.
Your wife is very involved in the world of cinema, arts and performance. Are you?
I love contemporary art. I’m not an expert, but I love it. Very often artists and celebrities have a passion for cars and for racing. It’s a good way of meeting them and allows you to connect, because they admire the work that I’ve been doing and I admire their work.
Do you collect cars?
I have a few of the cars which I was dreaming about when I was a boy. My father could not afford them so he bought me models, and now I am blessed with the real things that I was dreaming about when I was a boy.
Can we say that you have achieved your dream?
Yes, but the most important thing is that I’m still dreaming and that the dream never stops. Every morning I wake up passionate about doing something, and when I go to bed I’m still passionate about doing something.
What is your new dream?
To contribute a little something. To make life better for others.
Thank you very much Jean. It was an interesting conversation.
ENJOY THIS INTERVIEW? SHARE IT WITH A FRIEND.