In Formula 1, everything is nice and pretty. Sometimes, twenty drivers squabble like Roman soldiers on the racetrack for about two hours every other Sunday. But everything is quickly forgiven when these sweaty gladiators leave the cockpit. Whatchu say? Who mentioned the FISA – FOCA war?!
Born in 1950, the Formula 1 world championship is now a 1000 Grand Prix old… Boy, that dates me. But before reaching the wisdom – or senility – of a 70-year-old, Formula 1 went through all the terrible stages of life: from the first teeth to the first tax returns, including puberty and the awkward teenage phase.
And it was close to screwing everything up! This adolescent crisis appears in the mid-1970s. The championship is changing by the minute, becoming more and more professional. Cars have their own blackheads as sponsors swarm over them. During this decade, television coverage becomes a thing in Grand Prix racing. Formula 1 is now a full-blown business and a young team owner is very aware of that.
REVOLT IS BREWING
D’you know Bernie Ecclestone? The man that apparently doesn’t age is running the Brabham team at that time. Yes, Mr. E is a Formula 1 enthusiast but first and foremost, he is a money lover. Good news, there’s money to be made in here. Large and brand-new figures flow thanks to sponsoring and TV rights.
But the teams fell cheated when race organisers redistribute starting money or prize money. And since its foundation, the Formula One Constructors’ Association (FOCA) hasn’t been able to stop this. The worst part is that the Commission Sportive Internationale (CSI, not affiliated with the TV show though), the sports arm of the FIA, turns a blind eye to this crime. It had to change…
We’re in 1974, Bernie joins the party and takes over the association.
Ecclestone’s genius lies in his unique negotiation technique. The organisers don’t want to give more money?
“We will not race.”
They don’t want to allow more cars on the starting grid?
“We will not race.”
The CSI wants to change the rules to minimize the influence of the FOCA?
“We will not race.”
And that’s the main issue right here. The FOCA is an organisation representing the interests of the (mostly British) Formula 1 teams but it now starts to interfere in the making of the regulations… where it shouldn’t in the first place!
Sooner or later, this is going to get ugly.
FISA STRIKES BACK
In the span of a few years, Ecclestone builds a little empire. The money flows and the FOCA pretty much makes the calendar. The FIA is losing control over its own sport and (finally) decides to take action. New elections are held at the CSI, in 1978.
Jean-Marie Balestre, a warm-hearted man who happens to be at the head of the French Federation of Automobile Sport, is now the new president of an aging organisation. Fortunately, he wishes to restore its image. Moreover, Balestre changes a couple of things, starting with the name: the CSI becomes the FISA, i.e. the Fédération Internationale du Sport Automobile. There’s no point in lying, the aim of the FISA is to strip FOCA of its new privileges.
GRANDEES AND GARAGISTES
The election of Balestre is the spark that ignites the fire. During the following years, Formula 1 will be divided into two groups. On one hand, you have the British “garagistes”, mainly represented by:
The garagisti, a nickname kindly given by Enzo Ferrari himself, just build a chassis around a Cosworth-powered V8 engine. On the other hand, you have the big car manufacturers, also known as the “grandees”:
- Alfa Romeo
They don’t share the garagistes way of thinking when building cars though. And they naturally support the FISA because Balestre comes up with rules that benefit them.
Balestre’s first main mesure comes in 1979. The FISA president still has a thing stuck in his throat when the CSI tried to ban skirts in 1978 and the FOCA said “no”. The Frenchman brings the whole thing up a year later and he announces a lot of safety reforms for 1981, including a ban on sliding skirts. To say the least, that grinds the gears of the FOCA teams.
By the way, F1 cars wore skirts back then?
Well, yes. I mean no, but yes. Since forever, Lotus founder Colin Chapman has relentlessly combatted the lack of grip when driving very, very fast. He finds a solution in the seventies with the use of ground effect. Inverted plane wings are located inside the sidepods, sealed by a “skirt”: a ceramic element sliding from top to bottom according to the undulations of the racetrack. Put simply, when the car goes fast, there’s some dark magic going on and poof, you have your downforce.
Thanks to the skirts, the car is glued to the track and the cornering speed is improved by nearly 25 mph! This is a revolution. A dangerous one though, because the cars can’t keep up: chassis are bending due to the force of ground effect!
Ecclestone is not impressed by Balestre’s proposal and the FOCA is making a daring bet. At the end of the 1979 season, the organisation lobbies for the turbocharged engines to be banned!
Let’s start again. Since forever, big car companies have relentlessly combatted Anglians winning titles with a budget of approximately a nickel and a dime. Renault being the leader, everyone started to spend millions to acquire the ultimate weapon: the turbocharged engine. A supercharged power unit is smaller, more compact, more powerful (in theory). But that’s a very advanced technology and it requires lots of money.
FISA and FOCA were bound to conflict. Balestre is kind of worried about safety but this would mean a major change in the regulations, leading to a cost explosion. FOCA-affiliated teams just start to get rich, they don’t want to roll with turbocharged engines because it’s too expensive, let alone with a radical rethinking of how to build a car…
From 1979 to 1980, Balestre is messing with the FOCA. The Frenchman tries to break the agreements with the race organisers and he imposes his own technical regulation without the teams consent. The last straw comes shortly after. Drivers are now obliged to attend a pre-race briefing. Obviously, FOCA drivers boycott the whole thing. In response, Balestre puts his finger where it hurts the most: the wallet.
« You get a fine, You get a fine, You get a fine!” Just like Oprah, the FISA fines everyone. But the tickets are always payed by the team principals! Then, Balestre threatens the deserters. If they don’t pay themselves, they will be banned. They don’t pay so they are banned during the Spanish Grand Prix!
Following this cataclysmic news, the practice sessions are cancelled. Williams and Brabham mechanics play football on the circuit main straight during this spare time. The next day, the FISA and the grandees leave Jarama. Ecclestone has won this battle, however the race will not count for the championship. The FOCA is not impressed. Next race is in France, in Balestre territory, so Ecclestone wants to boycott. Then, we’re going to FOCA-affiliated Silverstone and this time, it’s the FISA that could not show up!
Goodyear can’t stand this anymore. The company provides rubber for the majority of the F1 field but decides to quit anyway at the end of the 1980 season, because of this pathetic war between FISA and FOCA! Goodyear doesn’t want to hear about Formula 1 ever again…
However, Balestre and Ecclestone find an agreement during the following race, in France. Peace for our time, they say, as the 1980 season is now saved. But a few months later, the FOCA announces that it will host its own championship for 1981! Eleven teams are officially enlisted, including Lotus, McLaren, Brabham and reigning world champion Williams.
Never were we so close to see Formula 1 die.
FISA and FOCA affiliated teams are under hot fire coming from their own sponsors. And Balestre considers pausing Formula 1! Ecclestone doesn’t care and goes all the way. In February 1981, in Kyalami, FOCA hosts its first race of its pirate championship. The British businessman hopes that the media impact will be large. But that’s a huge fail as nobody turns up for this “Formula Libre” event, as they don’t have the rights to use the name of Formula 1!
As unbelievable as this may be, Marlboro saves the day and forces FISA and FOCA to negotiate. The armistice is signed Place de la Concorde on March the 11th, 1981, four days prior to the season-opener, in Long Beach! This “Concorde Agreement” gives birth to the Formula 1 World Championship as we know it today.
Powers are now shared. FISA controls the sporting and technical regulations. FOCA controls the commercial exploitation. And finally, Balestre won something: sliding skirts are outlawed and replaced by fixed skirts. Also, cars are now 10 kg heavier and the ride height is set to 60 millimetres in order to significantly reduce ground effect.
But we are in Formula 1 for a reason. Teams have more than one trick up their sleeve and they are fully exploiting the loopholes. For instance, Tyrrell needs the strength of four men to mount a rear wing made from lead before the weight check! Brabham comes up with BT49C, a single seater with hydropneumatic suspensions. Behind the wheel, Nelson Piquet can manually set the ride height to scrape the ground on the track and to be within the 60 millimetres limit during the FISA controls!
Very quickly, all the other teams copy these systems, although the Brabham solution is the most advanced one. Well aware of those illegal practices, the FISA turns a blind eye. Balestre can’t do a thing. When he forces the teams to use skirts “made of a uniform and solid material”, they take this literally and use rubber skirts! Indeed, rubber is a solid material, not a liquid or a gaseous one…
To everyone’s surprise, Piquet wins the 1981 championship.
WATER TANK CONTROVERSY
If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em. In 1982, the FISA decides to ban the hydropneumatic suspensions and the ride height controls altogether. From now on, teams can lower the cars as they please even though it’s still illegal! Even a big-balled driver like Gilles Villeneuve is worried when driving those unpredictable cars.
“Cars are glued to the track. I feel like a locomotive driver. Engines are very powerful. We are entering corners at incredible speeds. The risks have become enormous.”
The more efficient the grandees turbocharged vehicles are, the more desperate the garagistes become to stay in front. Thus, the wily Williams team capitalises on the poorly written rules. It is said that a car must be filled with its liquids (lubricants, coolants, etc.) on the weighbridge. However, we don’t know when a team must fill up the car… So, the Williams FW07C is running under the mandated minimum weight limit thanks to a huge water tank – supposedly cooling down the brakes (!) – that’s filled up moments before the car is weighed!
But nobody talks about the Williams during the 1982 season-opener in Kyalami. Balestre and Ecclestone worked together to produce the god-awful superlicence. Drivers are not impressed and flee the racetrack to barricade in a hotel room in Johannesburg!
P’S AND DSQ’S
Shortly after this unique moment in Formula 1 history, the FISA and the FOCA take up arms again. In Brazil, FISA teams protest against race-winner Nelson Piquet and second-placed Keke Rosberg. Both are disqualified because of their water-cooled brakes. In Long Beach, Ferrari decides to show the FOCA teams how dishonest one can be with the loopholes. A rear wing must be this length long, fine, but nothing is said about how many wings… So the Scuderia mounts two front wings… at the back! Both are the legal size, but they are located side-by-side, forming one unique “superwing”! Unsurprisingly, third-placed Villeneuve is disqualified.
FOCA teams are infuriated after the disqualification of Piquet and Rosberg and Ferrari show-off. So they decide to boycott the next race, in Imola. Only Tyrrell will show up because they have to, they just signed a deal with Italian companies. However, Ken Tyrrell tries to sabotage the event, relying on an obscure point of the regulations that outlaws turbine engines. Uncle Ken ridiculously claims that turbocharged engines are illegal de facto!
TO BE CONCLUDED
The 1982 San Marino Grand Prix will go down in history as peak FISA-FOCA war. As a FOCA representative and a Formula 1 promoter, Bernie Ecclestone can’t afford to boycott races anymore. How does one make money then? The FOCA teams know that they defend a lost cause. Slowly, they sign deals with turbocharged engine manufacturer wizards: Brabham-BMW, Lotus-Renault, Williams-Honda, McLaren-Porsche, etc.
And five difficult years later, in 1983, Balestre can finally outlaw skirts and ground effect vehicles. But behind the scenes, the FOCA is the real winner here. In sporting terms, British teams win all the titles from 1984 to 1998. And on the economic front, prize money still goes up. When the Concorde Agreement is renewed, in 1987, the FOCA closes down. It is replaced by a new body, the FOM, which is ran by… Bernie Ecclestone, of course.