Back to the Future: The FIASCO War

By Don Capps, U.S.A.
Atlas F1 Columnist

During the 1979 season, the relationship between the Federation Internationale de Sport Automobile (FISA) and the Formula One Constructors Association (FOCA) was quiet, subject to moments of strain, and kept out of view of the public as much as possible. Sorta. FISA president Jean-Marie Balestre did slap a hefty fine on John Watson for being responsible for a first lap pile-on. Balestre did utter remarks about the current state of affairs in Grand Prix racing which were not received well in some quarters, particularly those occupied by Bernie Ecclestone and Max Mosley, the major voices of the FOCA. The season managed to be conducted without any serious meltdowns or unseemly public spats. Despite an occasional escalation of the words between the two finding their way into print, few doubted that 1980 would be much different.

Jean Marie BalestreWhen Balestre became president of the FISA, his campaign platform was simple - he was the anti-FOCA candidate. He espoused the idea that the "sporting power" within Grand Prix racing did not rest with the constructors, but with the agent plenipotentiary of the Federation Internationale de l'Automobile (FIA) - the FISA. Balestre vowed to restore the balance of power with the sport, the tilt of power towards the FOCA being accomplished during the period in which the predecessor to the FISA, the Commission Sportive Internationale (CSI), was weak and taken advantage of by the questionable tactics of the FOCA. Balestre was determined to redress that balance and with a vengeance.

While the FISA and the FOCA did quibble and squawk about the impact of ground effects on Grand Prix racing, the exchanges were never confrontational and often approached in an indirect fashion. While Balestre was laying the groundwork for a campaign against the FOCA, the FOCA were generally dismissive of both Balestre and the FISA. After all, had they not stared down the previous CSI presidents? Had they not broken the organizers' cartel? Did they not have the backing of the fans?

The FOCA seriously misjudged both Balestre and a revitalized FISA. The issue which was to launch the first skirmishes of the FIASCO War was, naturally, ground effects. Today, ground effects is taken for granted and while somewhat restricted, the diffusers achieve the desired effect rather more elegantly than the sliding skirts that began to appear on each Grand Prix machine after the Lotus 79 dominated the 1978 season. The FOCA teams wanted to retain the current setup using sliding skirts and "stepped" bottoms to create the ground effects which literally sucked the cars towards the track surface. The FISA wanted to eliminate this system and lower the cornering speeds. Two objects moved closer to occupying the same spot at the same time.

After several months of lobbing little cowpats at each other in the early months of 1980, the FISA and the FOCA got down to some serious cowpat tossing in April. The FISA Plenary Conference held in mid-April produced a number of reasons for everyone to return unhappy about something. The FISA Executive Committee met prior to the Plenary Conference and voted upon a number of changes to be implemented starting with 1 January 1981 and continuing to be implemented through the 1983 season. Balestre used as examples the injuries which occurred in the South African Grand Prix at Kyalami - Alain Prost (McLaren) and Marc Surer (ATS), and the Long Beach Grand Prix - Clay Regazzoni (Ensign). Naturally, this got Teddy Mayer wound up and he fired off a strongly worded response to Balestre.

That FISA salvo and its counter-fire from the FOCA, however, were just the signal for the parties to take their posts. During the Plenary Conference the FISA dropped no end of cards on the table. First, citing its authority under the regulations to make changes dictated by safety concerns, the FISA banned the sliding skirts system as of 1 January 1981. Also on that date, other changes were to take effect regarding the frontal structure of the cars and which were to include a deformable structure to protect the legs of the drivers. Also included in this package of safety-related changes were additional protection in the cockpit side walls, changes to the rear wings, an increase in the weight of the cars to 605 kilograms, and the banning of two-stroke or Diesel or Wankel or turbine engines until further notice.

Second, in 1982 tyre widths would be restricted or a tread introduced to lower cornering speeds. Third, for 1983, it introduced the fuel-flow formula proposed by Keith Duckworth of Cosworth. In addition, four-wheel drive was to be banned and the maximum number of wheels on a car to be limited to four, plus regulations would be generated on the use of titanium. Fourth, Balestre made it clear that many of the changes being proposed were courtesy of the Grand Prix Drivers' Association (GPDA). On the circuit safety front, all circuits would have to be inspected and certified before hosting a Grand Prix. The responsibility for starting a race would now be delegated to a single person, FISA delegate Derek Ongaro, this taking effect with the next event, the Belgian Grand Prix.

The Lotus 78, the first car with ground effectAlso, there would be a mandatory meeting of all drivers 45 minutes after the end of free practice on the morning of each Grand Prix, with the team managers also in attendance. An absent driver would receive a $2,000 fine for the first absence and a $5,000 fine for the second such absence. Henceforth, except in the case of force majeure, any driver changes had to be submitted four weeks in advance. In addition, all documents relating to a team had to bear the name of the constructor and not just that of the commercial sponsor of the team.

The FISA Executive Committee also submitted to the Plenary Conference something that slipped past most, but was a red star cluster to the FOCA. In a statement buried within all these changes, the FISA put it very bluntly what it intended to do:

    "…the FISA exerts full control over the World Championships belong to it and which, at the present moment, are the subject of a takeover by certain private associations foreign to the FIA.

    "No constructor or association of constructors may organize or be associated with a national sporting authority (or club affiliated to that ASN) for the organization of a Grand Prix.

    "No competitor or constructor entered for a World Championship event may be organizer of this same event."

And just to round out the day's activities, Balestre suspended the running of the 1981 South African Grand Prix. The rationale for his decision was that he and other FISA officials were denied access to the podium at Kyalami by the security guards assigned to that duty by the race sponsor. Balestre claimed that "physical violence" was used to deny him access to the podium, but that could simply be something lost in the translation.

As many went to great pains to point out, these were "suggestions" from the FISA Executive Committee and were not adopted as of yet by the FISA Plenary Conference. The Executive Committee saw it otherwise, issuing statements that what it presented was "official" and that the Plenary Conference had no power to veto the proposals. If there was much scratching of heads amongst the "Insiders," most racing fans were initially unconcerned or even unaware of all the fuss. Few had much of an opinion about what was happening.

Needless to say, among those directly involved, opinions varied somewhat. Gerard Larrousse of Renault welcomed and supported the proposals. As did the President of the GPDA, Jody Scheckter. Brian Hart thought the idea of a fuel flow system a load of rubbish. Meanwhile, Keith Duckworth, while delighted at the idea of a fuel flow formula, wondered just what the "orientation" of that formula would wind up being since the flow rate was not announced. As for Nashua, the sponsors whose security guards used "physical violence" on the unsuspecting Balestre and other members of his party as they attempted to reach the South African podium, they explained that it was the race marshals who denied permission to Balestre and company to leave the pit apron to reach the podium steps. In addition, Balestre did not identify himself to the security personnel and attempted to push past them, which resulted in the guards blocking his way. This they say, unleashed a stream of angry French as Balestre lost his temper and cursed the security personnel.

There was a conspicuous silence on the part of the FOCA to all this at first. "No comment," was all that Max Mosley had to say. Others noted that many of the measures presented to the FISA Executive Committee on Tuesday were modified or defeated on Wednesday, there being an obvious split within the FISA Plenary Conference. Indeed, the subject of the Spanish Grand Prix, an event organized by the FOCA, was seen as a direct attack by the FISA and Balestre on the FOCA. Or, the FISA were putting rocks in the cowpies they tossed at the FOCA members.

Oh, by the way, the FISA banned the use of qualifying tyres beginning with the Belgian Grand Prix. This added fuel to the chaos that was always present whenever the racers showed up for the Belgian race at Zolder. It created no end of heartburn for all involved, the pole position of Alan Jones being a question mark long after the final practice was over. Although Jones eventually kept his starting spot on the pole after the nightmare of sorting out his tyres was resolved, he finished second to Didier Pironi in a Ligier Ford Cosworth.

At Zolder, the requirement for mandatory driver meetings took effect. Whatever the GPDA may have said about the meetings, the attendance was, well, sparse. Although rumors abounded that some teams asked their drivers to stay away, others that the FOCA would pay any fines that resulted, and others that they simply "forgot." Keep all this in mind for later on.

Carlos Reutemann celebrates victory at Kyalami in 1981, but the event was declared a non-championship race as only FOCA affiliated cars took partThere is something about Monaco and the tight confines of Monte Carlo that often brings out the worse in usually well-mannered and reasonable people. Even in 1980, the circuit was woefully inadequate for the machines now racing around its many twists and turns. The cramped, claustrophobic pits put the Great Australian Adjective on the lips of many who labored there. The GPDA was celebrating the start of its 20th season, having been formed in Monte Carlo during the 1961 Grand Prix weekend. More than a few of the members of that organization were unhappy with some of the decisions being made, particularly with the dispensing of the pre-qualification session which had the effect of dumping everybody into the official practice sessions.

This had the odd effect of placing the FISA and the FOCA on the same side of the table but for different reasons. The FISA sided with the organizers and more than a few of the FOCA members reminded the drivers that they weren't the only blokes who could drive racing cars. After a contentious meeting, the FISA and the FOCA both got their way and all 27 drivers would appear in the two official practice sessions to determine who the lucky 20 starters would be. Any mention of the 1972 race and its demands for 25 starters was conspicuously absent.

While practice was the Usual Shambles, the race was marred by a first lap multi-car coming-together at Ste. Devote which eliminated four cars, to include both of the Tyrrell entries. Although Carlos Reutemann won with his Williams FW07 Cosworth Ford, over half the field was not around at the finish. Neither were a few drivers at the mandatory meetings.

After the Monaco Grand Prix, the FISA sent around a notice that those drivers who skipped the meetings had better pay up by the first day of practice for the Spanish Grand Prix at Jarama. Failure to pay the fines could or would result in the driver(s) not being awarded championship points, as well as jeopardizing the running of the Spanish Grand Prix. Those who did not attend the meetings at Zolder or Monte Carlo included: Elio de Angelis (Lotus), Mario Andretti (Lotus), Alan Jones (Williams), Emerson Fittipaldi (Fittipaldi), Jacques Laffite (Ligier), Jean-Pierre "Jumper" Jarier (Tyrrell), Didier Pironi (Ligier), and Alain Prost (McLaren). Absent at Zolder, but present at Monte Carlo were: Jan Lammers (ATS), Tiff Needell (Ensign), Nelson Piquet (Brabham), Carlos Reutemann (Williams), Keke Rosberg (Fittipaldi), John Watson (Williams), and Ricardo Zunino (Brabham). Present at Zolder but absent from the Monte Carlo meeting: Derek Daly (Tyrrell), Jochen Mass (Arrows), and Riccardo Patrese (Arrows).

Of these 18 drivers, several were offered as having been resolved. Andretti had his fine settled by Essex so he could shuffle back and forth between Europe and Indianapolis. Prost was said to have paid his Zolder fine. Maybe. Initially there was more than a little confusion and consternation over this state of affairs. This was followed by the realization by many that a state of war now existed between the FISA and the FOCA.

Meanwhile, the FOCA had submitted its counterproposal to the FISA safety proposals. It proposed an implementation of its plan in two stages. The first stage would be ready by the first European event of 1981 and the second stage a year following that. Its proposal was quite technical and precise. In addition, it addressed the areas pointed out by the FISA, the area surrounding the driver's feet and side impact protection. The FISA chose not to respond to the FOCA submission.

On the eve of the Spanish Grand Prix, the Spanish organizers suddenly found themselves in the midst of a war zone.

To be continued next week...

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Volume 9, Issue 5
January 29th 2003

Atlas F1 Special

Back to the Future: The FIASCO War
by Don Capps


The FIA's Hard Stance: Zero Tolerance
by Will Gray

2003 SuperStats: Winter Testing
by David Wright


The F1 Trivia Quiz
by Marcel Borsboom

Off-Season Strokes
by Bruce Thomson

Elsewhere in Racing
by David Wright & Mark Alan Jones

The Weekly Grapevine
by Tom Keeble

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