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NEW YORK -- With Formula 1 races beginning Sunday, Ferrari is seeking a return to prominence as it aims to field a World Drivers' Champion for the first time since 2007. CBS Sports spoke with Jean Todt, former CEO of Ferrari and long-time president of the FIA, about his hopes for Ferrari and the sport of racing as the season gets underway.

"I tried to be surrounded by the best and all the levels, all the levels from the bottom of the scale to the top of the scale and then tried to be a good leader and try to be an example for that," said Todt, the United Nations Special Envoy for Road Safety, in an exclusive conversation with CBS Sports.  

"When I joined Ferrari, the first of July 1993, it was kind of a damaged icon."

Todt and his team had to rebuild everything after failing to win the championship from 1997-99. The turning point for Ferrari came in 2000 as it as it won six of eight titles, primarily with Michael Schumacher behind the wheel, from 2000-07.

"In a way, that made a nice chapter in the history of motorsports and the history for Ferrari," Todt said.

He added: "When you are in Formula 1, you are in the kind of your little world where, I mean, it's about competition. It's about tough challenges and money."

Asked if new Ferrari chief Fred Vasseur is the right man to lead Ferrari racing giant back to greatness, Todt was hesitant to make a prediction. "Honestly, time will tell -- is the only thing I can say."

"I wish him the best luck, and you know, wish Ferrari the best luck," he continued. "We know that Ferrari need[s to be successful] for Formula 1, not only for them but because Ferrari is the magic name. Magic brand, iconic brand."

On Monday, Charles Leclerc took on the Abu Dhabi Circuit in Schumacher's legendary Ferrari F2002. The team is hoping to return to its winning ways with Leclerc at the helm and a talented team behind him.

Asked about his son, Nicolas, working with Leclerc, Todt says proudly, "Nicolas creates and develops talent."

As for his advice he offers racers?

"Never give up. Always follow what your heart [says] and your brain [creates] the ideas; if you have the right line aligned with integrity, loyalty, you will succeed."

Whether Ferrari will return to its stretch of dominance atop F1 remains to be seen. The Italian manufacturer got off to a rough start in Sunday's opening race, and reclaiming its spot atop the sport remains a tough task given the high level of competition.

"It was very difficult to become dominant," Todt said, "but it was as difficult to remain that way."

Road safety a concern at scale

In his role as U.N. Special Envoy for Road Safety, Todt spoke at the U.N. General Assembly last year, calling global deaths from road crashes around the world "a pandemic that's not been addressed." He said 1.4 million people are killed from road crashes and millions more are injured each year; it remains the leading cause of death for young people aged 15-29.

Sadly, those figures are only rising following the COVID-19 pandemic, he told CBS Sports before speaking at the New York French Founders Club on Thursday.

"He wants to use his expertise to share what he knows for a global good," said Simone Sfeir, co-general manager of the club.

"In the U.S. -- they published their numbers last week -- there has been an increase of more than 10%," Todt said.

With his racing past behind him, Todt explains he chose to take this path working with the U.N. as a way to give something back.

"That's why I wanted to make motor racing safer, and we want to make roads safer," he said. "A way to [take my] expertise of motor racing to apply it on the road. So, in a way for me, it has been a fascinating challenge to move from the adrenaline of the success in motorsport to try to make life easier and better for people because we see a lot of road accidents."

As one of the founders of ICM, a French institute that researches brain and spinal cord disorders, Todt continues to help advance studies. "I think we are number two in brain research in the world," he said.

Global power couple

Todt and long-time partner Michelle Yeoh have been together since 2004. The Malaysian actress is in the midst of a surge in her career as the star and an executive producer of "Everything Everywhere All at Once."

Yeoh recently won the Golden Globe for best actress in a motion picture (musical or comedy) and the Screen Actors Guild Award for outstanding performance by a female actor in a leading role. She also has an Academy Award nomination for best actress all while serving as a United Nations Development Goodwill Ambassador.

Todt is a more than a tad romantic about Yeoh.

"I've always loved to be surrounded by the best. And of course, in my private life, to be surrounded by somebody who is a privilege to be with," he said. "... Michelle is somebody with a lot of integrity, bigger humility."

Pamela Falk is CBS News correspondent based at the United Nations