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Poachers turned gamekeepers: how the FOCA became the new FIA
Part 1: Introduction and timeline



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Buenos Aires


XXVII Argentine GP (April 12, 1981)


There must be millions of modern-day Formula One fans wondering why FIA president Max Mosley and his FIA Vice-President for Promotional Affairs Bernie Ecclestone contine to succeed in their powerplay against the manufacturers and their demand of a bigger role in the control of the sport and, of course, a bigger slice of the pie. Those fans only need to look back to see where Max and Bernie got their education. Three decades earlier, Mosley and Ecclestone were heading the opposition against the FIA in a power struggle that makes the current battle for political and economical supremacy look like child’s play. It was the FISA-FOCA war of the early eighties, also known as the ‘FIASCO’ war.

In the end it didn’t turn out as a fiasco after all since almost all who remained involved became the better of it – not least financially. Anyone with a need to understand why the sport has become what it is now – a multi-million dollar circus that conquered the world with a televised package called the FIA F1 World Championship – should study its period of genesis, the war that killed off the old-school championship and ended in a highly profitable Pax Concordiana.

The number of parallels and contrasts between then and now is striking:

The amazing – or not so amazing – parallels

The biggest contrasts

So, let’s turn back the clock to go back to the future. We’ll take a close look at all the different stages of the conflict, but first we’ll give you a timeline of the main events of the FISA-FOCA war, starting when the first seeds were planted and ending when modern times are about to set in, with drivers and teams competing that might still sound in some way familiar to the average 21st century Eff One fanboy.

FISA-FOCA war timeline

February 1964: the Formula 1 Constructors Association (F1CA) is formed as a united front to race organisers in order to negotiate a better package of starting money, prize money and transport costs.

Autumn 1967: the F1CA gets into its first political involvement of note when it gets stuck in the middle of a brooding conflict between the ACF, organiser of the French GP, and French motorsport body FFSA. This is resolved when the French government appoints the FFSA, and its ambitious general secretary Jean-Marie Balestre, to the role previously held by the ACF. Being on the sidelines of this French battle, the F1CA and the Grand Prix Drivers Association (GPDA) criticize the CSI’s helpless behaviour in the matter and demand that the CSI be made independent of the FIA, with powers distributed more democratically.

April 1970: the Spanish organisers turn their weekend into a farce by making a shambles of their own regulations. Allowing a mere 16 starters, with ten of them guaranteed a place on the grid, they create utter confusion by disallowing Friday times to stand as qualifying times. On Sunday they reach compromise with the angered F1CA teams by allowing the non-qualifiers onto the grid after all. But then the CSI steps in, forcing the Spaniards to stick with their own rules. The cars that didn't qualify are wheeled off the grid again and the race starts without them.

March 1972: new Brabham owner Bernie Ecclestone, who has just been let into the F1CA circle, isn’t satisfied with the way F1CA secretary Andrew Ferguson has been handling the overseas travel arrangements. He effectively takes control by offering the team bosses a better deal. He also promises them a tougher stance with the organisers, especially when it comes to starting and prize money. The other members are swayed by the figures Ecclestone mentions and Ferguson is sidelined in favour of Ecclestone’s protégé Peter Macintosh.

<May 1972: the F1CA’s new challenge to the might of some of the organisers comes to a head when Ecclestone leads a revolt against the influential ACM, the organiser of the Monaco GP. Led by its new chairman Michel Boeri the ACM wants to stick with the CSI’s dispensation for a smaller grid number. However, ahead of the race, Boeri and the F1CA agree to a regular starting grid of 25 cars, but when the teams arrive at Monaco the number is down to 20. The word is that the CSI is trying to reassert its power through its gallic ties with the ACM. The teams get together and decide to boycott the race if the grid isn’t expanded back to 25. March founder and F1CA legal eagle Max Mosley uses his francophone language skills to negotiate with the ACM, with Ecclestone calling the shots. The argument is settled in the teams’ favour.

Autumn 1972: Ecclestone seeks a substantial raise of prize money from the organisers, at the same time demanding that the F1CA be entitled to distribute the money more evenly amongst its members. A cry-out by the organisers to the CSI leads to the formation of a new body, Grand Prix International (GPI), set up to negotiate with the F1CA on behalf of the organisers. Its hard-line chairman, Dutchman Henri Treu, first tries to break the F1CA union by offering individual deals to each and every team. When this doesn’t work he suggests that the CSI introduce a new rule allowing F5000 and F2 cars into Grand Prix races. The new rule is announced by the British GP organisers. The teams react furiously – either the CSI backs down or the teams won't show up in 1973. Now Philip Morris gets involved through its new sponsorship arrangement with BRM, as it declares that the tensions between the CSI and the F1CA are hurting the sport. On top of that, the F1CA plays its trump card. How can the CSI be a supporter of safety, with their deformable-structure regulations coming into force at the 1973 Spanish GP, if the British GP – and all the other GPs following the Spanish GP – allow in cars that do not meet these regulations? The result is that one by one the organisers sign deals with Ecclestone for 1973. The GPI disappears from the scene.

1973-1975: the starting money and prize and travel funds gained from the organisers rise substantially over the years, along with television money. The F1CA’s influence is starting to stretch into other fields of Grand Prix racing such as track safety, paddock entry and VIP hospitality. The association also decides which circuits are getting their country’s Grand Prix. Meanwhile, the overseas venues find out what a hard-bargaining man Ecclestone really is, as he works towards new three-year deals with most organisers in Europe and the world.

1976-1977: new CSI president Pierre Ugeux – following in the footsteps of FIA-bound Prince Metternich – starts off promisingly by striking a deal with the F1CA called the Brussels Agreement. In this, a fixed price is set for European organisers to have the F1CA teams appear at their 1976 events. Also present during the negotiations is Jean-Marie Balestre, who has become FFSA president in 1973. Pleased with his success, Ugueux revives the GPI scheme in a different fashion. This time, however, the RAC sides with the F1CA. Helped by Mosley, they claim that such a consortium would be a violation of the Treaty of Rome. Undeterred, Ugeux appoints former Marlboro EMEA director Patrick Duffeler as his prime negotiator, who in turn forms World Championship Racing (WCR), a new body aiming to agree three-year deals with the organisers. With time running out to the first GP of 1977 there is utter chaos resembling the winter of 1980-81. One group of organisers decides to stick with the WCR while others sign with Ecclestone. The Belgians hedge their bets by signing with both. In a late-December meeting Ecclestone suddenly accepts the running of the Argentinian GP under WCR terms, but Ugeux fails to move in on the organisers who have done deals with Ecclestone. Back in Europe, the season now seemingly peacefully underway, Ecclestone grabs the opportunity to change the new three-year contracts to include more favourable terms and conditions for the F1CA. After the GPI, the WCR is now dead and buried as well.

1978: FIA president Metternich realises that Ugeux is no match for Ecclestone and his British constructors and he supports a more cunning candidate for the CSI presidency. As FFSA president Jean-Marie Balestre takes control of the CSI, Ecclestone becomes the chief executive of the F1CA, with Max Mosley acting as his legal advisor. The organisation is renamed FOCA. The stage is set for a royal battle, as Balestre vows to restore the authority of the governing body. As the first step of an ambitious overhaul plan, Balestre immediately does away with the CSI, which is superceded by the Fédération Internationale du Sport Automobile (FISA). Of course, Balestre is appointed president of this new autonomous subcommittee of the FIA.

January 1979: already in the first GP of the season, in Argentina, Balestre uses a first-lap collision between Watson (McLaren) and Scheckter (Ferrari) to show who is boss. Watson is blamed for the incident and although Balestre is denying his involvement he announces that Watson might face a multi-race ban.

February 1979: the Watson case fires up again at the Brazilian GP, where Balestre orders Watson to pay his fine or risk being excluded from the event. He also publicly chastises Ecclestone for having forbidden drivers to cooperate with the investigation. Behind the scenes, however, he loses out to Ecclestone who finds himself supported by the Argentinian auto club

April 1979: Balestre tries to regain the initiative by talking to the British press about Ecclestone’s supposed backhandedness in the three-year deals with most organisers, accusing the Englishman of forcing them to increase their reimbursement of travel expenses or else risk a no-show by the FOCA teams. It is the first of many occasions on which Balestre tries to discredit Ecclestone publicly, hoping he has found Bernie’s Achilles heel. The FISA also clamps down on ‘FOCA’ tracks such as Chris Pook’s Long Beach by threatening to cancel the race if Pook doesn’t heed to the findings of FISA’s track inspectors.

Summer 1979: Balestre continues to work on the constructors’ nerves by disallowing them to use commercial names for their cars before dropping a bomb by announcing that sliding skirts will be banned for 1981. He also introduces a fines scheme for drivers not showing up at pre-race briefings. This would later become the drop to tip the bucket over.

February 1980: the FISA sticks with its new-for-1981 rules banning ground effects and increasing minimum weight. FOCA argues that the customary two-year notice wasn’t applied whereas the FISA states that this notice is nullified because of safety reasons. FOCA is displeased about the FISA’s unilateral approach which simply forces the new rules upon the teams instead of working with them. It also sees this as a direct attack on the British teams, as the new regulations seem to favour the continental manufacturer teams, or ‘grandees’. These have turbo engines ready or waiting in the wings to counter the effects of the new regulations.

April 1980: at the FIA spring conference in Rio on April 15, the FISA is given a blank cheque to regain control of the championship. The new rules are forced through, leading to a conflict that will be resolved by creating a new-style FIA-sanctioned championship.

May 1980: as a counter provocation the FOCA spots that the compulsory presence at drivers’ briefings isn’t included in the supplementary rule book for the Belgian GP. The FOCA teams instructs their drivers to tactically stay away, which means that only the Ferrari, Renault and Alfa drivers show up. FISA subsequently fines the drivers as per the rule Balestre introduced the year before.

June 1980: the argument boils over ahead of the Spanish GP. Balestre threatens the drivers, who still have their fines to pay, that they risk their licenses being revoked. Ecclestone responds with the threat of a boycott. With both sides not giving in as practice approaches, the Spanish king himself orders the organisers to go ahead with the race. The organisers find themselves contractually bound to FOCA and throw the FISA teams from the premises after first practice. The FOCA teams go on with the race, but Balestre declares it a pirate race not counting towards the World Championship.

June 1980: the sport goes through two near misses at a shot for peace. Early June, an eleven-point agreement is thrashed out at Philip Morris's European headquarters at Lausanne, with Balestre not being present. The result is leaked to the press, resulting in a furious reaction by Balestre. A second attempt on the Monday after the French GP looks just as promising. The ban on skirts is lifted in favour of less efficient tyres. Balestre seems happy with the result as well but on the proviso that some details need to be voted through at the FIA autumn meeting in October.

July 1980: a post-British GP meeting between the FISA Technical Commission and the tyre companies leads to serious objections by Michelin. While Goodyear is happy to cooperate, the French are unhappy with the Paul Ricard agreement and the trade-off that is made with smaller tyre sizes to compensate for the continued use of skirts. The FOCA teams are shocked to hear the news as they believed that FISA's Paul Ricard concession was made in accordance with both tyre companies. Balestre uses the break-off in talks with the tyre companies to step back from the entire Paul Ricard agreement. Then the FIA Executive Committee confirms that the Spanish GP is indeed a pirate race.

August 1980: the FISA announces that it will take back the responsibility for the distribution of starting and prize monies, while striving towards new five-year race deals without the excessive price increases that FOCA were demanding time and again. Balestre also assures himself of the full support of Ferrari, Renault, Alfa Romeo and Ligier (Talbot).

October 1980: at the FIA autumn meeting in Paris the 1981 rules package is voted through while a new World Championship is created. It’s Balestre's political master stroke that Ecclestone and Mosley should now be thankful for, but at the time they don’t realise how it will benefit them later. The new World Championship structure effectively turns the FIA into the organiser. Teams have to enter for the whole of the championship instead of doing so on a race-by-race basis. This turns the old-school World Drivers Championship – a collection of major races awarded World Championship status by the FIA – into the new-style F1 World Championship, now a ‘packaged series’ of events, with organisers signing up with the FIA in order to be included in the championship. This new championship will later close off the avenues of protest left open to the teams in 1982, causing the conflict to eventually peter out.

November 1980: the FOCA teams react by threatening to split from the FISA-sanctioned championship to create their own World Federation of Motor Sport (WFMS). This WFMS will be a professional organisation with commercial experience organising the World Professional Drivers Championship. Six weeks after the idea is first floated, it is put to rest once it is clear that there aren’t enough organisers to go around for two rival championships, especially when most organisers eventually side with the ‘official’ championship. This comes after Balestre threatening that their circuits will never be able to host a FIA-sanctioned race again. Another setback for the FOCA comes in the shape of Goodyear pulling out of Grand Prix racing in the wake of the turmoil while other major companies – both sponsors and suppliers – consider a similar move.

December 1980: with all the bickering over which championship would be getting which race, the FISA decides to cancel the Argentine GP, set for late January, to win some time. The South African GP, due to be held on February 7, is moved back to April 11. This poses great problems with the organisers. They have already signed up an event sponsor and produced posters for the February date. They also claim that an April date on the Southern hemisphere is asking for meteorogical trouble. A more pregnant detail is that Kyalami Enterprises, the company in charge of the track, has signed a FOCA contract for the teams to appear in February.

January 1981: after the collapse of the WFMS, FISA and FOCA start talks resulting in the Maranello Agreement. This is a pre-cursor to the Concorde Agreement that will soon follow, concocted in typical clever-lawyer style by Max Mosley. Central to the agreement is the condition that only a FOCA-approved Grand Prix has the right to apply for FIA World Championship status. This will greatly magnify the power of Bernie Ecclestone in later years. The approach between the two warring groups is caused by the ‘grandee’ teams failing to remain united with the FISA when Balestre takes a shot at the ‘FOCA event’ at Long Beach. Renault announces that it will race at Long Beach, whatever the FISA decides, citing the event as commercially vital to its America Motors subsidiary. Upon the news that Renault is having second thoughts Ferrari gives in as well. Meanwhile, FISA tells the South African organisers that their race can only have World Championship status if it is run in April. Poignantly, it also suggests they organize a Formula Libre race on February 7 if they wish so. After some thought, they decide to do just that.

February 1981: the problem surrounding the South African GP isn’t solved in time, and the race goes ahead as a Formula Libre race with the FOCA teams. The cars appear with sliding skirts, still allowed under 1980 rules.

March 1981: the Concorde Agreement is signed, sealing a truce between FISA and FOCA. The teams agree to enter all races of the new FIA F1 World Championship. In return, the teams receive a bigger share of the television money and the infamous unanimous agreement on future technical changes. This also means that privateer teams are outlawed from now on.

April 1981: in the meantime, the Cosworth-engined FOCA teams make their own interpretations of the new 6mm ride height rule and the new minimum-weight rule. In qualifying, several teams work around the increased weight limit by mounting lead rear wings for scrutineering purposes, while Ecclestone – now in his function as Brabham team boss – successfully rallies the other team bosses to have the twin-chassis Lotus 88 banned, a controversial ride-height lowering innovation by fellow FOCA member Colin Chapman. This is probably to attract attention away from the brilliant ploy by Brabham’s Gordon Murray who invents an intricate hydraulic suspension system which allows the driver to lower the car with a flick of a switch inside the cockpit. Most other FOCA teams then go to on to copy this system.

January 1982: the armed truce is lifted in the run-up to the first Grand Prix of 1982 when Balestre introduces a superlicense scheme which includes a clause that forces a driver to drive for the team they are currently contracted to and no others. In effect, Balestre was trying to introduce a football-style transfer system to F1, and the drivers did not take that lightly. In protest, almost all drivers led by GPDA president Didier Pironi and returnee Niki Lauda go on strike ahead of the South African GP. After lengthy negotiations the dispute is settled in favour of the drivers, a result which is underlined by the FIA Court of Appeal awarding only minor fines and suspended race bans to the drivers for not showing up for first practice in South Africa. This happens after the 29 drivers (excluding Mass and Fabi) successfully appeal the original fine and suspended two-race bans with the South African motorsport body.

February 1982: the FOCA teams find another loop hole in the weight regulations, as they show up for the Brazilian GP with so-called water-cooled brakes. The ‘cooling’ being done after the first few laps, the cars drop the fluids to run underweight all race, after which the tanks are topped up after the race, as specified by the rules, which state that a car must be weighed with all coolants and lubricants on board. Race winner Piquet and second-place man Rosberg are duly protested by ‘grandee’ team Renault, whose driver Prost finishes third in a car not running the water-cooled brakes. Piquet and Rosberg are promptly disqualified and the other cars move up the order. Those who profit include the FOCA teams also running the controversial devices but who are saved from being protested against.

April 1982: as a provocation, simply to show what would happen if rules were interpreted according to the letter of the law instead of the spirit, Ferrari show up at Long Beach with a double rear wing, placed side-by-side, one ahead of the other. Their argument is that both wings were of a legal size and that the rules don’t forbid the use of two wings... Villeneuve finishes third but is consequently disqualified. It is unsure whether this episode is of any influence but the appeal by Brabham and Williams against Piquet and Rosberg’s disqualification is thrown out by the Court of Appeal, after the two teams unsuccessfully argue that the regulations do not deem the topping up of liquids illegal per se. The verdict clearly enrages the FOCA teams. These now consider a boycott of the San Marino GP. In the end, most FOCA teams indeed stay away, except for Tyrrell, which cites sponsorship obligations. Cosworth-engined Osella and ATS side with the continental ‘grandees’ Ferrari, Renault and Alfa Romeo, whilst Toleman’s Alex Hawkridge wants to steer clear of any trouble, being part of a new British team running a turbo car. Especially Tyrrell and Toleman will run into trouble for this later when trying to negotiate a turbo engine and a new tyre deal respectively.

May 1982: the FISA and FOCA teams hold an emergency meeting in Casablanca. Again, there is a huge amount of tantrum from the FOCA teams about the Brazil disqualifications, but the commercial pressure to put on a show is just as huge. In the end, the FOCA teams give in. They agree to appear for the Belgian GP at Zolder with ballasted cars while the Imola results are allowed to stand. As it was, the 14 cars participating had been enough to make it an official FIA race. Everyone expects the ‘FIASCO’ war to heat up at any time, but surprisingly it doesn’t. Time simply takes care of it.

July 1982: for measure, the FIA throws out the token protest against the turbo teams, lodged by Ken Tyrrell at the Brazilian GP, thereby terminally ending the ‘grandee’ vs. ‘garagiste’ conflict. Tyrrell argued that the F1 equivalency formula only allows for supercharged engines. According to his reasoning, turbo engines were in fact illegal since a turbo could be seen as a form of turbine, a technology which after all hadn’t been allowed since the early seventies. It is all rather gratuitous, and so it is no surprise that the FOCA teams count their blessings and finally decide to join the turbo ranks instead of (unfairly) trying to beat them – if they didn’t sign a turbo contract already. Ironically, the team that usually led their FOCA allies in ‘technical innovation’ had been running a BMW turbo car since 1981… A further blow to the FOCA teams comes in the form of FISA banning sixwheelers and 4WD as of 1983. This comes after a very successful Williams test at Donington Park, where Keke Rosberg runs a modified twin-rear-axle FW08 (FW08D) to set stunning times. When Rosberg’s title challenge suddenly picks up pace after Pironi’s unfortunate departure from the scene, the Renaults continued faltering and Watson’s run of five DNFs the Williams team stop seeing the need for arguing too strongly with the FIA. Furthermore, they are about to ‘sleep with the enemy’ too, having signed up with Honda for a supply of turbo engines.

Winter 1982-83: as a sign of the new peace the FOCA teams do not protest the sudden change in regulations which, as late as December 1982, again bans the use of ground effects – this time by introducing a flat-bottom regulation for 1983. Once more, the team that was leading the FOCA revolt is the one that seems to be hurt the most, as Gordon Murray has all but completed his 1983 BT51 ground-effects half-tank car. Peculiarly, Murray built the car to the assurances of FOCA leader and team boss Bernie Ecclestone that ground-effect aerodynamics were allowed to stay for 1983. In the end, Murray pulls a rabbit out of his hat with the hastily designed sidepod-less BT52, which will go on to seal a second drivers’ title for Piquet, mostly because no-one else – to Gordon’s amazement – has designed a half-tank 1983 car, even though Brabham proved in 1982 that refuelling stops are the future of F1.

October 1983: to underline the new entente cordiale Balestre defends the new World Champion to death against the mutterings of the French ‘national’ Renault team. Ecclestone’s Nelson Piquet has just become champion for Brabham but his team is accused of using illegal fuel. Indeed, post-race octane readings at Monza and Brands Hatch indicate that the infamous Wintershall rocket-fuel brew that is used by the BMW turbo engines in the second half of the season is up to 0.9 RON over the regulated 102 RON. Balestre claims that the figure of 0.9 RON is within the allowed margins, and Piquet’s championship stands. Most watchers of the sport feel that Balestre won’t have done such a thing two years earlier, with one of the ‘grandees’ being the victim, and especially one coming from his own country.

1986: after an absence of three years Mosley returns to the sport to head the FISA Manufacturers Commission.

1987: the first Concorde Agreement runs out, after which Ecclestone steps down as a team owner and becomes FIA Vice-President of Promotional Affairs. He establishes the Formula One Promotions and Administration (FOPA) company – now known as Formula One Management (FOM). FOPA agrees to manage television rights on behalf of the FIA, the teams and, of course, himself. FOPA also cashes the fees paid by organisers for the right to stage a World Championship event, to redistribute them as prize money for the teams. This is a much more profitable enterprise compared to the promotional practice under the first Concorde Agreement. It’s the start of a New Order for F1, which is cemented in 1993 when Mosley runs for FIA president and beats Balestre to the post. With a former FOCA man now at the helm of the FIA, the governing body’s important positions are gradually usurped by ex-FOCA and/or ex-Brabham men. Brabham’s former chief mechanic Charlie Whiting now holds the position of FIA Technical Delegate while Herbie Blash is the FIA Deputy Race Director since 1995, having done the day-to-day running of FOPA in 1987. 1995 is also the year in which the FIA grants the commercial rights of F1 to FOM for a period of 14 years.