Max Mosley: 'As much sinner as saint, but we'll never see his like again'


Max Mosley shaped F1 — and modern motor sport — as we know it, doing good and bad. Matt Bishop examines the complex character of the former FIA president

Max Mosley pictured in London in 2009

Shaun Curry/AFP via Getty Images

A toweringly intelligent and often charming man, yet disturbingly complex and sometimes cruel, Max Mosley died by his own hand on May 23, 2021, aged 81, having informed his personal assistant Henry Alexander that he was going to end his life, the reason being that his doctors had told him that his cancer had become terminal and that he had only weeks to live. The way he dispatched himself was typically resolute. He had dinner with his wife Jean, whom he had married 61 years before, during which repast he ate and spoke less than he usually would but was otherwise his normal urbane self, he bade her a polite farewell — for they lived in two nearby houses on the same Chelsea street — then he walked home and shot himself.

For the previous four-score years he had always organised his life meticulously, and he approached arranging his death in the same diligent way. He pinned a sign on the outside of his bedroom door — ‘Do not enter, call the police’ — then he lay down on his bed, he reached for his shotgun, and he did what he had planned to do. But his preparation was not perfect at the very end, for he neglected a small detail, the consequence of which I find disquieting yet poignant. He left a suicide note, but he placed it on his bedside table, as a result of which, by the time his body had been discovered the next day, the sheet of paper on which he had written his valedictory message had become so bloodstained that only the words ‘I had no choice’ were still legible.

Related article

April was a significant month for him, and not only because he was born on April 13, 1940. His first involvement in motor sport was as a driver — and, although he never raced in a championship Formula 1 grand prix, he entered one non-championship race that could be classified as of F1 status, on April 13, 1969, his 29th birthday. The 1969 Gran Premio de Madrid was run over 40 laps of the then-new Jarama circuit, which measured just 2.115 miles (3.404km), and the sparse eight-car field included two F1 cars, two F2 cars, and four F5000 cars. Mosley qualified his F2 Lotus 59 fourth and retired it just before half-distance with a faulty injector trumpet. It was not the most famous April race he ever entered, for on April 7, 1968 he drove an F2 Brabham BT23C to ninth place in the Deutschland Trophäe. But no-one noticed because that was the race in which the great Jim Clark spun his F2 Lotus 48 and was killed as it smote then ricocheted off the trees that lined the super-fast Hockenheim circuit.

As a driver, Mosley was nothing special, which evident truth he came to terms with quickly and without rancour. What followed the abandonment of his in-cockpit career is well known: in a nutshell he co-founded the March F1 team; he ran FOCA (Formula One Constructors’ Association) with Bernie Ecclestone; he flirted with then relinquished the idea of becoming a Conservative MP; he was elected FIA President, which position he held for 16 years, from 1993 to 2009; he did a lot to improve motor sport safety, supporting Professor Sid Watkins, the FIA’s legendary safety and medical delegate; and, via his and the FIA Foundation’s assiduous promotion of the innovative Euro NCAP (New Car Assessment Programme), he saved thousands of motorists’ lives.

Max Mosley with Ronnie Peterson in March F1 pit in 1972

Mosley with March driver Ronnie Peterson in 1972

Grand Prix Photo

Mosley was as much sinner as saint, but this column is not going to be a mini-biography, for he lived too long and did too much — good and bad — for his story to be told in anything shorter than a decent-sized book. I hope someone will write exactly that, not least because his own offering, The Autobiography: Formula One and Beyond (2015), was surprisingly dull, for it contained little of the wit and devilment that made personal interactions with him so compelling.

I knew him quite well. As a journalist I interviewed him often, and I always enjoyed the intellectual jousting contest that such encounters tended to become. In one such interview, about 25 years ago, I finished up with a few pithy questions, to which I asked him to reply with one-word or at least one-thought answers. One of them was “Whom do you most despise?”

I admit that, as I asked it, I was wondering whether he might answer “Ron Dennis” — because the animus between them was intense at that time. But no. “Karel Van Miert [the then European Commissioner for Competition],” he replied.

“Oh really? I was wondering whether you might be going to plump for Ron Dennis,” I said.

“Oh no,” he explained, “I don’t despise dear old Ron. On the contrary, I pity him. Actually don’t write what I said about Van Miert in your article.” He almost spat the word ‘pity’. I did not mention Van Miert in my piece, but I can report Mosley’s opinion of him a quarter of a century after he spoke it, since both men are now dead.

Max Mosley with Ron Dennis outside McLaren F1 hospitality in 2007

Drawn together from opposite ends of the social spectrum, Max pitied Ron, and Ron despised Max

Mark Thompson/Getty Images

Van Miert is probably of only incidental interest to most Motor Sport readers, however. More intriguing is why Mosley would pity Dennis. Ron was then, and is still, the most successful team principal in F1 history. He was then, and is still, phenomenally wealthy. Even if you dislike him, as some people do — but not I, for I enjoyed working closely with him at McLaren between my arrival in January 2008 and his departure in November 2016 — the word ‘pity’ is an extraordinary one to choose to describe your antipathy to him.

I think Max — who was related to not only Sir Winston Churchill but also Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother; who was expensively educated and taught to hunt and shoot in England, Ireland, France and Germany before he went up to Oxford; whose father was Sir Oswald Mosley, a fascist baronet; and whose mother Diana was one of the famous and aristocratic Mitford sisters — never came to terms with the reality that a working-class lad from Woking could have left school at 16 to study motor vehicle engineering at a technical college, could have found work as a mechanic, and yet, supercharged by unshakable ambition, could have parlayed that inauspicious start into success on a scale grander than that achieved by any F1 team principal before or since.

From the archive

More irritating to Mosley still, perhaps, Dennis would often bellyache publicly about the actions of the FIA President, who would then respond with open letters, using withering language and forensic detail to lambast the McLaren boss for his serial errors and delusions, as Mosley saw them. If Mosley only pitied Dennis, as he told me he did, certainly Ron despised Max.

I saw Mosley absolutely furious only once. About 20 years ago, after I had finished recording an interview with him, our conversation became at first cordial, then jocular, then finally it moved on to the subject of two F1 journalists, one whom Max liked and the other whom he hated. Let’s call them John Smith and David Jones (not their real names). As we prattled on, chatty and cheery, a misunderstanding developed. I thought we were still talking about Smith, the journalist Mosley liked, but he thought we were now talking about Jones, the journalist he hated. “He’s very intelligent,” I said, meaning Smith.

“Intelligent?” he whispered. “Intelligent?” he snarled. Then, which was rare in the extreme for him, he found himself at a cataclysmic loss for words. Instead of speaking, his whole face twisted into a grotesque rictus, his eyes bulged, and it was frightening to behold. “Intelligent?” he rasped finally, now shaking with rage. Suddenly, I saw what had happened. “I meant Smith, not Jones,” I shouted.

He froze. Then the outward signs of his inner derangement started to fade, his features gradually began to return to a normal constellation, he leant back in his chair, and he exhaled to a sound that was more like a hiss than a sigh, rather similar to the noise made by a release valve being deployed to reduce pressure in an overstressed boiler. “Ah. Yes. Smith. Intelligent. Certainly,” he said, his voice becalmed, his countenance now benign, his manner once again debonair.

I am glad I knew Max Mosley, but I could not say I liked him. Neither did I dislike him. The coils of his character were far too labyrinthine for either judgment to get anywhere near hitting the mark. What is incontestable is that we shall never see his like again.