Max Mosley is the youngest son of Sir Oswald Mosley, who, throughout the 1930s, led the fascist British Union party, and of Diana, the most beautiful of the six Mitford sisters, who married Sir Oswald at the home of Josef Goebbels.
By late June 1940, when Mosley was 11 weeks old, both his parents had been imprisoned under the wartime Regulation 18b, which could detain without trial those deemed a possible threat to national security. Until the Mosleys' release in November 1943, their baby son was effectively orphaned, cared for by a nanny and his Mitford aunt Pamela, spending the odd night at his parents' "quarters" in Holloway jail. Such a start would today be regarded as tragically formative, but introspective self-pity is neither a Mosley nor a Mitford trait. Formula One and Beyond dedicates just four paragraphs to its author's bizarre early years.
"My parents' imprisonment made very little difference to me," states Mosley, with the blunt honesty that characterises this book, and that is remarkably reminiscent of his mother. Diana was never able to lie, even about her liking for Hitler. She was unafraid of public opinion, a trait that her son has apparently inherited; or perhaps found it necessary to acquire. At Oxford, he was told that, as a Mosley, he would be torn to shreds if he spoke at the Union. "I found the challenge intriguing," he writes, and proceeded to become the Union secretary. Nevertheless, he shied away from the political career that sometimes attracted him, and at which he would surely have been gifted. His long-term associate Bernie Ecclestone once remarked that Mosley would have been "a bloody good prime minister". The same thing was said about his father back in the 1920s, before he became a pariah.
Mosley admits that, in youth, he supported his father's politics. At the same time, he describes himself as "slightly left", and became a member of Tony Blair's Labour Party. Again like his mother, he is an enigma; all the more so, somehow, for the straightforwardness with which he tells his story. One never doubts his truthfulness, but he is a fearless chronicler of facts rather than feelings. This is actually rather compelling: one can have enough of autobiographical soul-baring.
In 1961 he watched Stirling Moss win a Formula One race at Silverstone: "I knew instantly this was something I absolutely had to do." Of course, lots of young men like fast cars. But Mosley went much further than that. Although he had a career as a barrister – and a wife, Jean – he threw himself into driving, and on one occasion actually overtook Graham Hill; he started a constructors' team, March, with a loan of £2,500 from his mother; he joined forces with Ecclestone, with whom he won the battle for F1's television rights and helped transform the sport for the modern era.
True to form, Mosley does not really analyse why motor racing engaged him. The closest he comes is when he describes his driving debut in 1966: "It was the first time I felt that whatever interest there might be was about me rather than my family." He was believed to be a relation of a coach builder, Alf Moseley, rather than of the black-shirted Sir Oswald.
The motor racing of that era had a tremendous casual glamour – with figures like James Hunt, conjured here as a carefree, coke-snorting charmer – but it was also insanely dangerous. It became Mosley's great crusade to improve safety, on public roads as well as racing circuits. He writes at length about the measures taken after the deaths of Ayrton Senna and Roland Ratzenberger in 1994 (Mosley attended Ratzenberger's modest funeral, while "the great and good of Formula One" crowded into the state ceremony for Senna). Since that time, no comparable catastrophe has ensued.
The year before this double tragedy, Mosley became head of the Fédération Internationale de l'Automobile. The boldness with which he marched upon the world of F1 is astonishing, and all the more so for being described in his habitual dry way. "Bernie and I met some generals from the military junta," he writes, recounting how a deal was struck establishing an Argentine Grand Prix, after Ecclestone "accidentally" broke the tape machine with which the generals were recording proceedings. It says it all, really, that the ultra-shrewd Ecclestone wanted Mosley as his legal advisor and co-negotiator (Diana once joked that her son carried his diminutive associate "in his pouch").
To a Formula One fan, this book is a dream. No detail is omitted about cars, Grands Prix, battles between motor-racing bodies. Much is new and includes Mosley's take on Ecclestone's infamous £1m donation to Labour in 1997. Nevertheless, after 300 pages about dynamometers and monocoques and boardroom coups, I, for one, lost a sense of the bigger picture. Formula One and Beyond is mostly Formula One, and not enough Beyond.
The end of the book, however, is supremely riveting. As is widely known, not least because Mosley has chosen to make it so, in 2008 he was the victim of a News of the World exposé revealing his attendance of sado-masochistic sex parties ("something I did occasionally when the mood took me"). The newspaper claimed, falsely, that these parties had a "Nazi theme": a peculiarly lethal attack upon a Mosley, and one that left Bernie Ecclestone calling for his friend's resignation from the FIA.
Since this incident, Mosley has become a campaigner for the right to privacy, a vengeful critic of Rupert Murdoch and a key figure in the Leveson inquiry, about all of which he writes quite fascinatingly. He won his High Court action against the News of the World, although despite record damages, he was left £30,000 out of pocket.
Nor did the press forgive him. In 2009, when his son Alexander died of a heroin overdose, he found a group of journalists outside his son's house; tipped off – he suggests – by the police. "It was like watching vultures assemble." To face the facts about one's public shame to defend the principle of privacy is, in my view, a brave act, although there is no sense that Mosley views it in that way. It is simply the last chapter in a life that would have been much easier, and far less interesting, with a different surname.
Laura Thompson is the author of 'A Different Class of Murder: The Story of Lord Lucan', out now in paperback (Head of Zeus, £8.99)Reuse content