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Attack is always the best form of defence or why FIA president Max Mosley is hardly quaking at F1's latest attempt at a palace coup


Max Mosley was born into controversy. Eleven days after making his appearance in the world in 1940 in war-torn London his mother, Diana Mitford, was incarcerated in Holloway Prison. His father was the notorious politician Sir Oswald Mosley, busy at the time stirring up pro-Nazi feelings in the East End of London as his Black Shirts marched against the Jews. It was not the most propitious time to be a sympathiser with Adolf Hitler.

Max Mosley was born into controversy. Eleven days after making his appearance in the world in 1940 in war-torn London his mother, Diana Mitford, was incarcerated in Holloway Prison. His father was the notorious politician Sir Oswald Mosley, busy at the time stirring up pro-Nazi feelings in the East End of London as his Black Shirts marched against the Jews. It was not the most propitious time to be a sympathiser with Adolf Hitler.

The recent ill-considered attempt at a palace coup by team owners Ron Dennis, Sir Frank Williams and Eddie Jordan was therefore never going to over-exercise his intellect or his resilience.

In the fall-out that resulted from the deaths of Roland Ratzenberger and Ayrton Senna at Imola in May 1994, Mosley proved his ability to handle controversy of his own on a world stage. And, it has to be said, he did so with no small degree of aplomb.

After the tragedies Mosley steered the sport back from what appeared at the time to be the brink. He has since largely followed his own script. As he nears the end of his second successive spell as president of the FIA, the position to which he was elected in October 1991, he summarises his role quite simply. "The thing is that team owners and engineers have their jobs. The job that I am supposed to do is a very genuine and very necessary job. You need somebody stood back, trying to make it all function sensibly. You might well say that it is the wrong person doing it. But you have got to have somebody doing it. I might not be the right person, but there must be somebody. And it really needs to be somebody capable of being fairly determined, should the need arise."

That need arose at Barcelona six years ago, a month after the events of Imola. In the aftermath of the sport's first major tragedies in almost a decade something had to be seen to be done, as questions about motor racing were being raised at parliamentary level in more than one country. Mosley was astute enough to act quickly to placate the concerns of the politicians and the corporate barons who finance the sport, but his reaction was not universally popular. There was a high-powered meeting with the teams in Spain in which he outlined his ideas for F1's future to engineers who had already had to modify their rear wings and diffusers at very short notice as a sop to parties across the globe who were demanding change to avoid a repetition of the Imola tragedies. In front of a clutch of media representatives in the Benetton motorhome that weekend, team principals Flavio Briatore and Tom Walkinshaw returned from the meeting, smug expressions writ large across their beaming countenances, to announce boldly: "Mosley is finished. He's gone. From now on the teams will control the sport."

Subsequent events relate that reports of his demise were greatly exaggerated.

Mosley cannot resist a smirk of his own whenever he is reminded of the incident. "It just shows how politically na•ve they were," he beams. "In fact, I was too nice. I sort of sat around, and when they started to have that abortive strike, I should just have got in the car and gone home and said get on with it. You knew you didn't even have to do anything. I shouldn't really have been nice enough to talk to them. But I was much more conciliatory in those days. That was the kind thing to do. But it was wonderfully na•ve to imagine that that was somehow going to result in a big change in the power base. Quite the reverse, actually."

The latest challenge to his supremacy had its roots in the dissatisfaction of Dennis and Williams with the FIA's appeal procedure, prompting the latter to seek guidance from the European Commission with whom the FIA has only just settled the long-running dispute over its monopoly on television rights. But some teams have also been unhappy with what they see as Mosley's interference in the way things are run. In particular the grooved tyre issue, a Mosley idea, has always been a thorny subject.

Dennis, Williams and Jordan wanted to see Mosley step down when his present term of office ends in October 2001, if not sooner. But they not only underestimated their opponent; they also failed to understand how the process works. The FIA owns the World Championship, and its member countries elect its president. The teams have no say in the matter. Their only recourse to remove Mosley would be to persuade the RAC MSA, the British motorsport authority, to remove its endorsement of Mosley the next time he seeks office, and to consider an alternative candidate. There was certainly no chance whatsoever of Pasquale Lattenedu, who oversees paddock organisation on behalf of the FIA and works closely with Bernie Ecclestone, could succeed Mosley at the teams' behest, as suggested by Jordan in Belgium.

"Max is the last person to back down or run away from a fight," one team owner said after Spa, when the dissatisfaction first came to light. "If he doesn't go quietly you can expect a battle that will make the FISA FOCA war of 1980 look tame."

In fact, there was no war. The fight was over following a few well-chosen words when the parties met at Heathrow on September 6th. One team owner, who works for a multi-national company and was not part of the Ôcoup', said later that he had seen some pretty bloody boardroom arguments but nothing that came close to Mosley's massacre.

The previous day the FIA president had written to Frank Williams, acquainting him in uncompromising terms of his disappointment at Williams' beliefs that the best course of action was to resort to the European Commission without trying first to solve any beefs internally.

In his letter, which cannily he circulated to all teams to maximise his rivals' embarrassment, Mosley said: "If you were truly concerned about the FIA Court of Appeal, I would have expected you to make a formal approach to the FIA. The first step would probably have been a written memorandum setting out your misgivings together with your proposals for reform. That would have been followed by at least one meeting. There is a whole process which any reasonable person would go through before seeking to involve an outside agency.

"The fact is that you did none of these things. You have occasionally said something, but never made any serious attempt to get things changed." And he reminded Williams that the present system was accepted by him each time he had signed the Concorde Agreement, most recently in 1998.

Next, he turned his venom on Dennis.

"As you and Ron know well," he wrote, "it is open to anyone to start their own motor sport series. The organiser of such a series would obviously have all the commercial rights, as well as full sporting control, subject only to normal safety precautions and the basic requirements of the International Sporting Code. As I explained to you last night, this is what Ron should do if he wants to manage an international motor sport series himself. I wrote to him the other day telling him this. Ron has no role in the FIA Formula One World Championship apart from that granted him, in common with other teams, by the Concorde Agreement."

Mosley's next sentence was typical of his wry sense of humour. "Unfortunately," he added, "he finds all this rather difficult to understand."

Face-to-face with his opponents, Mosley again went on the warpath. With little ceremony he reminded each of the renegades just what they owed the FIA in general, and himself in particular, while making it abundantly clear what he thought of each of them. None offered any meaningful resistance.

"Ron seems to think he has some sort of mission personally to manage Formula One," Mosley says. "He does not seem to understand that the FIA Formula One World Championship belongs to the 120-odd FIA member countries which founded it in 1950 and have run it ever since."

At Monza Eddie Jordan was at pains to distance himself from the failed attempt, but Mosley is unlikely to be taken in by the letter he received stressing that the Irish team owner was not a player in the little drama.

Mosley, a qualified barrister, is frequently given in private moments to disparaging the educational achievements of some of his challengers. Interestingly, Sir Oswald said in his autobiography: "We decided to give our sons Alexander and Max another education because we hoped to make them good Europeans, and thought that a command of languages is a most desirable gift of parents to children." Mosley has exploited his intellect to the full. He is not universally popular, and there are those who believe that much of what he has achieved has been done with an eye to his own political aspirations. He did, after all, once smilingly offer the famous quote: "The art of doing this job is to appear to be a gentleman while being totally self-serving."

But he is also the player with all the aces in his hand. The headmaster has issued a strong rebuke to unruly sixth formers, and it remains to be seen if their indiscretion merits further penalty. But what is clear is that Mosley won't be walking away just yet. He has already indicated his willingness to stand for election for a third term.

"You know," he says disingenuously, "it's always been the case that whenever I have been told what I should be doing I have been inclined to do precisely the opposite."