In The Driver's Seat

Paris terror comments show Todt may be unfit for office

FIA President Jean Todt speaks to the media during an event about Action for Road Safety.
FIA President Jean Todt speaks to the media during an event about Action for Road Safety.PHOTO: REUTERS

Formula 1 is an insular activity that is often accused of operating in a vacuum. In less sensitive political times, there used to be a joke that World War III could break out and if it happened on a grand prix weekend, the sport would find out only when teams left the track and discovered that airports were closed.

Last week's terror attacks in Paris shocked everyone in the Interlagos paddock, and there was widespread outrage. Suddenly, things such as Lewis Hamilton's minor road accident in Monaco the previous Tuesday rightly paled into insignificance.

A driver who, like everyone else in F1 right now was tired after the recent punishing travel schedule, had simply made a small mistake.

Now, after Friday's events, most F1 folk have reacted with instinctive sensitivity. Even Bernie Ecclestone, who sometimes suffers when his mischievous sense of humour is interpreted too literally, struck the perfect note when he said: "We live in a wicked world, with wicked people."

It was a time for statesmanship and humanity from the sport's leaders - to do and say the right thing to support those who died or were injured, and their families.

FIA president Jean Todt, a special envoy for road safety, was in Brazil not only for the grand prix but also for the second Global High-Level Conference on Road Safety in Brasilia tomorrow and on Thursday. The event will bring together over 1,500 participants from 150 countries, among them ministers from various governments and officials from UN agencies and NGOs. It was, of course, a key part of his programme, and had been planned for a long time.

But when he gave an interview with France's Canal+, Todt's preening political hauteur seduced him into a crass mis-step for which he was subsequently roundly vilified. His comment, "Do you realise that the number of people killed in road accidents is by far bigger than the number of people who died in Paris yesterday?" will surely haunt him forever. Incredibly, when offered the chance to reshoot it with more suitable comments, he allegedly declined.

It is well known that he is more interested in road safety than he is in motorsport, even though the latter has historically been the governing body's true bailiwick.

Worthy though it is, road safety is not part of the FIA's real role. Plenty of other organisations are much better-placed to address the issue and even if one does conclude that the FIA should be doing this, it might more appropriately be handled by the FIA Foundation.

But Todt's ambitions in this sphere led to him being appointed as an envoy to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon, notwithstanding obvious conflicts between the world of road safety and the fast and dangerous world of motorsport.

Besides being utterly insensitive and the wrong thing to say, it was also a petulant response from a man who apparently felt his own cause had been threatened.

Had he at least sent a message of support to his bewildered countrymen, it might have ameliorated his error. Instead, he compounded that by insisting that the intended minute's silence for road traffic victims would indeed go ahead on the grid prior to the race, leaving the Parisian victims to be acknowledged obliquely on the mid-morning parade lap until a little-publicised compromise was made at the 11th hour.

Campaigning about road deaths implies a deep-rooted sense of caring for humankind but many critics perceived an extraordinary disconnect between Todt's expressed support for road traffic victims and his refusal to do likewise for those who died at the hands of extremists. Inevitably, the backlash has led to questions about the Frenchman's suitability for his current office.

His predecessor Max Mosley survived the whipping scandal of 2008. It remains to be seen whether Todt can ultimately survive a fiasco of a very different and far more serious kind.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 17, 2015, with the headline 'Paris terror comments show Todt may be unfit for office '. Print Edition | Subscribe