Max Mosley 1940 -2021

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.

69 thoughts on “Max Mosley 1940 -2021

  1. Joe, best obit you have written and you have written some really good ones. Great insight.

  2. Congratulations on a superb piece of work. Your historical training routinely shines more light on complexities than other F1 journalists can manage.

  3. Outstanding! A rare achievement indeed! An obit that actually captures a man’s life.
    Most of us knew bits of his history, but the insight into his abiding ambitions was critical to a more comprehensive understanding of Mr. Mosley in his times.
    Thank you Joe ! This was something only you could have done.

  4. I recall the unsavoury editor of the Sun put it like this:

    “Five hookers!! We didn’t invade his privacy, he invaded ours.”

  5. A just, even-handed, and elegantly written assessment, as I knew you would produce. Andrew Benson’s BBC website obit is also very honest, especially in its account of Max as a master of rhetorical three-card monte. To me, Mosley’s greatest strength was on the big issues of safety (both road and racing) and sustainability, where he was clear-sighted about what needed to be done and then bold and effective in making it happen. As you suggest, his weaknesses can be seen as manifestations of lifelong frustrations which amounted to personal demons.

  6. Will the death of Max Mosley increase or decrease the likelihood of the full story of the 2007 spying affair being revealed?

  7. Hi Joe, brilliant teacup summary of the man, warts and all. Though I suspect there were a few that remained concealed.

  8. I agree. A great piece which does reveal a lot about this controversial figure. And I wonder, as does RMM if the details of the spying affair can now be told?

      1. Just postulating. What if McLaren had to do a deal to avoid one of their drivers winning the 2007 WDC following the FIA action? I can barely bring myself to write Spygate, I hate the press adding “gate” to everything.

        Always thought Hamilton skating off into the gravel in the pit road in China was a bit strange, even with canvas tyres. In Brazil they could also have stopped Alonso and that would have given Hamilton the WDC wouldn’t it? Very unlikely Alonso would have pulled over I admit….

        Tin hat is on, and I’m not normally a conspiracist, honest!

  9. “attempted destruction of McLaren with a $100 million fine for the team”

    MM’s reported explanation being: “$5m for the offence and $95m for Ron being a **** “

      1. Max really stuck the knife in during the second hearing. I was fortunate to grab the transcript before the ineffective redactions were fixed; here’s what I wrote at the time: “. . .what strikes me most strongly is Mosley’s sustained prosecutorial tone. It’s wholly inappropriate to the officer presiding at a hearing, or the president of the organization whose members are charged with making a dispassionate judgment. It would be wholly correct for the FIA to have someone in the room to argue the case for the prosecution, but having Max fill that role is Just Wrong.”

      2. Great piece Joe and thanks for clarifying the 95/5M split. So quite a horrible man then. Any ideas why he hated Ron Dennis and McLaren so much?

  10. I don’t know whether it’s true or not but it seemed to me to that both Mosley and Todt saw the role as a means to broader political careers

  11. I don’t know whether it’s true or not but it seemed to me to that both Mosley and Todt saw the role as a means to broader political careers

    1. With Todt it was very different. It was a way to move “above” motorsport, but to be fair he’s done a great job.

      1. From the outside the Todt era seemed a more even handed tenure.

        Not so enthused about Stoker or Bin Sulayem, I am not young and I know these guys have either been competing or administrating for years! I know its much bigger than sport and there is politics involved, but Wurz, Rosberg, Seidel, Kaltenborn, Agag, KMAG and Grosjean as a co-FIA president would get some stuff done!! Someone like these, could do it.
        If trump can run a country…..

  12. Thanks for this Joe. Top quality work as usual. I knew a bit about MM and after the year that was 2009 I was not a fan of the man myself. Your thoughts are enlightening though and certainly help to flesh out the details of a fascinating life.

  13. Really great piece. I have read a number of obituaries in the past day and this has been the best. He was complicated, but had many remarkable achievements. I find it hard to judge his private life actions as it must have been really tough to go through life with the taint from his parents’ lives constantly hanging over him.

  14. A further tick in the “Plus” column is that following the – understandable – focus on Ayrton Senna following Imola ’94, Max took the trouble to attend the funeral of Roland Ratzenberger. Many years later he said “Roland had been forgotten. So, I went to his funeral because everyone went to Senna’s. I thought it was important that somebody went to his.”

    Though to me he’ll always be The Chicken of Bicester…

  15. Thanks Joe a classy and well written piece, I am unsure if knowing the person in the obituary makes it easier or harder to write but you have done well for him, I look forward, if that is the right word, to the next GP+’s tribute.

  16. Where did Mosley’s sudden wealth come from? In 2004 he moved to the tax haven of Monaco. Mosley had never had a well paid job before working in F1 admin and the FIA president’s job is unpaid. There are rumours of him receiving £300m from Bernie for an unspecified job.

    Mosley may have been able to become a British politician, but he was seen for what he was, an arrogant, vindictive bully, with a chip on his shoulder, who wasn’t half as clever as he thought he was. Despite claiming his problems were due to his parents, never distanced himself from them or their politics, unlike his brother.

    I believe many of his racing safety reforms came off the back of changes that had already taken place in the USA.

    I was expecting to hear more stories about how he helped Bernie to make a huge fortune out of everyone connected to F1, teams, circuits and the paddock club. His sale of F1 for peanuts, with hardly any lease annual income from FOM was as fishy as Grimsby docks.

    1. Why not look at the obvious and ask yourself when his mother died and he inherited the family fortune? It’s clear as a bell.

      1. And in your obituary, just reading it all would have answered the question without any need for further speculation.

        The USA safety comment is just illogical. In F1 terms that was his greatest achievement in my opinion and in motoring it’s how he revolutionised the safety of our road cars.

      2. Moving to Monaco in 2004 doesn’t shelter an estate inherited in 2003, Joe.

        The granting of a 100-year lease is most unusual, almost never found in business, and created billions of value for Bernie. It certainly raised eyebrows.

        1. And so you assume that everyone is corrupt. One could argue that this reaction is a reflection on your attitudes more than on those of others…

    2. “Mosley may have been able to become a British politician, but he was seen for what he was, an arrogant, vindictive bully, with a chip on his shoulder, who wasn’t half as clever as he thought he was.”

      This has never by itself proved disqualifying in British politicians…

        1. Joe, he tried to destroy McLaren because he didn’t like Ron Dennis standing up to him and Bernie taking much of the profit from F1, whilst the smaller teams struggled to survive.
          McLaren had/has many hundreds of employees with families and mortgages, yet he wanted to destroy them all because he didn’t like one man.
          Arrogant, Vindictive Bully with a chip on his shoulder are not strong enough words IMO (although I always appreciated your opinion – its usually right or there about) so I disagree with you this time.
          I’d love to think that Ron was responsible for supplying the whips and the ladies for the News of the World expose but he’s clearly upset a lot more people than RonD so perhaps they all clubbed together…… what goes around comes around and he got his just desserts……. its clear from reading up on MM that he admired his father and his politics and I’m surprised that the judge/court awarded in his favour on a technicality that the “party” was not Nazi themed especially as there was Nazi uniforms involved & ladies shouting in German!

          1. Everyone has the right to an opinion, but there are several things wrong with your comment. I do not question that Max tried to destroy Ron. The obituary said that he was not always a nice person.

            However, Ron had nothing to do with the News of the World thing. I know this for certain because he was one of the first team bosses who called me that day to ask: “Any idea who was behind it?”. As a result I am 100 percent sure he was not involved. He was very happy, of course, but he was also extremely curious about what had happened.

            The second point is that the judge was not wrong. The uniforms involved were in no way Nazi in character and thus to claim that they were was incorrect and incendiary. The NOTW lost the case because of sloppy journalism.

            1. If I was behind it, the first thing I’d do is ask everyone ( especially a leading F1 jorno) “ who on earth is behind this?”
              MM lied in court saying he didn’t have Facist beliefs as part of his evidence when clearly he did.

            2. Spot on, the News of the Screws had the “mild” version of the story and they needed the Nazi element to make it a story to run.

              My personal view is they completely underestimated MM’s response of coming out and fighting the bits they made up as the parts that were true cannot be erased and therefore let the story play out and be forgotten over time. Other than broad details such as your obituary, the entire story has disappeared because of the MM attack.

              Sadly it’s also killed off any scandal that should be exposed, being exposed. I have no interest in celeb culture, so paying people to rummage through the bins of actors is illogical to me, but has this even stopped? Despite the muzzling MM gave the sewer press.

              1. Why was it considered a scandal? I didn’t like MM for some things he did, but if as consenting adults they wanted to get up to that in private then that’s their business. If you like your partner (paid or otherwise) to beat your buttocks with fresh fish, etc then that’s a private matter and not for newspapers surely?

                Was he really the main driver for NCAP? If he was then that’s a huge achievement, saved so many peoples lives.

                1. I agree the MM expose was a broadly irrelevant story, much like many years ago I remember a story about Sarah Ferguson’s dad (her of Prince Andrew fame) used to like popping up to the West End for a soapy tit wank and hand shandy. As a story it was irrelevant, but it got readers.

                  I meant real scandal is now not able to be exposed, because before the story broke without notice, now you must notify and that gives the person the chance to get an injunction. Look at what’s happening now with the Covid fallout, there are many dirty stories there to be told, but many will not see the light of day.

                  Like the super-injunctions where people like Giggs-Wiggsy of round ball game liked to keep it close to close his brothers home etc.

                  The most famous scandal since WW2, the Profumo affair, would not see the light of day if it were now.

                  In the MM case he actually was very open and courtered the headlines for his professional actions and was correct to do that. He was a private citizen in reality just with a high profile niche job and his private life was private. Compare with these celebs who moan about privacy while they desperately try and share their lives with people on Twit, Farcebook and Instantwat and people lap it up. That’s why the MM story ran and was a successful edition. That it exposed MM and caused huge issues for the ladies involved was an irrelevance, as it sold papers. Even I was guilty of buying the News of the Screws that Sunday.

  17. Another here who wants to say Thank you for an excellent piece of writing. Very detailed obituary of a complicated and interesting life.

    1. I don’t know the answer to that one, but Bernie always had some friends high up in the media and I presume that one of them told him. Perhaps it was after the event when the News of the World had the pictures but before the story was published. In which case it was too late for Max, but I know that when it came out Bernie was as surprised as everyone else.

  18. That is quite a favourable obituary.

    No mention of Mosley’s “…pamphlet allegedly published in his name during a 1961 by-election in Moss Side, Manchester, for the Union Movement (UM), his father’s postwar fascist party that focused on European nationalism and which Mosley enthusiastically supported. The pamphlet claimed that ‘Coloured immigration threatens your children’s health’, adding “’There is no medical check on immigration. Tuberculosis, VD and other terrible diseases like leprosy are on the increase’

    “In court Mosley categorically denied that such a pamphlet existed..in 2018 the Daily Mail found the pamphlet in the history archive of the Manchester Central Library, on the back of which says ‘Published by Max Mosley’”

    Source: https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/max-mosley-former-formula-one-boss-dies-aged-81-5jr9l7bdf (paywall)

    So in his earlier years he was an enthusiastic fascist and racist and in his later years he lied under oath in a British court.

      1. I never had the impression that Max was in any way racist or fascist and I dealt with him for more than 20 years.
        Obviously a pamphlet exists, but perhaps it simply proves that he wanted his father to approve of him. Is it right to judge every youthful action as being a belief that one holds for the rest of our lives?

        1. But in that context, the timing of his opportunistic attack on McLaren, coinciding with the arrival and title challenge of Lewis, is eyebrow raising. And does a man with Max’s intellect simply forget he published such a thing with his name on it?

        2. Joe, I would agree that by the time he came across our sport he was no fascist, but we all change our views as we grow and evolve. I also read he was close to his father and this may be part of the explanation. Not that it was really needed as the Daily Mail is no better than the News of the Screws was.

          I view my journey in life, I grew up in a strict racist system, although my father was enlightened and gave us a sense of perspective, but I was a racist in training. Then I went to England and in your society I became a human being who realise that race is irrelevant, it’s between the ears that matter. The point being, people change. Well if they implement what they see in society.

        3. Until the newspaper exposure, no one had the impression that Max was a lifelong sadomasochist either, so some people are quite capable of concealing such things from others. But yes, when we are young we are the product of our parental conditioning which hopefully we manage to shed with age so perhaps as a youngster he was acting under the impression of his father.

          However, given the abilities of the man, it seems unlikely that he’d simply forget about that pamplet with his name on it.

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