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Clever men

Benjamin Franklin was a clever man. One of the founding fathers of the Unites States of America, he was an author, a satirist, a political theorist, a politician, a scientist and an inventor. He was a diplomat too. And he coined the expression "nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes".

Of course, he had not met any Grand Prix drivers at that point...

These days Formula 1 stars don't have to worry too much about death nor about taxes. They can perhaps run into trouble with both things if they are unlucky or incautious, but most of them sleep easy in their beds. They have the FIA looking out for their safety and tax havens to protect them from the evil tax collectors. Nowadays they can look ahead to short and profitable careers during which they may, if half-successful make $10m a year for five to 10 years. That is enough to look after several generations of their offspring if the kids and grandkids do not develop silly habits.

They live in Monaco, or Switzerland and they get to keep the majority of their money. Good for them. They drive their cars, they do as little marketing work as they can get away with and no-one asks them to do much for the sport. They have an easy life, punctuated by the occasional stressful weekend when they earn their loot. And they let the little people pay the taxes...

FIA President Max Mosley is many things but he is not stupid. He has recognised that the drivers do very little for the money they get. He decided therefore to try to balance the books of the federation by hiking the price of the superlicences. The F1 drivers are not happy. Perhaps in a perfect world they would have a point as the hike has been rather dramatic, but we do not live in a perfect world and at a time when thousands of workers in the industry are being made redundant or are worried about the possibility of that happening, it is not the moment for the drivers to make a fuss.

Mosley says that there is nothing that can be done about job losses because if they are not lost because of cost-cutting they will be lost through bankruptcies. Many people in the sport work far harder than the drivers and as just as brilliant in their own fields, but they do not gain the same benefits because they are out of the limelight. In an ill-advised public statement issued on Friday the drivers complained about the price increases of their licences and that they were not consulted and argue that the increases are "inherently unfair". One might argue that it is inherently unfair that people must lose their jobs, but the drivers do not seem to understand that one of the reasons this happens is because they are soaking up large amounts of money.

Felipe Massa recently made the valid point that there are many cuts that can be made before the driver salaries need to be affected, but the reality is that the salaries are going to be coming down dramatically in the years ahead, simply because it is illogical for a driver to be paid $20m a year when the entire team budget is $100m or less. Mosley says that he is not a fan of salary caps but believes that drivers should be made to do more for their money as many of them do not pull their weight when it comes to dealing with the promotion of the sport and the dealings with the general public. The GPDA says that they wanted to discuss the licence hike with Mosley but he requested that they disclose the scale of their earnings to show that it was causing them hardship. They declined to do this, arguing that was private information. The hardship argument is really not a good one when most of the drivers live in tax exile.

It is only worth doing this when the level of earnings reaches a certain point.

Mosley says he is not going to back down and is quite prepared for there to be what he called "a quiet Friday" in Australia, if the drivers wish to push the point. The chances are that the drivers will not strike because they dare not risk their jobs. Aspiring F1 drivers will no doubt converge on Melbourne with helmets and overalls, in the hope that the current drivers will push on with a strike, but the chances are that no strike will materialise. The drivers will be under huge pressure from the teams to compete and it is unlikely, given the disparity of earnings amongst them, that all will support strike action. Those that do may end up without much sympathy because the world views F1 drivers as spoiled young playboys with money to burn.

When dealing with Mosley one needs always to look at all the angles. It is possible that he might back down if the drivers agreed to do more for the sport. That would be worth it for the FIA. But right now that does not seem to be his goal.

Mosley entertained members of the F1 media last week in London, his first serious meeting with the media since his scandal last year. The message being delivered was that F1 needs to react before it gets seriously mauled by the recession.

This is sound thinking.

Mosley clearly hinted that he is not done yet with the role of FIA President. This may not be his choice because it is always possible that there will be a rival in the elections in October. But it will take a very clever man to defeat him. The politics of sporting federations tend to be based on the strength of the strongest man. Most of the heads of the national clubs are successful businessmen who can afford to play in club politics. At international level they understand that they are playing in a much bigger pond with much bigger fish and they become expert at self-preservation. They like going to Paris a few times a year. They like their blazers and they want their positions to be maintained. Thus they all want to be seen to be on the winning side in any vote and so they tend to be just a little bit, how shall we say, um, willing to adapt to the circumstances. If you know what I mean... If they feel that their candidate does not have a majority they will switch sides in a flash so as to be on the winning side. If there is a sniff of a fancy title, such as vice-president, they will jump at it.

I remember well being at the Place de la Concorde when Jean-Marie Balestre was first challenged for office by Max Mosley, back in 1991. The Frenchman went into the FIA General Assembly utterly confident that he had secured sufficient votes to hold on to the job he had held for 13 years. As it turned out he was defeated by 43 votes to 29. He came out shell-shocked by what had happened. He had trusted his allies and at least eight of them had swapped sides. Eight swing votes would have taken Balestre up to 37 and Mosley down to 35. Balestre always believed that this had been done deliberately to put him off his guard. He was probably right.

Such is the way of politics.

Mosley says that everyone wants him to stay - they are going to say that, aren't they? - and they say he is indispensable. Well, there are definitely a few who who want him gone. There are others who think he should be gone and that the FIA needs to move on and find a new leader. The big question is whether those against him are numerous enough to reach the critical mass at which the rest jump ship and join a conspiracy.

Let us not forget that these things sometimes take great men unawares. The ultimate words of betrayal, penned by William Shakespeare in Julius Caesar, when the old dictator realises that one of those attacking him is his ally Brutus, are "Et tu, Brute?"

"Even you, Brutus?"

It will take a skilled player to unseat Mosley, but it would nonetheless be wise to heed General Charles de Gaulle's celebrated comment that "the graveyards of the world are full of indispensable men".

It is also worth remembering that the sign of true genius is knowing when and how to stop.

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