Max Mosley

Max Mosley, Bahrain, 2006, 470313

Born on April 13th, 1940, Max Mosley abandoned his early attempts first to become a racing driver, and then to run his own team, and instead employed his legal brain and political acumen in rising to the role of FIA President. He took over the role from Jean-Marie Balestre in 1991.

A difficult past

Mosley desire a career in politics but his family history made that an impossibility. He was the second son of British Union of Fascists leader Sir Oswald Mosley and socialite Diana Mitford, both close friends of Adolf Hitler. In 1940 Mosley’s father was detained under wartime emergency powers provisions that were used, “in the interests of public safety or defence of the realm”.

Max later said one of the benefits of a career in motor racing was that few people instantly associated him with his father’s politics. But the connection was doomed to catch up with him.

He was educated at Oxford and began racing in club meetings in his twenties. Mosley drove for Frank Williams’ Formula Two team in 1968 and was on the grid at Hockenheim the day Jim Clark was killed. But he quickly decided his future in the sport lay outside the cockpit and in 1969 formed March Engineering with Alan Rees, Graham Coaker and Robin Herd, the team name an amalgam of several of their initials.

The team ran up to six cars in 1970 but quickly fell into financial problems. Mosley’s half-brother the Hon Jonathan Guinness (a directory of the Guinness brewery) supplied a 20,000 loan to support the team.

Moving behind the scenes

In 1977 he became the legal advisor to the Formula 1 Constructors’ Association (FOCA), run by Bernie Ecclestone. Mosley and Ecclestone first united in a dispute over the starting grid for the Monaco Grand Prix. The race organisers (Automobile Club de Monaco) insisted no more than 18 cars should start the race, but Ecclestone and the French-speaking Mosley negotiated an increase to 26 with club president Michel Boeri.

When the FIA-backed ACM made an 11th-hour bid to cut the number of entrants back to 22, Ecclestone and Mosley stood their ground and won the day. It was the first of many such skirmishes pitting the double act of Ecclestone and Mosley against the FIA, led by president Jean-Marie Balestre.

Mosley worked as Ecclestone’s legal man, drafting the contracts between the race organisers and the Grand Prix teams which formed one of the corner stones of Ecclestone’s expanding empire.

He did make an effort to enter politics in the early 1980s, working for the Conservative Party, but abandoned his effort to return to Formula 1 on the FIA’s Manufacturers’ Commission in 1986 – which also gave him a seat in the World Motor Sports’ Council.


Five years later he challenged Balestre for the presidency. Backed by the New Zealand motor sport club Mosley won with 43 votes to 29. He swiftly enacted a series of fundamental reforms to the governing body of motor racing. Following fresh elections in 1992 he won a four-year term of office and set about merging FISA and the FIA together, becoming FIA president the following year. He said:

I beat Balestre and got elected. I think he found it difficult to believe it had happened but he behaved very well and accepted it as a sporting defeat.

For the position as President I felt to needed two aspects of knowledge: technical understanding and a basis of law. I had studied for a degree in physics at Oxford, and even though it was a long time ago, it helps me enormously to understand the technology of cars and what makes them tick and, of course, my background in law as a practising barrister has served me equally well.

One of the defining moments of his career came in 1994 when he led the response to a series of shocking accidents early in the season. Ayrton Senna and Roland Ratzenberger died in accidents at the San Marino Grand Prix and several other drivers were injured in different crashes, including Karl Wendlinger, left comatose after a smash at Monte-Carlo.

Mosley’s reaction included a series of unpopular alterations to the cars to immediately cut their power output and cornering speeds.

A zeal for improving safety was behind many of his later changes: cutting engine capacities, raising cockpit sides, introduced grooved tyres and many others. He didn’t stop at just changing the cars either: ever more demanding safety requirements were placed on circuits, who duly tightened corners, re-positioned barriers, added tarmac run-off areas and more.

The controversies

As president Mosley frequently clashed with the team bosses on how the sport should be run – leading to no end of claims that he together with Ecclestone were ‘poachers turned gamekeepers’.

In 1997 the FIA were called upon to react when Michael Schumacher tried to take championship rival Jacques Villeneuve out in the final race of the year. Mosley confounded public expectations by neither banning nor fining Schumacher, instead choosing to strip him of his second place in the championship. He argued afterwards that this gave the sport an important precedent that if a driver tried to eliminate his championship rival in the future they could not win the title by doing so:

He was runner-up, but we took that away and his results, brilliant though they were, count for nothing for that year. The clear message we wanted to send out to all drivers was: do not try to win unfairly.

Schumacher was also ordered to assist an FIA driver safety programme, an important area of work for the organisation under Mosley’s leadership.

Those who hoped the Mosley years of the FIA presidency would see fewer controversies than those under Balestre were to be disappointed. In 2003 the FIA took a contentious decision late in the season to rule Michelin’s tyre illegal, effectively handing the championship to Schumacher.

Two years later came another clash with Michelin. Under another rules change teams had to use a single set of tyres for each race weekend. Although Michelin’s product proved superior for most of the season, at Indianapolis the tyres repeatedly failed, leaving only the six drivers on Bridgestones able to race safely.

The sport looked to Mosley to broker a solution and save face for F1 in the sport’s most important market. But he refused to permit any changes to the track to allow the other drivers to race safely, and the resulting six-car race was a farce that badly damaged Formula 1’s reputation in the United States.

Politics and scandal

These headline-grabbing rows punctuated a much longer-running political angst as the teams (now increasingly backed or run by car manufacturers) argued with Mosley over the future direction of the F1 rules. It led to Mosley considering stepping down in 2004:

I was working extremely hard entirely solving other people’s problems, and quite often getting roundly abused for doing so. And I thought, well, did I relly need this? It was not as though it was a job I needed to put the bread on the table – it was a hobby, essentially. Looking back now [in 2007], I have to say that I’m glad I stayed.

But by far the greatest controversy Mosley was called upon to judge on was McLaren-Ferrari spying scandal in 2007. McLaren were eventually fined $100m (USD) and excluded from the constructors’ championship – although their drivers were still allowed to compete. But Mosley wanted an even tougher punishment, as he explained in December 2007:

I thought then, and I still think, that from a legal point of view, we should have excluded everybody. I find it very difficult logically to justify excluding the team, and not the drivers. The reason the team was excluded is that the information had been used, and that gave them an advantage, and therefore the drivers also had an advantage.

But the emotional view in the World Council, the hearts versus heads view, was that we had a wonderful championship here involving the two McLaren drivers, and we shouldn’t ruin it. As it turned out, they were absolutely right, because it was a wonderful end to the championship. And in the end, I think, arguably justice was done.

In later years Mosley found a new goal in making Formula 1 more environmentally friendly. He argued this was the only way to retain the investment of the car manufacturers the sport had become entirely dependent on by 2007, following the withdrawal of Cosworth. He brought about a freeze in engine development and legalsed the use of kinetic energy recovery systems (KERS) from 2009.

In February 2008 the News of the World published a video allegedly showing him engaged in what the newspaper described as ‘Nazi sadomasochistic sex’ with a number of prostitutes. But Mosley remained in charge of the FIA after a senate vote went in his favour, and he went on to successfully sue the newspaper for invasion of privacy.