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Poachers turned gamekeepers: how the FOCA became the new FIA
Part 7: Present day – a new twist to the story



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Can we top the FISA/FOCA power struggle of the 1980s with even more sordid power games? Yes, we can! And if you still think the original war was ‘best’, you must admit the warring parties in today’s battle have been giving it their best shot. And frankly, why else would it be anything but that good? This latest spat has all the same ingredients tossed up in a new crispy mix of contrasts and parallels. So let’s take a look at the recent past and give you a run-down of events that will soon become historical.

After the FIA president was caught with his pants down in the spring of 2008, many laughed at his suggestion that it was a set-up. No doubt, they said, Mosley’s conspiracy theory was a decoy and the only set-up was that of Mosley trying to divert attention away from himself, even cynically using his own exposure for murky political means. But revelation upon revelation made it clear that Mosley hadn’t been that wide off the mark. To the surprise of the casual follower it even looked like former ally Bernie Ecclestone had become an opponent in the dirty chess game that was F1’s new power struggle. Or was Bernie simply defending his corner between the FIA and commercial-rights owner CVC? The continued postponement of the signing of a new Concorde Agreement looked to be right in the middle of the conflict but what was the agenda behind the big FIA clubs’ push to get Mosley ousted from office? What hadMosley been trying to prevent? And what was the reason behind the teams seemingly forming a united front for once?

To those who had followed the big FIA coup of 2005-'06 and hadn’t paid any attention since, the events of 2008 must have come as a huge surprise. Only two years ago, Max Mosley and Bernie Ecclestone managed to crush the threat of a manufacturer breakaway series by cutting a wedge between the closed ranks of the Grand Prix Manufacturers Association (GPMA). This was the body that for years had been trying to gain more administrative and financial clout from FOM, the FIA-aligned company run by Ecclestone that is making all the commercial calls in F1 since the initial Concorde Agreement was drawn up. Working on behalf of Mercedes-Benz (McLaren), BMW, Fiat (Ferrari), Renault, Toyota and Honda the GPMA was close to going it alone on several occasions but was finally trumped when Ecclestone managed to lure Ferrari on board for a new Concorde Agreement set to start in 2008. Ferrari was attracted by the special position it would retain under the new terms, and the $100m that was promised to them by Ecclestone. The few remaining ‘independents’ – Williams, Red Bull, Minardi (already bought by Red Bull) and Jordan (becoming Midland) – followed suit, knowing that their position would only remain safe under FIA rule. Then the FIA put an end to all things by moving the entry deadline for the 2008 championship forward to March 2006 while minimizing the window for eligible entries to one week. The remaining manufacturers could take it or leave. They took it, helped by Ecclestone’s promise of half of F1’s profits under the new Concorde Agreement, which compared very favourably to roughly the quarter that they were getting – although it must be said that the GPMA originally hung out for a share as high as 80%.

The 23/77 split agreed to in 1998 – with 77% going to FOM! – had of course been the root of the initial manufacturer uprising. Ten years ago F1’s landscape was totally different from that of the 21st century. There were no manufacturers involved as a constructor, save Ferrari, which was still waiting for Michael Schumacher to pull them out of their worst slum since the late sixties and early seventies. The top teams – McLaren and Williams – were still the same self-styled outfits that along with Tyrrell were part of the original FOCA core. It was therefore no surprise that Ecclestone made individual deals with these three, acknowledging their special position. Of course, this took some time, which also explains why the 1998 Concorde Agreement went into effect on August 27 instead of January 1. But then one by one the manufacturers came pouring into the sport, and sent the value of F1 soring exponentially. As the sport grew larger and larger the big companies were getting more upset by the year as they saw the biggest slice of the pie go to FOM – on the back of their investment and their marketing budgets! And it was really all going to Bernie, since the 1998 agreement had seen the commercial rights switch from his FOPA (Formula One Promotion & Administration) company, which in turn leased them from the FOCA, to his new company FOM, which leased them directly from the FIA, now headed by his old war buddy Max Mosley, bypassing the teams completely. The FOCA was never heard of since.

It was divide-and-conquer that allowed Ecclestone to finally force the teams to give in, well into 1998, and in 2005-’06 he employed similar tactics to cut Ferrari from their GPMA allies. It wasn’t what the teams had been looking for but at least they could be looking forward to half of what was coming out of F1. Indeed, former GPMA boss Burkhard Goeschel, the BMW man who was now heading the Formula One Manufacturers Advisory Committee (the factual successor to the GPMA), signed an agreement in August 2006 that saw the FIA be acknowledged as the sport’s foremost authority. Tellingly, there was no talk of a new Concorde Agreement at any time.

That customer-car rule…

Sooner than expected, however, things took a turn – as they invariably do. The problem was the new FIA rule allowing for customer chassis. This would go into effect in 2008, neatly coinciding with the Concorde Agreement that was about to expire on December 31, 2007. Mosley had envisaged the rule to create an opportunity for smaller teams to move up to F1 at lower costs. It was easy to see where he was coming from, Max having headed the world’s largest customer chassis manufacturer of the seventies. It soon transpired that the manufacturers weren’t at all keen on being inspired by nostalgia, as they earmarked the customer-chassis rule as an easy option to effectively create ‘B teams’ for themselves. They quickly set about cashing in on the rule in advance, Honda doing a deal with new team Super Aguri and McLaren going into talks with Prodrive before Ferrari started considering a Toro Rosso buy-out. In 2005, Red Bull had been the first to profit from Mosley’s plans as it bought Minardi to enter it as Scuderia Toro Rosso in 2006.

Since the rule wouldn’t be official until 2008 Red Bull, Honda and McLaren all set about creating loopholes to cut around the existing Concorde Agreement. Unsurprisingly, this sent temperatures rising at the two remaining real independents, Williams and Midland (Spyker in 2007). While Williams argued the case with the FIA, Midland’s Colin Kolles went into a lengthy arbitration case that would have to determine whether Toro Rosso and Super Aguri were in breach of the existing constructor regulations forbidding teams to acquire chassis from another competitor. Meanwhile, Williams made it clear that the introduction of customer chassis wasn’t an FIA matter at all. Since customer chassis would allow minor teams to compete with – and beat – independent teams building their own chassis, thus driving these independents out of business sooner rather than later, this was clearly a commercial issue, Williams argued. So this had to be settled in the Concorde Agreement, among the teams themselves!

But that was overlooking the fact that all the teams had been conned into not just signing for the 2008 championship but also into agreeing to a new rules package that included a host of issues formerly arranged through Concorde. Indeed, clever Mosley had tricked the teams into committing to an appendix giving the FIA deciding power in technical and sporting matters through the establishment of new Sporting and Technical Working Groups and a reshuffle in the Formula 1 Commission in FIA’s favour, while it retained its old ace in the pack – safety. Thus the FIA would be able to stretch its power more than it had ever been able to under the five previous Concorde Agreements. It wasn’t going to give that up without a fight.

A lengthy arbitration case

As the matter dragged on well into 2007, the Prodrive entry for 2008 was finding itself on ever more shakier ground. Summer passed, and McLaren/Prodrive were still holding out on their eagerly awaited announcement, with Pedro de la Rosa and Gary Paffett no doubt in the front row of the audience. When it got past a certain point in autumn Prodrive’s eventual withdrawal came as no surprise. Apparently things had sufficiently changed not to warrant further investment in a customer-car F1 adventure. So what had pushed Prodrive towards this decision?

The reasons came trickling through in the winter of 2007-’08, which saw Super Aguri leave one test session without turning a wheel and skipping another. All around, people were holding their breath. They were waiting for a new Concorde Agreement to be signed – and there was no sign of that happening yet – while the arbitration trial over customer cars was still awaiting a verdict from the FIA Court or Arbitration in Lausanne, in a process close to redefining the word ‘lengthy’. You could read between the lines, though. Apparently STR had been put on sale (with A1GP’s Tony Texeira and Ferrari at one time rumoured as its buyers) while Super Aguri was looking for outside money to continue, and their quest became more public and desperate as the season’s start in Melbourne approached.

In the end, Super Aguri did appear at Albert Park, with all the confidence and defiance seen from companies in their final struggle for survival, but with absolutely no development whatsoever – and no spare parts either – they were inevitably propping up the rear and already making the Force India (née Jordan, Midland, Spyker) team happy for one reason: not being last on the grid for once. The team finally had to call it a day after the Spanish GP in late April when a last-minute deal with the Magma Group collapsed at the last hurdle. The result was all too obvious since the general feeling within the F1 paddock had been drifting away from the customer-car idea from as early as the summer of 2007, resulting in Prodrive’s withdrawal and the sheer unsaleability of not just Super Aguri but STR as well. Indeed, Texeira and Ferrari were quick to make clear that they hadn’t been at all interested at any time…

With one team finally out of the way however, a compromise was reached within a month when, in June, Force India and the only other ‘offender’ STR agreed on a 4.5m settlement, after which the former dropped its arbitration case. Further compromise was reached among all the teams when it was agreed that the teams (or team) currently using a customer car would have to migrate to their own chassis design within a two-year time frame. Since STR was the former Minardi team, still owning its chassis-producing facilities at Faenza, that wasn’t so tough to swallow. It had been different for Prodrive and Super Aguri, both completely tuned to the concept of running someone else’s tubs.

The Mosley scandal

So was everybody happy now? Most certainly not. The customer-car issue might have been settled but the Concorde Agreement’s renewal for the period of 2008-2012 was still very much hanging in the air and now long overdue, as the teams kept on racing under the terms of the agreement that had officially run out at the end of 2007. What was keeping them?

Well, for one thing there was this tiny matter of the Max Mosley sex scandal. It broke late March, in between the Malaysia and Bahrain rounds of the F1 championship, and absolutely rocked the foundations of the sport. It’s uninteresting to go into the sordid details but ‘the day after’ speculation thrived, going in all possible directions. While the big auto clubs and some of F1’s major manufacturers were quick in condemning Mosley’s behaviour, several followers already felt that this was a deliberate plot aimed at destabilising the FIA president’s position. Some fancied the theory that News Corp (Rubert Murdoch’s company and owner of the News of the World, which broke the story) was trying to get its hands on F1’s commercial rights but that Mosley was using the FIA’s veto right under the current Concorde Agreement. Others ventured that it had to do with the power struggle between the large and small countries represented in the FIA. Or was it all aimed at Mosley being a motor racing bloke – or even worse, an F1 bloke – leading an international body with much wider interests at heart?

It soon transpired that the whole affair was F1-related after all. And the conspiracists – Mosley himself included, who quickly stated that as yet unidentified people were out to get him – were helped to more evidence when Bernie Ecclestone warned Mosley not to stand in the way of progress. Although it was uncertain whether he was speaking on behalf of the teams, he made it clear in no uncertain terms that Mosley was seen to be abusing his veto, leaving the new Concorde deal unsigned. But was it because of a proposed sale of the sport’s media rights? Was he trying to get involved in creating the terms to those rights? Or was it about the money going to each team?

Then, at roughly the same time the arbitration case was dropped we saw a strange repetition of moves looking all too familiar to those who had been around at the time of the FISA/FOCA war. First there was Ecclestone stating that the FIA had absolutely no business with F1’s business side – “The money doesn't belong to Max; it doesn't belong to him to touch." Hang on, wasn’t that what he said to Balestre in 1979? Then within a week we flashed forward a year to another phase of the FISA/FOCA war when there were rumours of forces considering a breakaway series if the FIA didn’t give in. Of course, these suggestions were made by Ecclestone strenuously denying them. Were these the signs of Max and Bernie being at each other’s throats after having fought side-by-side for over 30 years?

In the meantime, Mosley did some of his customary clever stuff by scheduling an extraordinary FIA meeting on June 3, some two months after the scandal broke. Here, FIA members could voice their opinion on his conduct in a secret ballot regarding his position. By putting his neck on the line instead of caving in he hoped to gather more support once the dust had settled. While the big clubs kept beating their drums to the sound of ‘resignation’ the result of the ballot was a firm vote in favour of the president. You see, the ‘one man, one vote’ principle is in fact a ‘one country, one vote’ principle within the FIA…

Confused outsiders

More determined than ever, Mosley whetted his battle axe and made some sweeping statements as a result of the World Council meeting that followed: F1 entry fees would be hiked up by 150%, with an entry deadline to the 2009 FIA F1 World Championship set at July 31, 2008 – an similar tactic to the one he employed in 2006. He also announced a new feeder series to F1, the FIA International F2 Championship, that would be starting in 2009. That in particular raised quite a few eyebrows. How was this going to work on this short notice? Especially with the 200,000 pound budget cap that Mosley talked about, which was immediately branded ‘ludicrous’ by most people involved in GP2 and A1GP. They asked how this could ever be proper formula racing (why else call it ‘Formula’ 2?) if it was going to be an ‘arrive-and-drive’ series, very probably with a spec car, spec engine and spec tyres. ‘Arrive-and-drive’ hadn’t exactly proved itself as a concept, and why did the world need yet another sub-F1 spec series? Weren’t funds and efforts thinly stretched out already with GP2, A1GP, WSR, Euro 3000, Formula Master and – the most recent addition – Superleague Formula?

For many, the F2 concept was hard to take seriously and so it was seen as just another move in the Mosley/Ecclestone end game, since for four years the de facto follow-up of the original F2 had been the FOM/CVC-owned GP2 series. Now people on the outside really started to wonder what was going on. Here was Bernie, keeping money in his pockets each month the new Concorde Agreement remained unsigned, yet he was voicing the teams’ concern at the continuing delay. How could he entertain thoughts of a breakaway series if it was going to cost him – and CVC – huge amounts of money? And then there was his curious statement of FOM being bound to the FIA. Indeed, he said, FOM could only negotiate a commercial package on behalf of the FIA. So whose side was he on? And what was Mosley playing at? If the teams wanted more money from FOM/CVC – a desire supported by Mosley – and a new Concorde Agreement was going to get them that, why had he been holding out on his signature? And if he was taking a dig at CVC by creating the new F2 category, wouldn’t he hit them even harder by signing the agreement? There could be only one conclusion: there was more to it than just that.

Then right ahead of the 2009 World Championship entry deadline the teams convened at Maranello – where did we see that before? – to end their differences and thrash out an agreement – deja-vu alert! – and even forming a Formula One Teams Association – another bell ringing. The choice of words looked significant. They could have easily gone the whole hog and create another FOCA but the word ‘constructor’ had become tainted over the past few years. Their wish was to be more closely involved in the technical and sporting future of the sport, taking the regulations in their own hands and let the FIA be their referee. At least, that’s what Ecclestone told them they should do and what Mosley invited them to in a letter following the World Council meeting: please come up with a viable alternative to our rules package, and do that before October 3, or we will go it alone.

That was a new twist to the tale, since Mosley’s 2006 coup had meant that the FIA was in the lead with regards to technical and sporting matters. So yes, of course it would be happy to see the teams get a fairer share but it was also obvious from the start that it wasn’t going to relinquish its new-found power easily. Signing a new Concorde Agreement would mean a return to the old ways of every team needing to agree to changes, while the new 2008 regulations that all the teams were bound to meant that the FIA could now enforce changes through a majority vote. So was Mosley calling the teams’ bluff?

A solution beyond Concorde?

For some time it had been easy to see why in Mosley’s eyes Concorde simply didn’t need to be part of the equasion anymore. He seemed happy to twist the teams’ arms until they gave in, while FOM was equally in no hurry to turn its 2006 promise into a binding contract that was going to cost itself and CVC lots of money. This meant that the teams were now really forced to join hands to get both FOM and the FIA to agree, and when did they ever agree on anything between themselves? However, forming a united front now seemed a little less complicated – they were all trying to get more money from FOM, the customer-car issue seemed a thing of the past, which sort of meant that the ‘small teams’ Mosley was trying to defend simply weren’t there anymore.

But that’s precisely what it was all about, countered Mosley in early August, as the deadline for the 2009 championship went past with, as it was rumoured, no teams having signed up. Max didn’t seem troubled by that, now fully in compromise mode, along with Bernie who was now allegedly seeing his point. This was confirmed by statements made by CVC, telling they had no intention of selling their property on short notice but were indeed looking at all options now that the new reality of a Concorde Agreement taking a much larger chunk out of their investment was edging ever closer. But then they had been prepared for that.

Ahead of the 2006 GPMA defeat Mosley had been banging on about the small teams, and how he wasn’t going to allow them being pushed outside, leaving the FIA with a championship that could have its carpet pulled by manufacturers deciding to leave when it suited them – in other words, when their marketing numbers didn’t add up anymore. The small teams, he said, were the backbone of the championship – the real racers – and so he introduced the customer-car regulation. Privateers had kept the championship afloat in the past, so why wouldn’t it work this time? But the plan boomeranged completely when the defeated manufacturers tried to get one back over Mosley by morphing his rule into a manufacturer B team rule that had the opposite effect: it now threatened to drive out the ‘real’ small teams.

Back at square one when it was decided to revert to the old constructor idea, Mosley continued to fight the small teams’ corner, not so much pointing to the few remaining teams that could still be regarded as ‘small’, but to the vacant slots on the grid. And in some ways he was right: instead of having the full field of 24 cars that was expected in 2008, F1 had seen the withdrawal of Prodrive, the loss of Super Aguri and a Scuderia Toro Rosso openly for sale, all within the space of six months. As Mosley said, he didn’t deny the teams their right to more money but he wanted to see some of it go to those empty spaces on the grid.

So here was the conundrum: F1 would be losing out on the long term if the sport wasn’t made more accessible to new teams, CVC would be losing out on the short term if they had to shift a sizeable amount of their F1 profits to the teams, while each team was eager to get their hands on the biggest possible part of it. To add to the complexity, the teams wanted more influence on technical and sporting matters, this time supported by both commercial rights holders, while the FIA claimed it needed to keep control of certain sporting and commercial aspects that, when mismanaged, could put the FIA’s reputation as the sport’s policeman at risk. Mosley especially wanted these assurances to be in place ahead of the inevitable post-Bernie era, when the FIA would be up against whoever was holding the commercial rights to F1 instead of a man who Mosley knew to be “completely trustworthy”.

You could see where the stalemate had been coming from, and the dilemma that both Max and Bernie were facing. But the signs are that the two are as a strong a duo as ever, and that they will find a way forward out of this mess. The result will no doubt be yet another echo of the FISA/FOCA war – it’s not hard to imagine the headlines of both FOM and FIA proclaiming themselves as the winners.