The adventures of Mr. Todt and the danger of team orders
SEPTEMBER 10, 1999
BY JOE SAWARD
One of my favorite books when I was a kid was The Wind in the Willows. I only remembered this the other day when I read it to my son. I am not sure who had the most fun - him or me. For those of you who have missed out, it is the story of animals with human characters who live on a river bank. There is Ratty, Mr. Mole, Badger and Mr. Toad who lives in Toad Hall. Mr. Toad is the wild man of the bunch and soon falls in love with fast cars. And one day, driven by this insane passion, he steals a car and ends up in prison for life. Fortunately he is able to disguise himself as a washerwoman and escape. After various adventures which include jumping from a train he ends up back on the river bank where he finds that Toad Hall has been taken over by an unsavory collection of weasels, stoats and ferrets who lived in the Wild Wood.
The book ends with a rousing battle during which Toad and his cohorts evict the jabbering invaders from Toad Hall - and then there is a banquet to celebrate.
It is a marvellous book for kids and so successful that it is a part of popular culture. This means that sometimes when you are in the Press Office at a Grand Prix and you will hear someone refer to the sporting director of Ferrari as Mr. Toad. This may sound odd but as everyone knows a toad is really just a big frog and a Frog is what the English call a Frenchman. Jean Todt is not a tall bloke but he is French and he has long had important jobs in motor racing. And so he has become known as Mr. Toad... If you listen to the other Europeans in the Media Centers of the world you will also hear him referred to as Napoleon because they seem to think that he bears a vague resemblance to the French Emperor of that name. It is not really fair but there are some people who seem to attract nicknames and Todt is one of them.
The fact that he has a long and distinguished career as a rally co-driver before becoming head of Peugeot Talbot Sport and then oversaw the French firm to great sporting successes in rallying and sportscars in the 1980s and early 1990s. His career was topped off by an historic Peugeot 1-2-3 finish in the Le Mans 24 Hours and his appointment as a Chevalier de la Legion d'Honneur - the French equivalent of a knighthood. Since 1993 - six years now - Todt has been in charge at Ferrari - his brief being to win the World Championship for the Italian team. He must be credited with having put together a competitive team. It took two years for him to get hold of Michael Schumacher and then another to get everyone Schumacher wanted in the team. It was clear from very early on that Todt had decided that everything would be concentrated on Schumacher to ensure that Ferrari was as successful as possible in the shortest possible space of time.
Todt was no stranger to team orders the most dramatic example in his career coming in 1989 at the town of Gao in Mali.
Gao is not very famous for anything. It is one of the oldest trading posts in West Africa, dating back to the seventh century when fishermen on the Niger River needed somewhere to eat their sand-flavored sandwiches and so parked their boats there. Later it became a center of salt, gold, copper and slave trading. It was the capital of the Songhai empire.
But for Mr. Todt Gao has a special memory because it was there that Todt decided who was going to win the 1989 Paris-Dakar Rally using that most advanced method of decision-making: a coin. It was a French 10 Franc piece actually...
The event still had six days to run but out in the desert Peugeot Talbot Sport drivers Jacky Ickx and Ari Vatanen were locked in combat to gain the upper hand. The pace of the Peugeot 405T16 GRs was such that the rest of the field was not able to mount an effective challenge and so it was left to the former Ferrari F1 driver and the rallying legend to keep up the interest. Just before they reached Gao the battle became so intense that Vatanen rolled his car. On the Paris-Dakar rolling a car meant little until the machine had fallen apart completely. The car was turned the right way up again and off went Vatanen, muttering a series of Finnish glottal stops for having made such a mistake. It was at that moment that the Peugeot marketing men got out their briefcases and corporate pie charts and decided that there was a danger that both Ickx and Vatanen might wipe themselves out of the rally, leaving Peugeot without the all-important Paris-Dakar victory to remind people in the suburbs of Paris that the cars were tough enough to survive a trip to the local supermarche (Hey, have you ever hit one of those supermarket trollies at high speed?)
Todt decided that it was time for team orders and so called a truce. He took a 10 franc piece out of his pocket and tossed it into the air: heads would mean victory for Vatanen; tails would give the win to Ickx.
"Vatanen has won," said Mr. Todt.
"C'est la vie," shrugged Ickx.
"I didn't want to settle it in that way," said Vatanen.
And for six days the drivers trolled around bringing the event to a most unsatisfactory end. It was not exactly a scandal - they rarely have such things in France - but it did rather destroy the interest in the event. The most exciting part of the rally for me was trying to get THE 10 Franc piece from Todt with subtle lines like "Have you got change for a fifty?" and "The phone boxes only take 10 Franc pieces".
If he kept it at all, Todt's 10 Franc piece would not have survived long when he got to Ferrari as Mr. Todt had to give Michael Schumacher not only a vast salary but also most of the furniture and real estate in and around Maranello to pay for Michael's services. Now - in the fifth year of that deal - Michael has earned more money from Ferrari than there is in the entire Malian government bank account... and I expect the famous 10F piece went to him and ended up being spent buying a diamond encrusted dog biscuit for some hound Schumacher adopted in a Third World country.
The only problem was that Ferrari still could not win the World Championship and the team was running out of excuses. "After four transition years..." sounded a little far-fetched for the piranhas of the Italian press corps to swallow. And so Todt & Co. decided to use a different approach...
"I will state openly today that our only goal must be to win the World Championship.," said Todt at the Ferrari launch in 1998. "After four years of restructuring, now we have to deliver."
Schumacher drove like a demon. Eddie Irvine - a man who recognizes the value of a coin - helped Michael as best he could, blocking at the right moments and being paid handsomely to keep his mouth shut - which as any F1 observer will recognize is not an easy thing when you are dealing with people from the Emerald Isle.
At the end of 1998 the team took out their hankies and wiped the egg from their faces and tried to figure out what to say at the launch of the 1999 car. "After five transition years..."
"This is a sport," said Schumacher. "You cannot predict anything."
Oh, and how right he was. Who would have predicted that at half-season Schumacher would smack into a wall and break a leg and that McLaren would then hand Eddie Irvine two victories in a row to put him into the lead in the World Championship. And poor Mr. Todt found out - in the worst possible way - that maybe it is just not worth trying to influence results. When it comes to worst case scenarios, the Ferrari 1999 situation is hard to beat. It was clear even before Michael's accident that Irvine was getting bored with being the second strong fiddler. He was talking to other teams. Michael's accident was the biggest break of Schumacher's career - and the same for Eddie - but it guaranteed his departure from Maranello. And so Mr. Todt found himself trying to win the World Championship with a man who was going to leave and take the World Champion's number one with him to Jaguar. The only ray of hope for Todt was that Irvine might not be good enough to do it although this would mean that at the launch of the 2000 car Jean would have to make a speech about "After six transition years..."
In the old days no Ferrari boss would survive that many failures - and one wonders when the Italians will again turn on the team management and bay for blood to such an extent that a victim will have to be offered to them.
Todt is famous for being hugely supportive of his drivers. Almost all the men who have driven for him will tell you that he understands how to support a driver like no other team boss (with the possible exception of Eddie Jordan who can wring performance from a dish rag - not that he would ever touch one these days) and they love him for it. But when Irvine won the Austrian and German Grands Prix Todt did not even pretend to be pleased. The hope was that Michael would be back and the nightmare would soon be over - but bones is bones and no amount of motivation can make them heal more quickly than nature will allow.
And then McLaren stopped being silly and started hammering Ferrari. The most significant aspect of the curious situation at Spa where David Coulthard was allowed to beat Hakkinen having beaten him to the first corner was the unspoken insult that the decision was to Irvine. McLaren was so confident that it could and would beat Eddie that the team did not insist on Mika getting an extra four points. That may come back to bite them if Irvine's lucky star pops out from behind the storm clouds but it doesn't look very likely to happen. The Ferrari team looks like an operation that needs Michael back again. It is just drifting... and Michael cannot come back. When you think about it the only thing that would aid Todt's cause now would be if Eddie tripped over a pile of his money and broke his arm...
If that were to happen the book would end with a rousing battle during which Toad and his cohorts evict the jabbering invader from Toad Hall - and then there is a banquet to celebrate.