To say that Max Rufus Mosley was a complicated character is like noting that the Nile is quite a long river. In many respects one cannot blame him for this because he was a victim of his background and, one can argue, his DNA.
Max was the second son of British politician Sir Oswald Mosley and Diana Mitford, one of the famous Mitford Girls, six beautiful sisters who played a major part in British high society in the 1930s.
Max’s mother was an admirer of (and was admired by) both Winston Churchill and Adolf Hitler – and she knew both men well. Churchill called her “Dianamite”. Max’s aunts were wildly colourful and controversial. Nancy was a celebrated (and brilliant) author. Pamela kept out of the limelight as a farmer, while Unity was Hitler’s lover and shot herself just hours after war was declared in 1939. She failed to kill herself and was repatriated to England a few months later, but never fully recovered and died in 1948. Jessica was a communist who eloped to fight in the Spanish Civil War and later became an investigative journalist, while Deborah became the Duchess of Devonshire.
His father’s family had once owned the manor of Manchester, which had the right to charge a fee on every item sold in Manchester market. After the industrial revolution this became incredibly valuable and the Mosleys made a vast fortune, even before selling their rights to the Manchester Corporation in 1845 for £200,000 (around £25 million in modern terms). Old fortunes are often well-hidden and it is believed that the idea of leasing the rights of Formula 1 for 100 years may have come from Mosley, as his family wealth had been sustained for generations with 100-year leases on the property it owned.
Sir Oswald Mosley (the Sir came from the Mosley of Ancoats baronetcy) was a skilled politician who switched allegiances from Conservative to Labour in the 1920s and served in the Labour government of 1929. He was seen as a potential leader of the party and a possible Prime Minister but he then made the mistake of trying to emulate European leaders by starting the British Union of Fascists – known as the Black Shirts – in 1932. Britain was not cut out for fascism, however, and he was never able to grab power as Benito Mussolini, Adolf Hitler and Francisco Franco had done.
Max’s parents were interned by the British government in the UK a month after Max was born in the spring of 1940 and they were not released until the end of 1943. Oswald was a despised figure in Britain after the war and Max spent much of his childhood in Ireland before the family settled in France, living in a neoclassical folly called Le Temple de la Gloire, in the southern suburbs of Paris. Oswald became a leading advocate of a united Europe, although his fascist past haunted him until his death.
In an effort to make Max a suitable European, Oswald sent his son to schools in France and Germany before finishing his education at Millfield in Somerset. He then studied physics at Christ Church, Oxford. He was active in student politics but was not President of the Oxford Union as is often reported.
Max went on to Gray’s Inn to study patent law, and qualified as a barrister in 1964. By then, however, he was focussed on motor racing. It was a passion that began when he was still at university when he visited Silverstone with his future wife Jean and became fascinated by the sport. He was already a thrill-seeker and had become a Territorial Army paratrooper and was also arrested on one occasion in 1962 while protecting his father from a hostile mob in Dalston, in east London.
He harboured ambitions to enter politics, for which he would have been well-suited, but because of his father’s reputation he was told that his name was electoral poison and he would never be elected. Later there was a period when he hoped to get into the House of Lords as a result of his achievements in the automobile world, but that never happened.
Racing became Mosley’s life. He drove in mainly club events but having access to money he was able to buy himself a Formula 2 car in 1968, having founded the London Racing Team with Chris Lambert. Max raced In the F2 event at Hockenheim in which Jim Clark was killed. After Lambert was killed later the same year Max became Piers Courage’s team-mate in Frank Williams’s Formula 2 team.
Max realised that he was never quick enough to go to Formula 1 and retired as a driver in 1969 and joined forces with Robin Herd, Alan Rees and Graham Coaker to establish March Engineering, which was a great success as a racing car production company. March cars won many championships, including enjoying huge success in IndyCar racing, but it never really lived up to expectations in Formula 1. Jackie Stewart drove a March to victory for Tyrrell at the Spanish GP of 1970 but the March factory team won only twice with Vittorio Brambilla in Austria in 1975 and with Ronnie Peterson at Monza in 1976.
Mosley found that the politics of the sport were enough to allow him to use his skills, and in league with Bernie Ecclestone he took on the governing body of the sport, then known as FISA, for commercial control of the fast-developing F1. This became his primary motivation and after March withdrew from F1 at the end of 1977 Mosley sold his shares and became legal advisor to the Formula One Constructors’ Association (FOCA).
He played a leading role in the FISA-FOCA war of 1980-82, which led to the Concorde Agreement, of which he was one of the architects. This gave commercial control of the sport to FOCA, while leaving the FIA as the ultimate owners, with sufficient revenues from F1 to remain happy. While Ecclestone went his own way and gradually took control of FOCA by moving the rights won to his own personal empire, Mosley took several years out of the sport, looking at ways to enter real politics before returning in 1986 with a plan to take over the international federation. He became the president of the Manufacturers Commission first and then made a bid for the FISA Presidency in 1991. At the same time he was involved in some racing businesses, notably Simtek Research, which he founded with Nick Wirth in 1989.
The FISA election of 1991 was a turning point for the sport as it ousted Mosley’s old opponent Jean-Marie Balestre by 43 votes to 29, the Frenchman having been blindsided by promises of support that evaporated at the last moment. Mosley then engineered the merger between the FIA and the FISA, with Balestre’s support and in October 1993 he succeeded Balestre in the role of FIA President. He would be re-elected in 1997 and again in 2001 and 2005.
He next engineered the merger of the FIA with the international touring association (AIT) to establish a very powerful pressure group for the automobile world against governments. This helped to assuage his desire to be a politician as it gave him a platform to play political games with politicians all over the world.
He achieved a huge amount in terms of road safety, particularly with the Euro NCAP crash test programme, while also understanding that the rising tide of environmentalism needed to be dealt with. He thus set about changing F1 to avoid attacks from politicians and environmental groups. He tried to cut F1 costs by standardising components, and to develop useful technologies such as the Kinetic Energy Recovery System (KERS). He fought hard to delay the inevitable bans on tobacco advertising and when it became clear that he could go no further, pre-empted the bans and forced the sport to find money from other sources. In Formula 1 terms his greatest impact, however, came in terms of safety after the deaths of Ayrton Senna and Roland Ratzenberger at Imola in 1994 when he led the campaigns to use a scientific approach to saving lives. His work in this respect saved many lives.
In July 2000 he and Bernie Ecclestone negotiated a deal with the FIA to lease the commercial rights to F1 for 100 years for a one-off payment of $315m. This money as used to create the FIA Foundation, which funds many different kinds of reesearch and development for the federation.
He reached his zenith, probably, in 2006 when he was named a Chevalier of the Legion d’Honneur in France, although his achievements were never officially recognised in Britain, which perhaps they should have been.
In his latter years as FIA President something changed. Perhaps he became bored by constantly having to find solutions and compromises and he began to behave in a more dictatorial manner. This was particularly evident in his attempted destruction of McLaren with a $100 millon fine for the team after allegations that the team had cheated. In reality what McLaren did was no different to what other teams were doing – which was made clear when similar activity at Renault was left largely unpunished. In the end the affair gave the impression of being a vendetta against Ron Dennis. Ron was always mystified about Mosley’s antagonism but the conclusion he reached was that Max was jealous of his achievements, while Max’s own efforts as an F1 team boss had been at best mediocre. Mosley steam-rollered opposition and attacked critics.
There was more than a little enjoyment in F1 circles in March 2008 when The News of the World newspaper published photographs and details of a sado-masochistic orgy, involving Mosley, five prostitutes and military-style uniforms. The story came as quite a surprise as although there had been some hints that he had a less than conventional private life, no-one knew very much, although a few of us knew that he had a keen interest in ballerinas. There has long been speculation about how and why the scandal happened, but the evidence suggests that Max was a victim of himself because he was warned by Bernie Ecclestone that there was some kind of plot to expose him. How Ecclestone knew is another question, but it is clear that there was no great conspiracy but rather some desperate individuals who wanted to blackmail him for money. Mosley walked into a trap that he had been warned about, even if those who warned him didn’t know what he did to get his kicks. Certainly, Ron Dennis was as surprised as everyone else and even an Ecclestone eyebrow was raised by the revelations.
From a personal point of view the scandal was incredibly destructive. Max had spent his whole professional life trying to rebuild the family name and it all collapsed after the scandal. He fought to survive as FIA President (and succeeded thanks in no small part to the support of Mohammed Bin Sulayem, who rallied many clubs to Mosley’s aid in a confidence vote that followed).
Mosley dug in and turned on his opponent. He believed, as some believe, that what you do in your private life is not a reflection on your morality in professional life, and he went after The News of the World with a quiet fury. The newspaper had made one very sloppy error in its story, using the word “Nazi” to describe the uniforms. This was clearly not the case and Mosley sued the newspaper and won although the judge described his activities as “reckless and almost self-destructive”. He won £60,000 in damages and £450,000 in legal costs but that was not enough. He supported the Hacked Off campaign to persuade Prime Minister David Cameron to set up the Leveson Inquiry into media practices and ethics in 2011 and underwrote the costs of some claimants in cases of phone-hacking, in a scandal that led to the closure of The News of the World in July 2011.
Mosley characterised himself as a champion of privacy but there are still many people who believe that one’s actions in private are a reflection of the personality and should always be taken into account with public figures.
Mosley had a remarkable mind although perhaps his greatest weakness was to always believe that he was the smartest person in the room, when in fact the smartest people are always aware that there may be others who might be cleverer than they are.
At the same time Mosley was charming and funny. Beneath the suave exterior he could be a very volatile individual and one sensed that there was always an underlying frustration and anger that he could never be what he ought to have been. In many ways, although always gregarious, Mosley was a lonely and solitary man. He could be harsh and cruel and at the same time was vulnerable and pained, particularly after his son Alexander committed suicide in 2009, at the age of 39.
For all his skills, achievements and faults, Max was always good company and perhaps that is the best epitaph for this complicated yet charming man.
Max is survived by his wife Jean and by his son Patrick.