During his 14-year tenure as the head of Formula One's ruling body, Max Mosley has seen off many challenges in his mission to build one of the world's most lucrative sports. And yesterday he passed the sternest test – by winning a confidence vote over his participation in an allegedly Nazi-themed orgy – but only at the cost of a potential worldwide rift in motorsport.
An extraordinary general meeting of the Fédération Internationale de l'Automobile (FIA) in Paris decided by a margin of 103 votes to 55 that the 68-year-old Oxford-educated lawyer should not be required to resign as a result of his participation in a sado-masochistic sex session in a London flat with five prostitutes.
The decision was met with "regret and incredulity" from six of the leading motoring groups that make up the FIA membership. The American delegate called the result a "low point" in the organisation's history and threatened to follow the example of Germany's motor organisation, the largest in Europe, by freezing all activities with the FIA.
Robert Darbelnet, the president of the American Automobile Association, said: "It's a very unfortunate outcome; it's a very unfortunate day for the FIA. I will give it very serious consideration whether or not to remain effectively engaged in an organisation that condones this type of activity.
"We don't think his behaviour is appropriate for an organisation which represents hundreds of millions of motorists. This is not the type of behaviour that any organisation I know of should be condoning ... One of the potential ramifications is the division or a split away from the organisation that might in fact provide an opportunity for like-minded clubs to find a representative body in a different form."
The result nonetheless represented the triumph of a concerted campaign by Mr Mosley, the son of the British Union of Fascists leader Sir Oswald Mosley, who had strongly denied that the orgy had Nazi connotations since lurid details of it were published a month ago by the News of the World.
During more than two hours of what was one of the more bizarre debates to take place in the grand surroundings of the FIA's headquarters on the Place de la Concorde, its embattled president laid out his own case for staying to the end of his current term of office in October 2009.
Mr Mosley's crusade to survive the confidence vote was strengthened by the presentation of a 24-page report by the eminent British QC Anthony Scrivener commissioned by the FIA, the document found that there was no proof of any Nazi connotations in the newspaper article, which included a video that appeared to show Mr Mosley being searched for lice. Mr Scrivener presented the conclusions of his report, but the document will not be made public.
The solemnity of the occasion was completed by each member being required to post a sealed vote into a ballot box. Mr Mosley declined to make any public comment on the result. But his detractors made clear their displeasure.
Immediately after the vote, a spokesman for the German motoring organisation ADAC said: "We view with regret and incredulity the FIA general assembly's decision in Paris, confirming Max Mosley in office as FIA president."
The former Formula One world champion Damon Hill, who is president of the British Racing Drivers' Club, added: "It's very difficult when you have a president as controversial as Max is to go to governments and argue the case for Formula One."
There was little evidence that Mr Mosley, who even lost the support of his friend Bernie Ecclestone, the billionaire owner of the commercial rights to Formula One, will heed the renewed calls for his departure. Insiders even suggested he may now stand for another four-year term of office.