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Flat Spot On – Mosley A Talented Politician

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Thursday, May 27 2021

When Mosley sold F1’s commercial rights to friend Ecclestone for $360 million, howls of protest arose. (Photo by LAT Images)

By Jonathan Ingram | Senior Writer

I met Max Mosley, who has died at age 81, in an unusual circumstance. But for the roar of unmuffled engines on the nearby track, it was a relatively sleepy Friday practice session at the Talladega Superspeedway. This was the late 1980s, before fans and TV had begun inundating stock car tracks the moment the gates opened. At the time, Mosley was serving as the president of the manufacturers commission of the FIA’s racing arm, known as FISA.

In the shadow of the original metal-roofed garage, it was easy to spot the tall John Cooper, a longtime racing executive and friend of NASCAR’s founding France family, while he was on an apparent tour of NASCAR’s fastest track with the distinctive-looking Mosely in tow. To what extent Mosley was already campaigning to unseat Jean-Marie Balestre as the president of FISA would be strictly guesswork. But looking back, I suspect he was on a political mission that included the France family, pere et fils, as well as the president of ACCUS, Burdette Martin, a close ally of the Frances.

As owners of NASCAR, “Big Bill” France and his son Bill Jr. had always taken a keen interest in the international nature of motorsports as part of their self-interest in protecting American series from outside interference. Martin served as America’s lone national representative, i.e. voter, at the FIA. I was not informed about the specifics of any meeting. But one could surmise that even if Mosley did not overtly declare himself a candidate in a meeting with this triumvirate plus Cooper, there was plenty of room for agreement on the subject of having a rational approach to racing worldwide in place of the autocratic, self-serving, erratic leadership of Balestre.

The Frenchman had been instrumental in creating the FIA’s racing arm FISA, where he was the president, and once elected president of the FIA ensconced himself as answerable to no one when it came to international motorsports. Most notable of Balestre’s farcical time at the helm was the disqualification of Ayrton Senna from the Japanese Grand Prix in 1989 in order to give Balestre’s fellow Frenchman, Alain Prost, the World Championship instead. A sudden rule against driving through a runoff area materialized out of thin air, in this case, contrary to earlier procedures in F1 races.

In 1982, Mosley, a highly educated lawyer, had helped complete the one significant buffer to the Trump-like reign of Balestre in the form of the Concorde Agreement, along with several key Formula 1 players including friend Bernie Ecclestone. The Concorde provided a much needed third leg in the hierarchy beyond the FIA and FISA, one that represented constructors, which previously had included the March Engineering F1 team Mosley helped co-found. In what became a carefully plotted move, including his tenure with the manufacturers commission, Mosley sought to unseat Balestre by slowly and steadily stripping away the Frenchman’s ability to intimidate the national representatives of the member nations of the FIA, who voted in the election of the FISA president.

The world of motor racing owes a great debt to Mosley for succeeding in gaining the presidency of FISA with a conclusive majority vote in 1991 and then following up by reforming the FIA into a single entity representing both motorsports and the automobile industry. In an election platform introduced publicly in a column by journalist Joe Saward, interestingly enough, he had called for the FIA to serve its member countries on automotive issues as well as those who wanted to pursue motor racing in place of Balestre’s self-serving autocracy.

Romain Grosjean’s survival of a big crash confirmed the strengthening of F1 chassis begun under Mosley were a significant step forward for racing – and highway car evaluations. (Photo of ESPN coverage of F1 by Jonathan Ingram)

In a current world where the interest in motor racing has diminished to the point of attracting only those interested in pursuing it professionally and a core group of enthusiastic fans, Mosley’s strengthening of all the FIA championships continues to girder the sport’s ongoing health, not the least of which includes the World Rally Championship and the World Endurance Championship, where the Le Mans 24-hour continues as the much needed centerpiece.

Many of the testimonials on behalf of Mosley following his death have included his contributions to safety. In that regard, I can think of no single individual who did more for both highway safety and motor racing safety. By linking highway safety to the FIA’s mission, Mosley brilliantly and forever changed Formula 1 into a sport with purpose and conscience. This was thanks to the European New Car Assessment Program based on the FIA’s understanding of how to build cars strong enough to withstand accidents – on the highway or, say, when hitting an Armco barrier head on like the crash of Roman Grosjean in Bahrain last year.

My book “CRASH! From Senna to Earnhardt – How the HANS Helped Save Racing,” examines, in part, the role played by Mosley in saving motorsports from the hydra-headed monster of major stars getting killed regularly on live television, a problem that became unavoidable with the death of Ayrton Senna from an errant suspension piece in 1994 at Imola the day after Roland Ratzenberger was killed by a basal skull fracture. It’s easy to forget how many major newspapers in Europe called out F1, including the Vatican’s own newspaper, as an immoral commercial vehicle, not a sport in light of these two deaths on one weekend. All of this threatened TV deals and manufacturer participation, and posed serious political concerns.

Looking at a situation where various countries might not allow the F1 championship – and quite possibly others – to compete within their borders, Mosley gradually turned the situation around into a circumstance where the FIA linked F1 technology to a bona fide highway safety program that helped eliminate “death trap” automobiles. With its independent European NCAP exam of all new cars’ safety that awarded stars on a scale of one to five, the FIA accomplished what the European Union could not when it went up against lobbyist for manufacturers, who annually defeated highway safety when proposed as legislation. Mosley’s “consumer reports” approach, on the other hand, worked wonders as a public forum.

Mosley also successfully negotiated the FIA through the transition to the European Union’s ban on tobacco advertising as well as the EU’s examination of monopolistic practices – the kind that nearly sundered the Le Mans 24-hour as a result of Balestre’s shoot-from-the-hip administration. The solution to the monopoly issue was to divide marketing from the rule-making authority at the FIA, which meant selling the commercial rights to one Bernie Ecclestone, already running Formula One’s business on behalf of the teams and negotiating TV rights. Mosley was roundly criticized for selling over one hundred years of those rights for what in hindsight was a mere $360 million. (Liberty Media paid $8 billion for the rights a little less than three decades later.) At the time, Mosley argued that he was selling Ecclestone something Bernie could have claimed he already owned.

The deal was sealed because the two men agreed the money would go into a trust to sustain the newly created FIA Institute’s pursuit of motor racing and highway safety, led by Professor Sid Watkins. Until Jules Bianchi’s death after hitting a piece of trackside equipment in Japan, F1 went 21 years without a death thanks to the wheels set in motion by Mosley. Eventually, the safety movement extended to all of the FIA’s championships and down to the national level in participating countries. The most recent evidence of Mosley’s influence was Grosjean’s incident, where the HANS Device, championed by Mosley and now mandated throughout the FIA, as well as the strength of the cockpit and safety cocoon saved the Frenchman.

For me individually, my lone encounter left me less than a big fan of the longtime FIA president. Admittedly, Mosley was hardly expecting to cross paths with a correspondent for Autosport magazine in the garage at Talladega who would pose an informed question about the rules for sports cars. At the time, the debate over Le Mans and its rules between the FIA and the Automobile Club de L’Ouest in France was in full song. Mosley, as the president of the manufacturers commission, was in the middle of this ongoing debate of great significance for the future of endurance racing, where fans had suddenly disappeared under the Group C fuel rules.

Mosley gave a well-reasoned answer to my question, in retrospect one that would give John Cooper no reason to think private discussions with the Frances or Burdette Martin were any different than Mosley’s position in public, i.e., in the press. I filed a story to Autosport about Mosley being at Talladega and his comments, written down on a notebook in front of both him and Cooper. When handed a story and quotes from one of racing’s more significant players, the editors called Mosley. He denied everything. The story never saw the light of print.

A shrewd politician that Mosley. RIP.

(Editor’s note: Jonathan Ingram’s book “CRASH! From Senna to Earnhardt – How the HANS Helped Save Racing” is an eye-opening look at the safety revolution in racing. Published by RJP Books, signed copies of “CRASH!” are available at www.jingrambooks.com.)

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Thursday, May 27 2021
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