When is a World Champion not a World Champion?

Screenshots of George Lazenby as James Bond aside, photos of men in tuxedos don’t generally make me angry. The image that’s been circulating of FIA President Jean Todt with the world’s motor sport champions at an annual awards ceremony, however, really got my back up. The reason being that someone fundamental is missing from it.

In case you haven’t seen it, it’s a relaxed shot of the former Peugeot Sport and Ferrari head honcho surrounded by the winners of the various FIA world championships. Sebastian Vettel is there, minus the finger, are is World Touring Car victor Yvan Muller and the two FIA GT1 champions. There’s even a young lad who took the karting spoils, complete with a wee dinner suit. All are clutching their trophies and beaming a little drunkenly (well, hopefully not the kid) at the camera.

Now I know what you’re thinking. You think I’m going to say the World Rally Champion wasn’t in the picture and that it was a complete farce. Well, you’re not right, but you’re not far wrong either. Sébastien Loeb was in the shot, right next to Todt and proudly showing off the trophy he’d deservedly won for the seventh time. Missing, however, was Loeb’s co-driver Daniel Elena, a man who plays a crucial role in guiding the lead Citroen C4 WRC through the stages at speed.

“FIA President Jean Todt with the 2010 FIA World Champions,” reads the caption under the photo, which can be viewed on the official Formula 1 website. “FIA World Rally Championship – Driver: Sébastien Loeb (FRA) – Co-Driver: Daniel Elena (MCO)” states the official list of prize winners, up for all to see on the FIA site. Now, does this or does this not mean that Daniel Elena is an FIA World Champion competitor? Why, then, is he not in the photo? Captioning the image “Jean Todt with the 2010 FIA World Champion Drivers” would be correct, but to use the definite article as if all the World Champions were in the picture is in my opinion downright wrong. And yes, I did check to see if Daniel Elena was at the ceremony – he’s in another photo with Loeb, Citroen boss Olivier Quesnel and a C4 posing with the trophies his team won.

I admit the counter argument could be that Loeb is so good that he could have won the world title with any one of a number of co-drivers, whereas the input of Daniel Elena alone perhaps couldn’t have raised a lesser driver to world champion level. But that’s not the point. My gripe here is that when the car is out on the stages, going flat out, there are two people in it whose input is vital to the crew’s success. Each has different tasks to do, and whilst the guy or girl in the left-hand seat is ultimately responsible for the controls that make the vehicle start, stop, go and turn, all that effort is in vain if the person on the other side of the car isn’t giving accurate instructions about how to make the vehicle respond to the terrain ahead.

When you put it like that, it might seem like the co-driver’s role is not dissimilar to an F1 race engineer who talks to the driver from the pit wall, sending soothing instructions across the airwaves about when to change gear, how to adjust the downforce and what to do to save rubber. These engineers might not have final control over the instruments that make the car do its most basic functions, but without them the drivers are nothing. It could be argued, therefore, that if a co-driver gets to stand alongside a rally driver as a World Champion, then so the race engineers should be up there with the Hamiltons, Vettels and Alonsos. You could go on and on following that logic, including more and more people without whom the driver might not have won without. Mechanics? Tyre fitters? PR people?

A co-driver is different to all of these though. A co-driver wears a suit and a helmet just like the driver’s. A co-driver feels every crest, jump and bump of every stage through their very bones. A co-driver takes the full force of the raw emotional and physical pain when things go wrong. In short, the co-driver is out there in the arena, and is just as much a physical embodiment of the whole team’s hard work as the driver. And that, people, is why I feel excluding Daniel Elena from the photo of the FIA ‘World Champions’ is a massive insult to the work of the co-driver and to the whole culture of rallying. Let’s hope that as well as getting the co-driver’s name back on the rear window of the car, we can get the co-driver back up on stage to share the applause with the other equally worthy world motor sport champions.

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