Max Mosley’s actions several years ago continue to reverberate around Formula 1, as was well-illustrated last week with two of the biggest F1 news stories of recent years: Bernie Ecclestone will stand trial in a Munich court on a charge of bribery and Ron Dennis has staged a successful internal coup to wrest back control of the McLaren F1 team. Aside from their timing, what the back stories to those headlines also have in common is Max.
I sat in the Monaco press room back in 2000 as Max, almost as an aside, explained how he’d just leased out F1’s commercial rights to Bernie Ecclestone for a further 100 years once the then-current deal expired in 2010. He then moved onto how the FIA had helped research into the design of a safer helmet – then swiftly left.
I wasn’t actually in the press conference room, but rather in the press room alongside where the interview was being played on the TV screens, and had been only half-listening as I worked against a deadline on something else. I looked up and asked a colleague, ‘What did Max just say? It sounded like he said he’d extended the lease to Bernie by a hundred years.’
‘Yes, that’s what I thought he said,’ replied my colleague in the same tone of bemusement. We couldn’t have heard right, could we? Upon further investigation, yes we’d heard right. But not only did Max’s long-time close associate Bernie now have F1’s commercial rights until 2110, he’d acquired them for the sum of just $360 million (or less than one year’s F1 revenue and about one-and-a-half years’ of profit at the time). Or about as much as would cover NASCAR’s commercial rights for one year, not 100.
Twenty years earlier Max and Bernie had stood shoulder-to-shoulder in a war against the FIA for what were effectively the sport’s commercial rights. They’d failed to do it by force then. They’d succeeded by infiltration now, with Max as the FIA’s President and Bernie serving on its senate.
“Well, there were no other bidders,” said Max at the time. “I got a call from [then-Fiat boss] Mr. Cantarella, who was at that time in charge of GPWC [an alliance of car manufacturers then involved in F1]. He told me that they were interested. I said, sure, make a bid. If they were prepared to offer more, we would have been obliged to look at it. We had a meeting in June, where Cantarella told me that they were not able to make a decision before September.
“I then said to the World Council: ‘We have Bernie’s firm offer on the table, or we can wait until September and maybe the manufacturers will offer more, but we can’t be sure.’ We weren’t talking about a billion dollars a year for five years. If they had offered $400 million, Bernie would have either had to match it or we would have had to take it. The thing is, that they could not even agree to offer $400 million to buy all the rights from 2010 to infinity.”
There might have been other bidders – if the outside world had known that the rights were potentially for sale at this time. But putting that troubling, trifling point aside, it’s what Bernie then did with those rights that led to where he is now: in the dock.
Max Mosley’s career
1969-77: Co-founder and commercial director of March Engineering
1974-82: Co-founder of Formula One Constructors’ Association (FOCA)
1986-91: President of Fédération Internationale du Sport Automobile (FISA) Manufacturers’ Commission
1991-93: President of FISA
1993-09: President of FIA
With his commercial rights secured indefinitely, he sold them at vast profit to a succession of banks and media companies before the current owners CVC, a private equity company, paid $2.5 billion for a controlling interest in the business in 2005. Pretty much every one of F1’s current ailments – on track and off – go back to that buy-out. The German court will decide whether or not Bernie used bribery to secure the sale to CVC, but whatever its verdict the sport and its fans have been left to pay the price.
Max agreeing it was a good idea to grant those rights for such a valuably long time has caused the sport to be financially raped ever since. Without that, there’d have been no need for the technical sterilisation of the sport (engine freezes, spec tyres, etc), the phoney ways of trying to please the new, less hardcore audiences or the ever-increasing presence of pay drivers on the grid – and more than half of the teams would not be in a financially perilous state.
One of those speaking out when the rights were originally transferred from the team collective FOCA (with Bernie at the helm) to Bernie’s own company FOM was Ron Dennis. Back in 1997 he was perceived as the ringleader of a dissent that played its part in the thwarting of a planned stock market floatation of the sport. From that moment on, Ron was watching his back.
He saw McLaren’s regular thwarting by the governing body on various technologies very much through that prism, felt that his team would never be granted leeway. And just because he was paranoid didn’t mean that ‘they’ weren’t out to get him. So there came a time when a disaffected ex-Ferrari employee gave McLaren’s chief designer very detailed plans of Ferrari’s 2007 car – and then the infamous Woking photocopier shop owner who decided he should put in a call to Ferrari’s Jean Todt (honestly, you couldn’t make it up could you?).
Ron knew Max would choose to get involved in this – and did he ever! One hundred million dollar fine (almost a third of the sum Bernie had needed to acquire F1’s rights for a century!), loss of all points (costing McLaren what would otherwise have been the 2007 Constructors’ Championship) and a suspended ban pending two years of future good conduct. All for an unproven case.
McLaren’s understandable paranoia then played its part in it tripping itself up again within the probation period with ‘Liegate’ – when Lewis Hamilton and the team’s sporting director Dave Ryan gave a false account to the stewards about an innocuous on-track incident at Melbourne 2009. Ron was certain this would be a perfect opportunity for Max to steer things in a way that hurt McLaren.
In fact, with the possibility of being banned from the championship the team’s very future was in doubt. Ron stood down, de-coupled himself from the team to allow it a better chance of survival – and it duly received a fairly soft punishment. But a few months later, with Max gone from his position of power… that’s when Ron began to appear at Grands Prix once more.
He hankered for control of ‘his’ team again – and it has taken this long for him to persuade the board that it’s a good idea. In a feature for the April issue of the magazine, we’ll be providing further detail and insight into that story of intrigue, betrayal and revenge.
Things were never dull with Max around, but the sport is struggling with the consequences still.
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