Fight for the big wheel in F1

Put the disappointment of Schumi’s non-return to Formula One (F1) behind you—the most riveting race of an intriguing F1 season has just started.

There may be no actual cars in this one, and only a two-man grid, but these very different yet evenly matched opponents will deliver the one thing F1 routinely struggles to give its fans—a close race.

We are, of course, talking about the fight for the presidency of motorsport’s governing body, the Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile (FIA). After incumbent Max Mosley agreed not to stand for re-election in October, two men have emerged as rivals for this influential position—Jean Todt and Ari Vatanen.
Describing this as a two-man race isn’t entirely accurate, though—and therein lies the spice.

The contestants are really representatives of the sport’s two major constituents whose very public spat has grabbed as many headlines as Jenson Button’s Brawn. Unwilling to accept the FIA 2010 budget caps and Mosley’s increasingly dictatorial approach, the Formula One Teams Association (Fota—basically the team owners) refused to sign the new Concorde Agreement (that is, how they’ll all be divvying up the money until 2012) until Mosley backed down.

Shortly after announcing he’d be standing down, the ever-canny Mosley endorsed the highly respected Jean Todt (also his good pal) as the man to succeed him. Faced with the prospect of a potential Mosley puppet carrying on his master’s wishes, the team owners needed their own guy. Enter Ari Vatanen.

Both men have impeccable motorsport credentials. Todt ran Peugeot’s championship-winning rally programme during the 1980s, orchestrated their Le Mans hat-trick from 1991 to 1993 and, if that wasn’t enough, became Ferrari’s team principal during the uber-successful Schumi years. The Finn, on the other hand, spent his time behind the wheel, winning the World Rally Championship in 1981, and four Paris-Dakars between 1987 and 1991 with, ironically, Todt as his team manager.

On the face of it, it might seem as though Todt is sitting on pole. Not only is he Mosley’s man, but his close connections with Ferrari—arguably the most influential of all the teams—certainly talk up his election prospects. The Frenchman’s managerial abilities are legendary: he single-handedly turned a Ferrari team hamstrung by internal squabbling into the kind of dominant force that would bring five drivers and six constructors championship titles. This time around, Todt doesn’t even have to assemble a team to do the job—Mosley has handed him his own carbon-steel set of tools. All Todt has to do is follow the manual.

Vatanen, on the other hand, has presented himself as the independent candidate ready to usher in change. And in a volatile political environment, much like the one F1 occupies, an alliance-free position usually presents an open target for the opposition. Perhaps—but Vatanen is a smart cookie who’s been toughened up by 10 years as a member of the European Parliament. A consummate politician, the Finn isn’t anywhere near as “independent” as he may seem. Already McLaren team principal Martin Whitmarsh has backed his bid and Vatanen might well have the Ferrari blessing to boot. Word on the street is that Todt’s allegiances might lie more with Mosley than his old team, especially in light of his falling out with Ferrari president Luca di Montzemolo. Ferrari won’t be loving that.

As spectators to this race, the question remains about who to root for. It’s not an easy choice. Both candidates represent the self-interests of the major players. A Todt-led FIA will continue to push for budget cuts and increasingly similar specced cars.

This, the argument goes, will lead to closer racing and increased spectator interest, a bigger TV audience—and more money. As an agent for change Vatanen will, at worst, be “sympathetic” to Fota’s wishes. That means minimal or no budget caps and therefore the continuation of F1’s pedigree as the cutting edge of automotive technology, which, they say, is the actual reason fans flock to the sport—followed by the money.

The chequered flag comes out on October 23. Until then expect wheel-to-wheel action, the odd yellow flag and plenty of public cockpit telemetry.

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