There must, it seems, have been two Max Mosleys: the Very Bad Guy the press hated, and the Rather Good Guy those of us campaigning for effective press regulation knew, admired, and respected immensely. The reality was that the press characterisation is so much guff: they hated Mosley because, from them, he took no messing, and no prisoners.
It’s true that he - briefly - supported his Dad’s far-right politics, but by the mid-60s, he had moved on, and became involved in motor racing. There, he was judged not on what his Dad might have done, but on what he was doing there and then. By early 1968, graduating to the ranks of Formula 2, he learned one lesson that remained with him.
That year’s F2 season began at the Hockenheimring. Then, the circuit - through heavily forested countryside - had none of its later chicanes to slow the cars, and nor did it have any run-off areas or Armco barriers. It was just a flat-out blind through the woods. The first heat of the 1968 race brought cold and wet conditions.
And it was in that first heat that double F1 world champion Jim Clark’s car suffered a failure - probably a sudden deflation of the right rear tyre - and he lost control, the car going off the track into the trees. Clark was probably killed by the initial impact.
Nowadays, F1 pilots mainly don’t drive in other disciplines. But in the late 60s, they would do endurance races (including the 24 hours of Le Mans), some would try their hand at the Indianapolis 500, during the winter they might compete in the Tasman series Down Under, and yes, they would do F2 as well. They were racers; it was race experience.
Clark’s death shocked his fellow drivers: if it could happen to Jimmy, it could happen to any of them. Mosley had seen that motor racing, in the late 60s at least, was a seriously dangerous occupation, and the following year he retired as a driver. But he remained in the sport as a team principal for the new March Engineering concern.
Alongside Max at March, in the early 70s, was one Bernie Ecclestone, who ran Brabham. The two of them became an unlikely but effective double act as F1 was transformed into a multinational - and highly lucrative - business. But safety improvements had not kept pace with the faster, more powerful and technically complex cars.
The moment of truth for F1 came at the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix, held at Imola. A fatal practice accident had claimed the life of Roland Ratzenburger; the next day, during the race, and in front of a worldwide TV audience, triple world champion Ayrton Senna was killed when his Williams left the track and struck a concrete retaining wall at well over 140mph. The force of that impact meant Senna would not survive.
That was not all: at Monaco, Mercedes driver Karl Wendlinger suffered a serious accident and spent weeks in a coma as a result. Although he survived his injuries, it was clear that action would have to be taken on driver safety, and taken it was. Mosley also became head man at the Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile (FIA), which not only oversaw motorsport, but also ordinary motorists. First a safer F1, then safer motoring for all.
From 1996, the FIA took the lead in promoting the European New Car Assessment Programme, nowadays just called Euro NCAP. Car manufacturers were initially resistant, but by 2000, the EU Commission had concluded that “EuroNCAP had become the single most important mechanism for achieving advances in vehicle safety”.
Max had said previously “That is what really interested me: [in F1] you maybe save one life every five years, whereas [in] road safety you are talking about thousands of lives”. Many hundreds, if not thousands, across the UK have survived accidents because of advances in vehicle safety. And for that they have Max Mosley, at least in part, to thank.
But in F1, Max’ methods were not universally appreciated: that he knew how to get something done, and was prepared to be occasionally Machiavellian to get there, didn’t always go down well, although it has to be said that in an industry like F1, there are rather a lot of oversized egos rubbing up against one another.
And it was during the most turbulent part of his time at the top of F1 that our free and fearless press decided to intervene: the late and not at all lamented Screws splashed Mosley across its front page, claiming that he indulged in a Nazi-themed sex act with five prostitutes. His Dad knew Hitler, nudge nudge, wink wink.
Max did something the press is not used to seeing: he stood up to them, took the Screws to court for invading his privacy, and won. Mr Justice Eady concluded that there was no Nazi theme, that there was no public interest in the Screws’ exposé, and that Mosley was as entitled as anyone else to not have his privacy breached.
Building on that fightback, when the phone hacking scandal broke, Max was there again. Those whose voicemail had been hacked could not, in some cases, risk losing a legal action against the Murdoch press. He would underwrite their costs, and later underwrote the costs of independent press regulator IMPRESS. The press disliked him even more.
He was part of the campaign to have the Leveson recommendations made the standard for press regulation in the UK, and an unswerving supporter of Hacked Off. While this ensured the press would be dripping spite and hatred at him today, for those of us who have advocated for press regulation that actually regulates the press (rather than the worse-than-useless IPSO), he was an ally, and yes, he was a friend.
In his later years, Max was rather deaf, his time in the pit lane having taken its toll. But while he spoke softly, those who tried to mess with him soon realised that he had taken Teddy Roosevelt’s advice, and was carrying a very big stick indeed. The press hatred was because he took no crap from their unappealing array of sycophants and nonentities.
While the increasingly desperate and downmarket Telegraph snipes “Max Mosley, the fascist sympathiser who made an enemy of the truth”, and the Mail thunders “Mosley, tycoon who waged war on free press, dead at 81”, remember that, One, neither title would have dared say that while he was still alive, and Two, compare the work on F1 and everyday road safety that Mosley achieved. Then see who has room to talk.
The press never advocated to save lives in the way Max Mosley did. But they have ruined plenty of them. He was one of the good guys. And our free and fearless press aren’t.
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