Jean Todt will go down in history as Ferrari’s most decorated team principal – but the remarkable Frenchman revealed Michael Schumacher’s threat to quit spared him from being sacked.
Ferrari will take centre stage at home in Mugello this weekend as Formula One’s grandest team celebrate their 1,000th grand prix.
Sebastian Vettel and Charles Leclerc will run a one-off retro burgundy livery, the silver safety car has been given a red paint job and, ahead of Sunday’s race, Mick Schumacher, the son of Ferrari’s most successful driver, will complete a number of demonstration laps in the machine his father drove to a seventh and final world title 16 years ago.
The man behind Schumacher’s record-breaking five consecutive championships will also be here in Mugello – a track tucked away in the province of Tuscany, 25 miles outside of Florence.
Ferrari are currently mired in crisis but during the 14 years that Todt was in charge, the Prancing Horse galloped to 13 championships and 98 victories. Todt’s winning strike rate was nudging on 40 per cent, second only to Mercedes team principal Toto Wolff in the sport’s history.
However, it would have been different but for Schumacher’s intervention.
“It was during the 1996 season after we had a few retirements that there was pressure on me to leave,” explains Todt, 74.
“But Michael said ‘if Jean leaves I leave’. They did not want him to leave. They cared much less for me but Michael made his comments clear so I stayed.”
Todt had been sounded out by Ferrari after leading Peugeot, first in rallying and then to sports cars glory. He completed his move in the summer of 1993, weeks after heading a one-two-three finish for Peugeot at the iconic Le Mans 24 hours race.
“I was very surprised Ferrari wanted me,” continues Todt. “Ferrari always had an Italian leader.
“I was in a company where I was progressing and I knew I had a long-term future. It was a risk to go to Ferrari and the potential of being fired after just two years.”
Todt immediately set about transforming Ferrari – an organisation starved of a drivers’ champion since Jody Scheckter in 1979. Schumacher was at the top of his list and Todt made contact with the German’s management team in the months after he had controversially beaten Damon Hill to the 1994 championship.
“My first real meeting to discuss the contract was at the end of July 1995 in a Monte Carlo hotel,” he says. “I was there with Ferrari lawyer Henry Peter, Michael’s manager Willi Weber and Michael.
“We had to keep moving rooms because the hotel was full. Finally, we ended up at Michael’s apartment and that was where we signed the agreement for him to join Ferrari in 1996.”
British engineer Ross Brawn and South African designer Rory Byrne both followed Schumacher from Benetton to create Formula One’s dream team.
Schumacher won three races in his maiden year with Ferrari before he was thrown out of the championship in disgrace in 1997 after crashing into Jacques Villeneuve at the title decider in Jerez.
“His emotion did not allow him to become champion, but he protected me in 1996 so I protected him at this time,” adds Todt.
Then, in 2000, Ferrari’s 21-year wait for a champion was over after Schumacher triumphed in Japan.
Swivelling round on a leather chair in his office at the FIA’s Paris headquarters, Todt points to a photo of him hugging Schumacher on the Suzuka podium.
“I said to Michael that our lives would never be the same again,” says Todt. “It was the most important moment in my career at Ferrari. We were so eager to continue to have success we refocused very quickly. We wanted to win more.”
Four additional drivers’ and constructors’ titles followed in one of the most dominant periods the sport has ever seen.
“Michael was very talented, very committed, but he loved being close to the team,” added Todt of the German who has not been seen in public since his skiing accident in the French Alps nearly seven years ago.
“He played football with them, he invited them for pizza, he was loved because he was normal. And everything that has happened over the years has created a strong friendship with me which will last forever and beyond our time together at Ferrari.”
The struggling Scuderia head into their landmark race sixth in the constructors’ standings, a staggering 220 points behind Mercedes. Team principal Mattia Binotto is under pressure to reverse their fortunes.
“I have my private feelings about what is happening but it is something I cannot go public on,” Todt concludes. “I respect the level of the team they have, and I respect how difficult it is to be competitive.
“Mercedes have to be admired but the others have to kick their a*** to make a challenge. It is as simple as that.”