Todt the small wonder in red resurgence

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JEAN TODT is to the Italian media what Alex Ferguson is to their British brethren. As the sporting director of a national institution - Ferrari - his every move is monitored minutely by critics who see no paradox in condemning him one moment and lauding him the next.

They call him Napoleon on account of his French nationality and diminutive stature, and like many small men Todt is one that you underrate at your peril. Michael Schumacher may be seen by the world as the man doing the winning for Ferrari, and aficionados may acknowledge the contributions made by the chief designer Rory Byrne and technical director Ross Brawn, but Todt's role in the resurgence is frequently overlooked altogether. Curiously, he seems to like it that way.

A former champion rally co- driver born in Pierrefont 52 years ago, Todt steered Citroen and Peugeot to successes in rallying and the World Sportscar Championship respectively before being headhunted by Ferrari in the middle of 1993. Since then he has turned the team around, quietly stamping out the disruptive polemics that seemed an intrinsic part of the emotionally turbulent life of the famous Scuderia, and moulding it into a far more calculating and harmonious team along the lines of its British rivals. Todt it was who pushed for the now ubiquitous V10 engine, for Schumacher, for Brawn and for Byrne.

"We now have a proper organisation," he said. "When you have that it is better to achieve what you want. People are working and talking together between the engine and chassis departments, so it makes possible a more comfortable situation for everybody."

Initially he mapped out a five-year plan to win the World Championship. Ferrari came within a whisker in 1997, but 1998 was to be the year. In February Gianni Agnelli, head of the Fiat empire which owns Ferrari, said bluntly: "If Michael Schumacher does not win the World Championship this year, it will be Ferrari's fault."

Todt is a mean poker player. Like all of the top teams, Ferrari considered switching from Goodyear to Bridgestone tyres for 1998, before McLaren beat them to it. That gave the British team an initial advantage, but now the pendulum has swung the other way. "Goodyear are strong, they don't give up, so I hope that we can show finally that we were right to respect our contract with them," he said. "It would be justice and logic, and at the end of the day that is where the satisfaction comes."

He conceded that the challenge has been tougher than expected. "But believe me, that gives you better memories for the future. When it is tough, you remember. That makes victory sweeter. If I look back five years, we were dreaming to finish a race and score one point. Now when we finish second or third, it's national disaster."

He said that he coped with the incessant aggravation from the Italian media simply by sitting in his office in Maranello, steadfastly trying to ignore it all. It isn't easy when people are demanding your head, but in Luca di Montezemolo, the architect of Ferrari's last golden summers in the Seventies and now company president, he has a boss who understands the pressures. In contrast, the McLaren chief Ron Dennis has an easy ride.

Besides Dennis, McLaren have the technical director Adrian Newey as their other prime strategist, whereas Ferrari have Todt and Brawn; where McLaren have the self-effacing chief designer Neil Oatley, Ferrari have the equally retiring Byrne. If McLaren still have the best car, Ferrari undoubtedly have the best driver, the best tyres, arguably the better team, and certainly the best reliability. Such factors may prove insuperable after the shock 1-2 victory the team scored at Monza last weekend in an Italian GP that had been billed as a McLaren cakewalk. Fittingly, it was the race at which Ferrari celebrated their 600th GP.

At Monza, Dennis and Todt did their best to play down the acrimony of their battle, and to rise above the fallout of the controversial collision in the Belgian GP between Schumacher and David Coulthard. "We tend to be so concentrated on the job that we are not really aware of the crowd around us here," Todt said glibly in response to questions about the likely behaviour of the tifosi and their response to Coulthard. Dennis, meanwhile, said: "We are pretty resilient to most things. In the circumstances in which we found ourselves it is natural for us to build a psychological wall around ourselves. We have to remain cool and calm"

At that same early stage of the weekend he also suggested that it would be more a case of McLaren losing the world title rather than Ferrari winning it, in a tone that reeked of self-confidence. But Schumacher's Jerichoan trumpet call demolished McLaren's psychological wall and destroyed that confidence as he drew level with Mika Hakkinen at the top of the championship table. Now the momentum is with Ferrari, and it is McLaren who look vulnerable. Unless McLaren hold their nerve, improve their strategic thinking, and get some significantly better tyres from Bridgestone for next Sunday's GP of Luxembourg, Dennis's throwaway comment may haunt him as a self-fulfilling prophecy.