Friday, May 23, 2008

Wheels within wheels

A while back, I had it in my head to try to write a 'Dick Francis on wheels'-style thriller about organised crime and skulduggery, set in the F1 world. It never came to much, and, revolving as it did around a gang of criminals who took over a race team with the intention of using it as a cover for international drug smuggling (whilst furthering the racing career of the Crime Lord's promising son) , I've since discovered that reality beat me to it anyway. Recent events, though, have left me wondering if fundamentally, I suffered a failure of imagination and I should really have been thinking bigger.

When the Max Mosley 'sex scandal' broke a couple of months ago, I have to admit I couldn't summon up much interest in the matter. Under Max Mosley's leadership, the FIA had recently taken legal action against News Corporation over an article Martin Brundle had penned for the Sunday Times in which he had suggested that the FIA had been less than even-handed in its treatment of Mclaren and Ferrari during last year's spy-affair. My first reaction was to assume that, since the story broke in the Sunday Times more downmarket sister publication, the News of the World, this was just News Corporation's way of reminding the FIA Head of the dangers of messing with Rupert Murdoch. A fight between Mosley and Murdoch. Nothing to lose sleep over.

The question of whether Mosley should resign as a consequence of the revelations about his private life was, equally, not one I could bring myself to get worked up about. I have been of the opinion, for some time now, that Mosley has been at the helm of the FIA for too long, and that it is time for someone with fresh ideas to take over. Other, to my mind, far more damaging recent revelations about Mosley's time as FIA President constitute a far better argument for his resignation if they are true, not least because they relate directly to what he has done in that role. However, since stories about clandestine meetings with QCs and fuel filters don't sell newspapers, they have attracted far less publicity than salacious tittle-tattle about 'Nazi' orgies.

I can't really see why the fact that he has paid for sado-masochistic sexual services in a Chelsea flat is relevant, though. In the UK, neither the buying nor the selling of sexual services is, in itself, illegal at present and there is no suggestion that Mosley committed any crime. Comparisons have been made with disgraced former Governor of New York, Elliot Spitzer, who did resign following revelations of his involvement in a prostitution ring. With all due respect, however, there are significant differences between the two cases. For one thing, Spitzer was an elected politician, and as such, his views on, and involvement in prostitution could legitimately be said to be directly connected with his job. Furthermore, Spitzer had actively campaigned to increase criminal penalties in his home state of New York for men who buy sex. Max Mosley, by contrast, is not the head of one of the world's most important cities, but the head of a motoring organisation. One might, quite reasonably, view the buying of sex as immoral, but in Chelsea, it is not illegal and I'm not sure how paying for sex disqualifies a man from involvement in F1. All else aside, on the basis of conversations I had with an old schoolfriend who worked for a while as a journalist in F1, such a policy would considerably thin out the Grand Prix paddock.

There were, of course, the suggestions that there was an explicitly 'Nazi' theme to what went on in the Chelsea flat. I'm not in a position to know one way or another - I'm afraid that there are some things I won't do in the name of research, and watching Max Mosley sex videos is one of them. Nonetheless, I can't help thinking that this owes more to journalistic hyperbole than anything else. Yes, there was undoubtedly a sado-masochistic element to whatever it was that Mosley was up to, but beyond the fact that the Nazis stole much of their 'aesthetic' from the sado-masochistic scene (yes, it really did happen that way round...) I'm not sure what the claims of a 'Nazi' theme are based on. Chances are, they were thrown into the mix because of Mosley's family history. Max's father was, of course, the odious former leader of the British Union of Fascists, Oswald Mosley. Nonetheless, it seems ironic that Mosley has ended up in trouble over this when former FIA President Jean-Marie Balestre's role as a Waffen SS officer during World War II went largely unremarked.

All this, though, is old news, because it now appears that something bigger is at stake. To be fair, while I was initially convinced this was all nothing more than a private feud between News Corporation and Mosley, others, most notably Mike Lawrence, were more astute. Truth be told, Mosley's legal action against the Sunday Times is no more than a minor irritant to the media behemoth, and it is unlikely that they would have felt the need to spend time and money investigating the private life of Mosley - a man whom, after all, your average News of the World reader probably really couldn't care less about one way or the other (let's face it, the only guy in F1 grid that the average UK tabloid reader is likely to have heard of is Lewis Hamilton.) All of which suggests that whoever was behind the operation to expose Mosley's private life, it probably wasn't the News of the World.

A couple of developments over the last week give hint as to what may lie behind it all. First, there was the news that one of the women paid by Mosley is married to a senior MI5 officer. Then came a letter from Mosley, addressed to the presidents of the national clubs, which appeared to suggest he was the victim of a conspiracy to wrest control of F1 from the FIA. All this suggests that someone with rather more directly at stake than News Corporation was behind the 'outing' of Mosley. The News of the World might have been more than happy to run the story, and in the beginning, when I had assumed the story had simply been sold by one of the women involved, perhaps because she was short of cash and had kids to feed and clothe , that seemed explanation enough. I doubt, however, that they hold sufficient grudge against the FIA president to pay for an expensive and complicated spying operation against the man.

Whatever Joe Saward's alter ego, the Mole, might have you believe, I rather doubt that MI5 are much interested in who runs the FIA. In fact, though it wasn't something which the Intelligence Service were keen to admit to publicly, one rather suspects that it was not so much the fact that their agent's wife was involved in prostitution but the possibility that the agent himself might have been doing some private surveillance work on the side which led to his dismissal. After all, the prostitutes' spy cameras does look like the work of people with espionage experience. It is clearly someone went to considerable lengths to dig the dirt on Mosley, and Mosley himself believes their ultimate objective was to undermine the FIA itself.

So who might? Some initially suggested that someone at Mclaren might be behind it all, but in all honesty that seems unlikely. One doubts that a change of leadership at the FIA would result in the rescinding of their $100m fine and such a conspiracy simply seems to dangerous a thing for Mclaren or Mercedes to become involved in. What would the FIA's attitude towards the Woking squad be if that were to come to light? (That said, it should be noted that Peter White has written some interesting pieces suggesting that Mclaren really might be behind it all).

No. I'm inclined to think that whoever was behind the exposure of Mosley had rather more at stake. I'm reminded of an article which the ever-readable Mark Hughes wrote for Autosport a few months back about a dystopian vision of the future of F1, in which the sport had moved away from its European heartland to showpiece tracks built by third-world dictators, been abandoned by the major manufacturers, and the teams were no more than subsidiaries of the sporting rights holder. The racing itself might have been close, but, in Hughes' nightmarish imagined future, it was fixed in advance by the organisers and drivers who stepped out of line quickly found themselves out of work. It was, in short, a horrible cross between NASCAR and television wrestling.

At the end of the article, Hughes suggested that this scenario had come to pass because the sporting rights holders had, faced with vast unpayable debts to the banks who had lent them the money to buy the series in the first place, made all their decisions with the aim of maximising short-term profits at the expense of the long-term health of the sport. So if various Middle Eastern countries would pay more for a race than classic venues like Monza or Spa, that is where they went. If more money could be made out of the sport if so much wasn't being (in the eyes of the sport's rights holders) 'wasted' on car development, then chase out the manufacturer teams and bring in spec-cars. If the best drivers kept winning regardless, then make quite clear to them that it might be disadvantageous to their career if they were to win too often.

The relevance of Hughes little story to the current furore over Max Mosley is, of course, that the sport really is owned by a large private equity firm, CVC Capital Partners, which has borrowed vast sums in order to purchase the rights to F1 (from Bernie Ecclestone...) and now has to find a way of paying back those debts. F1 undoubtedly generates a lot of money, and a lot of that money is retained by the commercial rights holder of the sport. It was this which led to plans for a breakaway 'manufacturer backed' F1 series a few years back. This in turn led to a deal with the major teams which saw them take a larger share of the sport's revenues, though Formula One Management (and hence parent company CVC) still keep around half of all the income.

Doubtless, FOM would really rather keep still more of the money, but so long as F1 remains an expensive development race between the teams, any move to cut the share of the sport's revenues which goes to the teams would be fiercely resisted and might lead to renewed threats of a breakaway series. Of course, one way round this would be top amend the rules so as to reduce costs for the teams - and hence to some extent at least - their clamour for a greater share of the sport's revenues.

The problem for the rights holder, though, is that they don't have control over the rulebook. Since the end of the FISA/FOCA war of the early 1980s, the sport has been governed by the FIA, while the commercial rights have passed from the old Formula One Constructors Association, through Bernie Ecclestone's Formula One Management, and are now in the hands of private equity firm CVC. In short, the rights holders have, at least in theory, no room to change the rules of the sport so as to increase their return on investment. Something which, all else aside, doubtless makes the sport much harder to sell as a going concern.

Into this, then, are three or four very powerful vested interests who doubtless have a vested interest in the future of the FIA. Firstly, there are the teams themselves. If they feel that Max Mosley wants to take the sport in a different direction from where they themselves want to go, might it suit them (either individually or collectively) to have rid of him? Then there are the sport's commercial rights holders. As I've outlined above, there are plenty of hypothetical reasons why they would wish to exert control over those who write the F1 rulebook. Finally, there is Max's old ally in the FISA/FOCA wars, Bernie Ecclestone himself. Technically, these days, he's an employee of FOM, but there can be little doubt that he remains a powerful figure within F1 in his own right. It is probably a mistake to see him solely as the agent of the sport's owners. What, after all, if he felt like buying back the rights to F1 from them, and perhaps at a rather lesser sum than he sold them for? What would be better than a scandal around the sport's governing body to destabilise the sport and hence, quite possibly, persuade CVC that they would really be better cutting their losses now and concentrating on other ventures?

All of the above is no more than speculation. I don't pretend to know what has ultimately motivated those behind the exposing of Max Mosley's private life. I don't know what their agenda is. I don't know whether the sport's best interests would be served by siding with Mosley, or with those who would have him brought down. What I do know is that it is vital that those charged with deciding on next week's vote of confidence on Mosley, and with any decision on his likely successor, should be privy to all the facts before casting their votes. For anyone who really cares about the sport, it is clear that much more is at stake than one's moral position on Max Mosley's private activities.

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Blogger Gordon McCabe said...

An interesting analysis, Patrick.

On one key issue, however, I disagree with you. It is not necessary to make a moral judgement on Max Mosley's activities to conclude that the sport's interests would be best served by his resignation. Rightly or wrongly, there is a widespread taboo in society against sex with prostitutes. The taboo is particularly strong in a number of the less liberal countries in which F1 now conducts its activities. Given that Mosley represents the governing body of world motorsport, Mosley's activities therefore bring motorsport and F1 into worldwide disrepute. You could argue that such activities shouldn't bring F1 into disrepute, and shouldn't detract from Mosley's perceived credibility, but to deny that they have brought F1 into disrepute and destroyed Mosley's credibility is to confuse what should be the case with what is the case.

5:02 AM  
Blogger patrick said...


I'm not sure we really disagree. I didn't get into it in the article but there is, as you say, a case for saying that, regardless of one's own views on what Mosley was up to, he is too discredited to continue in his position. My point is rather, that before making a judgement on the matter, the FIA delegates really ought to be in possession of all the facts - especially when it comes to choosing a replacement for Max.

Clearly somebody thinks they have a lot to gain from Max's removal, and is prepared to play dirty to bring it about. I think it's best we know who and why.

3:27 PM  
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6:00 AM  
Blogger Nicebloke said...

Or maybe that is just what Mosley wants you to think...

I don't buy the "better the devil you know" argument that Max has put forwards. His protestations are rather pathetic.

4:14 PM  

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