Later this year we will see a new FIA president enter the offices at 8 Place de la Concorde – or accept the fact that Jean Todt will continue his job. In a journal paper published in Palgrave Communications I have analysed team Todt’s past visions for the FIA 2009-2013 and 2013-2017, as well as those of his opponents (as long as there were some) in the two previous elections. The impression is not bad. Given this situation there are surely others than me who wonder what he will do next. Despite being interviewed across seven pages in the recent edition of AUTO, FIA’s in-house publication, not once is he asked about a third presidential term. Although this can probably be explained by the norm that prevents ruling presidents to campaign before the election race is on, as well as an effect of the reporter’s (F1 guru James Allen) mild questions, it is not against French law to reflect upon the future.
This kenopsia leaves us to speculate. What can be said about his eight years so far? For the WRC these years have been a true combination of highs and lows. It began badly with ‘the Antonov affair’. On 24 November, 2011, Russian banker Vladimir Antonov and his partner Raimondas Baranauskas were arrested in London on allegations of serious fraud. As Antonov’s financial empire trembled with further revelations of connections with the mafia, secret accounts and the withholding of information from the financial authorities, the WRC tottered with it because Antonov was the main backer of the multinational investment group, Convers Sports Initiatives (CSI), which, in turn, owned North One Sport (NOS), the company in charge of the global media production and promotion of the WRC 2010-20.
Days came and left before FIA took action and Antonov disappeared into the British legal system. Autosport informed its readers on 7 December that the FIA was now working on an ‘immediate plan’ to make sure the 2012 World Rally Championship went ahead, and that several companies were being considered for the promoter rights as an alternative to CSI, among them energy drink and lifestyle consortium Red Bull. Todt was also forced to return to FIA headquarters in Paris from his vacation in Bali with Hollywood actress wife Michelle Yeoh to deal with the matter personally. No real deal was made. Hence, the 2012 season went by through a series of ad hoc solutions, before Red Bull re-entered the ring for the 2013 season. From being in a state of emergency everybody now expected a major improvement in the promotion of the championship.
While some feared a Red Bullization of the WRC others accuse the Austrian brand giant for doing too little. The truth is perhaps somewhere in the middle, as the difference from previous promoters is quite small and those differences that exist (like the Power Stage, which by the way have been tried before) does not alter the essentials of the sport. In terms of grasping the spectator sensations of rallying, for example, I have argued in previous posts that a lot of work remains. Meanwhile, on the positive side, new regulations for 2017 saw the emergence of new manufacturers (save Volkswagen’s melodramatic exit), more powerful cars, and a new level of competition. In the AUTO interview Todt says that this it’s a pleasing development as he felt rally cars had lost some charisma. To rectify this, Todt explains, they – as in FIA – wanted to bring back the awe when people saw the Group B cars. At the same time he underlines that replicating the anarchic setup of events like the Safari rally is impossible for political and safety reasons.
This juggling with nostalgia and innovation – bringing back the best and leaving behind the worst – is the core logic of being able to balance ‘the pull’ of traditions with ‘the push’ of commercial considerations. In light of the recent discussions of expanding the WRC calendar to 16 events I think Todt should enter a third term, if he does not choose to stand down or is beaten by his opponents, with an aim to rejuvenate the calendar. With popular new cars on site and a promotional deal still in progress, the remaining issue with the WRC is the combination of rallies. There is no secret that I would prefer a mix of ‘classics’ and ‘newbies’ over a given period of time – say, three years. This would cement the status of the traditional events as well as give new events a chance to defend their place in the calendar. Both Todt and FIA rally director Jarmo Mahonen expressed last year a desire to expand the calendar geographically.
Should that be the case, subject to approval from the manufacturers, there is however another issue that Todt and the FIA has evaded for a very long time: politics. In Formula 1 there had to be riots and loss of lives before something was done (and later undone) about the absurd descision to host a Grand Prix in a country where human rights were trampled upon. In less dramatic cases, the same logic applies in Turkey, one of the countries mentioned by Mahonen. Headed by a political administration that since 2016 has reversed many of its liberal reforms, closed down media and higher education institutions, and firing civil servants for nothing it does not offer the best of circumstances for an event governed by an institution that promise to live by the aim of the Olympic Charter: ‘to place sport at the service of the harmonious development of humankind, with a view to promoting a peaceful society concerned with the preservation of human dignity’.
Source: Hamel Alrayeh/Wikipedia Commons
Traditionally, FIA has claimed neutrality in all cases where politics and sport have intersected. The question is what Todt and his team will do, if he continues, when there are no more neutral zones to be found, or when this neutrality reinforces what it is supposed to avoid: brute state suppression of political dissent.