Sir Jackie Stewart: Unstoppable Scot puts his foot down

The Brian Viner Interview: Votes are cast for the new FIA president today and Britain's most successful motor-racing driver is disgusted that the men currently in power – after presiding over an era of scandal – are trying to further the cause of their preferred successor. Even at 70, his beloved sport's tribulations still get him all revved up
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HRH Prince Feisal Al Hussein, Royal Hashemite Kingdom, Amman, Jordan

Your Royal Highness,

It is very unfortunate, but the campaign run by Ari Vatanen has been marked by untruthful claims (such as the false allegation that the FIA provided a private jet to take Jean Todt to Africa) and has now descended to insults such as his recent statement that the FIA is a "stagnant pool" which stinks and that the entire FIA system is unjust, autocratic and unfair.

Any thought that, after the election, everyone can unite and work together can now be forgotten. It is not possible to make outrageous and divisive statements like Vatanen's and then expect the victims of insults and untruths to forget what has been said. The simple fact is that Vatanen will lose the election and lose badly, not least because he chose to denigrate the FIA and those currently in office rather than run a constructive and civilised campaign.

Yours sincerely,

Max Mosley

It is, says Sir Jackie Stewart, "quite extraordinary" that Max Mosley's recent letter to Prince Feisal of Jordan, from which the above is a short extract, should so "aggressively" rubbish the former world rally champion Ari Vatanen's campaign, which Prince Feisal backs, to succeed Mosley as the president of the Fédération Internationale de l'Automobile.

The members of the FIA cast their votes for a new president today, and neither Mosley nor the Formula One commercial rights holder Bernie Ecclestone has left them in any doubt as to which man they want elected. Yet it is "totally unacceptable," adds Stewart, that the outgoing president should so vigorously endorse his favoured successor, the former team principal of Ferrari, Jean Todt. "Max is saying that for anyone who votes against Jean Todt there will be repercussions," he says. "The vote is supposedly a secret ballot, but people are still somewhat frightened of voting against the will of Max and Bernie. I feel that for some time now motor sport has been ruled by fear and threat, and that categorically has to change."

It was for these and other robust opinions about the way motor sport is run that Mosley two years ago called Stewart "a certified halfwit". That, says Stewart, was a reference to the acute dyslexia that dogged him as a child. "I have a registered disability and there is nothing I can do about that," he says. "At school I accepted that I was stupid, dumb. But I'm perfectly happy with the little bit of success I have achieved in my life." I oblige him with a chuckle. "And I've made much more money in business than I've ever done in sport."

For all his millions, though, he is a pauper next to Ecclestone, who operates from an office not a quarter of a mile from where we now sit. I am standing Stewart lunch in the elegant Park Restaurant at London's Mandarin Oriental Hotel, but he eschews the fancier dishes and asks for a plain tomato salad to start, followed by some grilled sole with mashed potato and carrots, accompanied – the waiter and I grimace – by Coca-Cola.

Despite the fame and fortune yielded by three world championships and ownership of his own racing team (which he sold 10 years ago to Ford for a nice round £100m) , the dapper little 70-year-old Scotsman is a man of simple tastes. And he would like simplicity to be the guiding spirit in the way motor sport is run.

"Bernie and Max have created such a power base for themselves, they have such influence, whether financial or regulatory, that it is simply not healthy for the long-term stability of the sport. One of my biggest concerns is that there is no consistency of penalties issued by the FIA. How could they justify a $100m [£60m] fine [imposed on McLaren for allegedly spying on Ferrari] for something not actually proven, and certainly not in a civil court of law? That's the largest fine in the history of sport. Never in the NFL, in baseball, in the Premier League, in golf or tennis, has there been a $100m fine. Yet Renault, on the other hand, were told they were guilty of the Crashgate scandal, for what is claimed to be the largest scandal ever in sport, never mind motor racing, and received no financial penalty at all?"

Stewart takes his indignation out on a tomato, spearing it with feeling. "I have heard of drivers crashing into other drivers to win championships. Michael Schumacher did it on two occasions. But here we have a driver [Nelson Picquet Jnr] accepting responsibility for crashing into a concrete wall. "How can there be no financial penalty? That's a hideously serious offence. I've talked to Niki Lauda, to Damon Hill, to Stirling Moss, nobody's ever heard of something like that."

For Stewart, moreover, perhaps above all the others, the notion of deliberately crashing into a wall is a downright obscenity. In his 11 years as a racing driver no fewer than 57 of his friends and rivals perished, and his tireless campaigning for improved safety standards is one of the reasons why there have been no fatalities since Ayrton Senna died at Imola. He looks at his watch. "We are 15 years, six months and one day since a grand prix driver died in a car," he says. "Amazing. In 1968 Jim Clark died on 7 April, and Mike Spence exactly a month later. It was like clockwork."

There are those even within the sport, however, who suggest that, with so many safety precautions, some of the derring-do has been lost to Formula One. Unsurprisingly, that cuts no ice with the world champion of 1969, 1971 and 1973. "The sport is so fantastic," he says, "so globally successful, with a better crop of young drivers than I've ever seen since I followed it as a kid, back in the days of Fangio. When you think of Lewis Hamilton, Jenson Button, Barrichello, Vettel, Massa, Raikkonen, Alonso, Webber, there's eight marvellous drivers who would have been marvellous in any era.

"Yet we are bringing no credit on ourselves with these scandals. And it's not just the two I've mentioned. There's Max's scandal [the revelation of his sado-masochistic sex life], which he would say is his own business and if that's his preference, fine. But it was another dent in the reputation of motor sport, and had he been the CEO of any public company he couldn't possibly have stayed. It would not have been a case anywhere else of even having a vote of confidence."

Clearly, the sado-masochism business can be laid squarely at Mosley's feet, or other parts of his anatomy. But is it fair to blame him and Ecclestone for the sport's other recent tribulations? "Not directly, no. But Max has been in charge of the FIA for 16 years, unpaid, and it should clearly be run by full-time professionals. Max gave Bernie a 20-year contract for the commercial rights, which then extended to 100 years, and the price paid was really not very much at all.

"Now, at the time Kerry Packer was still alive. So was Mark McCormack. Rupert Murdoch. Yet no other bidders were allowed. Don't you think the money would have been much greater had there been an auction with four players rather than one?" Stewart pauses to consider a plate of immaculately grilled sole. "I don't know anyone who's made more money out of sport than Bernie has," he continues. "By the way, he has made other people rich, and I'm one of them. I'm not suffering from anything I can blame Bernie for, but the governance of the sport has to change. He knows that's what I think.

"I went to see him in Singapore. I told him that I was going to say publicly that it was wrong for him to support Jean Todt. He said, 'That's rubbish, why?' I said, 'Because you're the most powerful man in the sport.' No, I get on well with Bernie. I've known him since 1964, we have many mutual friends, and there aren't that many things we're opposed on. I'm sure he approves of what I did concerning safety. After all, one of his best friends died, Jochen Rindt, and it needn't have happened. But I don't agree with everything he does."

So much for business off the track; what of the business on it? Stewart was among those who advised Ross Brawn to start Brawn GP, and was duly delighted to see the fledgling team land the drivers' and the constructors' championships. "It's fantastic," he says. "What that whole team have done is a great example of how you can make things happen."

He's not a bad example himself. A well-known mover and shaker in sport recently told me that he doesn't know anyone better connected than Jackie Stewart. If you want shoes made, or your eyes lasered, he'll always knows the best man for the job.

He smiles when I mention this. "Perhaps, but it's not just a question of reputation," he says. "Reputation is based on the past. If I was going to have open-heart surgery I wouldn't have chosen, in his last years, Christian Barnard. Look at Sebastian Vettel, 22 years old, winning this year's Japanese Grand Prix. You'll never see a more complete drive."

His own most complete drive came at the Nürburgring in that ill-fated year of 1968, when he won by four minutes in rain and fog. "I always thought the others were better than me," he says. "It was something to do with the learning problems I'd had. But it's not a bad philosophy, because once you think you're the cat's pyjamas, your focus goes.

"I still don't know how I won that German Grand Prix. I think in any walk of life you have what God gives you, and then it's how you manipulate, manicure and massage that to a higher level." Massage, manipulate and manicure? For a dyslexic, I venture, that's stylishly put. "Oh, I don't think that's uncommon among dyslexics. Why was Churchill such a good orator? Because he was dyslexic. The dropping of an iron curtain over Europe, you can't get a more graphic image. I have to colour the picture so vividly that there's no risk of you not understanding me."

There has, for an absorbing couple of hours, been no risk of that at all.

FIA ballot: The race for president

Two rally drivers go head-to-head today in an election, which has been dogged by controversy and acrimony, to determine who will run Formula One

Jean Todt

One of the most controversial reigns of any sporting president comes to an end today, when an election in Paris will select either Jean Todt or Ari Vatanen as Max Mosley's successor as head of the Fédération Internationale de l'Automobile (FIA). Todt, 63, born in Pierrefort, France, is a former rally co-driver better known for his management of the Peugeot sportscar and Ferrari Formula One teams, which won multiple championship titles.

Todt has built his manifesto around the credo of teamwork, and his insistence on taking the sport forward with consensus rather than the confrontation that was Mosley's style. However, the Formula One teams are concerned that the outcome has already been decided and that the Frenchman will prove to be an evolution of Mosley, especially given his "win at all costs" mentality when he worked with Michael Schumacher during Ferrari's dominance early this decade.

Ari Vatanen

Ari Vatanen, 57, was born in Tuupovaara, Finland. In 1981 he won the world rally championship, and became a born-again Christian following a near-fatal accident in Argentina in 1985. Upon retirement from driving he was elected to the European Parliament by the Finnish National Coalition Party in 1999.

Vatanen pledges to rebuild the FIA's battered credibility by involving all parties in the discussion process, while campaigning on behalf of the car's place in modern society. Vatanen's detractors criticise his naivete and lack of political experience. Recently Vatanen sought legal assistance to change the voting process to ensure the ballot remained secret.

Jordan's influential Prince Feisal recently criticised Mosley's overt support of Todt, while Jack Wavamunno, president of the Federation of Motor Sports Clubs of Uganda, was angered by pressure to vote the "right" way.

David Tremayne