Power: The key to comprehending the enigma that was Max Mosley

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Max Rufus Mosley, who died aged 81 on Sunday after a long battle against blood cancer, assumed the presidency of FISA, then the sporting arm of the FIA, in October 1991 – at a time when the parent body’s various election timetables found themselves out of sync by two years. Jean-Marie Balestre, then president of the FIA and FISA, had stood down following a heart bypass operation, then sought re-election.

Obituary: Max Mosley, 1940-2021
This meant that, with sufficient national motorsport club support, Mosley could pick off FISA, then prepare his onslaught on the entire body two years later. Saliently, Mosley was not initially nominated for the FISA role by the British motorsport authority but by New Zealand’s club. He pursued cunning election strategies: He promised to resign after a year and put himself up for re-election, plus offered to do the job gratis.

So unenamoured were club presidents seemingly with Balestre – whose autocratic and bumbling style was accurately captured in the movie Senna – that the election proved a walkover: 43 to 29 in favour of the Briton. That said, at the time (and since) a number of FIA club presidents quipped that anybody would be preferable to the Frenchman. Thus, Mosley had a comparatively easy ride.

The next step was, of course, the FIA presidency: achieved unopposed after Balestre was persuaded to accept the chair of the (to be formed) FIA Senate charged with oversight of the governing body and Mosley’s only challenger, Jeffrey Rose of the Royal Automobile Club, withdrew. Thereafter Mosley fully integrated FISA into the FIA, then engineered a merger with AIT, an international touring club that represented motorists.

By early 1994 Mosley was indisputably the most powerful man in world motoring, a status soon spotlighted by two fatal accidents at Imola during that year’s San Marino Grand Prix weekend: that of Roland Ratzenberger driving a Simtek built by a company co-founded by Mosley in conjunction with his younger associate Nick Wirth, and Ayrton Senna. F1 was under siege, and Mosley grasped full control by exercising his considerable power.

The key to understanding Mosley and the way he in which he shaped global motorsport during his 1993-2009 presidency lies in that five-letter word: power.

He was born in 1940 to fascist politician Sir Oswald Mosley and Diana Mitford, the 1930’s equivalent of an ‘it’ girl. Adolf Hitler was guest of honour at what was the second marriage – held at the home of Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels – for both. Shortly after his birth his parents were jailed for insurrection.

After release the family lived in a succession of country houses in England, France and Ireland. His complex childhood was made no easier by his father’s attempt to return to politics during the late 1950s, for which he roped in his teenage son – who thus gained a taste for politics, and subsequently the knowledge that his family name would forever be an impediment to a seat in Westminster.

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Still, Mosley dipped in and out of British politics for a while, at one stage working for the Conservative Party, then considered standing as a Labour candidate – proving his agnostic opportunism, if no more – but eventually he recognised that a lead role in what Ronald Reagan once referred to as “the world’s second-oldest profession” was closed to him.

Williams joined tributes to Mosley
Mosley had, though, inherited formidable character traits from both his parents, not least his father’s political cunning and ruthlessness, towering intellect and insatiable appetite for authoritarian power; his mother’s noble breeding, her beguiling charm, good looks and, above all, immense wealth; later supplemented by royalties bequeathed him by his aunt, the novelist Nancy Mitford.

He read patent law and was called to the London bar, then dabbled as semi-professional F2 racer after his wife Jean introduced him to the sport. He had it all, including an air of superiority – save what he craved most: political power, which he saw as the family business. There are few doubts that he was well equipped for politics. Sir Frank Williams, who said yesterday Mosley death left him with a “great sadness”, once told me “Max is the best prime minister Britain never had.”

The FIA presidency gave Mosley the political power he sought. His first step was the sale of a lease to all FIA commercial rights to his long-standing mate Bernie Ecclestone for a little over $300m. Having met as fellow F1 team owners – Mosley was the ‘M’ in March and Ecclestone had bought Brabham – they made an unlikely yet omnipotent double act: patrician barrister and streetwise used car trader who made (very) good.

Together they ruled F1, Bernie with an iron fist; Max providing the velvet glove. Then, to keep folk on their toes, they swapped roles on occasion.

Included in the initial lease sale were the rights to F1, World Rally Championship, World Sportscar Championship and sundry other series such as truck racing, the television producer for which filed a complaint with the EU Commission on monopolistic grounds. The EU agreed and decreed that a commercial rights holder could only hold the rights to a single series and demanded that various amendments be made to the proposed 15-year agreement.

Mosley drew on his legal training to get one over Brussels: the agreement was deftly converted to a 100-year lease – thus falling outside of 99-year lease laws – thereby neatly bypassing most objections. The price, though, remained the same: $313m for the 113-year lease of the FIA’s crown jewels. If the original price had been a bargain, the equation was suddenly boosted six-fold.

Bernie then sold the rights to other series, realising, for example, $100m for the WRC rights. Crucially, in one move Mosley gazumped EU politicians while his mate Bernie scored. In 2006 the rights were sold to venture fund CVC Capital Partners, via a series of complicated transactions, for $1.6bn; when CVC moved them to current owner Liberty Media 11 years later they were valued at $8bn!

CVC paid a huge sum for F1 rights in 2006
In the process the FIA, though, lost out massively on the future opportunities: Until the end of 2110 – the duration of the original lease plus 100 years – the governing body is locked in and unable to re-sell the rights, unlike Moto GP’s rights which originally leased by the FIM to Dorna in five-year blocks. According to a Moto GP source the current duration is 10 years, enabling the two-wheeler body to re-negotiate the rights in 2025.

In Mosley’s autobiography ‘Formula One and Beyond’, he writes that “After my election to the full FIA presidency in 1993, I felt I ought to find a way of acquiring the rights to the [F1] championship for the FIA [in order to sell them].” Yet, FIM had sealed its first commercial rights deal with Dorna the previous year – setting a precedent.

FIA sources admit that the 100-year deal is absolutely watertight. That bit of powerplay has (and will) cost the FIA billions in lost revenues across an entire century. Regardless of how the deal is justified – which Mosley did at some length in his autobiography – it makes no commercial sense. It was said at the time that no other bidders had come forth with better offers; maybe so, but the 100-year term was added retrospectively.

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The income from the deal funded the establishment of the FIA Foundation – an institution registered in London at Mosley’s insistence, allegedly in the hope of it receiving royal recognition and restoring the family’s former honour – and other motorsport safety projects. All well and good, save that the FIA has no direct control over ‘its’ foundation, yet is required to administer the F1 championship by other means.

Grooved tyres arrived on grounds of safety in 1998
The overriding question, though remains: Which publicly funded organisation – the FIA primary revenue source was member contributions – awards a 113-year lease to its most valuable property to a (then) 70-year-old? For a pittance?

Mosley, after all, framed the proposal to sell the rights; given his autocratic leadership style – as attested to by many who served under him – he could (and should) have blocked the bargain-basement nature of the deal by vigorously objecting to it.

That he did not is arguably the ultimate indictment on his presidency.

When the motor manufacturers arrived en masse in F1 (the influx started in 2000), Mosley realised their collective power could usurp him, particularly after the EU decreed that as motorsport’s regulator the FIA would need to administer and sanction all four-wheel series that met its safety criteria. This insistence opened the door to categories such as A1 Grand Prix, plus, of course, a potential manufacturer-led breakaway series.

Mosley’s response to having his authority challenged by manufacturers was to trigger the safety vetos contained in the 1998-2007 Concorde Agreement, and by extension, in F1’s sporting and technical regulations. Opposition to rules changes was met with ‘safety’ cards: grooved tyres (1998), engine capacity reductions (2006), aerodynamic and other restrictions were forced through under the auspices of slowing down ‘unsafe’ cars.

In short, safety provided him with sweeping powers.

Due to acrimonious wrangling the Concorde Agreement was rolled over until the end of 2009. Its replacement contained a ‘bona fide safety’ clause, but then it was too late: Mosley stepped aside and into relative motorsport obscurity on October 23rd, 2009 after numerous sporting and personal scandals hit him and the sport. In all instances his presidency had been found wanting.

Mosley repeatedly clashed with McLaren’s Ron Dennis
First, the infamous 2007 McLaren ‘Spygate’ and 2008 Renault ‘Crashgate’ sagas hit F1: The former team was fined the eyewatering amount of $100m for illegal use of Ferrari intellectual property, while the latter had its team principal and technical director banned from the sport, although they had their respective sanctions overturned by a French court.

I have copies of ‘Spygate’ recordings, and Mosley’s conduct as de facto prosecutor, judge and jury member conveys the distinct impression that he revelled in lording it over proceedings that brought McLaren to its knees, simply because he could. That he publicly humiliated team boss Ron Dennis – whom he despised and once obliquely referred to as “not the sharpest knife in the box” – in the process added to his obvious pleasure.

Matters between Mosley and F1 teams came to a head after he insisted upon (laughable) $40m budget caps and other cost restrictions. Meanwhile his proclivities in a London basement saw him publicly disgraced by The News of the World newspaper – he was filmed participating in a sadomasochistic ‘party’ with prostitutes – which provided anti-Mosley factions at team and club levels with ammunition.

He survived the ensuing onslaughts through sheer strength of character, but looked a broken man as his power waned dramatically after FIA member clubs took exception to his unwavering insistence that the exposé was an attack on the governing body when logic dictated that he had been the victim of voicemail hacking as widely practiced at the time by the (now-defunct) publication on high-profile individuals.

True, post-1994 Mosley drove motorsport safety forward in leaps and bounds, but in real terms he had no choice but to do play the safety card in the wake of the deaths of Ratzenberger and Senna. Plus, as outlined, the safety initiatives provided Mosley with considerable power. If human life was such a major concern, why was tobacco sponsorship not banned in F1 until it was outlawed by the EU politicians he so regularly sparred with?

If the basement marked the beginning of the end of Mosley’s presidency, the formation of the Formula One Teams Association provided the final nail. The teams wanted him out. Indeed, they threatened a breakaway series, with the stake being not larger slices of F1’s money pie, but Mosley’s head. After a showdown with FOTA in July 2009 he agreed to not stand for re-election in October.

Todt proved a very different president to his predecessor
Breakaway threat averted, the FIA got on with electing Jean Todt as success to Mosley, who endorsed him on the basis that he would “continue but also to extend the work of the last 16 years”. But early on it became clear that Todt, now nearing the end of his third and final term, distanced himself from Mosley. For some time now Mosley has not appeared on the FIA’s Senate roll, a seat he held by right.

After his departure from office Mosley dedicated himself to fighting for privacy by campaigning for an independent press regulator and funding court cases for those whose privacy had been breached. As with the FIA and F1 he fought many arduous battles, winning some and losing some, with a final, humiliating court defeat coming in April this year. By then his cancer had taken hold.

He will be remembered by many in F1 as arguably the most divisive and controversial FIA president in the 117-year-old body’s existence, as a complex and complicated man who viewed that presidency as a poor substitute for the calling he so craved, but was bitterly denied by his parents’ fascism. The title of Mosley’s biographical movie, due for release next month, sums up his life: “It’s Complicated’.

The FIA emerged from his presidency in a battered and bruised state, but, ironically, is now all the stronger for it. Mosley’s antics in the basement should be forgotten, but for the nature of F1’s commercial rights deal he should not be forgiven. To hijack the title of the biography written by Max’s half-brother Nicholas about their father, that sale was ‘Beyond the Pale’.

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Dieter Rencken
Dieter Rencken has held full FIA Formula 1 media accreditation since 2000, during which period he has reported from over 300 grands prix, plus...

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  • 13 comments on “Power: The key to comprehending the enigma that was Max Mosley”

    1. Why is there all this talk about Max Mosley? He was an awful person, vindictive and dishonest. He was superficially charming, but underneath badly messed up. His antics in the basement show how his relationships were generally rooted in dishonesty. F1 has been a better place since he went and he was well forgotten. So now, let’s just enjoy Jean Todt being surprisingly honest, and hopefully his successor too.

      1. Embassy Hill
        26th May 2021, 14:01

        I don’t know about that Zann. We spend a lot of time talking about x number of engines a year to save money or gearboxes or cost caps… That was all started by Max.

        1. yeah, other part of the people here also talk about human rights, politics, money laundering when they talk about middle east and russia. Not everything here is about sport.

      2. Yes, when can we read about all of your significant contributions to motorsport, or even, greater society? Considering your outstanding moral compass and flawless character I am sure we will read about your successes soon.

      3. A guy with such an enmity with Ron “we’re racing Alonso” Dennis couldn’t be all bad

    2. Fine article. Now, can forget about this creep and move on?

    3. The Dolphins
      26th May 2021, 14:58

      I don’t know how many revisions this article went through but it still feels too generous in compliments towards Mosley.

    4. Strong recap of what we have to thank, and admonish the late Mr. Max Mosley for.

    5. Damn, I thought it was an article about Will Power !

    6. What goes around
      26th May 2021, 18:55

      Power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely.

      Max will probably be remembered by the public for his (private) extra curricular activities. The Reagan quote reminded me of how was remarkable it was that the “great and the good” rushed to criticise, particularly a former Ferrari World Champion whose (racing driver) son was found enjoying the entertainment provided by the oldest profession in a (public) Milton Keynes lay by. Hypocrites the lot of them.

      Reply moderated
    7. He was probably one of the finest and most high profile examples of how power attracts those who are least suited to wield it.

      I think the best thing that can be said about him is that he helped make the sport a lot safer, but then it was already on that trajectory anyway…although it certainly needed it’s course tweaking in 1994.

      I wonder what F1 would look like if he and Bernie hadn’t done their double act on it. While it’s undoubtedly become far more commercialsed under their watch, this has happened across all sports and if they hadn’t done it, somebody else probably would have. One thought that occurred to me whilst watching the European Super League fiasco of a few weeks ago play out was that F1 has effectively turned into the ESL – back in 1982 18 manufacturers finished a race and 14 scored points. Today, no more than 13 can enter a championship. Is this good for F1? I’m not convinced…

      He’s a man who’s life is certainly to be noted, but not celebrated.

      A fine write up @dieterrencken, thank you.

    8. Max Mosley was without question a ‘Marmite Character’ One either liked him, or hated him !! I fell into the latter, having crossed swords with the man on many occasions. Beginning at March Engineering thru Simtek GP and culminating with his controversial tenure at the helm of the FIA. Atypical of many of his kind from ‘the legal profession’ with a firm grasp of legal chicanery, and not being adverse to double-speak, outright scheming, word manipulation and selective memory, and if none of that worked, then there was always misdirection, as his fall-back option.
      I’m sure there’s someone out there who’ll mourn this man’s passing… but you can be sure, there a lot more who won’t !!

      Reply moderated
    9. Perfectly summed up article

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