MEET NI­CO­LAS TODT

He’s played a part in Lewis Hamilton and Nico Ros­berg’s jour­neys to F1, and has man­aged tal­ents in­clud­ing Felipe Massa, the late Jules Bianchi, and fu­ture star Charles Le­clerc. And he’s still pick­ing out ex­cit­ing young driv­ers, even as teams try to mus­cle

F1 Racing (UK) - - CONTENTS - WORDS JAMES ROBERTS PIC­TURES : LORENZO BEL­LANCA

We catch up with the tal­ent-spot­ter and driver-man­ager ex­traor­di­naire

Whether it’s the turn of phrase or the man­ner­isms, there is an un­mis­tak­able sim­i­lar­ity be­tween Ni­co­las Todt and his fa­ther, Jean. But you’re less likely to bump into the for­mer-fer­rari-boss-turned-fia-pres­i­dent in the For­mula 1 pad­dock. Now it’s Ni­co­las who is a reg­u­lar pres­ence, help­ing to man­age some of the world’s top driv­ers.

For the past 14 sea­sons, Todt Jr has been work­ing with Felipe Massa. He guided him through his re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion back into F1 af­ter Massa was dropped by Sauber in his wild rookie year. He was also there dur­ing Massa’s oh-so-close world ti­tle cam­paign in 2008. And he was in the wings again dur­ing Felipe’s re­cov­ery from that near-fa­tal ac­ci­dent in Hun­gary a year later.

When GP2 was es­tab­lished as a feeder cat­e­gory to F1 in 2004, Todt en­tered a team with renowned ju­nior sin­gle-seater master Frédéric Vasseur. ART Grand Prix sub­se­quently won the first two cham­pi­onships with Nico Ros­berg and Lewis Hamilton. It’s clear, then, that Todt knows a thing or two about tal­ent-spot­ting.

“DRIV­ERS WITH­OUT A BUD­GET ARE OF­TEN THE MOST DE­TER­MINED TO SUC­CEED”

Since es­tab­lish­ing his com­pany, All Road Man­age­ment, Todt has worked tire­lessly to seek out the next wave of young tal­ent, with the aim of help­ing them reach their goal of F1. His most re­cent pro­tégé is on the verge of do­ing just that. Moné­gasque Charles Le­clerc clinched the For­mula 2 ti­tle in Oc­to­ber and is in the frame for a 2018 Sauber seat. But, as Todt ad­mits, the role of a driver-man­ager has changed since 2003.

“There are fewer man­agers to­day be­cause teams try to sign driv­ers much younger and put them di­rectly into their own schemes, such as the Red Bull, Mercedes and Fer­rari young driver pro­grammes. Apart from that, it’s even more dif­fi­cult to reach F1 now than it was in the past. To­day, a good driver can lose his seat be­cause another driver ar­rives with a lot more money.

“In the past, back-of-the grid teams were al­ways look­ing for spon­sor­ship, but now many more mid-grid teams are too. My job is harder; the chances of your driver get­ting to F1 are smaller – un­less you have a re­ally great driver.”

Back in 2002, the young Felipe Massa was a quick but some­what er­ratic driver, who was sub­se­quently dropped by Sauber at the end of the year. He moved to Fer­rari as a test driver and met Todt at the 2003 car launch.

“He told me that he needed some­one to help boost his ca­reer and ad­mit­ted that he had made mis­takes, but his tal­ent was ob­vi­ous,” says Todt. “He said that he needed some­one to help him and he asked me. At that time, Willi We­ber [for­merly Michael Schu­macher’s agent] was

the man­ager in For­mula 1 and he was known as ‘Mr 20 per cent’. I was only 26 and rel­a­tively in­ex­pe­ri­enced, but I agreed and started to help Felipe. I could see he had great po­ten­tial and, lit­tle by lit­tle, he worked his way back into For­mula 1 and moved over to Fer­rari.”

A cynic would counter that it was easy to land Massa a seat at Maranello, since Fer­rari was, at that time, be­ing run by Ni­co­las’s fa­ther, Jean. But that is to down­play both Felipe’s abil­i­ties – he was just one point and one cor­ner away from be­ing world cham­pion in that un­for­get­table 2008 show­down – and Ni­co­las’s own achieve­ments.

“My par­ents di­vorced when I was very young and in 1993, when I was 16, my fa­ther moved to Italy to join Fer­rari. I saw him at week­ends when I was at­tend­ing races,” says Todt Jr, who turned 40 this Novem­ber. “Hav­ing a dad who was suc­cess­ful and pow­er­ful def­i­nitely helped me en­ter this in­dus­try, but I doubt peo­ple make my life eas­ier be­cause of who he is. I lis­ten to his ad­vice and I’m ob­vi­ously ex­tremely proud of what he has achieved, but I don’t in­volve him in my pro­fes­sional life.”

This week­end, we’re speak­ing to the younger Todt at the Ritz-carl­ton Ho­tel in the cen­tre of Kuala Lumpur, since he’s at the Malaysian GP, look­ing af­ter the in­ter­ests of both Massa and Le­clerc. The day be­fore our meet­ing, Todt was in the Sauber garage (the team now run by his ART part­ner Vasseur) mon­i­tor­ing Le­clerc’s free prac­tice run­ning. You sense real am­bi­tion from Todt for his new charge, which, at its heart, has a strong emo­tional bond. For Le­clerc was dis­cov­ered by another driver he used to man­age: Jules Bianchi.

“Two years af­ter I started work­ing with Felipe, I was hunt­ing for the next up-and-com­ing star. I went to kart­ing tracks in Europe and spoke to

team own­ers and track own­ers, and nine times out of ten they pointed to Jules. This kid had some­thing spe­cial about him, so I asked to meet him and his dad, and soon af­ter that I be­came his man­ager.

“Jules had a best friend called Lorenzo Le­clerc. About six years ago, Jules called me to say I should take a look at Lorenzo’s younger brother. He was kart­ing and strug­gling to find money, but Jules was con­vinced he was the real deal. So I met Charles with his fa­ther; they came to my of­fice smartly dressed and told me about Charles’s ca­reer and said they had no more bud­get – they were stop­ping rac­ing and Charles was go­ing back to school. I told them: ‘I don’t know you very well, but Jules rates you very highly. So I’m go­ing to help you and I’m go­ing pay for you to fin­ish the sea­son. If you do a good job, then we will con­tinue.’ He was 13 then and he turned 20 in Oc­to­ber.

“I do help with fi­nanc­ing for driv­ers, but not very of­ten given the amounts re­quired. It’s not a char­ity, it’s about help­ing those with the most po­ten­tial who don’t have the bud­get. And, you know, of­ten those with­out a bud­get are the hun­gri­est and the most de­ter­mined to suc­ceed.”

Just three years later, Le­clerc won the GP3 cham­pi­onship in 2016 with ART and fol­lowed that up by se­cur­ing the For­mula 2 ti­tle in his first year and, in the process, be­com­ing the youngest driver ever to do so. It was then that he suf­fered fur­ther tragedy. He was 17 when he lost his mentor, Jules, and this sum­mer his fa­ther died. Since then he’s raced with ‘Je t’aime Papa’ (‘I love you Dad’) em­bla­zoned on his hel­met.

“Charles has shone this year, de­spite over­com­ing some very dif­fi­cult mo­ments. Jules’ death two years ago was huge for him, as Jules was his hero. When Jules passed away it was a huge shock for us all. They were very close, their par­ents knew each other well, and it was a hor­ri­ble time. It’s never fair; Jules was a great driver, a great per­son who had a very bright fu­ture. It was re­ally hard to be­lieve for ev­ery­one.

“I re­mem­ber just a few months be­fore Suzuka, for the first time in his life Charles was able to pay the bills for him­self. He’d never had money be­fore, but he was start­ing to get a salary, and I was so proud for him when he bought his first car, a BMW M4. For him, it was a dream come true. Then, just a few weeks later, it turned into a night­mare. Ear­lier this year Charles’s fa­ther had be­come very ill. In Monaco his dad was very sick, but Charles still man­aged to put his car on pole po­si­tion. He asked peo­ple not to talk to him about it be­cause he said he needed to try to stay fo­cused. Many other peo­ple would have lost their fo­cus, but in Baku, two days af­ter his fa­ther’s death, he was on pole again and he won the race. It just shows how strong he is, men­tally: he didn’t feel the pres­sure.

“His mis­sion is to race, and I try to give him the best en­vi­ron­ment I pos­si­bly can. He never had to find one euro, I told him I’d worry about that. All I needed him to do was to fo­cus on his job and drive with a free mind. And what hap­pened with his dad has made him stronger.

“What I like about Charles is that he has a mis­sion. We lost Jules and it was very dif­fi­cult, but, in a way, given their con­nec­tion, there is con­ti­nu­ity with Charles, you know? There is a bit of Jules be­hind him.”

“EV­ERY­ONE NEEDS SUP­PORT, WHETHER AS A FRIEND, A FAM­ILY MEM­BER OR IN THE ROLE OF A MAN­AGER”

Todt’s All Road Man­age­ment looks af­ter five driv­ers and he tries to en­sure there is enough of a gen­er­a­tional gap so that none of his driv­ers are com­pet­ing with each other. While Felipe Massa is in the au­tumn of his ca­reer, he has spot­ted another young­ster in Brazil who is in the spring of his. Look out for 15-year-old Caio Collet in the fu­ture, tipped as ‘the next Senna’.

There’s more to manag­ing driv­ers than help­ing with fi­nance. There is also a psy­cho­log­i­cal el­e­ment, whether it’s help­ing those who have lost con­fi­dence or a loved one: putting an arm around their shoul­ders in a world that is ex­tremely com­pet­i­tive, pres­surised and dan­ger­ous, too.

“Ev­ery­one needs sup­port, whether as a friend, a fam­ily mem­ber or in the role of a man­ager,” says Todt. “I know my pres­ence is not go­ing to make the dif­fer­ence be­tween them se­cur­ing pole or not, but for a driver, they are happy to know there is some­one there for them.”

And, right on cue, Ni­co­las gets a text. “That’s Felipe, he’s wait­ing in the car out­side…” With that, he leaps up and heads down the es­ca­la­tor to join his old friend at the race track.

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