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.

Mario Andretti says Colton Herta could be next American star in F1

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Mario Andretti’s last Formula One victory is also the last by an American driver in more than 42 years on the international open-wheel road racing series.

If you had told Andretti that while he was celebrating on the Grand Prix of the Netherlands podium on Aug. 27, 1978 at the Vandzoort circuit, he wouldn’t have believed it.

“Absolutely not,” Andretti told Kyle Petty during the most recent “Coffee With Kyle” episode (video above). “It’s a shame. Somehow we have so much talent here, and either there’s no invitation or something there. But I think it’s time to give some of this young talent that, in my opinion, is absolutely capable.”

The Dutch GP was the last of Andretti’s 12 victories in F1 and came during his championship season. No one since has come close to matching his success in F1.

Mario Andretti drives his Lotus-Ford to victory in the 1978 Grand Prix of the Netherlands (Bernard Cahier/Getty Images).

Andretti’s son, Michael, took a full-time ride with McLaren in 1993 but left with three races remaining in a season marred by crashes and mechanical problems.

Scott Speed was the last American to run a full F1 season in 2006, and Alexander Rossi made the most recent F1 start by a U.S. driver in 2015. Rossi has said he has no desire to return to racing in Europe after winning the 2016 Indianapolis 500 and becoming an IndyCar championship contender.

But Mario Andretti believes Andretti Autosport has another rising star with F1-caliber ability.

“Colton Herta is one that comes to mind,” Mario Andretti said. “As a young lad, his dad sent him to Europe, he was doing Formula 3, and he knows most of the circuits there. He’s trained. He’s showed in his rookie season and won some premium races at COTA (and Laguna Seca), beat two of the very best Indy has to offer (in) Will Power and Scott Dixon.

“This is one kid I’d love to see him get a break over there to fly the U.S. colors again.”

Herta, 20, seems interested in exploring an F1 leap over the next few years. After winning Sept. 13 at Mid-Ohio from the pole position (his third career victory in the NTT IndyCar Series), the No. 88 Dallara-Honda driver is ranked fourth in the standings in his sophomore year and regarded as one of the series’ top prospects.

Herta recently told RACER.com “I’d love to give Formula 1 a crack” but said he also would be happy driving in IndyCar and IMSA.

A naturalized U.S. citizen who told Petty about spending several years with his family in an Italian refugee camp before coming to America, Mario Andretti said F1 brought an enormous sense of patriotic pride.

“Formula One is like the Olympics in a sense,” he said. “You’re in a different country, a different continent. When you earn that highest step of the podium, they play your national anthem. That’s when you take nothing for granted. You feel like I’m representing my country, and the proudest moments are those.

“I’d just like to see some other American drivers experience that. It’s time.”

Mario Andretti with four-time NASCAR champion Jeff Gordon and six-time Formula One champion Lewis Hamilton before the Nov. 22, 2015 season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway (Jared C. Tilton/NASCAR via Getty Images).

During the “Coffee With Kyle” conversation, Andretti also discussed:

–His versatility as a winner in IndyCar, sports cars, NASCAR and Formula One;

–His 1967 Daytona 500 victory and how he enjoyed racing with crew chief Jake Elder at the famed Holman-Moody team;

Mario Andretti Colton Herta
Mario Andretti and Kyle Petty saluted “The King” by wearing their Richard Petty-style hats during the latest “Coffee With Kyle” (NBCSN).

–Why he delayed his entry to F1 for a few years because of his earnings power in IndyCar. “I always say I’d race for free, but at the same time, you’re thinking of family and the future,” he said. “It was in the back of your mind that you can’t give up the earning power of IndyCar. That kept me from going full time in Formula One, but I always said that sometime in my career, I’d have to devote a period to Formula One.”

–On what it was like racing in an era when driver deaths were more prevalent. “If you’re going to do this, you’re not going to dwell on those negatives,” Andretti said. “There’s no way. You knew it was present. Especially in the ‘60s at the beginning of the season at the drivers meetings, you couldn’t help but look around and say, ‘I wonder who is not going to be here at the end of the season.’ We’d lose four to five guys. In ’64, we lost six guys.

“It’s something if you dwell on that, you’re going to take on a different profession. It’s a desire and love to want to drive that overcame all that and then the confidence it’s not going to happen to me. And then you pray.”

Watch the full “Coffee With Kyle” episode in the video above or by clicking here.

Mario Andretti looks on before the 103rd Indianapolis 500 on May 26, 2019 (Chris Graythen/Getty Images).