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Poachers turned gamekeepers: how the FOCA became the new FIA
Part 6: Aftermath – the rebels become the establishment



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Nelson Piquet, Riccardo Patrese


Brabham-BMW BT52B




Southern Sun Hotels South African GP (October 15, 1983)


There were numerous signs of the new peace between Ecclestone and Balestre during the course of the 1982 season. The Frenchman came with a ten-point plan that included a 200-litre fuel tank capacity, ostensibly aimed at handicapping the 215-230 litre-guzzling turbos, paired with a lower weight limit, which was the complete opposite of Balestre’s earlier plans to frustrate the FOCA teams by increasing the very same limit. Ecclestone, meanwhile, in his guise as the Brabham team owner, hedged his bets between the Cosworth BT49D and the BMW-powered BT50, as the FISA plenary conference in Casablanca agreed with Balestre’s proposals but put them forward by six months – in the interest of the sport, of course.

In October, with the season over, the ten-point plan became a thirteen-point plan, again aimed to be introduced for 1983, which was flagrantly bypassing the Concorde Agreement’s two-year notice, but to everyone’s surprise the FOCA agreed. So in December 1982 a flat-bottom rule was added to the reduced minimum weight and the smaller fuel tank capacity. The latter was to be introduced in two stages, back from the original 250 litres – in 1984, the capacity would be reduced to 220 litres and to 200 litres in 1985.

This result fitted very well with Ecclestone the team owner. The postponed tank capacity reduction would give turbo manufacturers the time to work on fuel efficiency while the weight decrease was enough to sway the other FOCA members. This meant that Brabham could carry on with BMW as their engine supplier, giving the Chessington team a headstart compared to the other leading FOCA teams, which were only now starting to prepare their turbo futures with TAG-Porsche (McLaren), Honda (Williams) and Renault (Lotus).

The late flat-bottom rule – effectively the second time ground effects were to be banned –seemed to hurt Brabham most, as Gordon Murray had all but completed his 1983 BT51 ground-effects half-tank car. Peculiarly, Murray later stated that he built the car to the assurances of Bernie Ecclestone that ground-effect aerodynamics were allowed to stay for 1983. However, FOCA insiders claim that that is the official story and that the follow-up flat-bottomed BT52 was already waiting in the wings – on Murray’s drawing board at least. Today, the South African goes on record saying that the sidepod-less BT52 was a quick-and-dirty design job that didn’t profit from advance knowledge of the flat-bottom rule. Instead, Murray maintains that the car that would go on to seal a second drivers’ title for Nelson Piquet thanked its speed to its half-tank design brought over from the BT51, and the weight distribution advantages that came with it. And it’s clear to see why the design guru is putting such emphasis on his half-tank theory, since no-one else – to Gordon’s amazement – had designed a half-tank car for 1983, even though Brabham had proved in 1982 that refuelling stops were the future of F1. The truth is probably somewhere in the middle…

Even so, the BT52 didn’t quite walk the championship until a late-season swing in fortunes. It’s a story that has become infamous to the point that some journalists only dare speak of “a certain team” that won the championship with an illegal car, whereas everyone knows that this is about the Brabham team being accused of using illegal fuel to gain the upper hand on a Renault team heading towards their first World Championship, having got on top of the problems that blighted their cars’ reliability in 1982. Alain Prost later said that he knew what he was up against and that he urged Renault to officially protest the Brabhams. But the French didn’t want to rock the boat, even though their countryman and staunchest supporter over the years was still at the helm of the governing body.

The debate centered around the fuel samples taken after the Italian GP and the European GP at Brands Hatch. Both races fell victim to a resurgent Piquet, who in all probability would have won at Zandvoort as well if Prost hadn’t punted the Brazilian off into Tarzan corner. The post-race octane readings at Monza and Brands indicated that the rocket-fuel brew supplied by BASF subsidiary Wintershall to BMW in the latter part of the season was up to 0.9 RON over the regulated 102 RON. But in a strange prelude to the bargeboard scandal of Malaysia 1999, Jean-Marie Balestre claimed that the figure of 0.9 was “within the allowed margins” and even came up with official proof from the French Institut Français du Pétrole giving the expert view that such a margin was “appropriate”. The results of the races were allowed to stand, and Brabham was allowed to use the Wintershall brew in the deciding South African season-closer, which it duly went on to dominate. Although Renault never pushed the envelope towards Piquet’s disqualification, it did ask for a further explanation of the verdict. It took Balestre almost a year before announcing that he would not tolerate the existence of such margins anymore. And to show that the sport never learns, it got itself into a similar fuel-related mess at the end of the 2007 season, which could only be solved by the now well-known panacea of the “rule clarification”, which is a nice way of saying that “in order not to confuse the casual viewer we’re allowing the illegality that has gone on until now, but if you’re found trespassing at the next race you’re dead”.

The fact that Renault – and Ferrari along with them – didn’t openly object to the Frenchman’s powerplay was a clear sign of the new entente cordiale between Balestre and Ecclestone. It had been unthinkable just two years before – Balestre ruling in favour of the bitter enemy and against the ‘grandees’, especially the one coming from his own country.

Still, it was the way forward. A year later, it meant that Balestre would face stiff opposition from another former close ally, the Automobile Club de Monaco. Its chairman Michel Boeri had been a strong supporter of the GPI and WCR initiatives of the seventies, both trying to rally the organisers to form a united front against the demands of the FOCA, but now, as his lucrative American television contract was due to run out at the end of 1983, he found himself directly opposed to the FISA. He had been guilty of upsetting its president’s grand concept of the FIA being the sole owner of the new FIA F1 World Championship and with it the rights to have it televised all over the world – which, as you will remember, were then transferred to the FOCA through the Concorde Agreement. Instead, Boeri had done a new five-year deal with the ABC starting 1984. Clearly enraged by the ACM’s self-supporting efforts, Balestre axed the Monaco GP from the 1984 calendar and threatened to revoke the club’s FIA membership, which also put the Monte Carlo Rally in danger.

The seeds of the conflict had been sown in 1982 when the ACM became a vocal opponent against Balestre’s ten-point plan for 1983. Miffed about his former friend’s backstabbing, Balestre argued that no-one – not even the organiser of the most glamorous and most productive race of the year in terms of promotional value – would be allowed to ignore the fact that the FIA owned the media rights to the F1 World Championship. Unimpressed, Boeri stated that he had in fact consulted Bernie Ecclestone, the result being the FOCA chairman’s approval in writing. In fact, the signing parties of the new Monaco GP television deal were the ABC and the FOCA. Boeri then played his sympathy card by announcing that the ACM had even gone as far as buying back their American television rights from the ABC to sell them on to the FOCA.

Balestre would have none of it. First of all, he claimed that it should have been a three-year deal to put it in line with the other contracts, all of them conventiently running out at the same time the first Concorde Agreement was to expire. Secondly, he argued that the FISA might have wanted to make a deal with another American network. By this he implied that Ecclestone had been wrong not to consult the FIA before doing his deal with the ACM. And to make matters absolutely clear, Balestre issued a peculiar statement. It said that “some have suggested” that Balestre had been turned into an Ecclestone puppet, and that everyone who expected that Balestre would budge under Ecclestone’s pressure was wrong to think so. In its strong denial the statement merely went on to confirm that the two had formed a special relationship.

The ACM was undeterred as it started a series of lawsuits against the FIA, effectively testing the FIA’s claim to sole ownership of the championship’s media rights. This caused the issue to escalate to the offices of president Mitterand and prince Rainier. In the end, three months before the 1985 Monaco GP, the ACM had to accept defeat when the French Supreme Court refused to force the FIA to put the Monaco GP back on their calendar. To save his race, and the fate of the Monte Carlo Rally as well, Boeri handed over all media rights to the FIA and agreed to cease their court cases and pay for the FIA’s legal costs. Although he hated the fact that the Monaco GP would be increasingly sanitised into a uniform F1 event – a fear that would indeed become reality over the years – he explained his defeat as a peace treaty. In fact, not for long Balestre and Boeri were friends again, and after he had acknowledged that Bernie Ecclestone’s commercial accomplishments had been an enormous benefit to the sport as a whole, and especially its general prosperity, Boeri became a FISA and later FIA vice-president. Of course, the Monaco GP hadn’t been the only victim on Ecclestone’s road to uniformity, it was merely the one with the highest profile. It completed the process of constant marginalisation of the organisers that had been on-going since the early seventies.

With the first Concorde Agreement due to run out in 1987 more changes lay ahead. Having seen the sport turn into an efficiency formula due to the fuel-tank capacity reduction that was introduced in steps from 1984, the FISA was now eager to banish them in favour of 3.5-litre atmospheric engines. This was not just a silent admission that the original turbo equivalency rule of the 3-litre era had been dead wrong. The re-introduction of atmo engines just three years after the turbos had become commonplace in F1 was also in stark contrast with the way they had been forced into extinction by the very same governing body.

Just ahead of a new six-year agreement, Ecclestone saw his interest in being a Grand Prix team boss wane gradually. The Brabham team’s lack of results didn’t help, nor did the detoriating relationship with design wizard Gordon Murray. This was compounded by the failure of Murray’s low-line BT55 design and the death of much-loved Italian driver Elio De Angelis in one of them. By then, Nelson Piquet – revered by everyone at Brabham – had done the unthinkable and left the team to join Williams, all because of a quibble over a fairly insignificant amount of money. Piquet felt that he was undervalued as a two-time World Champion while the negotiating Ecclestone fell back into his old belief that drivers are dispensable – a stance that he also held during the Kyalami drivers strike. The Brazilian didn’t ask for the world but still the two couldn’t agree terms. A year later, Murray was gone as well, and to rub it in, his low-line concept became an absolute success at McLaren, his MP4-4 design winning all but one Grand Prix in the 1988 season.

Interestingly, 1986 saw the return of Max Mosley to the sport, after an absence of three years. Having been the nail on FISA’s coffin for a large part of his life in Grand Prix racing, he now came to head the FISA Manufacturers Commission. On the renewal of the Concorde Agreement he was joined at the governing body by his old army buddy, Ecclestone now assuming the mantle of FIA Vice-President of Promotional Affairs. Although he always publicly defended him and helped the team to stay afloat until its dying days, Ecclestone will no doubt have been sorry over the way his Brabham was run into the ground by Swiss businessman – and villain – Joachim Lühti, but what was he to know when he agreed the sale of his team to Alfa Romeo? After the colossal failure of the Production Car World Championship, for which Brabham would build Alfa Romeo’s cars, the Italians announced that they would sell the team to a conglomerate led by Lühti’s countryman Walter Brun, Peter Windsor and Aussie golfer Greg Norman. The return of Brabham to F1 looked like a rosy prospect when Sir Jack Brabham himself intervened with Engine Developments Ltd to negotiate a supply of Judd engines. But then the Swiss sportscar boss sold his share to banker and venture capitalist Lühti, who consequently wanted Windsor and Norman out. The less is said about the team’s downfall, Lühti’s escape to the US where he lived under a false name for years, the sell-out to the Japanese Middlebridge Group and the slide into DNQ territory, the better.

Ecclestone, meanwhile, established the Formula One Promotions and Administration (FOPA) company – now known as Formula One Management (FOM) – and was at the start of something big. The very same decade would see Formula One grow into a global enterprise that is only surpassed by soccer in terms of market value. Did we just say enterprise? Of course we meant sport…

The homogenised package made F1 more attractive for television, which in turn attracted bigger sponsors, which meant bigger budgets, which meant the advent – or return, if you please – of the manufacturers and even bigger sponsors wanting to be associated with those manufacturers, to the point that there were more major car manufacturers involved in one single racing category than in the entire history of the sport. It all came about because of the upward spiral created by Bernie’s new FOPA company, which agreed to manage television rights on behalf of the FIA, the teams and, of course, himself. Even more significantly, FOPA/FOM also cashed the fees paid by organizers for the right to stage a World Championship event, and redistributed these as prize money for the teams – a much more profitable redistribution of wealth compared to the promotional practice under the first Concorde Agreement.

It meant the start of a New World Order for F1, which was cemented in 1993 when Mosley ran for FIA president and beat Balestre to the post. The resolving of the FISA-FOCA clash had now gone full circle. With former FOCA men running the FIA, the governing body’s important positions were gradually filled by ex-FOCA and/or Brabham men, or Bernie's boys as they were called. The familiar faces included Brabham’s former chief mechanic Charlie Whiting, now holding the position of FIA Technical Delegate. Herbie Blash became the FIA Deputy Race Director in 1995, having already done the initial day-to-day running of FOPA in 1987. Then, two years after Mosley’s arrival, the FIA granted F1’s commercial rights to FOM for 14 years, a period later extended to an almost symbolic 100 years.

By then things were going beyond full circle, as history was about to repeat itself in a strangely mirrored way. Now, the manufacturers sought to increase their control over the championship, with the governing body sticking to its guns of protecting the private constructors who were threatening to become an endangered species. Having seen the demise of manufacturer-based championships such as the FIA ITC and the first incarnation of the FIA GT championship, Mosley was wary of allowing the sport’s premier category being taken over by manufacturers willing to leave at any moment they pleased. Slowly but unstoppably the conflict developed to a point where the manufacturers were ready to separate themselves from the FIA to start their own championship. This was prevented by some typical Mosley powerplay, pressing the manufacturers into signing up early for the 2008 championship. But then the manufacturers struck back by making a mockery of Mosley’s protect-the-privateer scheme, turning it into a kill-off-the-last-privateer game instead. By using Mosley’s 2008 rule allowing back customer chassis to effectively set up manufacturer ‘B’ teams, the manufacturers looked to create four-car teams with the sole aim of pushing the few remaining old-school constructors such as Williams and Force India (née Jordan) further back on the grid. It was obvious that Sir Frank was having none of this, basing his arguments on no lesser document than the Concorde Agreement. The result was that the customer-chassis rule was dead before it got a chance.

The end result was a situation where both the warring sides could claim to be winners – in a warped copy of the events of the early eighties. History teaches us well.