Getting a grip

After the bloody arguments and acrimony of 1994, resident Max Mosley quietly confident that the FIA has the thorny subject of policing the F1 regulations under much tighter control for '95

Not so long ago, when I was discussing the subject matter for the Delirium Tremens column in this issue, one team owner remarked, of FIA President Max Mosley: "In his first year as President he left well enough alone; in the second he eventually outlawed active suspension and various electronics systems to make racing more affordable for everyone, which was a step in the right direction; but in the third year he had forgotten all that and set motorsport back on another expensive course again with a knee-jerk reaction to the accidents in Imola and Monaco. A President should be consistent in his actions. If he isn't, then he's a poor politician, and being President of the FIA is a political post."

As Mosley, a man very sensitive to political situations, goes into his fourth year and Formula One looks desperately for an even season after the horror and acrimony of 1994 how does he react to such pointed comments?

”I think that's inaccurate," he counters with the customary smoothness which suggests that, no matter what else he is, he is a consummate politician. "First of all the original thought was that Formula One was working very well and that it was about the one area where there was not much to do. It became apparent during my first year that there was a major problem with electronics, both in the area of costs and from the point of view of the whole future of motor racing.

"With electronics there were two big problems. One was that the rate of development and the direction of development was such that driver functions were being eliminated one by one. And the other was that the small teams would be completely incapable of following, so you'd just get a split. And a lot of people, very sensible people, early in 1992, were pushing for something to be done. And some of the drivers, notably Senna. So we then started looking at that very carefully, so by the beginning of 1993 there were rules then in place or being put in place to solve those problems.

"As far as '94 is concerned, on that front the only matter of consequence was whether we could enforce the regulations. At that stage the conventional wisdom among some of the teams was that we couldn't. I think it's now generally acknowledged that we can... And that we are able to check whether the rules are being complied with or not. As far as the Monaco changes were concerned, those changes were the minimum needed to keep Formula One at its present level in the sense of maintaining the participation of the big companies, both from the automobile business and outside. We got very, very close, once we had the next major accident, at Monaco, to seeing the elements on the Boards of these companies who are against motorsport – and there always is such an element – gaining a majority. It was necessary to demonstrate that we were in control and to react very quickly. And of course it was always obvious that if the teams came along with something that achieved the same result in a way that was more convenient to them, this was entirely unobjectionable. All we were trying to do was achieve certain results. And we said that right from the beginning. I think we had an amount of unnecessary controversy, but there was no knee-jerk reaction. In fact in the early stages, I was probably, as much as anyone, the one who was saying we mustn't overreact. We only got into a position where we had to react when it became clear that the whole basis of Formula One was under threat."

Mosley insists that he had several manufacturers and large sponsors making uncomfortable noises about their motorsport futures.

"Everyone was saying they were very anxious and were coming under pressure from other elements on their Boards. From virtually all of them the message was coming that this was beginning to be a very serious situation. Backed up by an interesting phenomenon which was that we started getting applications, on the Thursday evening in Monaco, from political journalists in Paris, Rome, places like that, who had no interest in the racing at all. It was becoming the great attack on Formula One. We had 80 MPs who signed a motion in the Italian Parliament, that Formula One should be banned in Italy. We had the beginnings of trouble in Brussels and similar reactions in other countries. A groundswell questioning whether Formula One should be allowed. Whether we really knew what we were doing and were in control. Because although we all knew that such events could happen at any time, and that the only odd thing was that we got so many in one weekend, everyone else, even quite intelligent people outside, were saying: 'You've had five serious accidents at Imola, there must be a connection, there must be a common factor.' And we know there wasn't, and one can demonstrate that quite easily, of course, but that was the conventional wisdom outside." It was, as we all remember only too well, a time when everybody had an opinion about Formula One, no matter what their level of interest and understanding. It became very fashionable for people who don't know about Formula One to have strong opinions. "That's the price you pay for having a very high public profile, which of course Formula One does," says Mosley, adding smoothly, "And generally the less they know, the stronger the opinion.

"One has to remember that these big political problems are very seldom rational. And the discussion and debate is very seldom rational. But in fact our reaction, which was to slow the cars down and to start changing the circuits and to look at a big increase in passive safety, was entirely rational because anything you can do in the direction of safety is good. So it was obviously the right thing to do."

Much of the criticism Mosley and the FIA have received of late has come from the smaller teams which say they are operating under 'unbearable conditions' to get their new cars built in time (see Delirium Tremens), though in the FIA's favour it is evident that they all knew what was coming because the regulations were not introduced overnight.

"I sometimes wonder whether they think these things through properly in the beginning," says Mosley, picking words with care. "You see, we brought in various changes, then came the reaction: 'We can't do this, we can do that.' There was a certain amount of wheeling and dealing. In the end a set of measures, finishing with certain things for 1995, was agreed and signed by everybody. And so you would assume that before they agreed they would have given it some thought. The problem with everything to do with racing cars is that I don't think there's ever been a racing car where someone hasn't worked all night to build it. They're never really on time. If the first race was the first of May..." Nevertheless, even the better teams believe this is the worst winter they've ever experienced in build terms, and for sure the situation is one of the most significant factors in the slow death of Team Lotus.

"Originally those ideas were put forward for Hockenheim, and some of the teams who are now complaining actually said they could do them for Hockenheim if they had to. Only the leading ones, admittedly."

One or two of the smaller teams recently mooted the idea of the FIA granting a waiver for the first two or three races so they could run their old chassis with 1995 aerodynamics but 1994 cockpit and chassis regulations, just to ease the situation. Mosley has heard the talk but no official approach has been made. "The problem with something like that now is that those who've done the work probably wouldn't agree. The time to have done that was at the planning phase. This was all being discussed last July. Within reason we would agree with anything. It's up to them to suggest it." And to suggest it in time.

"Ye-ess. It's no good coming along three-quarters of the way through and saying we're not going to be able to manage, when half of them probably can. You see, in the end, the truth of it is that the FIA doesn't really make the rules in Formula One. The people who make the rules in the end are the teams. That's partly because of the Concorde Agreement and partly how the whole system works. And partly how the season unfolds."

In its way it is no different to people who ask for a detailed forward planning feature list for Motor Sport, when the truth is that it needs to be wholly flexible to reflect the up-to-the-moment occurrences during the year.

"The two catalysts are events, and the FIA and its reaction to events, but the actual rules are usually written by the teams and the date on which they come in is certainly agreed by the teams. There's nothing that hasn't been agreed. So, it's up to them. All we do, really, our big function, is to enforce the rules."

The Lotus situation is one that Mosley views dispassionately, the death throes of a once great team apparently causing him little anguish from a historical sense. He says the demise of such marques is worrying, and an indication that while the economy in general is picking up, the recession is still present in Formula One itself.

"It's quite easy to understand, in that when the recession starts there are contracts in place and the recession won't affect them at the time until those contracts run out, and generally speaking the better the team the longer term the contract and the longer it takes. And equally when the world as a whole starts to come out of a recession, one of the last things that big companies are going to do is start signing up big contracts for Formula One. So, it is worrying. One the other hand we get new teams as old ones go."

Forti, one suggests, is not quite what one had in mind as a replacement for a team such as Lotus, and Mosley has the grace not to demur with the point. "Absolutely, but you see, again, a team like Lotus... there are obviously reasons why they can't get the money but in the end they haven't got enough money to go racing. That's still the fundamental problem. And if they go, it's because of that. I mean, we've lost teams since the beginning of time. We lost Alfa Romeo, we lost Maserati, we lost Cooper, we lost BRM. Great teams come and great teams go. It's very sad, but that's how it is. They depend on sponsorship, and if they don't get the sponsorship, they're out. There's nothing we can do about it..."

One team owner raised a valid point when he remarked of the current difficulty in building cars in time: "The problem could crack F1's infrastructure, and the FIA should be safeguarding that. Some teams are geared to short timescales; McLaren, for example, is the best at getting its cars built in a very short time. But this is the toughest winter our team has ever known, because of the way the cockpit regulations have made every car obsolete and the early date of the first race. It's really not helpful and I don't believe that the FIA has given due consideration to the lead times and the imposition it puts constructors under. It should bear in mind its role in protecting the structure of the sport."

"The only thing we can do is try and keep the costs under control," Mosley continues blithely, "but in the end the cost level is determined by the amount of sponsorship the most successful teams can get. And that will establish a level, and if you've got less money you'll have less performance. I think, if anything, the miraculous thing is how close it is. If you look at the grid times at Suzuka, it's roughly a 100 second lap and you've got three seconds covering the first 20 cars, that's three percent. You'd be pushed to find 20 100 metre sprinters in the world that you could compress into three percent. But it is actually when you take into account that it is man and machine, and team and technology and funding that you realise it is amazingly close. But you will lose the odd one, and if it's a famous team it's a tragedy. But that is the market."

As the conversation turns to rule enforcement and one mentions deliberately without throwing it back in his face the threat that he made this time last year of 'Draconian penalties' for any team found transgressing the regulations. Mosley smiles wryly, doubtless wondering at what point the discussion would get round to that thorny subject. Few observers saw any sign of such penalties, only the threats.

"Well, you see, it's interesting that you say that," he counters gently. "What was actually said at the famous lunch was that there would be Draconian penalties because if we caught somebody, they would be deliberately cheating. And we did not actually catch anyone..."

What about Ferrari, with its engine modulation at TI Circuit Aida, where the FIA's Technical Delegate Charlie Whiting clearly thought the Italian team was cheating?

"I don't think they were cheating. I think if you actually took Ferrari and what they did there, and debated it, there's a very strong case for saying it wasn't a breach of the rules. Where everyone up to now who's been caught take McLaren, take Benetton and so on their defence has been that what we honestly and sincerely believe is that what we were doing was within the rules." As Mandy Rice-Davies might have said, they would say that, wouldn't they?

"And you see, in McLaren's case we had not clearly told them that an automatic upchange was outside the rules. In our minds it was obviously outside..." But surely, at the beginning of the year the idea was that anyone who had anything about which there was doubt had to present it to the FIA for clarification?

"They do now. But we brought that in at the beginning of September. We've now, I think, nailed it down so it starts to be very very difficult, but it was only really at Monza."

Those whose job it is to cover Formula One, and those who take pleasure from watching it as paying spectators or television viewers, all want to be sure in 1995 that what they are seeing is real and owes nothing to artifice or rule bending, and those who write about it don't want any more of the sneaking feeling that some are cheating and laughing at those who can't prove it. What hope does Mosley hold out that there really will be a kosher deal?

''Well, it is interesting because I think our function is to be able to look Team B in the eye and say, 'Don't worry, Team C are not cheating.' There's a potential row going on at the moment because some of the teams are still reluctant to hand over all the details of all their chips because they belong to other people, which I can entirely understand, but from our point of view if we can't check it we're not going to let it in the race. Because if we can't look at something we can't look Team B in the eye, so were going to insist on looking at everything that we want to check. I think we have upgraded the level of looking in the three key areas, which are the electronics, the fuel and the, how shall we say, mobility of the bodywork." Last year there were suggestions that one team in particular got a downforce benefit from a floor whose outer edges sagged just a little at speed. "Now those three areas are the keys, though we've got one or two others which I'm not going to mention because the people concerned may not realise we are looking at them." Mosley chuckles. "The thing is, if we can't do that, we're failing in our job." That's the price of playing the game, and the FIA is like a referee deciding to strip-search all of the players in a lucrative championship poker game just to make sure they're not concealing any extra cards. "If it were to come to a big conflict over it," he pledges, "we won't give in. We cannot give in. Otherwise, where does it stop? You say, 'Well, sorry, you can't look at this shock absorber because it's got a secret new damping valve system. We can't open it up. You'll just have to take our word for it, it's not radio-controlled, not active.' You can't do that. The only things we don't have to check are things where there are no rules. For example, we don't have to check suspension geometry."

In Adelaide there were suggestions of an FIA onboard black box which would monitor every car's individual functions minutely, a spy-on-the-car that would record every electronic detail of its performance. But that now seems unlikely, at least in 1995. "It might come to that, but I think maybe we've even moved beyond that, because if we can know what all their different electronic systems are doing, then we don't need the double check. There are other external checks that we can run, but the amount of resources you'd need to achieve that black box, would be enormous. We'd need a great many more people to check all of the time."

That's one of the big problems the FIA faces. Teams have up to 200 people, and many of them have the simple day in, day out function to come up with ways of achieving things the rules try to prohibit, while staying within their framework. And there are 13 or more teams doing it to a greater or lesser extent. "But on the other hand," Mosley says gleefully, "we've got powers to look. It's rather like the customs at the airport, they've got a small number of people for the number of passengers, but they've got a lot of power and they've also got a lot of information."

In 1995 the FIA will have a mobile fuel analysis system, and something similar on-site for checking electronic systems. In principle, he avers, it ought to be able to know if each car is legal or not. "Because of the investigations that have been done beforehand, rather like with the fuel. All we do at the circuit is to make sure that Fuel A and Fuel B are the same. We checked Fuel A before, and its an analagous system with the electronics."

In a sense the FIA was unlucky in 1994, for it felt that it had the means to detect naughtiness when the teams didn't think it had, and planned to seize the first three cars at Imola for tests. But then the Senna and Ratzenberger tragedies overshadowed everything and suddenly there was a battle to be fought on a different front as the world's press began to turn the spotlight on the sport. "That led to the one major error that we made, which was giving back the electronic data boxes before we'd really gone into them, and that would never have happened had it not been for the accidents. All the investigations got put on the back burner. And that was bad from our point of view, but also from the teams'. If you look at it from Benetton's point of view, had we kept the box and investigated it in detail, there would have been no question, we'd have known one way or another, and that sort of suspicion that there was wouldn't have arisen. So it was unfortunate from every point of view. The actual plan was great. There would only have been the arguments about the source codes. We would just have been able to say give us the codes or the stewards won't let you out of the pit road at the next race. But it's difficult to do that when the whole world's on top of you over Senna. I don't want that to sound like an excuse, but that's what happened."

Mosley is confident, too, that enormous progress is being made by Professor Sid Watkins' safety investigation group, which has concentrated its efforts on passive safety. "It's the first time there's been a really scientific look at this, and what's so interesting is that you start to see things. For example, you take the height of the cockpit side, then you take the foam, and you find using dummies in proper scientific tests, that there is a complex relationship between the height of the side, the thickness of the foam, the type of the foam, and the maximum loading on the driver's head in an accident. And you can drop the peak right down by getting all the dimensions right, but it's painstaking scientific work. That's just one small example, and there are so many areas they are looking at. And I think when they have finished we are going to have an enormous step forward in safety. There may even be things in there that apply to road cars, and because we also have a lot of discussions in Brussels on roadcar safety, there are probably going to start to be links between all these things more and more, because it's all very relevant. If you look at it from a roadcar point of view, if you want to know what happens in an accident you'd have to instrument thousands of cars, whereas if you come into racing you don't have to instrument very many to get a lot of results because you know there will be accidents.

"I think, in a way, one could say why wasn't all that done before, but the answer really is that the culture in Formula One before the accidents was fairly hostile to any substantial improvements for safety. People would go along with it if you said, 'Well should we put the crash test speed up slightly,' but reluctantly, and you were always up against the argument that for all practical purposes accidents with injuries had been limited. There hadn't been a death for 12 years." Eight, really, because so many forget Elio de Angelis' testing accident at Paul Ricard in 1986, and remember only Riccardo Paletti at Montreal four years earlier. Now there is worldwide cooperation, from safety bodies, drivers and teams.

"It's come from a basis of having five very good people," Mosley stresses. "Sid Watkins is obviously very scientifically minded, Harvey Postlethwaite very experienced, Roland Bruynseraede has always done the FIA's side of safety, Gerhard Berger's a very sensible, rational, experienced driver, and Charlie Whiting has worked in it really all his life. That's a pretty formidable team and the results, I think, are going to be pretty spectacular."

So spectacular, that Mosley recently slipped his head into a noose when he allowed himself to be quoted as saying, of the safety investigation, 'When that has been done it will still be a dangerous sport, but it will be really quite difficult to hurt yourself in an F1 car. There are clear reasons for his buoyant opinion, but was that really a wise thing for a man in his position to say? "I believe that," he says immediately. "That's certainly got to be the objective; it's got to be really difficult to hurt yourself in an F1 car. And I hope that we will achieve that objective.

"In road car terms, in the very foreseeable future, you'll start to see cars that are very difficult to crash. They are working on the sensors and things like that where if you do something completely mad, the car will stop you. Now Formula One cars won't do that, but on the other hand with the ability of our barriers, our cars, our safety restraint systems, unless he deliberately drives straight at some object and that will be difficult on a circuit because there won't be an object to drive straight at he's going to be very unlucky if he hurts himself..."

Imola, of course, was the weekend when motor racing's run of luck ran out, and as the FIA has pointed out to outsiders, none of the accidents had a common connection. "It's as if somebody was giving us a little demonstration just to remind us," he says. "But another thing to bear in mind, if you go back 25 years, say – sort of to my day! – it was completely accepted that there were large parts of every circuit where if anything went wrong you'd be extremely lucky not to hurt yourself. And all that's happened since those days is that those parts have shrunk, and we are now trying really to eliminate them. If we can so arrange the circuits so that there are no lethal bits, and then try and arrange the cars so that if you go off the car will protect the driver and the environment will too, always in the objective was that even if he tries he's not going to be able to hurt himself.

"You got to set yourself an objective, which is that you can't hurt yourself in a Formula One car. Now you probably never actually achieve that, but I think it's quite realistic to say it's going to be quite difficult to hurt yourself." The accent is on the word difficult.

In the light of such aims, many observers find it totally impossible to reconcile the continuation of refuelling with safety considerations, bearing in mind the fire at Hockenheim. Last year, taking an average of two stops per car per Grand Prix, there were 832 fuel stops and only one went wrong to such a dangerous extent, but to condone such averages is like saying we only had one murder, It doesn't make that murder any the more acceptable. Mosley propounds some inventive but scarcely convincing arguments why a practice should continue that is fraught with danger for a greater number of people, and which has been seen to hurt the racing nine times out of 10 because drivers will wait for their stops to try and pass a rival rather than pushing really hard to overtake out on the track. Like any good politician, he's taken a few numbers on board to lend credence to his views.

"First of all, the 1995 refuelling equipment is very significantly better. A lot of thought and effort has gone in, both from the F1 teams and Intertechnique, in light of the experience, to make it safer and more foolproof. If you make the equipment as safe as possible you've then got to weigh up the risk of a fire in the pits, however small it may be, and the means of dealing with it, and the likely consequences, on the one hand. On the other hand, you've got a risk of fire out on the circuit which, if you've got three times the fuel, will be a more serious fire. Plus, you've got, on average, about 10 percent more energy in the car to dissipate if it's a really big accident, due to the weight of the fuel. Now, none of those things are quantifiable, because the likelihood of a fire in the pits is so small, and the likelihood of a fire out on the circuit, we hope, is so small."

Indeed, look back over the last five years, and there has effectively been one of each: Berger's accident at Imola in 1989, and Verstappen's fire at Hockenheim last year.

"To me, and I'm not able to quantify it, the conclusive argument is the 10 percent."

But what about the way refuelling kills the spectacle, separate thing though it may be?

"Well, first of all we were talking about safety, and on that I think the balance is in its favour, assuming that we've made it an order of magnitude safer still for 1995, because weighing against it is the 10 percent extra energy to dissipate. And on safety I think that is a very good bargain. Fire in the pits is very unlikely, and if it happens it can be dealt with, I believe. The 10 percent extra energy to dissipate out on the circuit must be dissipated between the car and the barrier itself."

But what about the greater number of people in the pits? "On the other hand, they are properly dressed, properly equipped." The mechanics now are, especially post-Hockenheim, but what of those above in the Paddock Club areas, the sponsors' wives and guests who nearly got singed at Hockenheim? These are the people, after all, who ultimately pay for F1.

"If you take most of these places you have to have a very extraordinary fire..." Mosley begins, sidetracking when we mention that the flames did indeed go as high as the Paddock Club balcony in Germany, "Yes, but the flames don't go into the actual bit where they are. The thing is with a petrol fire you don't want to be in the path of the flames if you are unprotected. I did it myself once, and never again. Each individual place has to be looked at, but I don't believe there is any serious danger to the guests. Putting the fuel into the car, with the new arrangement, the dead man's handle, the maximum quantity that can come out being limited.., everyone is ready, the whole system is geared up..."

Talk to those who were in the balcony above the Benetton pit, and they will never forget the horror of what they saw, and what nearly visited itself upon them. One detects in general, however, among the sport's governors, a hint that no non-fatal news is bad news, for even the photos of the Benetton pit fire added something to F1's public image, endorsed its reputation for danger in a curious paradox that is at odds with other desires to make the sport as safe as humanly possible.

"It works two ways," Mosley admits. "It doesn't look good to have a human blaze like that. The other side is that, if nobody gets hurt, it doesn't actually damage Formula One. It just makes people talk about it. We don't like it, because it's not how we want to run races, it's not safe, but there's no doubt that in the eyes of the outside world it didn't damage Formula One. They think it's dangerous anyway.

"As to the spectacle in the pit stops, it's something one could debate for hours. I think as people come to understand strategy don't forget 1994 was only the first year it adds a whole new element to the racing." And true, Adelaide provided a gripping race as the two leading teams opted for similar strategy for the first time. But... "I think you will find everyone will be a lot further down the road with their strategy in 1995, it's much better understood now. And that is going, quite possibly, to become a big element. But once you start to talk about the spectacle and the show the thing is so strange and so difficult to predict that you can't interfere with it. Really you've just got to set the rules and let the engineers get on with it."

Which brings us back to the subject of the regulations and the way 1994 went wrong. "All the things that happened in 1994, some of them awful, some of them rather disagreeable... at the end of it the world, the public is fascinated by it. You possibly have better racing in the World Motorcycle Championship for all I know, but nobody talks about it. There is something about Formula One that fascinates people, and it isn't just the racing, it's the whole thing and nobody really understands it. All we can really do is try and keep it all going."

The bottom line for the new season is simple: Does Mosley feel that the FIA is going to have a good handle on policing the regulations, so that we can all be sure at all times that what we see on the track is not illusory?

"Yes. I think so," he says with quiet confidence. "We're never complacent. All the time I'm saying there are a lot of clever people out there, so we'd never ever be complacent. But it's beginning to get difficult to break the rules and increasingly dangerous because of the things we have spelt out. And I think a lot of the teams have noticed that after McLaren and Benetton didn't suffer any big penalty last year, the pressure I came under from the media because of that. And it doesn't take the brains of Lloyd George to work out that the easy way out of it for the FIA is to be pretty tough the next time we catch somebody."

However difficult it may be for the FIA if push comes to shove again this year, the sport cannot stand another acrimonious season with accusations and counter-accusations about teams' legality. If the sport can lose a name such as Team Lotus, then it can surely put up with other famous teams being banned temporarily if they are caught in contravention of the rules by which it is bound. It remains to be seen, however, whether it will come to that.