Scotsman Obituaries: Max Mosley, barrister, racing driver and press campaigner

Max Rufus Mosley, barrister, racing driver and sports administrator. Born: 13 April 1940 in London. Died: 23 May 2021 in London, aged 81
Max Mosley on business in Monaco in 2007 (Picture: Getty)Max Mosley on business in Monaco in 2007 (Picture: Getty)
Max Mosley on business in Monaco in 2007 (Picture: Getty)

Max Mosley, former racing driver, barrister, racing car manufacturer and motor sport world governing body president, lived an extraordinary life.

Mosley, who has died from cancer aged 81, was a political giant in the world of motor sport and a hugely successful, lifelong campaigner for the safety of its cars, but that is unlikely to be what he is best remembered for.

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He will be remembered instead by mainstream Britain as the son of Sir Oswald Mosley leader of the 1930s British fascist party, and as the motor sport figurehead whose sadomasochistic sexual tendencies were splashed on the front pages of a tabloid newspaper in 2008.

Mosley was the subject of a News of the World sting, in which the newspaper used a hidden camera to take footage of a sex session with five prostitutes, and published a front-page story accusing him of taking part in a Nazi-themed orgy. Mosley successfully sued the News of the World for a breach of his privacy, proving in the High Court that the Nazi element had been a fabrication.

But in the public’s eyes those tabloid images defined him and some colleagues and friends turned against him.

In a new documentary, Mosley: It’s Complicated, due for release in cinemas in July, long-time friend and ex-Formula One chief executive Bernie Ecclestone talks about his decision to briefly withdraw support from his friend. Ecclestone said: “Of all the things I’ve done in my life, it’s the one thing that I’m ashamed of.” After news of Mosley’s death, Ecclestone told the PA news agency: “Max was like family to me. We were like brothers. I am pleased in a way because he suffered for too long.”

A month after he was born in April 1940, Mosley and his brother Alexander were separated from their father, and later their mother, Lady Diana Mosley, after they were both jailed by the British authorities for their fascist activities. Lady Diana had been a leading socialite, one of the Mitford sisters, and a keen supporter of fascist political causes.

Mosley’s parents were married at the home of Nazi propaganda chief Joseph Goebbels in 1936, with Adolf Hitler guest of honour. His mother was also friends with Winston Churchill, while former Poet Laureate John Betjeman was his godfather. With the hindsight of history, Mosley’s life was never going to be straightforward. Sir Oswald and Lady Mosley’s release from Holloway prison in 1943 sparked widespread public protests and Mosley attended various schools in Britain, France and Germany before studying physics at Oxford University. Mosley later trained as a lawyer and became a barrister, specialising in patent and trademark law, while his leisure time was spent racing cars.

He raced for Brabham and Lotus in Formula Two and, after retiring from driving in 1969, co-founded March Engineering, which soon became one of the world’s leading racing car manufacturers. Mosley oversaw March’s legal and commercial affairs from 1969 to 1977 and became the official legal adviser to the Formula One Constructors’ Association (FOCA) in the mid-1970s. He helped draw up a peace agreement between FOCA and FISA, F1’s governing body at the time, and went on to become FISA president in 1991.

Two years later, he took over unopposed at motor sport governing body the FIA, leading the safety reforms in the sport which followed the death of Ayrton Senna at the San Marino Grand Prix in 1994.

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As president, Mosley pledged that the FIA should make a difference in the world outside motor racing and set about promoting increased road safety and the use of green technology.

In 1996, Mosley led the FIA’s successful campaign to modernise and strengthen European Union crash test standards for the first time since 1974 and also promoted the European New Car Assessment Programme, the independent crash-test organisation.

In 2004, Mosley helped set up the FIA Institute for Motor Sport Safety in order to develop and improve safety measures across all areas of motor sport, from junior racing to top-level championships.

He was re-elected FIA president three times – in 1997, 2001 and 2005 – each time unopposed, before Jean Todt replaced him in 2009.

Following stories about his sex life in the British tabloids and his subsequent successful court battle, he became a high-profile campaigner for tougher regulation of the press. He donated millions of pounds to help fund various press reform groups and bankrolled some of the victims of the News of the World phone-hacking scandal. He took legal action against Google in Germany, arguing the search engine was linking to illegal images. The two parties came to a settlement in 2015.

Mosley, who had been involved in his father’s post-war party, the far-right Union Movement, in his teens and early twenties, abandoned attempts to launch a political career with the Conservative party in the 1980s, claiming his name would have been a handicap. He joined the Labour party during Tony Blair’s leadership and later became a donor.

Mosley wed Jean, the daughter of a London policeman, in 1960 and their sons Alexander and Patrick were born in 1970 and 1972. Alexander died aged 39 in 2009, with the coroner ruling his death was due to non-dependent drug abuse.


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