Smith: FIA looks back to move forward at fourth annual Sport Conference

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The setting for last week’s fourth annual FIA Sport Conference in Turin was significant.

The Lingotto building is one many would not know by name, but anyone who has seen The Italian Job will recognize the iconic roof-top track featuring its pair of banked parabolic curves.

The building was famously Fiat’s factory and test facility until 1982. It has since become a shopping mall and conference centre, the latter welcoming senior motorsport figures from all over the world last week.

The theme of the conference was about looking back to move forwards, with a selection of speakers, debates and workshops taking place centring on this idea.

Current racers Sebastian Vettel and Lucas di Grassi were joined on stage by motorsport icons such as Alain Prost, Jacky Ickx and Emmanuele Pirro to discuss how they first became interested in racing, how their curiousity developed and ultimately led them to enjoy enormous success on-track.

The purpose of the conference was more than to just inform though. Delegates from over 150 nations representing motorsport federations came to learn and share ideas. As an example, a representative from Sri Lanka ventured to Turin to try and gain information on building a race circuit in a bid to try and develop motorsport in his country.

Steps such as these are important to FIA president Jean Todt as a method of encouraging mobility and planting the seed for motorsport in countries to which racing may be alien.

“Car racing and sport racing in particular are a passion. It is my passion, it is a world passion, and we are here in Italy – it is an Italian passion as well,” Todt said.

“I am particularly grateful having the opportunity to welcome all of the heads of the FIA members and managers. We are going to have 150 representatives of our national federations. The FIA is represented in more or less 150 countries. We have two main goals: first, we work to be the regulators and the law-making body in world sport racing, starting from go karts to Formula 1 to rally to WEC, all the disciplines. The second goal that we have is what we call mobility, the main goal of facilitating access to roads to all users, vehicles and pedestrians as well.

“Access to motorsport is very important. Of course not every country can have a Formula 1 race or touring car championship race. It’s very important. For me what is very important is to development motorsport. One week ago, on Tuesday, I was in Tibet in China, and I saw children willing to participate in a go-kart race.

“You are in your kind of Formula 1 ‘golden gate’, but there are a lot of people in developing countries who have never heard of Formula 1 because they don’t have access to Formula 1. We would like everyone to have access, but it starts by developing motorsport at the grass roots.

“If we develop motorsport at the grass roots, people will be aware of motorsport and will be interested in participating, and then some countries may have some interest to organise some races.”

The delegates were also able to talk with different companies with steeped histories in motorsport. Brembo’s Riccardo Cesarini was on hand to discuss brakes, the Italian company enjoying a significant role in the majority of top-line racing series. Giampaolo Dallara, the man behind Dallara chassis used in IndyCar, GP2 and GP3 among other series, was also present, as were noted Italian designers Georgette Giugiaro and Paolo Pininfarina.

The insights offered would have done much for nations looking to develop motorsport and get start a ladder that could lead the younger generations all the way up to the pinnacle of motorsport.

For four-time F1 champion Vettel, this kind of early exposure to motorsport played a crucial part in encouraging him to get racing as a kid.

“I guess as soon as I was stable enough with walking at three, three-and-a-half, the next Christmas I had a go-kart under the Christmas tree waiting for me. That’s how I started,” he explained. “At that time my father was racing, he was a massive Senna fan and a Michael Schumacher fan. So I got going. We started not having any idea. The first race I competed I was seven years old, and then from then onwards step by step. Then the cars got a bit bigger every time and every year. That’s how I got started when I was very young.”

Hailing from Germany, Vettel’s exposure and opportunities in racing as a kid would have been very different to a child growing up in a nation with little-to-no motorsport.

However, as explored by Angelo Sticchi Damiani, president of the Automobile Club d’Italia, delegates from countries with a desire to get racing can find common ground with those hailing from regions with more established motorsport scenes.

“I believe here we have all the right conditions to host the conference in Turin,” Damiani said. “Jean had a great intuition when he decided that it was about time to gather all the car associations in the world, to meet and talk about sports.

“We know sports federations come from completely different countries where the contexts are completely different, in political terms, from many many perspectives, there are many local features. We manage to gather here and find a common thread, a common denominator on ethics for instance. Jean believes that ethics is one of the key topics of his presidency.

“Together we have managed to find pools and issues which we all share as federations regardless of the context of where they work in their own country. This is extremely important and I think that Italy can help a lot because it is very relevant historically.”

The concept of looking back to move forward is particularly pertinent in Formula 1 at the moment. For 2017, a radical new set of technical regulations is set to make cars quicker, with the introduction of wider tires and more aggressive-looking cars being a plan to recapture some of the sport’s spirit that many felt has been lost in recent years. The balance between old and new races is also a challenge, with the continued uncertainty regarding the Italian Grand Prix at Monza being a particular talking point while in Turin.

The final panel at the conference offered a nod to the future, with e-sports, video games and online broadcasting all up for discussion. YouTube’s head of sport Tomos Grace spoke about the importance of online platforms to capture millennials and the younger generations, with TV viewing figures on the decline, while the development of e-sports through projects such as the Nissan-supported GT Academy helps to take motorsport to a much wider audience.

This balance of the old and the new is a careful one. However, it is one that the FIA struck very well in Turin. All present would have returned home more knowledgeable than they were when they arrived, while the spread of racing to the far reaches of the world continues.

And if we can get more and more kids from more and more countries becoming interested in cars and racing, the future of motorsport will remain very bright indeed.