The precedent for the president

We’ve yet to discover what sort of FIA president Jean Todt will make, though he’d do well to consider his predecessor’s legacy…
By Tony Dodgins

"Those two have more front than Butch and Sundance…”

It was a reference to Max Mosley and Bernie Ecclestone, made with a mix of exasperation and grudging admiration a number of years ago by a former Formula 1 team principal – and no, it wasn’t Mr Dennis.

Bernie was Sundance – dangerous, quick on the draw. Not a man you crossed. Max was Butch, the one full of charm and charisma who came up with the plans and smoothed the way.

The bombastic Jean-Marie Balestre was shattered by his FISA presidential defeat by Mosley in 1991, accusing Max and Bernie of hijacking the sport for the teams. But when Max went for the FIA presidency as well in 1993, to gain full control, he shrewdly created the FIA Senate as part of a restructure, promising Balestre an influential role. Today it’s Mosley who sits on the Senate as Jean Todt begins his reign.

Thwarted in mainstream politics by his surname, Mosley wanted to run more than simply sport. He saw Brussels as an opportunity and had bigger aspirations.

“In F1 you save one life every five years, whereas with road safety you are talking about thousands of lives,” he said on taking the top FIA job. “That turns me on in the same way that money turns Bernie on.”

Influence and money. The driving forces behind a rule for the next 16 years which was both brilliant and stunningly audacious. Depending on your point of view, Max and Bernie, or Bernie and Max – you have to consider them together – either engineered a heist far in excess of anything Butch and Sundance ever pulled, or they presided over a Formula 1 success story which, politically and operationally, should have been way beyond the capacity of two men. Constantly in the background was the matter of who actually owns F1’s commercial rights, a minefield over which both tiptoed without ultimately detonating any fatal charges.

Ironically, one of Balestre’s last tasks was to negotiate the TV revenue due to the FIA over the course of the 1992-97 Concorde Agreement. Booming ’80s television coverage saw TV money dwarf homologation fees as the governing body’s main income source. In 1987, when Bernie Ecclestone became the FIA’s vice-president of commercial affairs, the FIA took a 30 per cent share of the commercial rights. When a French TV deal collapsed Balestre, worried, was persuaded to do a deal with Allsop, Parker and Marsh, a company run by Paddy McNally, a business associate of Ecclestone, which took away the FIA’s risk by guaranteeing a fixed annual payment.

When the FIA’s take rose nine-fold, Balestre looked smart. But then a team boss leaked documents revealing that the five-year revenue total was close to $350 million and that the FIA was out of pocket by $65m!

When the time came to review the deal, Mosley again went for the annual fixed fee, this time dealing directly with Ecclestone rather than AP&M. But this time the deal was for 15 years. Max argued that there was no way Ecclestone and the teams would have gone for the old 30 per cent deal after Bernie had so successfully built the business and it was his job to prevent the whole thing coming down like a pack of cards. You could argue that the deal cost the FIA hundreds of millions over the coming years and was evidence of Max working for Bernie’s benefit. Rather than Balestre accusing them of hijacking the sport for the teams, the teams were now accusing them of hijacking it for themselves. Max simply argued that he was not in a strong negotiating position.

Ecclestone saw huge potential in pay TV and the longer deal suited his need to raise finance, but he also needed to prove legal ownership of the rights. In some countries they were considered to belong to organisers and promoters, who took the financial risk, or to those who owned the land, while elsewhere they belonged to the relevant sports federations. The teams believed that their historical importance to F1 gave them a claim too. Before Mosley came to power they were fighting over a relatively small pie. Now it was a large one, and that simple fact has underpinned the paddock politics and acrimony of the past 16 years.

Mosley has been accused of changing the FIA statutes to make them ever more complex and the task of removing him from office nigh on impossible, but he also cut bureaucracy considerably when he got rid of FISA as the sporting arm and replaced it with the World Motor Sport Council. The Senate, with Ecclestone now appointed to it, took over the role of the FIA Finance Committee. There were raised eyebrows when it approved the purchase of an executive jet to ease Mosley’s travel schedule; Bernie just happened to have a Falcon jet going cheap...

On the track though, attendances were up everywhere and the picture was rosy. Until in 1994 Ayrton Senna, the world’s best driver, joined Williams, the sport’s dominant team. Enough to give a promoter nightmares. But then along came Michael Schumacher and Benetton and suddenly there was an unexpected fight.

The problem was that many, Senna included, didn’t think it was a level playing field. When he went off at the first corner in Aida, the second race, he stood and watched for 20 laps then came back and reported that there were two very different Benettons on the track – Schumacher’s and Jos Verstappen’s. At the next race Ayrton was killed.

It was 20 years since those awful television pictures of Roger Williamson trapped dying in an upturned car as the Dutch GP went on around him, and the world was now a different place. Here was a worldwide sporting icon dying on prime time Sunday afternoon TV in people’s living rooms. It was just a day after Roland Ratzenberger suffered a fatal accident in qualifying and Mosley, anticipating the reaction, acted swiftly.

He ordered immediate changes to the cars on safety grounds, which upset many, Benetton boss Flavio Briatore principal among them. Mosley also speeded up an ongoing FIA assessment of potentially dangerous corners and demanded immediate changes to circuits. He was accused of forcing through agendas that needed longer lead times on the safety ticket, but he didn’t care. Intelligent and astute, Mosley claimed that it was not the time for the governing body to sit on its hands.

Coincidentally, it was also the first year of a ban on electronic driver aids and Mosley had promised ‘draconian punishment’ for anyone caught using them. Whispers about Benetton had become dark rumblings by Magny-Cours mid-season, and ‘source codes’ had become the new paddock buzz words. The FIA, using software experts LDRA, found evidence of launch control on the Benetton. But Ross Brawn claimed that it was far easier to leave it in the programme and disable it than to run a fresh programme. There was apparently no concrete evidence that it had been used.

There was, however, evidence later in the year that Benetton had removed a fuel filter from its refuelling apparatus, which had the effect of speeding up its pitstops by around one second. This was discovered when the Intertechnique rig was examined after Verstappen suffered a pit fire at Hockenheim.

Schumacher, meanwhile, had ignored a black flag at Silverstone and earned himself a two-race ban, and the drama played out as much in the courtroom as on the track. With big-hitting legal eagles like George Carman involved it all made for great theatre amid the most acrimonious season ever. Benetton survived and did so, Max explained, because he couldn’t put everyone out of work. But people took note. He was not to be messed with.

At this time the General Assembly approved the passing of the F1 rights to Ecclestone in 1995 and also gave the rights to all FIA championships to his International Sportsworld Communications company for 15 years.

This led to accusations that Ecclestone used them to suppress potential competition to F1 in terms of coverage and commercial sponsorship. Wolfgang Eisele, whose small AE TV company was hit hard, tried to persuade Bernie to allow him to continue covering truck racing and touring cars. When Bernie stonewalled him Eisele complained to the European Commission that Ecclestone’s ties with the teams, the

FIA, organisers and broadcasters breached competition law prohibiting cartels and abuse of a dominant position.

Not long afterwards, Mosley turned up at Monza and talked about the excellent job Ecclestone had done building the sport and a potential public flotation in the years ahead as pay TV developed. He would welcome having the sport’s finances out in the open, he said. Salomon Brothers, tasked with taking F1 to the markets, would have liked that too, but described Bernie as the client from hell.

Eisele, Brussels and the teams all became obstacles to the flotation, and the machinations dominated the paddock, literally for years. The teams said they knew nothing about a deal between Ecclestone and Mosley giving Bernie the rights for 15 years up until 2010.

In 1992 the Formula One Constructors Association, which Ecclestone headed on behalf of the teams, transferred management of the rights to Formula One Promotions and Administration in return for annual payments. But FOCA administration changed to Formula One Administration in 1997, with Bernie as sole director.

The teams claimed that the FIA couldn’t assume rights ownership and had begun negotiations to purchase them in the event of Bernie’s death. They wanted it done in time to incorporate it into the 1997 Concorde Agreement. The so-called ‘Dying Agreement’ would allow FOA to be bought from Ecclestone’s heirs at market value less 30 per cent by a company formed by the teams. But, by now, Bernie was talking to Max about the 15-year deal which he needed to raise pay-TV money.

Ken Tyrrell, Ron Dennis and Frank Williams would not put their names to a new Concorde Agreement, which Bernie needed for his float. An accommodation was eventually made (reputedly a 10 per cent stake held in trust for the teams and a 50 per cent share of TV revenue), during which time a Frankfurt court ruled that the central marketing of truck racing violated competition law, which had big implications for F1. Mosley responded by threatening to kill the truck series; the court said he would be liable to imprisonment and a hefty fine. Mosley issued a statement about the lack of understanding of motor sport television and said that if the governing body was hamstrung by such rulings it would go outside Europe. Of the FIA’s 100-plus member countries at the time, only 15 were in Europe.

Is it coincidence that all F1’s new super-venues – Malaysia, Bahrain, Turkey, China, Abu Dhabi and, next year, South Korea – are outside Europe? It would certainly have been easier to find the funding in those places, but there were other considerations too.

Eisele was allegedly bought off and Ecclestone applied for exemption from competition rules under a clause allowing restrictive agreements if they were beneficial to an EC member country’s economy.

In processing his claim, Bernie had to supply the 1997 Concorde Agreement, the FIA 15-year rights agreement and copies of promoter contracts. He’d apparently been told that approval would be a formality, but instead the EC turned on him and the FIA.

They now had evidence of the monopolistic practices that Eisele had claimed. TV contracts allegedly offered discounts to broadcasters who agreed to show only F1, and promoters had to give guarantees that the only open-wheel series on their tracks would be F1 and F3000. EC competition commissioner Karel van Miert sent warning letters and the F1 flotation was suspended. Far from being bowed, Mosley went on the offensive, accusing Van Miert’s office of confidential leaks and incompetence. The battle ran for three years as the FIA aligned itself with the International Olympic Committee and sought ‘better understanding of sports governance’.

It was now that Alan Donnelly arrived on the scene. Donnelly, a former Blair leading light and a well-connected MEP, ran a company called Sovereign Strategies, which the FIA employed as a consultant. As Van Miert’s term passed and Mario Monti took over as competition commissioner, Monti seemingly didn’t need the hassle and a deal was done whereby the FIA agreed to divest itself of F1’s commercial side.

The microcosm of Mosley’s presidency was Monaco 2001. Amid a press conference he calmly announced the sale of F1’s commercial rights to Ecclestone and his companies for more than 100 years in return for a fee of just under $400 million. He said that the fee allowed the governing body to establish the FIA Foundation on a solid footing and advance safety and other projects. By way of example, he placed on the desk a carbon crash helmet, the development of which the FIA had funded. It would make its findings available to helmet companies.

In the paddock there was apoplexy. By way of comparison, Kirch had just paid $1 billion for the rights to one football tournament, the 2002 World Cup. Bernie had paid less than half of that for F1, effectively forever! One team principal called it the biggest heist in history. Mosley opined that the manufacturers, now prevalent in F1, had had ample opportunity to bid but chose not to. He defended the deal on the ‘bird in the hand’ principle. Ecclestone later cashed out to CVC Capital Partners, a private equity firm.

The crash helmet was decried as being a poor diversionary tactic at the time, but three years later it became mandatory and eight years on it undoubtedly saved the life of Felipe Massa. And it is hard to say how many drivers owe their lives to the ever more stringent crash tests, side protection, wheel tethers and improved track safety put in place by the FIA under Mosley. And that’s before you even consider outside factors such as the work in road car safety standards (see page 73).

If you want, you can tut-tut about Michelle Yeoh, the new FIA president’s partner, enjoying the comforts of private jets, but when you go to places like China and Malaysia and see a woman on a moped heading the wrong way down a dual carriageway in the dark with one child behind her, another strapped to her front and a third in the shopping basket, you do wince. If a former Bond girl can persuade those people that helmets are a sound plan, then who’s to say it’s not worth the cost of some Avgas?

Perhaps too, we have come to take for granted a sport in which grids are covered by little more than a second – a pipe dream when Mosley came to power – and the delights of heading to a race without being 90 per cent sure who is going to win. The product is a good one, make no mistake. If it hadn’t been, it would not have attracted so many of the world’s major motor manufacturers. The fact that most have now gone is, one hopes, more a reflection of the economic climate than a wholesale objection to the sport’s governance.

Latterly, we’ve had a whole selection of ‘gates’ – spy-gate, spank-gate, lie-gate, crash-gate. Not to mention the revelation of Ferrari’s rules veto – something apparently granted 10 years ago in the interests of political expediency.

They say that all publicity is good publicity but sometimes you do wonder. Despite his highly tuned intelligence and mental dexterity, some claim that a vengeful nature lurks in the negative column of Mosley’s personality ledger. Ron Dennis would claim to have suffered from it and Briatore was alleging it in a law court at the time of writing. To an extent, it’s all part of the theatre, but what many found unpalatable in 2009 was ‘ordinary’ men, the likes of Davey Ryan and Pat Symonds, becoming collateral damage after a lifetime’s devotion to the sport. Not nice.

As Todt picks up the baton, he should, in theory, have an easier task. He might not have Mosley’s urbane charm but he is renowned to have the mental dexterity – he can multiply three-figure numbers like a calculator. Anyone at Ferrari will speak about his fearsome work ethic. He undoubtedly inherits a governing body of far greater status and in far better health than when Mosley arrived. That much is undeniable.

In the sport, with the EC situation resolved and, seemingly, a more open spirit of co-operation and fewer heavy-hitters, Todt should have an easier time when it comes to marshalling the troops. But that’s easy to say. Butch and Sundance went out in a hail of bullets with no swag. Max and Bernie have done somewhat better than that…