Playing Safe

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On the eve of another new Formula One season, the FIA President spoke to Mike Lawrence about his immediate objectives for Grand Prix racing, and the sport as a whole

In 1980 at Brand Hatch I interviewed Max Mosley for a radio programme. He seemed delighted with the experience, and I came away thinking that my incisive questions and wit had made an impression…

What I didn’t know was that, behind me, Max could see Bernie Ecclestone serving a writ on Jean-Marie Balestre, the President of the FIA, and Balestre was having a fit. The FISA/FOCA war was on, and Max was Bernie’s right-hand man in the FOCA camp.

That is all history now. Over a decade later, Max defeated Balestre for the Presidency of the FIA — the poacher turned gamekeeper. He has brought to the job a degree in physics, fluency in several languages, and the experiences of having practised as a barrister, and of running the March F1 team from 1970-77, usually on an inadequate budget and only a step from bankruptcy.

I visited him again much more recently, on the day the news had broken that Formula One drivers would have to sit a written examination in the rules of the sport. “It is actually a safety measure. Say you’re three laps into a race when it is stopped. Do you stop on the circuit, return to the pits, go back to the grid? If you don’t know, you can put the lives of your fellow competitors at risk. And some drivers don’t know.”

Which raises the point about what would happen if someone was caught cheating in the exam. “We know about these things, and it will be very difficult to cheat. If they fail they will have to re-sit the exam. If someone is found cheating, let us say that it will be to the financial advantage of the FIA.”

It surprised few people that Max ran for the Presidency. “I was increasingly dissatisfied with my job as head of the Manufacturers’ Commission because I could never get hold of JeanMarie Balestre. The whole thing was being run in a way which I found most unsatisfactory and I thought that I might as well see if I could change things. People were ready for a greater degree of consultation, and there was a large number of countries which were excluded from the decision-making process.”

You could say that his election sealed the victory for FOCA, which seems to have enormous influence with the FIA. “It’s true that FOCA does have a disproportionate amount of influence in Formula One, but that’s because of the Concorde agreement which means that of the 13 members of the F1 commission, six are teams, two are team sponsors, four are organisers and there’s one FIA man, so in that sense teams do have a lot of influence. I have come from the professional side of the sport, and I feel one of them in a way, but overall I have to look after the interests of everybody involved and I have to defend that. On the other hand, the interests of the teams and the interests of Formula One are much the same.

“Differences of opinion tend to be over matters of detail rather than fundamental issues. Sometimes the teams will react badly if you have to do something in a hurry — like when we clearly had to do something about safety after the Senna accident. More to the point, we had to be seen by the public to be doing something, and that brought me into conflict with the teams. Those conflicts do not tend to last very long and they realise that I am ultimately trying to do the same as they are, which is to make Formula One successful.”

The FIA once had a contract with Simtek to evaluate the effects of new regulations. “That was before Simtek came into F1. MIRA has done wonders for us and we have contracts with various other people. We don’t pull things out of the air, we propose a change, we try to find out all the likely effects of the change.”

It may well be fine to use technology to predict changes in a car’s behaviour, but had some of that expertise been used to predict the consequences of cars leaving the track, then some drivers would have benefited. Senna was killed not because he left the road, but because of what happened afterwards. “The answer is that there is currently under construction such a programme. The big problem is putting in enough information. We do not know enough about what happens to a car from the point when a person loses control until it comes to rest. We are very close now to being able to fit the equivalent of an aircraft ‘black box’ to every car, but teams are not wildly enthusiastic about us having all sorts of information about their cars which we would then have.

“So far as Mika’s accident at Adelaide is concerned, a contributory factor was that kerb, and the whole question of kerbs is being looked at.

“We hope to have our ‘black box’ within months because we need better data. Suppose the car has a puncture, it goes over a kerb, it goes across the grass and then gets to the gravel trap then it hits the barrier. We need to know by how much it slows down in each of those stages. Then we need to know how hard it hits the barrier and, what way, so we have more information whew can use to protect the driver.

“Different types of gravel are being looked at. Anyone can see that sometimes the car skids and sometimes it bounces over the top. That is obviously a function of the gravel and it may depend on how wet it is, but that is currently the subject of a research contract. Then there are the barriers — are three rows of tyres necessarily better than one row? Are there better ways of absorbing the energy of a crash, which is after all, what it is all about?

“All those questions are constantly looked at but there are no easy solutions although there are any number of enthusiastic amateurs who think that there are. When Wendlinger had his crash people said we needed higher cockpit sides. but it took 18 months of systematic research at MIRA before we were able to agree on the system which will come in this year. It is actually very complicated; you can protect the head but endanger the neck, or you can protect the neck and endanger the head — but protecting both is actually very difficult.”

On the matter of computers, is Max satisfied that the sort of suspicion which hung over Benetton in 1994 is now a thing of the past? ”You can never be 100 per cent sure when you’re dealing with things as complex as electronics, and computer programmes with several million lines of source code, which modern grand prix cars have. But anyone who did do something stands a good chance of being caught and the penalties will be Draconian. We demonstrated with the Toyota rally team that if we come across anything that is clearly designed to subvert the rules, then we will suspend the team.

“Suspending Toyota cost us a lot in the World Rally Championship — it cost us more than suspending a team in Formula One would, but if we suspended a team in F1 they would be out of business.”

The FIA has employed consultants to examine the ROM content of cars’ computer systems, but it has been suggested that RAM programmes could be transmitted to a car which would disappear as soon as the engine is turned off. “We can ensure that does not happen by arranging the inspection procedure and things like the boot-up sequence so that it is not possible to do it without it being found out.”

Ford has recently announced an unprecedented future commitment to F1. Ford is American, but there is no F1 race in the USA. A race on an oval circuit would be interesting and Indianapolis was once a World Championship event. “We’ve offered, but they don’t want to know. Every time I see Tony George, who runs Indianapolis, I make him the offer. I say, ‘We’ll come and race under your rules.’ I think that CART might see us as a problem.”

With the expansion of satellite and cable television, millions of enthusiasts have had a chance to watch other types of racing, and some have found IndyCar more exciting than F1. “A lot of people say that, but the fact is that IndyCar is available very cheaply to any country’s television channels and, compared to Formula One, its audience is tiny. There is a lot of satellite coverage, which nobody watches, and very little terrestrial broadcasting. There may be some jaded people, like you and me, who think that IndyCar is more exciting, but the fact is that the world at large prefers to watch Formula One and television stations have to pay for Formula One when they could have IndyCar for next to nothing.”

Australia and Brazil have both taken IndyCar races and no doubt the trend will continue. “CART is a national formula and it is not unusual for national formulae to race abroad.”

Toyota, one of the world’s Big Three manufacturers, has built several Formula One engines, but has not come into F1. On the other hand, it is committed to CART. “The only reason why they have not come into Formula One, I suspect, is because they have not yet succeeded in building a competitive engine and it will be infinitely easier to build a competitive engine for IndyCar simply because you’ve basically got two commercial engines, Cosworth and Ilmor, with a little input from Honda. Toyota should be able to make something of that standard while to come in and compete with Renault and Ferrari is another matter.

“I don’t know if that is the case, but my hunch is that if they didn’t want to come in they wouldn’t have bothered to build the engine and a fairly rational reason for not coming in is that it wasn’t competitive.”

Leaving aside the fact that Cosworth and Honda are the two most successful F1 engine manufacturers in modern times, Toyota has chosen CART and must commit to supplying more than one team. Is there not a case for a similar rule in Formula One? “It’s interesting that the top engine maker, Renault, does supply top teams and there are seven engine manufacturers supplying the 11 teams. You could not make such a rule because there are not enough teams.

“You cannot mandate that a manufacturer is to supply its engines free — they normally don’t in IndyCar — so the little teams could not afford them. There is also the idea that the engine plays a major part in a car’s performance, but a recent article by Peter Wright (father of ground effects in F1) argues that the engine accounts for less one percent of a car’s performance.

“If you took an engine out of a Forti and put in a Williams or Benetton, it is unlikely to cost it more than a second a lap. What makes a car competitive, or uncompetitive, is a package of things that is possible to calculate, given a specific budget where a team ought to be. The real problem is money, not the power of the engine.”

Recently there has been talk about teams being able to run a third car for, say, its test drives or a local hero. “At the moment there are enough teams so a third Williams might knock the second Minardi off the back of the grid, or out of the money, which could put Minardi out of business If the grid shrank, there could be an argumentlaf allowing teams to run third, or even fourth, but we don’t want to discourage the smaller teams.”

The fact remains that for 1996 there will 28 cars and 26 places on the grid. “Not really because only 20 cars get benefits. Formula One is structured around 20 cars. If you go below that number you might want to run third cars to boost it up again; if you go above that then you inflict penalties on the small teams. The number is 20 and at 22 cars it is above its natural size.Even now, the last two people on the grid get money.”

It struck me as slightly puzzling that on one hand, we have Bernie Ecclestone telling us that some people should not be in F1, and yet teams are prevented from bringing on people who should be there. Mario Andretti, Gilles Villeneuve and Nigel Mansell all made their F1 debuts in three cars, and since we’re talking about Mansell, we are hardly going back into the Stone Age. “We are discussing running more than two cars, but not before the grid has shrunk below its number.”

In 1977, Frank Williams rebuilt his career running a private March — sold to him by one M Mosley, and with the 20-car FOCA package in operation. So why can’t people do the same today, bearing in mind that they would still have to qualify? Flavio Briatore recently asked as much of the F1 Commission. “Suppose you were allowed to do that. You go and buy two Benettons and it would cost you less than it costs Signor Minardi to build and maintain his two cars. You might be able to do a better job, hire better drivers arid go out and beat him. That then means he might go out of business, and that is not what we want.”

Many enthusiasts are of the opinion that Formula One has not really decided whether it wants to be the pinnacle of technology or entertainment on television. “At the moment there is no limit to the technology you can apply to make a car go faster, except using any means to replace the driver. In other words, you cannot build a selfsteering car, or one with stabilising suspension or Skid control, but that it not a restriction on technology, it is an insistence that the driver, and not a computer, is the one to exploit the technology of a car. It’s a human sport as well as a mechanical sport.

“There is, however, an argument for making some elements of the cars standard. There are things which cost a great deal of money but bring nothing either to the sport or to technology.” Standard brake discs, perhaps? “For example,” replies Max.

On the question of television entertainment, since Formula One brought back refuelling, some races have become four 50-mile sprints, which is not true Grand Prix racing. It does not give a driver like Alain Prost the opportunity to demonstrate his skill over the full 200 miles. “There is a view that Grand Prix racing without refuelling had two defects: one was that often it wasn’t a race, but a car-nursing contest albeit at high speed; the other was that so far as the public was concerned, there was a lack of intellectual content, there was nothing to think about. Although there were enormously complex strategies involved, it was not something which involved the public because each team kept its strategies secret.

“Refuelling, however, is done in public so the strategy is open. It gives people something to consider all through the race, like whether Williams has made a better decision than Benetton, for example. It has the effect of engaging the public more. If you do not have that, a sport can become very popular, but then people get bored with it. Grand Prix racing is now like a chess game played out in the open, whereas traditionally things had been done in secret.

“There are arguments against refuelling. There’s the safety argument, but that cuts two ways. There is the chance of fire in the pits, but less chance of a big accident on the circuit because the car is lighter and there is less energy to dissipate. There is the greater danger which comes from racing flat-out all the time, there are pros and cons, but we should be capable of refuelling a car without setting fire to it.

“In the end, it’s what the public want which matters, and there is evidence which suggests that the public is very interested in refuelling strategies.” Moving down, since Formula 3000 — a category which Max seemed ready to axe not so long ago — is now a single-make discipline, it means that a manufacturer such as Reynard has lost a market and it no longer needs F3000 designers. Dallara has been denied the next logical step for it to take. “You’ve got to ask yourself what’s the purpose of F3000? Is it to educate racing car manufacturers or is it to bring on drivers for F1? So far as we are concerned its primary purpose is to bring on drivers.

“As it was, you had manufacturers competing on a race-to-race basis with each one trying to make a more competitive car and the competitors were having to foot the bill for the manufacturers research and development costs. You can either have that, or you can have the competition before the seasons starts by asking manufacturers to submit a tender.

The cost to the driver is going to be less than half what it was under the old system. When they were paying the R&D costs, the number of drivers was restricted so we were not able to cast the net more widely for Formula One.”

Even so, over the past 20 years only one driver who has won a Formula Two or F3000 championship has won a Grand Prix — Jean Alesi. One Grand Prix. Piquet, Prost, Senna, Mansell and Schumacher did half a dozen F2/3000 races between them. That is not an argument for not doing what we’ve done, that is an argument for abolishing F3000. We hope that where it has failed in the past, it might succeed in the future. “You cannot say it hasn’t succeeded because the new system hasn’t yet been given a chance. In 1996, F3000 will cost about the same as Formula Three and I hope that we will get a better selection of drivers.

“It is true that some of the best drivers have gone straight from Formula Three to Formula One, but F3000 has produced a lot of good, reliable F1 drivers and you cannot dismiss them simply because they are not blinding talents.”

Some people think that Jan Magnussen and Dario Franchitti are blinding talents — and they have excellent career advice from Ron Dennis and Jackie Stewart — yet each has chosen to do touring cars instead of F3000. “One at least is advised by someone with a big interest in Mercedes-Benz and I think you’ll have to wait and see if they get anywhere. All they are at present is touring car drivers. When they’ve won a Grand Prix, let’s talk about them.”

On the world F1 scene, there has been a steady shift towards the Pacific Basin, and some people how much that is connected with tobacco sponsorship and an expanding market there. “There is a shift,” Max agreed, “and there is discussion about holding races in China and places like Indonesia, but that is because Formula One is a high technology, big money sport and the Pacific Basin is a high technology, big money area. There is still a disproportionate amount of Grand Prix racing in Europe, bearing in mind the economic importance of Europe compared with the Pacific.

“So far as tobacco sponsorship is concerned, there are problems with that in many parts of the world and I don’t think that we’ll have fewer problems in the Pacific Basin. People talk about sponsorship after tobacco, but if your sport is successful enough, you’ll always find sponsors. If F1 lost tobacco, there might be less money but there would be enough to keep it running quite satisfactorily.”

The World Rally Championship had a rough time at the end of 1995. What are Mosley’s present concerns there? “Number one is safety for the public, and the second main concern is to bring in more major manufacturers allied to better media coverage, This is in hand, but the biggest worry is the safety of the spectators.”

The FIA’s decision to allow WRC cars with smaller turbo restrictors on non-World Championship events in 1997 has caused confusion and makers no longer know whether to build two-wheel-drive cars for national rallies or four-wheel-drive cars, with mods, for all events. Originally the WRC was going to be for two-wheel drive cars, but it was soon clear that not enough manufacturers were going to build them and we opened it up to World Rally cars. Then we had pressure to allow the Asia-Pacific series run World Rally cars, which we’ve done, but with a small restrictor. Each country and each area are quite clear what sort of cars they want to run. so Britain it is two-litre, two-wheel-drive cars, but most international events will be for World Rally cars because that’s what a majority of the manufacturers wish to build.”

Being the President of an organisation like FIA is an awesome task, so what would he like his legacy to be, when the time comes to relinquish the post?

His response required not a moment’s thought “To have made racing and rallying safe…”

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