So farewell, Max Mosley – linchpin of Formula One – and one part of an inseparable double act that has gone down in history. While Bernie salted the money away with ever more ingenious financial engineering, Max made sure that no one else got their hands on the rule book and spoilt their game. Together, they were the enforcers, exercising an arbitrary control over the sort of fiefdom last seen in these realms about the year 1485.
Why exactly did Max quit so suddenly? Like everything else to do with the chicanery of Formula One, we can only see through a glass darkly. Was it a case of Max, the consummate poker player, finally overplaying his hand? Or, more improbably at first sight, Max the sacrificial lamb laying down his career for the sport he loves?
Incredibly, you can make a case for both positions without fear of contradiction. After besting his opponents during an in flagellante delicto scandal that would have brought a lesser man down, Mosley must have dispelled any surviving doubts that he walked on water. He claimed he would resign this autumn as president of the Federation Internationale de l’Automobile (FIA), his power base these past 16 years. But those familiar with the situation reckon he had no such intention and, come the time, he would have put himself forward for another 4-year term, there being no obvious alternative. Under pressure, he indicated as much himself during the heated controversy of the past few weeks. Sponsors, shareholders in F1, the constructors, the teams, Ecclestone even, may have thought he had damaged the reputation of F1, but they couldn’t see an alternative either. So they shut up.
In these circumstances, Mosley may have wrongly concluded that he had the power to drive through the structural reforms F1 so badly needs if it is to remain an appealing spectator sport. Chief among these was the need to radically reduce the budgets deployed by the F1 teams from about £200m per annum to nearer £40m. The point of this was to make the sport more affordable to new would-be teams. Honda has recently pulled out and it has not proved that easy to fill the grid, especially in the current straitened economic circumstances. A brilliant idea, passed through the committees nem con? Not exactly. Eight F1 teams (there are only 12 altogether, and two of those remaining are not established) threatened to secede and form an alternative championship. Funnily enough, these eight teams all have powerful constructors – like Mercedes, BMW, Renault, Toyota – behind them and they took a dim view of having their technical advantage in the field handicapped by an ‘arbitrary’ budget ceiling which might help less well-endowed newcomers.
Fota, as the alternative organisation was dubbed, would have split the sport, reduced spectators, damaged TV rights and had the sponsors tearing their hair out. But Mosley was convinced that when push came to shove, the constructors would back down. After all, he and Ecclestone had been here before, and seen them off. They may have the money, but they don’t have the organising skills.
So, why after showing supreme brinksmanship did Mosley still lose? The first point (one he would make himself, no doubt) is that he did not. Well, not exactly. The sport remains united, under the control of Ecclestone and the FIA and – so Mosley claims – the dissident teams have agreed to a glider-path of diminishing budgets over several years. So a triumph of sorts, even if he won’t be around to relish it. But the big mystery, according to a source familiar with the situation, is why his negotiating position collapsed so dramatically and he agreed to go more or less immediately. As they point out, he could have called Fota’s bluff and maybe got away with it. Not only had he thrown writs in their path, which would have to be answered in court, there were circuit owners to be brought around and TV rights to be negotiated. No small hurdles to overcome.
Now that he is going, the immediate reaction in F1 circles (not excluding Ecclestone) is a sense of relief. For all Mosley’s accomplishments over the years, the whiff of scandal has left a nasty smell about the place. Relief, too, at the FIA, now that no one has to pass his colossal personal expenses.
Looking further afield, there may be cause for regret. Whatever his flaws, Mosley knew both what he wanted for the sport and how to get it. It is for any successor to prove that he has both the leadership and sufficient detachment from the many powerful stakeholders in F1 to make a success of running the FIA.