Nigel Roebuck

Reflections
– Why Mosley is wrong to hang on as FIA president
– Memories of Max’s predecessor – the late Balestre

Recently it has become very fashionable in the mainstream press to denigrate Formula 1, to describe it variously as boring, offensive, obscenely rich, not a sport at all. A particular flood of invective was unleashed when it was announced that – in the absence, I’m told, of a bid from ITV – the BBC would be televising Grand Prix racing again, as of the start of the 2009 season.

As soon as the story broke, Labour MP Andrew MacKinlay pounced, suggesting that licence payers’ money should rather be spent on, “Real sports, rather than the wealthy industry of Formula 1”. An unsurprisingly knee-jerk reaction, perhaps, akin to that made by local MP Jeff (now Lord) Rooker years ago, when plans for the inaugural Birmingham Superprix were announced: “Can we have an assurance that no drivers from South Africa will be taking part?”

When talking of ‘real sports’, Mr MacKinlay was perhaps referring to squeakier clean, more Olympian pursuits like Premiership football – or, come to think of it, the Olympic Games. Given that the BBC apparently pays £6 million a year to Jonathan Ross, it seems curious that it should be criticised for ‘wasting’ money elsewhere, but then I’m told that there are folk who like to see him on their screens. Just as there are those who like to watch racing cars ‘going round in circles’.

Whatever, the Beeb’s announcement brought forth a spate of self-righteous and ill-informed comment in the newspapers, and it followed drearily predictable lines: F1 was elitist, grotesquely expensive, noisy, tedious, wasteful in an age of environmental awareness, and so on. It was also, according to Mary Ann Sieghart in The Times, “Horribly macho”. Ms Sieghart, moving off at something of a tangent, then remarked that racing drivers, “Don’t do anything interesting with their bodies, unlike gymnasts, athletes or tennis and football players. They don’t even do anything very interesting with their cars, at least to the inexpert eye”.

Well, at least she admitted she knew nothing about the subject she had selected for crucifixion. “From 2009 I’m going to have to start putting the sofa cushions over my head again,” she said, as if compelled, on Sunday afternoons, to sit in front of the box, watching this Grand Prix or that. Why, one wondered, could she not simply seek an alternative channel, as do some of us at the imminent arrival of J Ross?

Like many others in this business, I was riled by the comments of this lady, and others taking a similar line. In an age of obsessive political correctness, after all, F1 is the softest of targets, and I was preparing to come forth with wrathful indignation on the sport’s behalf, to point out that an entire Grand Prix season consumes no more fuel than a single 747 flight to New York (which perhaps even Ms Sieghart has taken
in her time), to draw to the attention of critics the fact that F1 has long been aware of environmental concerns, thank you very much, to mention the adoption in 2009 of KERS, whose development in racing will ultimately benefit the ‘green’ technology of all road cars. And so on. I was, in short, getting ready to claim a touch of moral high ground for F1.

Then, on the morning of Sunday, March 30, I was sitting around, drinking coffee, reading the papers, when my mobile bleeped. A text, from a retired Grand Prix driver. ‘I don’t suppose you buy the News of the World very often,’ it read, ‘but I think this morning you should…’

I did as bidden, and was suitably stunned, but perhaps it was not until the evening of Friday, April 11, that I realised just how much trouble our sport was in. After the six o’clock news on Radio 4 came The Now Show, which opened thus: ‘What’s the difference between Robert Mugabe and Max Mosley? Max Mosley admits when he’s been beaten’. Pause. ‘Although he’s no less keen to stay in office, I notice…’

A couple of days later I watched Bremner, Bird and Fortune on Channel 4. Rory Bremner is not an F1 hater – quite the opposite, in fact – but his brief is to satirise the week’s news, and he does it brilliantly, without fear or favour. It was no more than inevitable that there should be a sketch about ‘the Mosley affair’, but once the laughter had subsided, I was again struck by the reality of the situation: the president of the FIA was being ridiculed – and so, by extension, was the sport he controls. My sport, and yours.

Once the News of the World story had broken, the immediate reaction of most to whom I spoke was that, of course, Mosley should resign, and had he been the president or CEO of a major business corporation, there is little doubt that he would have been gone within hours, voted out by a horrified board.

This is different, though. The FIA is not a company, but an entity, almost a law unto itself. Mosley has said, somewhat disingenuously, that if he had been caught speeding – an offence of which, in these revenue-raising speed camera days, a large number of us are guilty – he would of course have resigned immediately, but in this case, once we had thought it through, we swiftly concluded that Mosley, consummately urbane, outwardly self-deprecating, yet fundamentally a streetfighter, would not resign. This, after all, is an era in which politicians don’t resign, in which honourable withdrawal is increasingly unknown, and Mosley, always a man to relish a crisis, will have regarded the coping with this predicament simply as another intellectual challenge. And if, in declining to go, he were prolonging and intensifying the distaste of the outside world for him and all his works, well, so be it.

This is not a matter of being prissy. Few of us lead a blameless existence, and fewer still would happily offer up every detail of their lives, past and present, for public scrutiny. Different strokes for different folks, as they say. But that is not really the point here: the questions that have to be asked are, where was his judgement, and how can he ever again regain the gravitas required of his position? As president of the FIA, Mosley is a figurehead, and the fact is that people such as he are required to live by loftier standards than the rest of us. Call it unfair, if you will, but it goes with the territory, and over the years no-one has been more mindful of motor sport’s public image than he. How many times has Max applied the catch-all charge of ‘bringing the sport into disrepute’? And how, in light of the tabloid’s revelations, could he dare apply it to anyone else ever again?

Frankly, I found Mosley’s immediate response, his contention that he had ‘done nothing wrong’, simply facile. From the outset he denied absolutely there were any Nazi connotations in his session with the five hookers, and said this would become ‘crystal clear when the matter comes to trial’. From the evidence available thus far, you’d have to lean out a long way to see his point, but even if we were to take him at his word what remains is hardly an edifying tale, and serves only to denigrate the office he holds.

Over the last umpteen years I have listened to countless people in the F1 paddock go on about Mosley, about how he is a pernicious influence in our sport, about how he needs to be removed from office as soon as possible. Yet now, when he plays into their hands, and in weakening himself and his authority, gives them the best opportunity they will ever have to aid his removal from office, their silence is deafening.

National motoring authorities, like America’s AAA and Germany’s ADAC, have publicly condemned him, as have major manufacturers like Toyota, BMW, Mercedes and Honda, and high-profile individuals, like Jackie Stewart, Niki Lauda and Jody Scheckter. Thank God, I thought, for Mark Webber, who alone had the courage to say what so many others active in F1 think, but dare not utter.

From the actual teams there has been not a word – which says everything about the climate of fear in which this sport has operated for way too long. “They think Max might survive,” said yet another ex-World Champion, “and they’re frightened of what might happen to them if he does…”

Thus, quaking silence from the collection of multi-millionaires whose transporters fill the F1 paddock, and their timidity does them no credit, for silence gives consent. And disappointing, too, to put it mildly, was the limp-wristed response from our own MSA: “Like the vast majority of the 222 voting members of the FIA, the MSA will refrain from making any judgement or comment on the issue prior to the Extraordinary General Assembly called by the FIA on June 3”.

A masterstroke by Mosley, this meeting in a few weeks’ time, when the voting members of the FIA will decide, by secret ballot, whether or not Max should remain in his post. It gives time for the matter to subside in the mainstream press, and time, too, for him to do some serious lobbying. Only the FIA, after all, can get rid of one of their own. One must trust that members of the General Assembly, when the time comes to vote, will give consideration not only to their own individual credibility, but also to that of the body they represent.

Can Mosley survive that vote? Don’t ask me – I still haven’t got over OJ.

Fortunately for the dignity of our land, Damon Hill, the president of the BRDC, was prepared to stand up and be counted. As Hill said, “None of us wants to be moralising about individuals, but there has to be an element here to do with the image of the sport, and the ability of the premier representative of the sport in the world to continue to engage with a politic concerned about values. It’s a practical issue, but it’s also a marketing issue. Businesses connected with the sport want a positive image, and politicians want to engage with it because they know motor sport people support those values.”

And that really is the whole point. By association, Mosley has done – and is doing – massive damage to the credibility and image of the sport, although some motoring federations appear prepared to look the other way.

Mohammed ben Sulayem, president of the Automobile and Touring Club of United Arab Emirates, expressed total support for Mosley: “How fast can we forget what this man did for motor sport? Where it was, and where it is now…” One place it will be next year, of course, is Abu Dhabi, which gets a Grand Prix for the first time.

Prince Feisal Al Hussein of Jordan said that Mosley had been, “A strong friend and ally to Jordan, and has supported us since we announced our bid [for a round of the World Rally Championship] three years ago”. And he went on to add that the FIA President had accepted an invitation to attend the inaugural event, to be run on April 24-27.

That same weekend Mosley had been due to go to the Spanish Grand Prix, there to assist in the launching of the FIA’s ‘Racing Against Racism’ campaign, which was conceived in response to the abuse suffered by Lewis Hamilton at a Barcelona test session in the spring. At the time, the governing body expressed a policy of ‘zero tolerance’ towards any form of racism, so perhaps, in light of recent events, it was considered that Mosley’s presence in Barcelona might prove an embarrassment.

As well as that, the race is always attended by the King of Spain, who might well have responded to the question of Mosley’s attendance as did the Crown Prince of Bahrain. Prince Albert of Monaco, in whose tax exile principality Max lives, will shortly be faced with a similar dilemma on the occasion of the Grand Prix, and the question of the FIA president’s attendance at motor sport events will doubtless crop up as long as Mosley holds that office.

The first public condemnation of him came in the form of a joint statement from Mercedes and BMW, companies not ordinarily on the warmest of terms, but on this subject speaking with one voice. And Mosley was ill-advised, to say the least, in his response: “Given the history of BMW and Mercedes Benz, particularly before and during the Second World War, I fully understand why they would wish to distance themselves from what they rightly describe as the disgraceful content of these publications.”

Bad move. Not for the first time Max let his temper get instantly the better of him, and the hierarchy of Mercedes and BMW will not forgive him. If he were to remain in his position at the FIA, how could he ever, be it on a motor sport or road car matter, do business with them again? In this regard, as in so many others, his image – to say nothing of his authority – is irredeemably shredded, but that is his own concern, his own private tragedy, if you like. Of greater consequence to me is the damage done to the image of our sport.

“After the affair with Max Mosley and the women, it would not be very savoury to get involved in Formula 1 now,” commented Wolfgang Porsche. Very well, you may argue that Porsche was probably not seriously contemplating a move into F1, but this reaction is likely not very different from those in other companies looking at F1, either as competitor or sponsor. For some while attracting major sponsorship had anyway been problematic; now, in this time of acute economic stringency, a dose of appalling publicity from left field was the very last thing the sport needed.

If many involved in F1 have been too timorous to express criticism of Mosley, so there have been few indeed who have spoken up on his behalf. I don’t think Max has ever worried about being unpopular – indeed I reckon he has positively thrived on his notoriety. His temper has cost him dear over time, and many of his actions have been perceived as petty vindictiveness.

Ask them at Silverstone how they liked that April date in 2000. Ask Jacques Villeneuve how he liked flying back from Montréal to Paris, to be summoned before the beak, a few days before the Canadian GP. Ask McLaren folk how they liked being put to the far end of the pitlane in Bahrain. As you find out when you’re looking for support, people don’t forget these things.

For that matter, ask McLaren people how they felt at Spa last year, when Mosley, irritated by an unexpectedly hostile press response to the FIA’s fining of the team to the tune of $100,000,000, responded thus: “McLaren were extremely lucky that we didn’t simply say, ‘You’ve polluted the 2007 championship, and you’ve probably polluted the ’08 championship, so you’d better stay out until 2009 – if you’re still around – because that’s the only way we’ll know it’s completely clear.’”

Pollute. An emotive word, you’d have to say, and one which came to many a mind again on the morning of Sunday, March 30. Perhaps Mosley never understood how damaging to the sport’s image that ludicrous fine was, how it screamed out the sheer vulgarity of an activity which could even think in terms of that sort of sum. No wonder so many have lately used the word ‘tacky’ in their assaults on the world of F1.

On April 20 The Sunday Telegraph gave over most of its front page to the Mosley affair, and there followed a lengthy interview, the first since the scandal came to light, in which Max put his barrister’s gift of the gab to work, arguing that, yes, he had the odd peccadillo, but nothing that would raise the eyebrows of someone of any sophistication. The villain of the piece, he suggested, was the lady who whipped and told, and of what account was a sexual fetish when set against all the work he had done for safety, on both track and road?

Mosley also ‘revealed’ that he had anyway decided not to stand for election again in the autumn of 2009, a surprise, I must say, to those of us who had listened only recently to his responses when questioned on the matter.

He had learned a lesson, he said, from Tony Blair, whose authority had been much diminished by his announcement, well ahead of time, that he would be stepping down. Can Max not understand that this has been similarly achieved by his actions of the recent past?

Perhaps Mosley’s finest hour came in Monte Carlo, on the morning of Friday, May 13 1994. Two weeks earlier, at Imola, both Ayrton Senna and Roland Ratzenberger had lost their lives, and only the day before, in first qualifying for the Monaco Grand Prix, Karl Wendlinger had suffered life-threatening injuries.

Following Wendlinger’s accident, Max called for a press conference, and was never more statesmanlike than when he announced an immediate raft of changes, both technical and sporting, to the rules.

“The time has come,” he said that morning, “because of the gravity of the situation, and the force of public opinion, to set aside any other considerations, and simply do what is right, in the general interests of the sport.”

In very different circumstances, that time has come again.

*****

Four days before Max Mosley made his ill-fated trip to the apartment in Chelsea, there came news of the death, at 86, of his predecessor at the FIA, Jean-Marie Balestre.

In 1991 Mosley defeated Balestre in the election for the presidency of the FISA, then the governing body’s sporting arm, and two years later succeeded him in the top job. Subsequently it was decided to abolish the FISA, to bring ‘sport’ under the umbrella of the FIA, and this greatly added to Mosley’s power base, for now he had responsibility for the whole caboodle. As well as motor sport, the business of road cars, road safety, and so on, was within Max’s remit, which gave him a certain amount of clout with the EU, and a touch with the ‘real world’ politics from which his surname had hitherto precluded him.

In terms of their behaviour, Balestre and Mosley could scarcely have been more disparate. Where Max was smoothness personified, Jean-Marie was voluble, visibly – and audibly – choleric. In response to a difficult question at a press conference, Mosley could on occasion allow irritation to creep into his voice, as if this were all really rather tiresome, but Balestre would get red in the face, and bellow an irascible response. It was all very theatrical, and often, contrary to his intentions, highly amusing.

When Balestre became president of the FISA, in the late ’70s, he lost no time in asserting himself and the authority of the body he represented. Through that decade, the power of FOCA – the Formula One Constructors Association – had mushroomed, and with it the influence of Bernie Ecclestone, whose notion, to ‘unionise’ the teams, it had originally been. Ecclestone, then the owner of Brabham, had suggested to his fellow team owners that he negotiate with race organisers, then TV companies, on their behalf, and they were only too willing for him to put his entrepreneurial genius to work. In Bernie’s hands, they began to get rich.

Once installed at FISA, though, Balestre soon made it clear that he felt the time had come for the governing body to start governing again, an unwelcome development for the increasingly robust gentlemen of FOCA, not least its leader. And thus, through the winter of 1980/81, there occurred what became known as the FISA-FOCA War, this a locking of horns between Balestre and the daunting combo of Ecclestone and Mosley.

After a lot of empty – but effective – talk from the rebels about a breakaway championship, and the like, vested interests ensured that compromise was reached, and thus the first Concorde Agreement was drawn up, in April 1981.

Announced as ‘a working document, under which Formula 1 is run’, from its inception the Concorde Agreement has been cloaked in masonic secrecy, its contents known only to F1’s inner circle, but in those days not all team owners were obsessives. I remember calling Morris Nunn, the proprietor of Ensign, to ask about this new epistle of peace, and he began reading out chunks of it. “What d’you suppose they mean by that?” he said at one point.

I said I didn’t know – I wasn’t a team owner, and I didn’t have a Concorde Agreement. “Well, I’ll send a copy down to you,” he suggested, and I said I thought that an excellent idea. Over time the document (the last of which expired at the end of last year) has gone through many incarnations and updates, making my original copy perhaps almost meaningless now, but its essential aims have remained largely unchanged.
One was that, ‘The FIA is the sole international body governing motor sport. Its Statutes have delegated this power to FISA, which governs the organisation of the FIA Formula 1 World Championship, which is the exclusive property of the FIA’.

Fine. But there was – of course – a trade-off, the governing body granting, ‘The exclusive right for FOCA to enter into contracts with the organisers/promoters of FIA F1 World Championship events, in the best interests of all competitors’. Henceforth, in other words, Balestre would look after the rules, and Ecclestone the deals. Everyone was happy.

In some ways everyone was happier still in October 1991, when Balestre was defeated in the FISA presidential election by… Mosley. And not long afterwards Ecclestone, too, became ‘an FIA man’, his position vice-president (marketing). The poachers had indeed turned gamekeepers; all bases were now covered.

I happened to be in Normandy when Max usurped Jean-Marie in the contest for the Place de la Concorde, and well remember the reactions of L’Equipe and other French journals. All appeared stunned, and that went for Balestre, too. None, it seemed, had taken Mosley’s challenge seriously.

For quite some time, indeed, it had not even been known that one was coming. For several months that summer Max took himself off to a villa in Italy, and there meticulously plotted his campaign. By the time it came to voting, the result wasn’t even close.

As Balestre slid from power, and resumed his former role, as president of the FFSA (the French federation), much was written in his homeland about his life and career. As a founder of a Paris publishing company, which blossomed into a media empire, he had become immensely rich, but rather little space was given over to his activities in World War II: after the German invasion of France he had thought about which side he wanted to be on, and decided on the one he thought would win.

When, after the war, this became public knowledge, Balestre issued many a lawsuit, never denying his membership of the French SS, but insisting that throughout he had been a double agent, working ‘underground’ for the resistance. If it were unfortunate that none remained alive who might have corroborated this story, so none could prove it false, either. Whenever Balestre sued, he won, but invariably the damages were derisory.

None of this, however, got in the way of his being made a Chevalier de la Legion d’Honneur in 1968. A few years ago Max Mosley was similarly honoured.

During Balestre’s years as FISA president, I was a frequent critic, primarily because his behaviour appeared uneven, unpredictable. It seemed fatuous that one putting himself forward as an authoritarian figure should sometimes so blatantly disregard his own rules. There was the occasion, for example, when he and another FISA official crossed the track at the end of the first lap of the British Grand Prix – and were almost mown down by Nicola Larini’s Osella, which had started late, and was adrift of the pack. Or the time at Magny-Cours in 1991, when he was photographed in the pits with a girl (who proved not to be a girl) on roller-skates. During a practice session.

No, JMB was never the most temperate of men. Think of Suzuka in 1989, when Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost, seeking to resolve the World Championship, had the first of their celebrated comings-together. The two McLarens, undamaged but locked together, slithered to a halt in the escape road at the chicane, engines dead. Prost immediately hopped out, but Senna frantically persuaded the marshals to give him a push start, and went on to victory, only to suffer disqualification. McLaren immediately put in an appeal, but some clue as to how it would be received was provided the same evening by Balestre, as he watched the video of Ayrton’s push start. “Illegal!” he screamed to the heavens.

Incidents of that kind rather compromised the credibility of Balestre and his office, as also did his ludicrous attachment to pomp and ceremony, which swelled alarmingly over the years. In the days of BRM everyone would snigger when Louis and Jean Stanley swept into the paddock in some chauffeur-driven limo, but JMB took it somewhat further, and to witness his arrival at a circuit, complete with flags and out-riders, was to be reminded of some tin-pot dictator in a banana republic. It had little to do with authority, everything to do with ego.

All that said, though, Balestre’s years as FISA president were not without achievement. For one thing, he gave the governing body some teeth, which previously it had lacked. Hard to believe in the context of today, I know, but nonetheless true. Before Jean-Marie arrived, the CSI – as it then was – had a well-meaning, but weak, leader in Pierre Ugeux. He and his delegates were not the people to curb FOCA’s burgeoning power, and it was this which prompted Balestre to make his moves. Always one with a taste for combat, he was clear in his aims from the beginning: the authority in world motor sport, he stressed, would be reverting to Paris.

There were other good things, too. Having founded the FFSA in 1952, Balestre became the first president of the International Karting Commission of the FIA seven year later, and if his claim that ‘I founded karting’ was a touch over the top, there is no doubt that he did much to foster its growth as a feeder series, as a glance at the CVs of most Grand Prix drivers will confirm.

As well as that, he worked strenuously for their safety and well-being. Mandatory crash testing of new F1 cars we take for granted these days, but the practice was introduced only in 1985 – at the insistence of Balestre.

During his period in office, too, F1 went through the ‘ground effect’ era, when the cars raced with those ridiculous ‘skirts’, designed to form a seal with the ground. To keep the skirts from being swiftly destroyed, suspension was effectively done away with, and the resulting cars were not only mighty uncomfortable to drive, but also lethally devoid of feel.

After the 1982 season, during which there had been many huge accidents, the drivers were close to rebellion, and in the autumn Balestre took a unilateral decision that, henceforth, skirts were to be banned, and that flat-bottomed cars would be mandatory. In so doing he faced strenuous opposition from some constructors, but their objections were dismissed and the change pushed through on grounds of safety. If he had achieved nothing else, that alone would have justified Balestre’s tenure of the job. Thereafter F1 cars were sanitary devices once more, and a horrible era was past.

JMB’s public image, it must be admitted, frequently worked against him. To see him in full flood at a press conference, face contorted, fists thumping the table, was sometimes to wonder if here was a man completely steady in the head. But as I discovered, at a small private dinner in Paris a few years after he had been deposed, Balestre could be charming company, with a splendidly irreverent sense of humour – I can still recall his impression of the man who succeeded him. And if, like Mosley, he was a fellow who relished power, and thrived on conflict, so I never doubted his genuine love of racing. Which is more than I would say of some.