MARCH 28, 2008

Jean-Marie Balestre

The controversial Jean-Marie Balestre has died at the age of 86. For 13 years, until he was toppled by Max Mosley, he was the most powerful man in the motor sport world, as president of the Federation Internationale de l'Automobile (FIA).

Balestre was a passionate racing fan and a man who did much for the sport. It has been argued, notably by the late Ayrton Senna, that in the end Balestre was corrupted by his powers and that he manipulated the outcome of the 1989 Formula 1 World Championship in favour of Alain Prost. That was a radical claim, for Senna had much to do to win the title, but there is no doubt that Balestre's interventions did Prost no harm at all. In the end Senna was forced to back down. Even the sport's biggest name could not challenge the FIA President.

But there were other times when Balestre fought for the good of the sport. He believed that the turbocharged engines in F1 and the ground-effect aerodynamics were both dangerous and a waste of money. He pushed through the new normally-aspirated engine regulations in 1989, overcoming all opposition. When he changed the rules in the World Rally Championship, following the death of Henri Toivonen, he was challenged in court by the giant Peugeot company, the motorsport division being led at the time by Jean Todt. If the FIA had lost the case, the federation would likely have been bankrupted, but he stuck to his guns and won an important ruling which established considerable powers for the federation, which had not been defined up to that point.

Todt repaired to the Paris-Dakar and the two spat insults at one another.

Balestre had a thick skin, but then he needed one.

He spent much of his adult life trying to make up for mistakes he had made during World War II, when he threw his lot in with the Germans after the invasion of France. A member of the French SS, Balestre ultimately fell foul of the occupation forces and ended up being imprisoned by them, but it was not for any heroics, as he later claimed.

For years after the war Balestre took legal action against anyone who questioned his past. There might have been photographs of him in SS uniform, but this proved nothing. There were many law suits and Balestre won them all, but rarely was he granted any damages. He had an unbeatable defence which no-one could prove wrong. He had been in the resistance, he said, working underground. The only people who could vouch for him had all been killed.

No-one really believed the story, but in libel cases, it was the accuser who had to prove the story.

And it was just not possible to do that.

In the post-war era Balestre acquired the accoutrements of a resistance hero, much to the irritation of those who had really been involved.

There was more than a little irony in the fact that in the 1950s Balestre joined forces with Robert Hersant, a self-confessed collaborator who joked that it was amazing how he was the only Frenchman who had not been in the resistance. Together they started L'Auto-Journal in 1950 and built a media empire by buying newspapers, culminating in 1975 with the purchase of Le Figaro.

In 1950 Balestre had proposed the establishment of a French motor sport club and was a founder member of the Federation Francaise du Sport Automobile (FFSA) in 1952. He was an important figure in the world of karting and in 1961 was the first president of the International Karting Commission of the FIA. In 1973 he became FFSA president and five years later president of the International Sporting Commission of the FIA.

This he transformed in 1979 into the FISA, an autonomous federation within the FIA.

As FISA president Balestre then embarked on the famous fight for the control of Formula 1 racing - known as the FISA-FOCA war - against Bernie Ecclestone, Max Mosley and other F1 team bosses. This continued until 1982 when a compromise was reached and the first Concorde Agreement came into being. It is often said that if Balestre had hung on a little longer, the FIA would have routed the teams and kept control of the commercial rights of the sport. The compromise resulted in the teams gaining commercial control of F1, but the FIA held on to its sporting power.

In his latter years, Balestre's high-handed ways alienated many and in 1991 Mosley stood against him for the FISA presidency. Balestre went into the vote convinced that he had sufficient support to defeat Mosley, even though Ecclestone warned him he would lose. He was shell-shocked to discover that some of his supposed supporters had stabbed him in the back. There was a certain innocence in that.

Two years later, at the age of 69, Balestre did not oppose Mosley when he proposed the merger of the FIA and FISA and stood for the office of FIA President. Balestre remained active in the FIA as a member of various committees.

He was president of the FFSA until the end of 1996.

Balestre, for his many faults, had considerable charm and was a true fan of the sport, fighting for what he believed was right. There was a point at which he lost sight of what was important, although one might argue that his involvement in the World Championship in 1989 was that of a man desperate to prove that he was a patriot, to make up for the mistakes of his youth, to which he could never admit.

One can only imagine the pain he felt when he went to Brazil in the wake of the Senna Affair and saw the grandstands standing to attention, their arms outstretched in Nazi salutes, chanting "Sieg Heil!" as he went about his business.

A character? Certainly. A buffoon? From time to time. But somewhere in this tortured soul was a real racer.

There is no better epitaph than that.