Reflections in a sandstorm

Ever since legal and political wrangling about the whys and wherefores in Grand Prix racing have been aired in public, which is to say for the last ten years and possibly since commercial sponsorship and advertising was introduced into the game, I have always said “the time to worry and take it all seriously is when the cars don’t start in a race”. That time arrived on June 1st 1980 when the Spanish Grand Prix was run without the teams from Ferrari, Renault and Alfa Romeo. Not because they did not enter, they were all in the paddock, but they withdrew as a result of a major dispute over the organisation and legality of the race, with respect to the International Sporting Rules. The fact that three major automobile manufacturers’ teams withdrew on the side of officialdom, who claimed that the race was illegal and could not count in the 1980 World Championship, was in itself serious enough. The fact that Ferrari and Renault are members of the Formula One Constructors Association, and Alfa Romeo recently told the Association they were not interested in joining, meant a serious split within the FOCA ranks.

That trouble was brewing was evident before the Spanish event, for the Federation Internationale de Sport Automobile, who control all sporting activities on behalf of the FIA, had withdrawn the competition licences of 14 of the leading Formula One drivers. This was because they had not paid fines imposed on them by FISA, for failing to turn up to a drivers’ briefing before the Belgian GP. The FIA/FISA monthly Bulletin for April 1980 under item 7 – Formula One World Championship, item C states: “Race Organisation: A briefing will take place 45 minutes after the end of free practice on the morning of the race. It must take place in a calm environment and in the presence of team managers. The drivers must be present. The first absence will result in a $2,000 (USA) fine and the second in a $5,000 (USA) fine.” Some drivers are notorious for not paying attention to such details of their trade as attending meetings, but in Belgium on May 4th many drivers were actively dissuaded from attending the meeting by their team managers or team owners. The result was the imposition of fines as laid down in item C, to which certain teams made it clear that they were encouraging their drivers to refuse to pay. The next result was the suspension of licences to which certain National authorities reacted by putting the suspension to the Court of Appeal of the FIA, which meant the suspensions being put in abeyance until the appeal was heard. The French Federation refused to put their drivers’ case to appeal.

Although the whole business appeared to be trivial there was far more to it than was stated. Some three or four years ago Max Mosley and Bernie Ecclestone did a deal with the Automobile Club von Deutschland to take over financial interest in the German GP at Hockenheim. This was the beginning of members of the Formula One Constructors Association becoming involved in the management of Grand Prix racing. At the time the President of the FISA (it was the CSl in those days) was Pierre Ugeux, a meek and mild Belgian who shrugged and thought it was all right. The President of the French Federation was one Jean-Marie Balestre and he thought it was far from all right and could see that it was the beginning of the FOCA getting control of Formula One racing to suit their own ends. He made it very clear that if he became President of FISA he would put a stop to this insidious withdrawing of control from officialdom by the FOCA. It was going on in various ways and involving various activities, all aimed to cream more money into the FOCA coffers or into the Mosley orientated financial deals. Television rights on World Championship races were arranged to the benefit of the Mosley/Ecclestone band, and they tried the same with radio broadcasts. Last year there was no television coverage of the Austrian GP because the Ecclestone deal backfired on him with the Austrians. This year in Belgium commercial radio stations were charged a fee to do a broadcast, but come Monday morning when FOCA collected its bag of gold for putting on the race, the bag was short by the amount taken off the radio stations. The Belgian organisers didn’t go along with the Mosley/Ecclestone plan, and we never did hear the repercussions of that one!

The continual battle between FISA, who are delegated to look after all motoring sport by the FIA, who are themselves recognised by World Governments as the controllers of all motoring matters, and FOCA, an independent unofficial body formed by a group of people in Formula One, is fundamentally a question of who controls the sport or business of Grand Prix racing, and the World Championships. It was the FIA who thought up the World Championship series in 1950, for Grand Prix racing, and there is no way they are going to give it away to a bunch of small-time businessmen who run Formula One teams. Quite why the FOCA think they should be in control of the World Championship series is difficult to see. The FIA World Championship series is there for them to participate in if they want to, but there is no logical reason why they should control the running of the series. Some of the FOCA members proclaim loudly that they are “professionals” and “businessmen” but they operate in a little world of their own. The Managing Director of one of the biggest engineering companies in Europe once said to me “I wouldn’t give any of them more than a week in the really big world of engineering and big business; they are amateurs really.”

It just so happened that I decided to take a summer holiday this year and went to the Isle of Man to watch the TT races and to ride my sprint bike in an event on the Ramsey Promenade during TT week. Motorcycling is very much my hobby and the best way to take a holiday from motor racing is to go motorcycling. So, loading my sprint bike on the sidecar of my Norton Commando I set off for Liverpool and the Isle of Man in company with friends on a Vincent 1000, a Velocette Venom and a 500 Yamaha. It just so happened that this trip coincided with the Spanish GP, but I felt that FISA/FOCA and all the other organisations could get along without me. Little did I suspect that the day of reckoning for Formula One was about to happen. However, I had arranged for my.colleague AH to hold the reins of Formula One while I went on holiday and when I next saw him he said “Thanks very much!” In our weekly newspaper, Motoring News, he sums up the hoo-hah in Spain in an article entitled “Lighting the Fire … ” and I can do no better than reproduce it here. -DSJ.

“The important thing is to see the row in Spain – by far the most serious dispute in modern day motor racing – in its correct context, standing well back from the action. That’s a difficult task, but it should be emphasised most firmly that the licence suspensions resulting from some drivers failing to turn up at the briefing prior to the Belgian GP was merely the match which started the blaze. The tinder had been steadily parched in the motoring political sun for many months.

Basically, the issue was FOCA versus Jean-Marie Balestre, President of the FISA. The FISA have worked hard to establish themselves in a position of power and influence and, since their previous solidarity cracked over the weekend, we must make it clear that we are talking about the specialist constructors who build their Formula One cars round the Cosworth/Hewland package. They feel that Monsieur Balestre is out to smash them, reduce their influence, deprive them of the ability to make ‘package deals’ with organisers and generally make public their financial affairs, in particular the Grand Prix prize fund. They also consider, with some reason, that they will not be dictated to as far as sensible regulations are concerned on an arbitary basis. Things like weight limits, banning of skirts, and restrictions on wheel rim widths. They feel that they know best. They object to the fact that Jean-Marie Balestre is unpredictable, difficult to get along with and doesn’t, in their opinion, follow international regulations properly.

As far as FISA is concerned, it considers that the FOCA has too much influence in Grand Prix racing today and there is little doubt that Balestre and Ecclestone maintain a fairly healthy sense of mutual disregard for each other. There is a point of view that suggests that FISA’s real intention is to smash FOCA because it doesn’t always conform with the ‘sporting concept’ of motor racing in the old fashioned manner. The fire began in Belgium over the licence suspensions, the drivers concerned being informed of the fines by letter. FOCA admits that it advised its drivers that the meeting was not mandatory, although others have suggested that FOCA were a bit more definite than that! When the drivers involved asked their National Clubs to make appeals to the FIA, thus withholding suspensions until the appeals were heard, Balestre announced that the drivers’ licences would be suspended until the fines were paid and in his position as President of the French Federation he specifically denied the right of appeal to Laffite, Pironi, Prost and Jarier. The balloon had gone up.

Initial statements from FOCA said that if they didn’t receive assurance that the licences would be restored by the middle of the week prior to the Spanish GP they could not guarantee their participation as per their contract. This suggestion was passed over and everyone turned up at Jarama flexing their muscles for the big battle. It was very difficult for either side to retain much space in which to manoeuvre – something which was very important, for every politician needs an escape route.

On Thursday night FOCA convened a meeting at which a hard and uncompromising line was taken – the Zolder fines were to be quashed or they were not going to race. At a FISA Press Conference in Madrid Balestre continued shadow boxing, throwing his hands in the air and saying he couldn’t interfere with the decision at Zolder because it had been made by the Belgian National Club. The Spanish race organisers claimed that the money had been paid, but Balestre denied this. He also turned down their suggestion that the whole affair could go to the FIA’s Court of Appeal, thus delaying any action until after the race. FOCA’s position was becoming increasingly difficult for Balestre was calling their bluff over the suggestion that they would not race. The Royal Automobile Club of Spain were highly embarrassed by the whole affair, for they were tied financially to Mosley and Ecclestone but nonetheless represented FIA officialdom. Their President offered to pay the collective fines, but Balestre refused this attempt at mediation, saying the drivers must pay themselves, thus admitting in effect, that they and FOCA were wrong.

While the Royal Automobile Club of Spain were responsible for the race they had delegated rhe organisation to the Federation Automovilsmo Espagna (FEA), rather like the RAC delegating the organisation of our Grand Prix to the BRDC or the BRSCC. The FEA were running strictly to FISA rules and abiding by the FISA decisions regarding those drivers whose licences had been suspended. Throughout Thursday evening, and into the small hours of Friday, meetings were held and from them the Royal Automobile Club of Spain announced that they had withdrawn the race organisation from FEA and were themselves going to run the race under direct FIA regulations, thus by-passing FISA’s involvement. It was no surprise that FOCA agreed to this decision and Max and Bernie were grinning broadly as they put the FIA Yellow Book away, convinced that they were within the law as it was written. However, FISA lawyers thought otherwise. FOCA issued a statement quoting chapter and verse from the Yellow Book which appeared to prove that all was in order for the race to go ahead and to include all the suspended drivers. What it amounted to was that FOCA were asking the FIA to back them against the FISA, one of the FIA’s own departments. A pious hope, and a tall order.

It seemed a tall order too for Ferrari, Renault and Alfa Romeo. Enzo Ferrari is renowned for making hay while the sun shines on him and it rains on everyone else, and he could be relied upon to take an independent view of the proceedings. Alfa Romeo and Renault dearly wanted to race but they were not convinced that the manoeuvrings of the Spanish Club were legal within the FIA framework. It was no use simply dismissing them as wrong. Their point of view was that if the race was subsequently deemed illegal by the FIA, their participation in it could have long-term ramifications for their motorsporting involvements in other spheres. Formula One may be an all-consuming business for the specialist firms like Williams, Ligier, Brabham and Tyrrell, but Renault, Ferrari and Alfa Romeo have other things to consider. In addition none of them had their real “boss men” with them. They decided not to take part in the race unless it was run under the jurisdiction of the FEA (as stated in the regulations) and thus under FISA sanction. With Max and Bernie behind the figureheads of the Royal Automobile Club of Spain there was no hope of that happening so Ferrari, Renault and Alfa Romeo decided not to race. No matter which way you looked at it FOCA solidarity had cracked.

All this upset a lot of the sponsors behind the various teams, in particular Francois Guiter of ELF, long time supporters of Grand Prix racing, made it quite clear that if this mess wasn’t sorted out soon then the 1980 season could be considered lost. Marlboro were taking an inevitable neutral line, with one team in FOCA and one outside, but were clearly upset, while some Television companies withdrew. Goodyear, who have supported Formula One more than anyone, were very emphatic that they had had enough, were fed up with the way things were going and were considering a wholesale withdrawal. There were rustlings in Milan and Birmingham when this was heard, while Mr. Bibendum in Clermont Ferrand merely raised an eyebrow and chuckled quietly to himself.

Totally overshadowed by the FISA/FOCA row was the news that Michelin were revoking their ‘gentleman’s agreement’ with Goodyear, as regard special qualifying tyres, and were going back to an open-front tyre war. And people say Formula One is dull.” – AH

As reported elsewhere, 22 cars took part in the Spanish GP which was subsequently declared “illegal” by the FIA, thus not counting in the World Championships. Only six cars finished, due to a lot of sloppy driving, mechanical failures and accidents. All 22 starters were Cosworth powered, which no doubt pleased Ford, but as AH said “You couldn’t take it very seriously with no Ferraris or Renaults on the starting grid.” Classic mishap of the race was undoubtedly Jacques Laffite’s masterly boob in which he eliminated himself from second place and Reutemann from first place in the space of a few seconds. Credit must go to Laffite for not trying to make excuses, he openly and honestly admitted to a gross driving error, but then he is like that, you wouldn’t expect him to do otherwise. Some drivers would have put all the blame on Villota, or found something wrong with their car. I am sure that everyone sympathised with Laffite, while at the same time calling him a “first class clot.” Such a silly mistake was no great surprise for Laffite has not been his usual self this season. Last year it would have never happened. In the paddock he has always been known as “Happy Jacques”, especially two years ago when he was the sole Ligier driver. This season Pironi has been challenging his leadership and while Laffite’s driving has been up to the challenge, he has been right on the edge of his ability, with nothing to spare for outside influences. The fact that he has needed 100% of his concentration and ability to maintain his position against Pironi has meant that he has bled himself dry. This we could see in his slightly less happy mood when out of the car, his more harassed look when he should have been relaxed. He is extremely affable, but not quite the “Happy Jacques” of two years ago. His whole nervous system is wound up too tight and it was inevitable that he was going to “lose his cool” as the Yanks put it, and that’s what happened at Jarama. Thankfully he was man enough to admit his “gross error” which endears him to us for we all like Jacques Laffite, one of the GP good guys.

If you look at the starting grid in the race report it is worth bearing in mind that had the race been legal and Ferrari, Renault and Alfa Romeo taken part you could guarantee that Scheckter, Villeneuve, Jabouille, Arnoux, Depailler and Giacomelli would have been on the grid, and most probably Brambilla as well, so that both Fittipaldis, both Shadows and the Ensign would have been non-starters.

The Spanish Grand Prix has a long history of turmoil behind it and the 1980 version was no exception. – DSJ