Ferrari general manager enters celebrity circus

September 24, 2006|by JASON STEIN/Wheelbase Communications

There are few circus tents quite like Formula One racing.

It's hard to find a sport whose Number One superstar negotiates a clause into his contract that includes a personal gymnasium on his personal plane. Or a sport where the operating budget of one team is bigger than the gross domestic product of a small nation. Or where the engagement of a 60-year-old man to a 44-year-old model - who just happened to appear in a James Bond film - causes paparazzi cameras to click from Monaco to Malaysia.

Not every world is like F1 and not every team is like Ferrari, an open-wheel racing group that has more employees, a bigger budget and more hangers-on than a Hollywood film studio.

And who is in the center of all of it? Who is the ringleader in the Ferrari tent, the one who has driven most of this success? It's Jean Todt, a diminutive Frenchman whose father was a Paris doctor who saw nothing useful about a car except that it got him to his office in the morning.


The general manager for Scuderia Ferrari - Ferrari's Formula One racing division - marvels at where he is considering his humble upbringing.

"My father wasn't really interested in cars. There wasn't much to it, he thought," Todt said in during a one-on-one interview a few years ago at Indianapolis Motor Speedway where Formula One holds the yearly U.S. Grand Prix.

"But I don't think he was imaging this."

Todt, dressed in the customary red-as-Ferrari shirt, looked out over the scene in the Indy pits.

Models in knee-high boots walk past caterers rushing to the nearest trackside suite as florists scamper past, making sure the arrangements were set in the Ferrari tent.

"It can be an intoxicating experience," Todt said.


Jetting around the globe, being paid millions and managing the fate of F1's biggest star - Ferrari driver Michael Schumacher - is a long way from where he began.

Actually, it's a long way from business school in France where Todt attended exactly one year, then decided he wanted to be a rally-racing co-driver. That was 1966, and it was perfect harmony for Todt who was good at reading map coordinates and navigation routes to keep the driver up to speed on the road ahead.

Realizing he wasn't so great behind the wheel, it was the next best thing.

"I decided that would be my true education," he once said. "It was going to teach me about automobiles."

And that it did. After a few years on the rally circuit, Todt eventually landed with Peugeot where he was asked to create a racing department.

"We won everything we raced in," he said.

He was a success, making a name for himself around the world.

But by 1993, Todt claims, Peugeot wasn't willing to devote the resources to expanding its racing into F1, the major leagues of open-wheel racing, so he decided to leave.

One team needed serious help: Ferrari.

The once-proud Italian team had fallen on hard times, unable to regain its championship form and struggling to find direction.

"To participate in the renewal of a team like Ferrari, which is a mythical team and which was not doing very well, was amazing," he said. "For someone who loved racing as a child, and who had never done Formula One, there were lots of great sides to it."

He made plenty of moves, including the reorganization of the racing unit and the consolidation of decision making at the top.

But no decision was better than the 1996 signing of Schumacher, an up-and-coming driver at the time with two titles - in 1994 and 1995 - under his belt.

Schumacher also asked Todt to lure Ross Brawn as a technical director and Rory Byrne as the chief designer from Benetton, Schumacher's former team.

Todt "is 100 percent the reason why we got those people," Schumacher once said. "As a name, Ferrari sounds very nice. But when it comes to employing certain people from another country, you really need to persuade people and make them believe it's the right move to do. And that's what Jean is so fantastic at doing."

And plenty of fantastic things followed.

With Schumacher behind the wheel and Todt in the pits, Ferrari was unstoppable, winning the Constructor's Trophy for best overall team performance in 1999 and then the driver's title in 2000. It would begin six years of Ferrari and Schumacher dominance.

"An unfathomable journey," one-time F1 champion Jackie Stewart said.

Unfathomable, indeed.

Millions of fans followed the team and the myth was restored.

Todt's life was magnified. He met world leaders. He met the Pope. And he became a part of the circus, his every move judged as closely as Schumacher's. Even his engagement to one-time Bond girl Michelle Yeoh became a headline all over Italy.

"Move over Bond!" the Italian papers reported on the rumors over their impending marriage.

"This world is hard to believe," he said some years ago. "But I love it."

Jason Stein is a feature writer with Wheelbase Communications. You can drop him a line on the Web at:

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