On 23 May 2021, former Formula One team owner and FIA president Max Mosley passed away at the age of 81. Born to fascist Sir Oswald Mosley and Diana Mitford, Mosley enjoyed a youth of luxury and political connections, despite the challenging times during and after World War II. After a short-lived attempt at getting politically involved, he found himself watching a motor race at Silverstone Circuit and fell in love with the sport. After a neat, but not historically noteworthy career in motorsport as an active driver, he joined Robin Herd, Alan Rees, and Graham Coaker in founding March Engineering. The commercial responsibilities of running the enterprise lay with Mosley, who proved more than up to the task. March soon turned into a key supplier for various feeder series as well as a reasonably successful Formula One constructor. Through his work at March, he teamed up with Bernie Ecclestone and FOCA and managed to win the FISA-FOCA war despite the FISA’s superior position. Eventually, he ended up in control of FISA when political pressure caused the office of the FIA and FISA chairman to split, only for Mosley soon thereafter taking the FIA presidency anyway. He stayed in office until 2009, after which former Peugeot and Ferrari team manager Jean Todt took office.
During Mosley’s time in the office, he was one of the most controversial figures of the sport. However, with the power of hindsight available, it is time to finally clear one question: how should we rate Max Mosley’s body of work? Many opinions were already voiced, both in favour and against him. Many have brought up the deal with Bernie Ecclestone, others point towards his safety work and again others refer to his infamous BDSM party (which, contrary to tabloid reporting, explicitly was not Nazi-themed) which was used as the pretext to lobby his departure from the FIA presidency. Obviously, whichever one of those picked clearly influences the ranking of his work, especially given as a lot of it also involves moral assessments.
This column will look at the questionable and unfortunate decisions and events of his presidency as well as the positive developments and then make a final judgment on Mosley’s work at the top of international motorsport. Of course, the 2008 sexual roleplay affair will not be a factor. As has been established, there was no Nazi theme and therefore the issue falls under the personal freedom of the individual.
Firstly, arguably the worst event of his presidency: the commercial rights agreement with Bernie Ecclestone. Many of the problems with the sport can be traced back to that very decision. The money-making schemes of CVC, the sorry state of the feeder series and the Americanisation of the sport today under Liberty Media all directly relate to the perpetual media rights sale (to circumvent EU regulatory boards, the media rights were sold to Ecclestone and his partners on a 100-year contract after an original 15-year contract length was agreed on). It should, however, be noted that Bernie Ecclestone was a key player in getting Mosley to where he ended up, so it was logical that the favour would need to be repaid. You could argue that the time period just was too long, but the general concept of selling away the commercial rights was a political necessity. Ecclestone himself would have probably engaged in scorched-earth policy had Formula One’s commercial rights gone anywhere else and there was a bigger-than-zero chance that the FIA would completely lose control of Formula One, given Ecclestone’s legitimate argument that he was the key factor in building the Formula One of the 1990s and onwards.
Another major development, especially relevant to GP Rejects, is of course the cost explosion Formula One was subjected to in the 90s and 00s. Whilst it had been an on-going process that started in the 80s, influenced mostly by increased tobacco sponsorship as well as increased revenues all around, the FIA was only at best half-heartedly concerned with fixing it during Mosley’s reign until the mid-2000s. Even those measures proved insufficient, given the departure of Jordan and Minardi, the last “true” independent teams of Mosley’s era. However, Max Mosley was not opposed to the smaller teams on principle: when Prost departed from the sport, Arrows and Minardi were functionally promoted to ninth and tenth for the purposes of prize money. This was opposed by Williams and McLaren, who were lambasted by Mosley for their hostility towards the small teams. Of course, Mosley later came to realize that the then-current state of affairs was unacceptable late into his career and proposed a very radical budget cap paired with a major expansion of the grid.
Another point going against Mosley’s time in power is the very questionable standard of stewarding in Formula One in the 2000s. A number of controversial penalties against Juan Pablo Montoya were only the start, such as a drive-through penalty against the Colombian after Michael Schumacher understeered in his car at the 2002 Malaysian Grand Prix.. Questionable tyre rules, baffling and excessive grid drops in 2006 and the whole mess of a season in 2008: inconsistent judgment of the rear-ending accidents at Monaco and Canada, the unjustifiable punishment against Sir Lewis Hamilton after the 2008 Belgian Grand Prix, harshly punishing Sebastién Bourdais at Fuji Speedway just to name a few examples. Given that penalty inconsistency is an issue prevailing to this day, it is worth questioning whether that standard was established during Mosley’s era. However, the current state of affairs could also be a product of a continuous chaos after the regrettable demise of Charlie Whiting. Without inside knowledge at the respective organisations, assessing that is challenging.
One noteworthy topic that a number of people would consider negative is Mosley’s strong opposition to anti-tobacco advertising laws. The author’s feelings about the issue are ambivalent. While the negative effects of tobacco are more than well-known by now and tobacco ad regulation has been proven successful in fighting smoking, it is also fairly obvious that Max Mosley was acting in the interest of motorsport when mounting political opposition against those laws. With the aforementioned money inserted into motorsport by Big Tobacco, it was simply in the best interest of the sport to delay, lessen or outright cancel such regulations. Subjectively, it feels like the funding that was lost when motorsport sponsorship became unfeasible for Big Tobacco was never fully recovered.
For his positive contributions, certainly one important key was his willingness to go against the largest Formula One teams to do what was best for the series. A comparison to what would follow clearly emphasises the value of Mosley not being afraid to force unpopular regulations on the teams, not only in terms of safety. His strict handling of Spygate (even if, according to some sources, motivated by an opportunity to give long-term nemesis Ron Dennis one last kick in the metaphorical bollocks) is a very emphatic contrast with the FIA’s backroom deals with Ferrari in 2020 about their engine irregularities. His final attempted revolution of the sport, aiming to make the sport more road-relevant and, as mentioned before, significantly reduce the excessive spending, would both be justified by history, given the introduction of hybrid engines in 2014 and the establishment of a (not as severe) budget cap in 2021. Some would point towards the 2005 United States Grand Prix as a direct negative consequence of this attitude, but Mosley offered the Michelin-running teams a number of options. Egoistic teams, unwilling to sacrifice their competitive edge for the safety of their drivers and the well-being of the sport, rejected all of those options. This very much justified Mosley’s strictness and proved that the general idea of a purely cooperative relationship with the teams is a fool’s game.
Of course, the man’s greatest legacy (which he himself both acknowledged, desired and embraced) were the automotive safety measures introduced during his time in the office. Being a product of the most dangerous time in racing (his Formula Two racing debut was the race where Jim Clark tragically lost his life), Mosley used the public shock over the demise of Ayrton Senna to introduce a number of rule changes designed to make Formula One a much safer sport. There can be absolutely no doubt he succeeded in that endeavour. Crashes that in the old days would have certainly killed the driver in question became survivable, in some cases not even causing any injury. The 2000s were the first and so far only decade without a single fatality in a contemporary F1 car and saw only a total of only eighteen races missed due to crash-related injuries amongst all drivers. With safety standards slipping in recent years (the tractor incident of the 2020 Turkish Grand Prix and the recent tyre blowouts at the 2021 Azerbaijan Grand Prix come to mind), it is perhaps more important than ever to remember, appreciate and re-embrace the values of Max Mosley.
Beyond that, the FIA relayed those innovations and modified the American New Car Assessment Program to create Euro NCAP, the current standard for European road car safety. Nowadays, a Global NCAP programme offers technical assistance to car safety in emerging markets across the globe while working on improving crash test standards. Anyone who has survived a car accident that used to be fatal in days past no doubt owes at least a small part of their survival to the political work of Max Mosley.
With all of those points, how should we feel about Max Mosley? The author believes that, for all the controversy, Max Mosley is a very good standard for modern sports commissioners and presidents to strive for. Mosley was a strong figure that did not embrace the complacency seen in his own successor (while the comparison is churlish and probably unfair, the fact that, at the time of writing, the Wikipedia sections about the FIA presidencies of Jean Todt and Max Mosley consist of respectively 165 and 3,736 words speaks volumes) and Rob Manfred without fully succumbing to the megalomania of a Jean-Marie Balestre or a Roger Goodell. All in all, it can be said with confidence that Max Mosley left the sport in a better way than he found it. Many of the people reading this will have become a fan during the time he was in charge and will undoubtedly have their idea of what motorsport is affected by his work. With the obsequious, repugnant and utterly useless Jean Todt soon (but nowhere soon enough) leaving office, all of motorsport can only hope that his successor will be able to at least partially approach the positive impact on motorsport that Mosley had.
Rest peacefully, Mr. Mosley, and know that your work was appreciated.
Sources: Autosport, Focus, formula1.com, motorsport-total.com, No Angel: The Secret Life of Bernie Ecclestone, racefans.net, Royal Courts of Justice, WHO, Wikipedia