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
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.