By Kate Walker
One of the ironies of the ever-expanding F1 calendar is the way in which it highlights the vital importance of FIA president Jean Todt’s much-derided efforts to throw the Federation’s weight behind global improvements in road safety standards for motorists and pedestrians alike.
While Todt is often criticised by members of the F1 press corps for devoting much of his energy to the Action for Road Safety campaign at the expense of time spent glad-handing VIPs in the paddock, what those critics fail to take into account is that the Federation is a body responsible for much more than Formula One.
Over the years, Formula One has become the best-known of the FIA’s responsibilities on a global scale, but it is well worth remembering that the Federation was founded in 1904, nearly half a century before the first F1 grand prix at Silverstone in May 1950.
When the FIA was conceived (originally as the Association Internationale des Automobile Clubs Reconnus), its purview was to represent the interests of the then-nascent community of motorists. As motorsport both national and international grew in scope and presence, the AIACR decided to create an off-shoot organisation – the Commission Sportive Internationale – tasked with regulating international grand prix racing and setting the sporting calendar.
The CSI was formed in 1922, and it was only under Max Mosley in 1993 that FISA (which is what CSI became under Jean-Marie Balestre) was dissolved and the FIA brought the oversight of international motorsport back within the responsibilities of the Federation.
French regulations mean that the FIA is a non-profit organisation, and the money made from championship entry costs for teams and drivers alike must not be used to fill the Federation’s coffers, but by law must be used elsewhere. Todt has used his presidency to direct the FIA’s funding into the development of grassroots motorsport around the world, and to support campaigns including – but not limited to – the Action for Road Safety initiative.
While many have joked about the ’10 Golden Rules’ for road safety so publicised under Todt’s leadership, anyone experienced in road safety standards in many of the countries which have appeared on the F1 calendar over the years cannot deny that basic tenets such as ‘wear a seatbelt’ are in fact vital.
Motoring in India was always something of an adventure, with the locals not bound by traditional conventions such as direction of travel on a roundabout or motorways, and headlights apparently optional. Vehicle safety standards left something to be desired – one 20-minute journey from circuit to hotel necessitated three separate car swaps as each taxi broke down in turn – while goats and fridges were more common sights on motorbikes than drivers or passengers in crash helmets.
It is a similar scenario in China, where taxi drivers remove seat belt fittings as a matter of course despite an aggressive approach to merging into traffic at high speed and a laissez-faire attitude to signals and mirror use. Every journalist and photographer in the F1 press corps has half a dozen near-death stories from Shanghai cab rides, although I believe I am alone in having experienced a taxi driver so impaired of vision that he had to stop at every motorway exit in order to be able to read the directional signs.
Inside the rarefied confines of the paddock there is a tendency to assume that Formula One is the centre of the universe. In the world at large, however, F1 is a sport, a form of niche entertainment, a weekend divertissement.
When it comes to setting the Federation’s priorities, what rational individual can blame the FIA president for placing more importance on improving basic global road safety standards than on tending to Formula One? Those of us in countries safe enough that we can take for granted general adherence to rules of the road must not forget that we operate from a position of privilege not found across the globe.