Image Credit: UN Geneva https://www.flickr.com/photos/unisgeneva/49501752106
As a prominent figure at Scuderia Ferrari in the early 2000’s, Jean Todt gained notoriety as the right-hand man of the great Michael Schumacher. Now President of the FIA (Federation Internationale de l’Automobile), the Frenchman plays a significant role in the world of motorsport.
Kier Bradwell, now President Elect of The Cambridge Union, hosted an interview with Todt in a manner that suggests nothing is off-limits.
The hour-long interview wasted no time in dissecting the widely discussed relationship between politics and sport, with Todt an overt advocate of the keep-it-separate position. When asked about Sir Lewis Hamilton’s championing of the Black Lives Matter movement (BLM), Todt attempts to choose his words carefully by prefacing his answer with his commendation of Hamilton’s “passion”.
What follows is not entirely unsurprising, but nevertheless serves as a reminder that the success of the BLM movement on social media platforms cannot be misconstrued as a more widespread agreement regarding social injustice and race. The FIA President outlines his abstinence from Hamilton’s cause by saying “… not only black lives matter, simply any life matters”.
The All Lives Matter rebuttal to the BLM movement polarised public discourse in the summer months of 2020, with many arguing it minimised issues of social inequality that remain prevalent in recent times. While I won’t engage with this specific debate any further, Todt’s comments beg for more scrutiny. Does Formula 1’s resistance to support the BLM movement reflect a kind of broad political apathy, or an ambivalence to social equality more generally?
Leading on from a brief discussion regarding the role of women in motorsport, Keir raises a topic I actually anticipated Todt would avoid. On 9 December, 2020, Nikita Mazepin, an F1 rookie with a seat on the Haas team, uploaded a video to Instagram in which he gropes a woman’s breast in the back of a car. Despite the Haas F1 team condemning his actions in a statement, labelling his actions “abhorrent”, calls for more serious sanctions overwhelmed social media with the trending hashtag ‘#SayNoToMazepin’. Although first seeming to brush off the assault claims, Andrea D’IVal (@almadelcaribe) has since posted content contrary to her initial response, declaring “never let them touch you again or be disrespectful to you”, Mazepin and D’IVal have subsequently unfollowed each other.
When asked whether Mazepin should have kept his seat in F1, Todt offers a bizarre answer; “to drive in Formula 1 you need a super-license… Mazepin got the points”. The Frenchman is of course referring to the system by which drivers qualify for a seat in F1, determined by the accruement of 40 points in the junior categories, among other smaller stipulations. What Todt appears to imply with this answer is that external matters, regardless of severity, which have no bearing on the ability to drive should not determine eligibility to drive. To give the benefit of the doubt here, perhaps Todt attempts to be diplomatic, however Keir’s further questioning reveals more to his answer…
“I’m not happy about the situation,” Todt starts. “Saying that, it’s something which happened in his private life, he did not pay attention”. Todt’s insinuation that Mazepin’s sexual assault charges are a part of a “private life” and are therefore inconsequential to professional conduct is a dangerous oversight. Mazepin’s behaviour threatens the safe working environment of a whole team of personnel, with the response reflecting a tolerant attitude towards sexual assault. The decision to allow Mazepin to keep his seat in F1 will no doubt be a topic of debate in the industry for years to come, raising questions surrounding the role of pay-drivers and their relationship with the FIA.
Both issues raised in the interview are foregrounded by comments about the responsibility of drivers to be ambassadors for the sport, with Todt noting that “they are models… we want all our champions to be models and to be examples.” Keir does well to interrogate the contradictions that arise from this line of reasoning, highlighting that if the FIA expects a standard of behaviour to be upheld by their drivers, surely by the standard that Todt outlines Mazepin violated something rather integral to the sport.
The final, potentially controversial topic covered in the interview relates to a discussion around politics and sport that extends beyond the FIA. The act of holding sporting events in countries with human rights violations has been widely criticised in recent years, initiating conversations over the extent to which the events act as enablers, funding the continued abuses. When asked how the ‘We Race as One’ slogan could be broadcasted while racing in countries such as Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, both known for the suppression of free speech and gender inequality, Todt once again offered a curious explanation.
In line with his usual pattern, Todt presents his most diplomatic argument first; “the sport is a consolidator – it doesn’t mean that we do agree with the [disrespect] of human rights in certain countries… incidentally we are working on that to see how to best address the human rights situation”. However, with no prompt from the host, Todt digresses into more detail, confusing his answer now plagued with contradictions.
He suggests that F1 is “probably” responsible for the Saudi Arabian government granting women the right to drive in 2018, as a result of them not racing there until change was enacted, but then goes on to say that “we know it is a sensitive matter, but there [are] no obvious reasons why we should not go in any country who want to host”. The contradiction, in this instance, is that women not being able to drive constituted an “obvious reason” not to race in Saudi Arabia, which led to positive change according to Todt. The clear disparity between past experience and political positioning appeared unbeknownst to Todt, who rounded off his statement by reiterating his apolitical attitude.
Jean Todt’s slightly disorderly use of English left no question unanswered; his direct and unapologetic tone conveyed few subtleties in sentiment. The interview finds Todt attempting to communicate a tone of political passiveness, but instead shines a light on the inconsistencies of the FIA’s ethics, politics and policies.