Jean Todt Watkins Lecture at Autosport International

FIA president Jean Todt today addressed a collection of motorsport volunteers at Birmingham’s National Exhibition Centre.

©Andy Baldwin

Todt was invited to present the 2016 Watkins Lecture by the Motorsport Safety Fund, and on the agenda was motorsport safety and a look back at the president’s multi-faceted career. As FIA president, Todt has made safety top of his agenda, both on public roads and in competition. But for a man whose motorsport career began in the heat of competition, were risk and safety active concerns earlier in life?

“When I started my career I was probably didn’t know the meaning of risk,” Todt acknowledged. “When you are young and you start something you are passionate and you don’t feel it can be risky. Over 50 years, things have improved - safety belts have increased [their] performance. When I started I did not like to wear a safety belt. Now I will not get in a car without everyone in a safety belt.

“When I started to be on the other side of the barrier, then unfortunately I was facing people who were driving for us having accidents - like Ari [Vatanen] in Argentina in 1985, when for many days we thought he would not survive. So that becomes the priority, and you follow your people in the crucial hours after the accident. [Ari’s accident] was probably the turning point of my interest in safety. Then you reach some success in your life and you think it is time to give something back.

“When I was team principal at Ferrari I always encouraged Michael [Schumacher] to promote global safety, and when I was elected president of the FIA it was only natural that I would put road safety on the top of my list. We have made progress in safety in racing, in certain countries on the road, on circuits. Every weekend it reminds you that there is more to do, to protect the drivers, the marshals, the spectators… We have created specific safety commissions - like the rally safety commission headed by Ari Vatanen - so for me it is really the biggest priority.”

And what inspired Todt’s move from Ferrari to the FIA?

“I’ve enjoyed my life in motorsport, I’ve got a lot out of it, and if you get a lot out of something you must give something back,” the FIA president reflected. “It started in about 2004. 2005 - my predecessor Max Mosley told me ‘you should go for election to become president of the FIA’. At the time I was still enjoying what I was doing at Ferrari.

“First, in 2005, I thought, ‘okay, it could be something I could do’, but I had pressure from Ferrari not to leave. By 2009, I was ready to leave and it was suggested again by Max to take over the position. I thought it would be an interesting opportunity to try and give something back.”

As much as Todt is motivated to give back to the wider motor-racing community, so too is he aware of the debt of gratitude owed to the volunteer officials without whose passion motorsport simply wouldn’t be possible. Addressing the volunteers in the audience, Todt voiced his appreciation for their efforts.

“I have a lot of respect - admiration - for all the work you are doing,” he said. “I have a passion for motorsport, you have a passion for motorsport, and without the work you are doing. To talk in front of you is an honour and I thank you for inviting me.”