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How long before Team Todt?

THE French motor sport federation (FFSA) hosted its annual awards last night and Ferrari's sporting director Jean Todt walked off with a golden steering wheel having been named as Personality of the Year. With French motor racing in a less than satisfactory state the top driving award went to veteran rally-raid champion Jean-Louis Schlesser while Peugeot Sport picked up another for winning the World Rally Championship.

Todt has been feted everywhere in recent weeks, not least at the FIA Prizegiving Gala in Monte Carlo a week ago. The event sees a gathering of all the major players in global motorsport and so there is an opportunity for a lot of politicking in the bars and restaurants of the glamorous Principality. We hear that this year Todt was much in demand but spent more than his fair share of time with Renault people, with whom he was spotted in deep discussion.

Todt was the toast of French motorsport back in the days when he was running Peugeot Sport and winning in every category that the company entered. And then in July 1993 he moved to Ferrari to take over the running of the Italian company's sporting programs. It took him seven years but finally he has won Ferrari the World Championship and now he must decide what to do in the future. At the age of 54 he is still relatively young and there is little left for him to achieve at Ferrari. He is never going to get any equity in the team and therefore may look at other offers that come along which would present him with better opportunities and the chance to work in France once again.

With Alain Prost doing his best to stop his team being thought of as being too French and Renault apparently not interested in doing business with him, the best-known Frenchman in motor racing is Todt. Renault needs someone with a high profile to run its Formula 1 team in the future and while Flavio Briatore fits the bill for the moment, there is no doubt that Todt has a far greater grip on how to make teams work than does Briatore.

But Todt is not likely to be very interested in being put in charge of a British-based Renault operation and, like most Frenchmen, he seems to believe that France could have a winning F1 team without needing to go running to the British for help. There is no shortage of money on offer in France for someone who wants to take up the challenge. Todt is in the fortunate position of being able to dictate his terms and he is ambitious enough to perhaps be considering having his own team. The major issue when one starts a Formula 1 team is to find a good engine supply but if one can convince an engine manufacturer to support you the major problem is solved. Renault has invested heavily in buying the Benetton team and may want Todt to run it but at the same time there are clear signs that the French are looking at Minardi as a means of creating a second team which could run Renault engines in the future. Renault has shown in the past that it is quite happy to supply two Formula 1 teams at the same time and there is no doubt that once a company has a winning engine the more cars using it the better the publicity.

Minardi is on the ropes and can be bought relatively cheaply. Mecachrome is looking for ways to supplement its income because of a cutback in its racing activities and a squeeze in the aerospace industry (although the recently-announced giant A3XX will probably help) and it has a basic engine supply available for 2001 and possibly 2002 as well. French sponsors want a team to support and the French public are keen to see the country enjoy some success in F1. All that is really needed is a well-known figurehead. Todt fits the bill perfectly.

It should be noted that Todt's current contract with Ferrari runs out in July 2001, this being a three-year extension of his original five-year Ferrari contract, so that now is the time for him to be talking to Ferrari about a new deal and to others about possible alternative employment. Todt is savvy enough to understand that there is no harm if he is seen to be talking to Renault. It will make Ferrari keener to keep him and willing to pay more money. But, at the same time, he has achieved all he can really achieve in Italy and the attraction of a new challenge at home must be very attractive to him, particularly if he knows that a big car manufacturer is there to support him.

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