Sex, spies and Formula One

Max Mosleys sado-masochistic session, allegedly Nazi-themed, with five prostitutes in a Chelsea brothel/dungeon, may have tarnished his personal standing and undermined the credibility of the Federation Internationale de lAutomobile, motorsports ruling body. But there is little to indicate that the sports commercial interests might suffer as a result.

f1_120x120Max Mosley’s sado-masochistic session, allegedly Nazi-themed, with five prostitutes in a Chelsea brothel/dungeon, may have tarnished his personal standing and undermined the credibility of the Federation Internationale de l’Automobile, motorsport’s ruling body. But there is little to indicate that the sport’s commercial interests might suffer as a result.

Mosley’s family connections – he is the son of British Fascist leader Sir Oswald Mosley and Hitler groupie Diana Mitford – only made the concentration camp connotations of his soirée worse. It was too much for some to bear; the Israeli government promptly uninvited him from talks on developing motorsports in the country and German manufacturers Mercedes Benz and BMW branded him “disgraceful”.

Despite numerous calls for his resignation, Mosley brazened it out and even took a swipe at Mercedes and BMW’s disapproval, archly referring to the companies’ own “history during World War II”.

Last week, Mosley won a secret ballot, by 103 votes to 55, at a specially convened meeting in Paris. The result of the ballot, although expected, reflects an archaic system of voting practised by the FIA where public motoring bodies have a fraction of the voting power of Formula One teams. A number of the public motoring organisations have declared they will no longer do business with Mosley, despite his agreeing to step down from public duties, and there is talk of a breakaway alliance of motoring bodies being set up.

Once upon a time, Formula One cars were liveried in colour schemes representing their national flags. Discreet badges identified the motor manufacturers. Forty years after the advent of sponsorship in the sport, barely a centimetre of each car goes undecorated by company logos. Drivers’ suits and helmets bristle with branding and woe betide the Grand Pix winner who mounts the podium before donning his sponsor’s baseball cap. It’s a business worth more than £500m each year.

On top of the breathtakingly large investment automotive companies make in their respective teams, brands such as Vodafone, Puma, Dell, Johnnie Walker and Seiko (among many others) sink huge sums into being associated with the glamour of motorsport’s most prestigious crown.

And, although some of the Formula One teams are understood to be “less than impressed” with Mosley’s conduct, there are compelling reasons why it is in their interests that he serves out the rest of his tenure.

One sport insider says: “However much the teams may disapprove of his behaviour, the line Mosley takes within Formula One is a line they, largely, support. The worry is that if he went, then it could all fall into other, unknown, hands.” He says that Mosley provides a counterpoint to Formula One Holdings owner Bernie Ecclestone, and that “he can be relied upon to take a view of what is going to make the most successful future of motor racing”.

Mosley’s relationship with Ecclestone is a long and complex one. Just over 30 years ago, Ecclestone appointed Mosley, a barrister, as legal adviser to the Formula One Constructors’ Association. In that role Mosley thrashed out the first Concorde Agreement, which sets out the terms under which regulations are determined and prize money allocated, between constructors and the sport’s governing body. Later, in his role at FIA, it was Mosley who handed Ecclestone a 100-year lease on Formula One’s commercial rights at, some say, a bargain price.

The pair have, over the years, been friends, colleagues and business partners. Each knows that, despite some gripes, they can work together. A former sponsor of Formula One comments: “It’s hard to grasp, from the outside, how insular and just what an old boy’s club Formula One is.”

Initially, Ecclestone distanced himself from Mosley, called for him to resign and even, reportedly, suggested the formation of a break-away series. At the weekend’s Canadian Grand Prix in Montreal, it is understood the subject of breaking away from the FIA was brought up at a meeting between Formula One team bosses, but was rejected.

Instead, the key item on the agenda of that meeting is thought to have centred on finalising a new Concorde Agreement, to replace the one that expired at the end of 2007. Ecclestone can now, legitimately, say to Mercedes Benz, BMW, Toyota and Honda, whose interests he represents in the Concorde negotiations, that he called for Mosley’s removal, but is stuck with the outcome of the FIA ballot. No one doubts that Ecclestone and Mosley will be able to negotiate their way to a sensible agreement.

The scandal has left Mosley, the FIA president, persona non grata with a number of governments, business leaders and royal personages, but it has done little to reduce the appeal of Formula One to those with commercial interests in the sport.

Brands involved in sponsoring the sport seem to feel the scandal is far removed enough from them to keep schtum, in public at least. Vodafone, a lead sponsor of the Mercedes McLaren team, officially says that it accepts issues may occasionally arise on and off the track, but that it is “not our position to comment on such issues”. Vodafone global brand director David Wheldon says the company “measures the impact of our brand awareness, preference and sponsorships, and whether our sponsorships are helping our customers feel positive about our brand”.

Unofficially, it is believed Vodafone was active in voicing its discontent. A source close to the situation says: “Behind the scenes, some sponsors were deeply unhappy about the Mosley business, but were quietly told by their teams that it was in their best long-term interests that he remain.”

Puma, a German company which clothes five of the teams, including Ferrari and BMW Sauber, takes a similar line – Daljiat Gill, Puma’s international motorsport marketing manager says: “Ecclestone says it is not detrimental to Formula One and therefore it is not detrimental to our brand.” He adds: “We’ve seen this kind of thing in other sports and it tends to lead to the person resigning and the governing body moving on. But we look at this and say ‘Do the fans care?’ I don’t think they do.”

Another insider says that fans have a high degree of cynicism regarding governing bodies and draws a parallel between the FIA and world football body FIFA. He says: “For over 30 years, FIFA president Sepp Blatter has been the subject of controversy and has been branded a ‘crook’ by some. Does it stop fans watching football? No, of course not.”

Chief executive of sponsorship specialist Synergy Tim Crow agrees: “Not a single fan or a single sponsor will leave Formula One over Max Mosley. It may shine a light on the governance of the sport, but that is absolutely not going to stop brands and sponsors getting involved. The dividing line is when an action affects what happens on the track; for example, the way drug scandals have damaged athletics and The Tour de France.”

As if to prove the point, at the weekend’s Canadian Grand Prix, where Mosley made his first appearance since the scandal broke, the paddock was engrossed with the topic prior to the race, but it was soon forgotten.

A mortifying gaffe by championship leader Lewis Hamilton, knocked both himself and second placed Kimi Raikkonen out of the race leaving (and some might say, with sweet irony) Polish driver Robert Kubica to lead a BMW one-two finish, finally ending the Ferrari/McLaren deadlock that has dominated the sport for so long. Never has a Formula One season looked more interesting.

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