I won’t tell you all the things that were written in my green notebook in Brazil, because some of the words I used to describe the FIA President are not expressions that he would want to see in print. I was not alone in my assessment, as I heard the President described by a lot of people in a lot of colourful ways and I don’t recall a single one of them being in any way positive. The most polite was “completely out of touch with reality”.
Jean Todt’s fixation on hosting his commemoration for road accident victims, to the exclusion of any form of recognition of the Paris massacres, was extraordinary. Everyone makes mistakes and had it been just one ridiculously insensitive statement, then perhaps one could forgive him this transgression, but he simply compounded the error by refusing to back down. As this process went on, it multiplied my anger because this is the man who is supposed to represent F1 to the world at large. The fans and those involved in the sport did not vote for him in that role and I find it deeply disquieting that he does not appear to comprehend that it was not the moment to be pursuing his own agenda. Quite a few people felt Jean’s actions were so misguided that they were worthy of resignation (although no-one would say it out loud), but Todt is not the resigning type. No-one at the FIA has big enough shoulders to attempt an overthrow.
What makes this whole thing all the more astonishing is that Paris is Todt’s home town. This is where he grew up, in the pleasant-enough suburb of Bezons, just a couple of miles from where I live. He was the son of the village doctor, a background that one would imagine would provide a solid grounding in human sensitivity. How can Todt not realise that Paris is a sufficiently small city that almost everyone knows someone, or knows someone who knows someone, who was killed or injured on Friday night? This was traumatic stuff, yet all Jean saw was an opportunity to promote his road safety agenda. That is not normal.
It may be true that more people are killed every day in road accidents than were killed in Paris, but that is not the point. Lots of people die for lots of different reasons each day, but most of these are deaths are not caused by an assault on everything that is dear to us in the democratic world. It was an attack on the freedom to go out for dinner; to go to a football match; or to go to a concert, without fear of being murdered by ill-educated fanatics who have been manipulated by twisted people who claim that they speak for some God or other.
When the world is in shock, it is not the moment to do anything other than provide support and compassion, and perhaps even a little moderation. The rest of the F1 community managed very well to hit the right note, with suitable messages of condolence and support to the French nation and the families of those killed and injured in the attacks. Others at the FIA obviously realised what Todt’s disastrous interview with Canal+ had done and rushed out a statement that sounded like a statement rushed out to cover for a PR disaster. It was too little, too late. Then within hours, out came a new statement detailing how the road safety commemoration would go ahead on Sunday and how a moment of remembrance for Paris would be shoved into the driver’s parade. This was wholly inappropriate as the drivers are supposed to go around waving and smiling at the crowds. All this did was to make them uncomfortable because they did not know what to do. It compounded the original problem and was utterly wrong on pretty much every level.
I have no problem with remembering road accident victims, but the timing was wrong and insensitive and it was really hard to understand how sensitivity would not come naturally to someone who espouses a humanitarian cause. Campaigning about road deaths implies a deep-rooted sense of caring for humankind, but how can someone feel for road victims and yet be so completely insensitive to the victims of a horrendous terrorist attack? There is a disconnect here that inevitably leads to questions. Not everyone is born with great communication skills, but if one does not have them and one wants to deal in a high profile world, it is best to surround yourself with people who do know how to communicate – and to listen to them.
I don’t know how it happened, but on the grid we heard the announcement that the commemoration was for both events. We did not know this until it happened. I wonder if Todt knew… So, we ended up with Todt with a picture board of road accident victims and some of the drivers with a French flag. It was awkward and confusing.
This made me very angry and keen to get out of Brazil and get home to Paris. The logic of air travel is sometimes weird and meant that my tickets included a 12-hour stopover in Miami. Having spent the same sort of time in a lounge in Mexico City recently, I decided I would use my time in Miami in a more constructive fashion and so I rented a car and drove south to Key Largo and then down the archipelago known as the Florida Keys. My goal was to not think about the F1 world or Todt, but to have simpler thoughts and a more relaxed life: I wanted to see a bit more of the world, and find some conch chowder and Key lime pie for lunch. I did not want to waste any further mental energy on motorsport. It is a long drive to Key West and the trip was slow and the weather bad, but I achieved my goal, albeit with a little too much driving. I didn’t really have time to properly explore Key West, which was frustrating. The return journey was easier and so I found that I had a spare 10 minutes when I reached the signs to Homestead-Miami Speedway. It was a 10-minute detour on the way back to the airport.
Next weekend, Homestead will be the venue for the finale of the NASCAR Sprint Cup and the NASCAR big rigs were already rolling in and everyone was getting ready for the race. They will have a decent showdown because the rules dictate that the last race will always have four championship contenders – and thus a decent story. The F1 circus goes to Abu Dhabi the weekend after with all the titles settled and, frankly, little interest left beyond whether or not Lewis or Nico will be on pole and thus will win the race. We can only hope for something better.
Most likely NASCAR’s finale will be a raucous affair with current champion Kevin Harvick, retiring legend Jeff Gordon, the comeback king Kyle Busch and the outsider Martin Truex Jr battling for the title. Whoever wins the title this year will not be able to match Joey Logano’s total of six race victories. The scoring system is complicated but the last dozen or so races are basically knock-out competitions. Logano was literally knocked out by Matt Kenseth, a move that resulted in the latter being suspended for two races. Personally, I think it should have been more than that. Kenseth has won five victories this year, as has Jimmie Johnson, but the latter’s chances disappeared with a mechanical problem at a key moment.
The title challenger with the most victories is Busch, who has won four times, but he did so having competed in only 24 of the 35 races, having broken a leg and a foot at Daytona at the start of the season. Kevin Harvick has won three times, while Gordon and Truex have had only one victory apiece. So, come what may, the champion will not be able to equal Logano’s score of wins. Is that fair? Not really, but it is good show business.
Sometimes one wonders whether the show business route taken by NASCAR might not be better option than F1’s more sophisticated balance between business and sport. Personally, I prefer F1 because of its relevance to the world. It is amazing that while Jean Todt will seemingly do anything to be seen to be a big banana in road safety, he has completely missed the opportunity to promote himself as a man who has done much to save the world with the brilliant 1.6-litre hybrid turbo formula that has raised thermal efficiency from around 30 percent to 45 percent, an astonishing and completely unpublicized achievement. Even if it was someone else’s idea, he made it happen. He is in the process of ruining that achievement as well having now agreed to allow some cheap and basic 2.2-litre twin turbo engines to race against the fabulous hybrids. If that happens it will mean the complete surrender of the FIA’s strategy of making the sport relevant to the world.
Elsewhere, the US was much in the news in Brazil because the Texas state government seems to have decided to cut the subsidies for the United States GP, which may result in the Austin race dropping off the calendar. Tavo Hellmund is working on plans for an alternative race, rumours suggesting in the San Francisco Bay Area. He is also busy talking up his desire to buy into an F1 team. You have got to give him credit, he’s a proper old school promoter and has got tongues wagging in the US by suggesting that he would offer the drive to NASCAR’s biggest star, Dale Earnhardt Jr. Hellmund’s primary target has been to buy Manor F1 but there does not seem to be much substance to get owner Stephen Fitzpatrick interested. Fitzpatrick has just named that former McLaren Sporting Director Dave Ryan will be Racing Director and would like to see Alexander Wurz as his team principal. I am assured that this will NOT happen. Elsewhere, Pastor Maldonado’s continued grip on the PDVSA sponsorship took a hit with a scandal surrounding the Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro. Two members of Maduro’s family have been arrested in Haiti and indicted in the US on charges of drug trafficking conspiracy. They were alleged to be in the final stages of a deal to import 800 kgs of drugs into the US. This makes it rather more difficult for Maduro to survive in office and there is no guarantee that his successor will agree to give Maldonado the huge sums he gets today…