Previous Columns
"There's a lot of junk out there today. If you want it straight, read Kirby." -- Paul Newman

The Way It Is/ Lessons from a flawed genius

by Gordon Kirby
Say what you will about Max Mosley's personal proclivities or his unrelenting refusal to cede power. He's certainly painted a less than charming portrait of himself this year, but it's difficult to deny that the FIA president has done a remarkable job of dueling effectively with Formula One's team owners and manufacturers while pushing them to attempt to find some way of controlling costs, encouraging independent teams and introducing elements of modern 'green' technology to the sport.

You might say these initiatives are mere jousting at windmills, if not deeply cynical games designed to flood the media with stories of power-broking rather than actually trying to make the right things happen. But Mosley has kept F1 as racing's leading arbiter of cutting edge technology and amid his unholy alliance with ringmeister Bernie Ecclestone he has successfuly escalated the manufacturers' involvement in F1 to by far the highest level it's ever enjoyed. And of course, he's also demonstrated his absolute mastery of FIA politics.

Without doubt, you can complain about Mosley's and F1's excesses, but when you consider how far F1 has accelerated away from Indy car racing over the past decade and a half you have to wonder how much better off American open-wheel racing would be today if it enjoyed just a whiff of the technology, manufacturer involvement, money and pizazz in which F1 is awash.

Of course, you don't find people like Mosley or Ecclestone in a job search conducted by corporate head hunters who gave us the likes of Bill Stokkan, Andrew Craig and Steve Johnson. Guys like Mosley and Ecclestone arrive on the scene early in life and quickly make their marks as they learn the sport from the ground up and progressively escalate their power and influence.

After all, Ecclestone raced F3 and F2 cars in the fifties before becoming a driver manager in the sixties and a team owner in the seventies. And Mosley raced what were called Clubman's cars in the sixties while he was studying law. After becoming a barrister, the FIA president-to-be raced F2 cars before joining Robin Herd as a co-owner of March racing cars, manufacturers in the seventies of F1, F2, F5000, FB, F3 and Can-Am cars, and Indy cars in the eighties.

Back in 1968, when an impecunious F3 driver named Frank Williams launched Frank Williams Racing, the little team ran a pair of F2 Brabhams for Piers Courage and Mosley. Courage was Williams' lead driver and Mosley was the team's rent-a-driver. Courage was born into a family of British brewers and showed tremendous ability in F3 and F2 cars. Mosley was a progeny of the Mosley and Mitford families, aristocrats with direct connections to Adolf Hitler and his minions--Mosley's parents were married in Germany with Hitler and some of his leading generals among the guests--as well as the rarified heights of British and German society in the pre-WWII era.

In the middle of the '68 season--a year in which Jim Clark, Mike Spence, Jo Schlesser and Ludovico Scarfiotti were killed, each a month apart--Courage took Mosley aside and asked why he wanted to risk his life in a racing car when he had only average ability and the prospect of a comfortable and profitable life practicing law. Two years later Courage would die in the fiery crash of his Williams/de Tomaso F1 car in the 1970 Dutch GP. By then Mosley had taken Courage's advice, retired from racing and started March Engineering.

Among Mosley's many declarations about his personal life during his libel case with the 'News of the World', the FIA president revealed that motor racing appealed to him not only because he liked to drive but because he found motor sport to be a rare world in which nobody cared about his family's Hitler-sympathizing past. He was just another one of many enthusiasts and motor traders looking to race or flog their various road or racing cars at the best price possible. Mosley had the necessary resources to buy entry into the club and an ability not only to sell used cars, racing or otherwise, but to open doors to people who might be happy to underwrite or sponsor a racing car or team.

Thus, March Engineering was born in 1969. Mosley ran March for the next six or seven years in partnership with brilliant designer Robin Herd who built his own reputation over the years as one of racing's finest snakecharmers. But by the mid-seventies, Mosley was moving on to become Bernie Ecclestone's primary helpmate in running the F1 Constructor's Association and ultimately becoming the FIA's president as the pair worked their collective genius on Formula 1.

No such individuals are lurking today in the garage areas or paddocks of American racing. Bill France Sr and Jr are no longer with us, having worked their magic on NASCAR from its founding almost sixty years ago into the 21st century. With their passing, American motor sport moved into an age of Lilliputians and bureaucrats, and the same thing may happen to F1 when Ecclestone and Mosley finally relinquish control.

Meanwhile, it will be interesting to see what effect the recently-announced Formula One Teams Association, a union of F1's current ten teams led by Ferrari president Luca di Montezemolo, will have on the dynamics of F1 as the teams try to insert themselves more deeply and more profitably into the process.

Of course, this kind of power politics is entirely lacking in American open-wheel racing these days and as I've written repeatedly in this space over the past two years, IndyCar racing desperately needs an influx of fresh thinking and an exciting new, forward-looking formula to attract a brace of manufacturers who in turn would give the series some pizazz and help promote and market Indy car racing like they do F1, NASCAR, the ALMS and motorcycle racing.

As American open-wheel racing declined over the course of the CART-IRL civil war to become a de facto spec-car formula, it seems to me the sport entirely lost its way. As Mario Andretti says, tongue slightly in cheek: "I'm not sure what it is, but it lacks something." And as he used to say thirty years ago when he was chasing the F1 world championship and CART was coming to life: "You can't try to limit or restrict the sport. You've got to escalate it."

But without savvy ringmeisters like Ecclestone, Mosley and the Frances, that's a tough thing to achieve. And of course, NASCAR always had the benefit of NOT embracing new concepts and new technology, sticking to a strictly-defined basic platform free from revolutions like fuel injection, turbocharging, wings and ground-effects.

The trick for F1, sports car and Indy car racing has been to continue to allow innovation in smaller and smaller areas without reducing the whole thing to spec car-like definitions. Of course, even F1 today is strictly defined in many ways, yet it remains much more open than the IRL's IndyCar formula. Thanks to Mosley's prodding F1 is trying to adapt to a fast-changing world by adopting KERS. For Indy car racing, KERS and its kind represent a fearful world, but it's only the leading edge of the future revolution in automobile technology.

As discussed at some length in this space, some very basic changes are coming for the traditional passenger car over the next ten or twenty years and those changes will ask some equally essential questions for racing's administrators about the sport's primal technical and aural natures. I don't know the answers, but I can't help thinking we need somebody with Mosley's bizarre genius and deep knowledge of the sport to begin to find the right solutions.

Another element to American open-wheel racing's future is the changing sea of worldwide secondary formulae, or feeder series. In recent years, the GP2 series has been successfully introduced in place of the old F3000 series, and the A1GP series has also arrived on the scene and will be relaunched this winter with Ferrari engines. Also coming next year is the new SuperLeague series with 750 bhp V-12 engines, as well as a new Formula 2 series and a secondary A2GP series.

Most of these series are gathering strength and most enjoy more power and pizazz than either Indy Lights or Atlantic, our home-brewed junior categories. There's never been such a wide array of global open-wheel categories trying to mine the constantly-growing worldwide market for motor racing and if the Indy Lights or orphaned Atlantic series are to continue drawing a strong pool of overseas talent they must somehow respond to this global challenge.

Over the past twenty years, American open-wheel racing has been fueled by the sport's worldwide growth and the arrival on these shores of so many drivers from around the globe trying to make careers in Indy car racing, if not Formula 1. But until an Ecclestone/Mosley-style juggling act makes some sparks fly, I'm afraid Indy car and American open-wheel racing as whole is going to keep losing ground to F1 and the European-driven, global single-seater scene.

Auto Racing ~ Gordon Kirby
Copyright 2008 ~ All Rights Reserved

Top of Page