As high as the stakes are in modern Formula 1, the battle for the sport's future which raged at the dawn of the eighties was fought with particular ferocity. The political fall-out even led to some races being cancelled.
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But, as a trove of documents unearthed by @DieterRencken reveals, this fraught period in the sport's history played a unique role in shaping modern F1.
In early 1980 Formula 1 was a battleground. The lines were drawn between the mostly British teams, dubbed 'garagistes' by Enzo Ferrari on account of building cars using proprietary components from suppliers (Cosworth engines, Hewland gearboxes), and their opponents headed by FISA, then the sporting arm of the FIA. The FISA-aligned teams 'grande' teams included manufacturers Ferrari, Renault and Alfa Romeo, who surveyed the ongoing skirmishes nervously, and periodically switched allegiances according to their agendas.
The 'garagistes' battled under the aegis of the Formula One Constructors Association (FOCA). This was chaired (but not, contrary to lore, founded) by Bernie Ecclestone, who also ran championship front-running team Brabham. His right-hand man at FOCA was former barrister and March co-founder Max Mosley. Their nemesis was FISA president Jean-Marie Balestre, who transformed the FIA's International Sporting Commission into FISA in 1978 (and was, by most accounts, rather belligerent.)
Their battle was fought so fiercely because the issue at stake was nothing less the ownership of F1's commercial rights.
Balestre attempted to claim financial control behalf of both F1 championships, then known as the World Championship for F1 Drivers and International Cup for F1 Constructors, on behalf of FISA. FOCA had negotiated deals with promoters on behalf of the sport's teams and divided the spoils according to a pre-agreed structure. This was what Balestre had in his sights.
Battles were also fought over F1's rules. In addition, Balestre was adamant FISA could make immediate regulatory changes if they were considered critical for safety, while FOCA demanded at least two years' notice for changes, unless a shorter period was mutually agreed.
The scene was set for the 'FIASCO war', as the conflict came to be known. US journalist Forrest Bond, a long-standing friend of mine, is believed to have coined the phrase after juggling various initials to describe a conflict that was publicly waged on various fronts.
The first major casualty was the 1980 Spanish Grand Prix, which was retrospectively stripped of its championship status after Balestre withdrew FISA's sanction. Even Hollywood scriptwriters would have experienced difficulties in fabricating the backstory.
During the previous race in Monaco, Balestre decreed that all drivers should attend a 45-minute briefing despite it not being enshrined in the regulations. The drivers, under orders from their FOCA-linked teams, stayed away. FISA responded by handing down $2,000 fines to each of them, which they refused to pay under orders from their bosses.
The stakes were raised even higher when FISA suspended the drivers' licences. This was despite the race promoter offering to pay the fines, an offer Balestre refused to accept unless it was accompanied by proof of payment from the drivers, therefore constituting admission of guilt.
Nonetheless the race went ahead on the insistence of King Juan Carlos of Spain in his joint capacity as monarch and royal patron of organising club Real Automóvil Club de España. FISA's reaction was to strip the grand prix of its championship status.
Just when meltdown seemed certain, a modicum of sanity broke out: after a 13-hour negotiation session in Paris, on 19 January 1981 the factions announced a peace deal had been agreed. Known as the Concorde Agreement – the first of six such documents, the last of which expired in 2012 ( before being replaced by the current bilateral agreements ) – the covenant was signed in the FIA/FISA offices on place de la Concorde – hence the name, which translates as "agreement" in English.
Common sense did not, though, immediately prevail: No sooner had Concorde been signed than FISA insisted the date for 1981 season opener, the South African Grand Prix scheduled for February 7th at Kyalami, must change. Ecclestone, who had acquired the cash-strapped circuit but sold it in 1980 to what was believed to be a front company, was incandescent with rage, particularly as FOCA had underwritten the race.
Time, then, to wheel out the breakaway series, to be known as the World Professional Drivers Championship, sanctioned by the equally new World Federation of Motor Sport. Unlike the later series threatened by FOCA's noughties equivalent FOTA, which quickly floundered on undeliverable hyperbole, the WPDC was able to trot out regulations and – crucially – a draft calendar based on race promoter contracts.
Tellingly, in his autobiography Mosley notes that FOCA "would probably not have been able to race in [Long Beach, the next championship round] for lack of money." The outcome of the war truly had been poised on a knife-edge.
Strangely, there are few online references to WPDC or WFMS. Yet this championship arguably created the way forward for F1, creating as it did – for better or worse – the cornerstones of many of the sport's revenue and governance structures, some of which exist to this day – the primary differentiator being that teams needed to be constructors.
During last year's US Grand Prix I stayed with Forrest, who lives less than an hour's drive south of Austin. The weekend coincidentally marked my 65th birthday, and he presented me with a priceless gift: a stack of original WFMS/WPDC documents. They make for fascinating reading, and explains just how and why F1 evolved the way it did.
For starters, the document rips into FISA, and Balestre. "As [he] is demonstrably incapable of running the sport, there is little reason to think that he would have done any better with the commerce", it states. "FISA's presence at a Grand Prix used to depend on the weather conditions and quality of the parties", it adds, noting the governing body's representation ranged "from 100 at Monaco to as few as one at less attractive venues."
However, aside from snide remarks – which remind one of comments made by Mosley during his FIA presidency – the pack shines a light on the incredible thought, effort and foresight Ecclestone put into FOCA during its early days. That in turn enabled FOCA to grow into the Formula One Group, which was subsequently acquired by CVC Capital Partners before onward sale to current owners Liberty Media at an valuation of $8bn.
Although WPDC's sporting and technical regulations were based very much on prevailing rules, there are some gems, such as the introduction, which states:
"There are only four parameters which control the performance of a racing car:
The regulations provide for stability by demanding that performance rules – as per the parameters outlined above – cannot be changed with less than "two clear years' notice"; where major engine changes are introduced, there was to be a period of validity of four years after two clear years notice. Safety-driven changes, though, needed unanimity to waive the lead times – which points to rather cavalier attitudes towards lives and limbs…
The technical regulations stipulated that when a "[constructor] fits an engine it does not manufacture, the car shall be considered a hybrid", "all vehicles must have a reverse gear which must be in working order", and "a starter capable of starting the car must be carried aboard at all times". The weight of car in running order was to be 575 kilograms.
The clause relating to fuel tanks illustrates just how much progress F1 has made in terms of fuel and thermal efficiency over the past 40-odd years. The WPDC regulations note "the total capacity of the fuel tanks shall not exceed 250 litres" – for 3-litre engines producing around 500bhp. Today's 1000bhp, 1.5-litre hybrids require half that amount to cover the same race distance of "not less than 190 miles (304km) and not more than 200 miles (320km)."
Race promoter contracts contain equally quaint provisions: "The constructors will ensure that the drivers of any car finishing the race in first, second or third will (except in the case of force majeure) attend the victory ceremony, provided it is not longer than half an hour, is held at the circuit within half an hour of the finish of the race, and that its time and place were agreed in writing between the constructors and the promoters."
"In the event that television coverage of the race exceeds the following number of audience/minutes worldwide of 500 million for [year]," it adds, "the constructors shall be entitled to 50 per cent of the total revenue for the year in which the race takes place arising from the sale by the promoters or any other party of trackside advertising of any kind at the circuit at which the race takes place."
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Bear in mind that races then – as now – ran to around 100 minutes, so a full race broadcast was expected to attract five million viewers, or multiples thereof in the event of highlights packages. By way of comparison, last year's Monaco Grand Prix TV audience peaked at 110m .
Equally illuminating are stipulations that promoters must provide the "constructors with an additional 250 passes providing free access to the circuit, paddock, garages, pit complex boxes and pit complex", in addition to the passes the teams issue to their own staff." Presumably Ecclestone was already eyeing sponsors and hospitality, for another clauses demands that an area of "not less than 200 metres by 160 metres adjoining the paddock for the promotional facilities of the teams' sponsors."
- 20% Qualifying
- 45% Race
- 35% Contractual compensations
The top 20 qualifiers shared the 20% pot on a sliding scale of 2% for pole position to 0.4% for 20th. Where races included up to 24 cars, those in the last two rows did not qualify for qualifying money.
The table for division of the race kitty was, though, more complex: the race fund was divided into four parts, with 64 per cent being paid on a sliding scale from 6.5% for victory to 0.3% for 20th place, and 36 per cent spilt three ways for placings at one-quarter, one-half and three-quarters race distance – using the same percentages splits.
The so-called "contractual compensation" kitty provides the basis for F1's current revenue structure – albeit without today's inequity of special bonuses paid to the major teams simply for turning up – and looks like a forebearer of the current column one and column two payments in that the 35% fund detailed above is spilt into two sums.
The first amount was split equally amongst between 20 eligible cars (saliently, not 10 teams), while the second amount arrived at by taking the amount "divided by the number of point accrued in the (note) previous two half seasons" – so the second half of 1980 was added to the first half of 1981, etc…
Equally amusing is a financial agreement between FOCA and Ferrari, Alfa Romeo and Renault, who were not members of the teams association at the time, which allowed FOCA to collect a commission on monies received on behalf of all teams.
As history relates, long-term peace eventually prevailed in F1 – the occasional skirmish aside – after all the teams fell in line with FOCA and the FIA, the latter absorbing FISA during Mosley's presidency.
Thus FIASCO ultimately paved the way for the appointment of the Formula One Group as the sport's commercial rights holder, albeit only after a controversial 113-year deal was entered into between Ecclestone and Mosley's administration – a deal that, crucially, excluded the teams. That, though, is a story for another day…
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