The offices of the Fédération International d'Automobile are, quelle ironie, in Trafalgar Square, and when the French pay a visit they have invariably arrived in London at Waterloo Station.
"Trafalgar, Waterloo," muses FIA president Max Mosley, "they must think that we are trying to make a point." Still, even if the French dislike the triumphalism, they must adore the aspect. Mosley's office has a terrace with spectacular views of The Mall, Buckingham Palace, Whitehall and the Houses of Parliament. It is clearly the office of a mover and shaker, although Sir Jackie Stewart, for one, thinks that Mosley and his titular vice-president Bernie Ecclestone have been moving and shaking in the wrong direction.
As Sir Jackie sees it, the pair have been waging a vendetta against Silverstone, the venue for tomorrow's British Grand Prix. But it is not so, Mosley insists. "There have always been problems with Silverstone. One is that the actual circuit, and the pits, are sub-standard. They are not the worst in the world, it's true, but they are sub-standard. The other big problem was the access. You can find press reports going back to 1950 saying the traffic jams are impossible, and more recently articles in the continental press saying that this wouldn't be tolerated in any country except the UK, and the reason it is tolerated is that Mosley and Ecclestone are Brits.
"Well, we put a lot of pressure on, and the Government, to its credit, has improved the access, such that it is now probably as good as anywhere in the world. The next stage is the circuit. The British Racing Drivers' Club have the resources to make it one of the best, and keeping up constant pressure to get this done isn't a vendetta, it's just our job. We want a circuit to be proud of."
Mosley acknowledges that he preferred Brands Hatch as the venue for the British Grand Prix. "But that's history," he says. Besides, it was Silverstone, not Brands Hatch, where he first fell in love with the sport. In 1961, when he was in his last term at Oxford but already married, his wife was given tickets for the Empire Trophy Race. It was won in the rain by Stirling Moss, who lapped the entire field. Mosley was hooked. He vowed to become a racing driver himself, and did. Indeed, as a club driver he once held the circuit record at Silverstone. "It was 57 seconds, and it stood for a couple of years, although that circuit is no longer there," he recalls. "I was driving a Brabham, a Formula Two car, one of two cars entered by Frank Williams..."
We will revisit Mosley's past, which is just as interesting as his present, not least because his father was the British Fascist leader, Sir Oswald Mosley. But on the weekend when traction control was supposed to be rendered obsolete, until the teams flexed their collective muscle, it seems reasonable first to consider the sport's future.
For example, one of Mosley's pet campaigns is to bring a whiff of Sherwood Forest to Formula One, to take from the rich and give to the poor. Not surprisingly, Ferrari, McLaren and Williams have responded to this idea about as happily as the Sheriff of Nottingham did to Robin Hood's various schemes, but Mosley will not let it drop.
"The money we don't have control over is the sponsorship deals with individual teams," he explains. "The big teams do big deals, and one of the little teams might get only three or four per cent of what the big teams get, yet they can't get by on four per cent of the budget. They could maybe get by on 25 per cent but not on less than five...
"But then there's the money over which we do have control, the fees for races, the TV rights. I think that more of that should go to the small teams. We have already lost Prost and Arrows, and I want to reduce the risk of losing more. At the moment [the division of spoils] is largely results-based. I would like to change that, to see the income at least divided equally, if anything with more going to the back of the grid. The philosophy in Formula One is that if you are successful you should have the rewards, and if you're not then it's your problem. That's fine up to a point, but not the point at which you lose teams off the back of the grid."
One gets the impression that Mosley relishes the political chicane that is Formula One, and there is little doubt that he is equal to it. Arguably, Westminster's loss is motor sport's gain; in 1982 he was on the verge of seeking a parliamentary seat as a Conservative (he is now a New Labour man), but concluded, probably rightly, that the family name would weigh heavily against him. "But there is a difference between now and 20 years ago," he says. "I hardly ever see 'son of' anywhere now, and abroad people are unconscious of it. There were people, particularly in Italy and Germany, who would sometimes come up and say something strange. I shouldn't mention it but one man, a well-known racing person who's now dead, and who had been a colonel in the SS, once said to me 'it's nice to meet the son of a real politician'. I didn't say anything to that. He was a perfectly nice old boy. But there was a photograph of him having won the Mille Miglia in 1940, and where nowadays the drivers might wear the Vodafone logo or whatever, there was a well-known insignia..."
As much as Mosley loved his father, one of the attractions of motor sport was that it liberated him from the stigma of association. He recalls a race at Goodwood, early in his racing career, at which the drivers and their associates gathered round a notice-board to check on the practice times. "And I heard someone say 'Mosley, Max Mosley... he must be some relation ..." and I thought, here it comes, '...of Alf Mosley, the coach-maker from Leicester'." A pause. "It was a whole new world."
Sir Oswald, although he liked cars and drove a natty pre-war MG, did not approve of his son's decision to give up a career as a barrister in order to form a racing team, March. "He said, 'you'll certainly go bankrupt, but it will be good training for something serious later on.' " A huge chuckle. "We didn't go bankrupt, but we did come close once or twice. It's a capital-intensive business, making racing cars, and we had no capital. So we were ducking and weaving all the time."
It was as team principal at March that he met the owner of Brabham, one B Ecclestone, and together they represented the teams in negotiations with the governing body, which makes them classic poachers turned gamekeepers. They complemented one another then as they still do today: Ecclestone the consummate entrepreneur, Mosley the urbane lawyer. It is a formidable double-act, but like all double-acts, it cannot last for ever.
"My term of office ends in October 2005, and I have a big decision to take fairly soon, to go on or to stop. If I did go on I would want someone else to take over the running of the sport, and to concentrate on the non-sporting side. One should never stay too long, and I am very sensitive to that. As for Bernie, he could stop working tomorrow; he has trousered a significant amount of money. He doesn't do it for the money, and neither do I, but he did do it for money. So why does he still do it? Because he derives pleasure from it, and he will continue until such point as he prefers to sit on his boat. He may even go on for as long as the old boy Ferrari did, into his nineties. There is an argument that it keeps you alive. So Bernie may be there for a very long time, but I may not be there for much longer."
When the chequered flag does finally fall on his tenure as FIA president, the scene in his rear-view mirror may not be an entirely happy one. There has been talk of a breakaway world championship, starting in 2008 when the Concorde Agreement expires between the teams and the FIA, and run by the car manufacturers. To pave the way, a company has been set up, the bluntly-named Grand Prix World Championship.
"But whatever they do," says Mosley, "Bernie has the commercial rights to the official FIA Formula One world championship, which has existed since 1950. They would operate under the umbrella of the FIA, and as long as their rules were safe and fair we'd agree with them, but the reality is that they would get a tiny fraction of the income Bernie has. From a business point of view it's a non-starter. They will be forced to do a deal, and my personal view is that Bernie's negotiating position is far stronger than GPWC's, while they think it's the other way round. Eventually those two views will be reconciled."
What, I ask him, does he consider to be his most enduring achievement at the FIA? "I think using Formula One to push Encap Crash-Testing [a car safety initiative that the FIA operates in conjunction with the European Commission], of which I am chairman and have been since its inception," he says. "A lot of people have worked very hard, but I do think I have played a significant role. And it has undoubtedly saved many lives and many serious injuries. In racing, safety improvements maybe save a life every four or five years, and that's significant because they are people you know and like, but Encap saves thousands."
In his desire to increase safety on the track, Mosley is sometimes accused of wanting to neuter Formula One. Naturally it is an accusation he strongly refutes; just as naturally, he wishes to distance the sport from the one in which he participated. The race at Hockenheim in 1968 in which he made his debut as a Formula Two driver, was the race in which Jim Clark, the two-time former world champion, died.
"In those days, Formula One drivers would drive Formula Two on their free weekends because they needed the money. So I was sitting on the grid with Graham Hill two rows in front, and Jim Clark five rows in front; it was like racing now against [Michael] Schumacher and [Juan Pablo] Montoya. I found out in the paddock afterwards that Jim Clark had died. That was in the April, and by the July, of 21 people on the grid, three were dead. That's how it was then. And if you said anything to the people at the top of the sport - that it was really dangerous to race between trees with no protection whatsoever - they said 'then don't do it, it's not compulsory'. If you said a particular corner was really dangerous, they'd say 'then slow down'.
"But of course that was complete nonsense. Even today if you said to any Formula One driver, 'here are two cars, this one is completely safe and this one is extremely dangerous but two seconds a lap quicker', there would be no discussion. It's still massively dangerous, but it has changed out of all recognition, and thank God we have not had a fatality since [Ayrton] Senna and [Roland] Ratzenberger. But... it can still happen at any moment. If you race cars at 200mph on a relatively narrow track with 100,000 people watching, that's a dangerous situation.
"And you know they are going to crash, through human error, mechanical failure, misunderstandings; you just have to try to make sure they don't hurt themselves. That's in contrast to the roads, because you ought to be able to run the roads without any crashes at all. It is not an inherent part of driving on the road that cars should crash, but it is inherent in racing, because you are operating at the limit of your ability. Just like top tennis players, who hit the ball out occasionally, so racing drivers make mistakes."
Since he has mentioned tennis, I ask the 63-year-old Mosley if he plays, or indeed if he indulges in any other sport. "These days," he says ... and I wait for him to say bowls, or golf, "only snowboarding."
Max Mosley the life and times
Date of Birth: 13 April 1940.
Occupation: President of the FIA.
Life before racing: The second son of the famous British Fascist politician Sir Oswald Mosley, Max was brought up in Ireland. Studied in France and Germany before returning to England to complete a physics degree at Christ Church college, Oxford.
Life behind the wheel: Qualified as a solicitor in 1964 having studied law at Grays Inn, London. Turned to motor racing following a visit to Silverstone, and raced at club level for some time. As a driver, Mosley enjoyed moderate success, graduating to Formula Two in 1968. He co-founded the London Racing Team with Chris Lambert, victim of a fatal accident in 1968. Mosley moved to partner Piers Courage in Frank Williams's F2 team.
Life after racing: Retired from racing in 1969 and set up March Engineering. March was a great success, boasting names such as Jackie Stewart and Vittorio Brambilla, but only won three Grands Prix and pulled out of F1 in 1977. Mosley then quit March and became a member of the FISA F1 Commission.
Life at the top: Involved with the FIA since 1986. Was elected as president of motor racing's world governing body in 1993; re-elected in 1997 and 2001. Currently serving his last term of office.Reuse content