F1's Dirty Politics: Bernie vs Balestre, FOCA vs FISA

Think of this year’s political crisis in F1, and it’s impossible not to think of the FISA/FOCA war. And then as now, Bernie Ecclestone will play a pivotal role in the outcome

Bernie Ecclestone Jean-Marie Balestre 1981 Las Vegas GP

Poachers turned gamekeepers Bernie and Max discuss their differences with Balestre at Vegas '81

Grand Prix Photo

It is early afternoon on Saturday November 1, 1980. A call is placed to the Brabham headquarters in Chessington, Surrey. The conversation goes something like this:


“Ah, hello. Could I speak to Mr Ecclestone please?”

“He’s not ’ere. Who wants ’im?”

“This is Maurice Hamilton, motor sport correspondent for The Guardian newspaper. Is there anyone there I might be able to speak to?”

“No one ’ere. I’m the cleaner. What d’you want?”

Frank WIlliams Carlos Reutemann

Williams had a particularly withering assessment of Balestre

Grand Prix Photo

“Well, I understand from a colleague, Ian Phillips, that Mr Ecclestone might have a document available outlining a proposed World Championship and I was wondering if I could call in and get a copy. It’s a pretty big story and we’re very interested in it.”

“Who d’you say you are?”

“Hamilton. From The Guardian.”

“There’s an envelope ’ere on the desk. Says ‘Guardian’. Must be for you. When are you comin’? I’m lockin’ up soon.”

“I’ll be there in 45 minutes. That okay?”


“Thank you. Where will I find the… Hello? You still there…?”

Bernie Ecclestone Jean-Marie Balestre 1981 German GP

Balestre and Ecclestone/Moseley struggled to see eye-to-eye

Grand Prix Photo

If I hadn’t been a nervous young reporter keen to make an impression, I might have had the temerity to challenge the identity of the cleaner because I’ll swear it was Bernie Ecclestone himself. How convenient that this gentleman, whoever he was, should find an envelope ready and prepared for The Guardian.

There was no one to be seen as I walked into the brightly lit premises on Cox Lane. The cleaner was clearly a man of his word. There, on the otherwise bare reception desk, was an envelope with ‘Guardian’ scrawled on the front. There was nothing else to be seen or heard, apart from the hum of neon lights reflecting off immaculate venetian blinds, each one adjusted to the same precise angle. There was the unavoidable feeling that I was being watched. I slipped away as quietly as I had arrived. But there was no doubt that the spiral-bound document within the envelope was already causing a lot of noise, most of it coming from the direction of Paris.

Bold black print on a turquoise cover announced: ‘The World Federation of Motor Sport present (sic) The World Professional Drivers Championship’. Inside, seven chapters outlining the proposed calendar for 1981, the identity of 11 teams and drivers (including Alan Jones, the reigning World Champion), the sporting and technical regulations plus five appendices detailing, among other matters, contracts with the organisers of the Monaco, French and Dutch Grands Prix.

From the archive

Chapter seven contained six close-typed pages under the heading: ‘The FOCA/FISA Conflict’, the 19 questions and answers bearing the manipulating fingerprints of Max Mosley. Ecclestone’s persuasive sidekick may have left the reader feeling there was no alternative to the Formula One Constructors Association (FOCA) setting up its own championship, but there was a more brutal summary at the bottom of the first page in chapter one. An outline of the conflict between FOCA and FISA – and, in particular, Jean-Marie Balestre, the FISA president – was concluded by a straightforward quote from Frank Williams. “The split was inevitable,” said the 1980 World Champion constructor. “Under Balestre FISA is no longer capable of administering professional motor sport.”

And there you had it in a nutshell. There may have been major concern over the Frenchman’s wish to control all matters technical and financial, but the nub of the problem was Balestre himself. It would be much the same 29 years later except that the Formula One Teams Association (FOTA) tiptoed around their dislike of Max Mosley’s methods as the former poacher reached what FOTA hoped would be his final days as a gamekeeper who had become trigger-happy and dangerous. The diplomacy in 2009 may have been a sign of the times but it was also an indication that the eloquent Mosley was a much more cunning adversary as FIA president than his volatile, red-faced predecessor whom, ironically, Mosley had played a major part in dethroning.

Balestre’s first headline act in Formula 1 had been typically theatrical. Having helped form the French motor sport organisation (FFSA) in 1952 and then presided over it for 23 years, Balestre saw his chance to move onward and upward by standing as president of the FIA’s sporting arm, then known as the CSI and soon to become FISA. Not three months after his election in October 1978, Balestre would make his mark at the Argentine GP, the first race of the season.

2 Bernie Ecclestone Jean-Marie Balestre 1981 German GP

Balestre was desperate to regain control of F1

Grand Prix Photo

Having witnessed a first-corner accident involving Ferrari’s Jody Scheckter and the McLaren of John Watson, Balestre, resplendent in white suit and matching shoes, summoned a meeting of the stewards, arbitrarily declared that Watson had been at fault and imposed a hefty £3000 fine. Balestre then not only refused Watson the opportunity to defend himself but also took great pride in telling whoever would listen that he had considered suspending the McLaren driver for a fixed period. White shoes or no, here was a man clearly of the view that Ecclestone and the teams had garnered too much control, particularly over finance, and he had every intention of returning it to its rightful place within the FIA headquarters in Place de la Concorde.

Verbal and written attacks between the two sides became increasingly common throughout 1979, Balestre in particular looking for ways to challenge Ecclestone and the authority of FOCA. A major aggravating factor was the divide caused between teams (primarily Ferrari and Renault) with turbocharged cars and those using normally aspirated engines, most commonly the Ford-Cosworth DFV. The latter teams were more successful than the turbo entrants in making full use of sliding skirts and ground effect thanks to the slimmer profile of the Cosworth V8.

Balestre, who felt his predecessor should never have allowed ground effect to flourish, claimed skirts ‘illegal’ and, in February 1980, declared they would be banned at the start of the following season. This fell short of the two years’ notice that the FISA was required to give, Balestre claiming safety as his excuse. Unilateral action by the FIA president nearly three decades later would cause similar offence. In 1980, however, the FISA president had barely got going.

From the archive

Balestre introduced mandatory driver briefings; a sensible suggestion in itself but one which FOCA used as a test case. Certain drivers were ordered not to attend briefings in Belgium and Monaco. Those drivers were fined and, when the money was not forthcoming, Balestre said their licences would be suspended. It all came to a head at the next race at Jarama. When the FOCA members refused to race unless the fines were quashed, the Spanish organisers, anxious that their event should not suffer, made clear their contract was with FOCA. It was at this point that the so-called ‘grandees’ – Ferrari, Alfa Romeo and Renault – decided to stay with FISA, thus causing a split from the FOCA ‘constructors’. The race went ahead with 22 cars (now minus the grandees) forming on the grid, the Williams of Alan Jones being the first to cross the line 80 laps later. Balestre, having suffered the indignity of forcible removal from a race meeting over which he no longer had jurisdiction, lost no time in declaring the 1980 Spanish Grand Prix illegal. The subsequent Grands Prix seemed no more than interruptions to endless meetings, proposals, threats, promises, accusations and stand-offs. Sound familiar?

Rapprochement was clearly not at hand when Balestre referred to FOCA as “little men playing with toys, making cars in garages” and Ecclestone responded by describing FISA as “a bunch of nobodies, they appoint themselves and think they own racing”. To prove precisely that, FISA ruled on October 7 that entries for the 1981 World Championship had to be registered before November 15; shades, once again, of the deadlines set by Mosley during the current conflict. And, just as the FOTA teams threatened a breakaway series in 2010, so we had the unveiling of the WFMS document on October 31, 1980 and its furtive distribution by the Chessington cleaner.

But there was one significant difference. While FOTA had – and continues to have – a serious plan with adequate funding, FOCA was operating on a wing and a prayer. Mosley reluctantly realised the seriousness of FOTA’s intent but, in 1980, Balestre did not appreciate the parlous state of the opposition, not even when FOCA was backed into a corner by Balestre threatening punitive action against circuits staging races not authorised by the FIA. Within six weeks of its introduction, the WFMS series was literally going nowhere. The outcome of this increasingly divisive war would be decided during an innocuous moment over dinner on an Austrian mountain.

1980 SPanish GP

Mechanics kill time at the 1980 Spanish GP – which eventually became non-championship

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“We had no money, no sponsorship, no tyres and the whole Establishment against us,” recalls Mosley. “Over the winter, Colin Chapman, Teddy Mayer, me and some others were skiing in Kitzbühel. At a dinner we saw a painting on the wall of the restaurant which had a cow in it. The cow was being painted by a group of people. Chapman asked the waitress what it was all about. She told him about an ancient siege and that the villagers were left with only one cow. So to give the impression that they had plenty of food the people painted that cow in a different way every day and took it to a place where all their enemies could see it. Chapman suddenly said: ‘That’s it! That’s what we need to do. Let’s organise a race.’

“We all went up to my room and telephoned Bernie to tell him about our idea. There was a long silence on the other end. He said we were all pissed. Which we were, but we still liked the idea the next morning.

“Bernie could give us tyres from his old Avon warehouse. Then we put on a press conference in the Hotel Crillon, just next to the FIA in Paris, to announce that there would be a race in Kyalami, South Africa, a month later, in February 1981. If Balestre had come to that breakfast at the Crillon, he would have seen what poor shape we were in. There was Mo Nunn from Ensign, who had mortgaged his house. I had to pay the airfare to Paris for Ken Tyrrell. I doubt we were even able to pay the bill in the Crillon. But we were going to hold that race, whatever it took.”

The owners of the Kyalami circuit had a bit of history with Balestre and were willing to cooperate with FOCA. At their previous grand prix, won by René Arnoux, Balestre had been elbowed off an overcrowded podium as he tried to muscle in on a French victory. Little did Balestre know that Mosley had mischievously advised the circuit’s security chief that Balestre would insist on being on the podium even though he was not – according to Mosley – supposed to be there. The burly Afrikaner was as good as his word when following through on Mosley’s ‘helpful’ advice. Balestre’s outrage was heightened even further when those in charge then failed to play La Marseillaise. It pleased him little that, 12 months later, the same organisers were playing ball with FOCA.

Carlos Reutemann 1981 Dutch GP

Reutemann dominated ’81 Kyalami GP – a FOCA-only affair

Grand Prix Photo

Balestre was not alone in thinking that the race would never happen. Of all the circuits hosting F1 races, Kyalami had traditionally been among the most financially unstable. The irony was, the rebel grand prix was almost guaranteed for that very reason. Kyalami Enterprises had finally succeeded in securing a lucrative two-year sponsorship deal with Nashua, starting in 1980. Its continuing support was contractually contingent on the running of the second grand prix on Saturday February 7. Despite Balestre’s best efforts to spike the deal, the race was on.

The hastily-produced 28-page programme for the 1981 ‘Nashua Grand Prix of South Africa’ carried no mention whatsoever of the FIA, FISA, FOCA, their associated officials or the raging dispute between them. Nowhere did it say who was actually organising the event. The most important fact in the programme’s introduction appeared to be that a bank of Nashua copiers would produce more than 20,000 press releases on race day.

From the archive

One such release showed a starting grid with Nelson Piquet’s Brabham on pole, the Williams of Carlos Reutemann alongside, followed by Jones (Williams), Keke Rosberg (Fittipaldi), Elio de Angelis (Lotus) and Riccardo Patrese (Arrows). It mattered little that Patrese’s Christian name had been misspelt or that there was a five-second spread from the front to the back of the all-Cosworth 19-car grid. The crucial fact was that they were there.

As were the media in considerable numbers, even though the whiff of Gauloises was noticeably absent in the press room. BBC Radio 2 took live reports from Simon Taylor and BBC Television showed highlights in the evening. This was a serious motor race. The cars may have been running with sliding skirts but the feeling was that any repercussions could be sorted out later. To all intents and purposes, the 1981 F1 season started right here.

Politics, hardly mentioned during the two days of practice, were completely forgotten as an enthralling race unfolded thanks to a wet track gradually drying out. Starting on slicks, Reutemann’s gamble paid off as he ran no lower than eighth in the treacherous conditions and moved into the lead just before half distance. At the end of 77 laps, the Argentinean was 20 seconds ahead of Piquet, with de Angelis third, almost a lap behind the winner. Such minor details were of no interest to those watching in Paris. Yes, it had been a race without Ferrari, but the inescapable fact was that FOCA had shown themselves capable of not only running a Grand Prix but also having it receive international television coverage.

Bernie Ecclestone Max Mosley

Ecclestone and Mosley found themselves on the other side of the fight almost 30 years later – seen here with Luca di Montezemolo during the 2009 ‘FOTA dispute’

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When Enzo Ferrari began to prevaricate in his typical desire to be on the winning side, an increasingly uncomfortable Balestre continued to see Renault as a major ally. But the French firm’s power and position was about to become its greatest weakness. Having won the South African race 12 months before and now been absent from this one, Renault panicked when Balestre began to threaten the organisers of the next race in California because of their support for FOCA. Renault-owned American Motors and the firm’s senior management in the US were shocked when Balestre, in one of his spittle-ridden moments of frustration, claimed Renault would not be racing in the US Grand Prix (West). Balestre’s campaign was instantly holed beneath the water line when Renault had the audacity to stand up and say it would be competing at Long Beach. Although he didn’t know it, the FISA president had allowed himself to be defeated by an enemy that had run out of ammunition.

Within weeks, a peace agreement gave each side what they had wanted. Cars would run without skirts; there would be a minimum of two years’ notice to cover technical changes which would be the exclusive governance of FISA; FOCA, meanwhile, retained the right to negotiate all commercial activities. Although neither side had ‘won’, the battle having exposed FOCA’s financial weakness and FISA’s political vulnerability, there can be no doubt that Ecclestone was the winner in the long run. Or, at least, he was until this year when, faced with the mess created by his former mate Max, Mr E was forced to attempt some urgent cleaning. What goes round, comes round.