Flashback: How the FISA-FOCA War Shaped the F1 of Today


While the late 1970s and early 1980s saw the United States and the Soviet Union pitted their great minds and politicians against each other in a battle of mind games, deceit and strategy, Formula One fans were experiencing their own Cold War much closer to home. 

Not only did F1’s own political turmoil and tribulations define the sports adolescent phase, the ‘FISA-FOCA War’, as it has been dubbed, continues to define and impact the sport to this very day some forty years later. 


The Fédération Internationale du Sport Automobile and the Formula One Constructors Association, a trade union of such for the lesser represented teams in the sport without factory backing which represented all of the fifteen teams except Ferrari, Renault and Alfa Romeo, were interlocked in a ferocious political battle that would reach its climax in 1982.

The sports governing body, FISA – then headed by the infamous Jean-Marie Balestre, and Bernie Ecclestone’s FOCA rarely saw eye-to-eye. This was particularly the case in 1980 when FOCA teams were of the opinion that their rights and ability to compete were hindered by alleged FISA bias towards factory-backed teams Ferrari, Renault and Alfa Romeo. FOCA members also raised complaints regarding FISA’s attitudes and viewpoints when it came to prize money and the technical regulations as the controlling group more often than not would side with the ‘Big Three’. Alongside then legal advisor Max Mosley, Ecclestone set out to take action to bring Balestre’s grasp on power closer to the centre of the spectrum. 

Tensions only grew hotter come the 1980 Spanish Grand Prix in what is widely regarded as the first major conflict with FISA delivering the first blow. In the previous Belgian and Monaco Grands Prix, FOCA had advised associated drivers to boycott the mandatory 45-minute driver briefings held by FISA to protest against the distribution of event revenue to competing teams after the union’s legal advisors noticed there was no mention of attendance to the meetings in any rulebooks. Balestre and FISA issued $2000 fines to those drivers that failed to attend the briefings, punishing non-payments further with the threat of revoked racing licenses; FISA ordered the sanction of fifteen licenses just days before the race was due to take place. 

FOCA threatened to withdraw all twelve associated teams from the event leaving the possibility of a six-car event broadcasted on the international stage – an embarrassment for both FISA and Balestre but the event organisers as well. The possibility grew nearer to probability when organisers offered to subsidise the costs of the fines for drivers but FISA refused any contributions unless teams admitted guilt by fronting their own deposits. The race was, in some ways, saved when Juan Carlos I, then King of Spain, intervened and ordered the race to take place. On June 1st 1980, the Spanish Grand Prix did take place but without FISA sanctioning rendering the race unofficial. The race in its own rights made history with the withdrawal of the three factory teams leaving 22 starters, all of which powered by Ford engines and just six completed the race. 

In November 1980, the short-lived World Federation of Motorsport was formed – a coup with the aim to topple FISA’s hold on open-wheel motorsports competition. Under the WFMS banner, FOCA teams held an event in South Africa in 1981 which, quite frankly, was a disaster for the union. Without the support of the major factory teams, there was very little support for the event in general. That goes both financially and in terms of drawing crowds and media attention. The attempted split came to an end when a settlement was agreed to allow FOCA to return to the FISA World Championship in time for the first round in March. 

1982 saw the struggles between FISA and FOCA reach their crescendo. Ahead of the first race of the season, as with any year, drivers had to sign an agreement for the super license. The eagle-eyed Niki Lauda noticed a new clause in the fine print reading:  “I am committed to the above team to drive exclusively for them in the FIA World Championship [until the season’s conclusion]”. Lauda notified Grand Prix Drivers Association president Didier Pironi.

Upon their arrival in Kyalami for the South African Grand Prix, every driver except Jochen Mass agreed to meet in an empty coach to discuss the clause. From there, they relocated to the Sunnyside Park Hotel where they set up camp in a small banquet suite to maintain comradery. The drivers strike yielded more than just an impromptu Elio de Angelis piano concert for the drivers. Lauda and Pironi’s determination and compassion had resulted in FISA dropping the clause entirely upon the realisation that there were suddenly to be 26 jobs available in the paddock and individuals with experience in 1000bhp plus turbo-powered racing cars weren’t exactly growing on trees with Paul Velasco recounting overhearing Bernie Ecclestone pushing to fly in Formula 2 drivers who would take these icons positions, altering history as we know it entirely. 

Just three months later, the FISA-FOCA war reached its tipping point at the San Marino Grand Prix. FOCA staged yet another boycott in which all aligned teams were supposed to skip the event in solidarity against FISA’s handling of the sport – in actuality, ATS, Tyrell, Toleman and Osella all backed out and competed at Imola citing sponsor obligations that they needed to fulfil. This brought the total of teams competing to seven with the addition of Alfa Romeo, Ferrari and Renault. 

The reason behind this boycott was in response to the disqualification of Williams from the Brazilian Grand Prix. At this point, privateer teams were struggling to keep up with the manufacture teams leaving FOCA teams to opt for more… creative solutions to keep pace. The teams had found a loophole in the technical regulations meaning not all coolants had to be in place during race sessions. The discovery led to the development of “water-cooled brakes”. Teams would attach cumbersome water tanks to their cars supposedly for the said braking system. The reason behind this was FISA introduced new weight check rules which allowed ample time for teams to fill up water tanks, some even changed wings to supposed lead-based variants to make the minimum weight. The water would be gradually released on track over the course of the first few laps, enabling cars to run underweight for the majority of the session. The Williams team were disqualified from the Brazilian Grand Prix after they were caught with their creative interpretation of the rules. 

The result was a fourteen car race in San Marino from which the Renaults of both Alain Prost and René Arnoux retired with reliability troubles allowing for a dominant Ferrari 1-2, controversially headed by Didier Pironi ahead of Gilles Villeneuve. The diminished grid undoubtedly had its negative impacts on FISA’s image – how can a series claim to be the pinnacle of motorsports when over half the grid boycott events in protest of its management? An issue which, if persisted would damage finances and the much-loved fanbase.

The resolution was the Concorde Agreement signed between FISA and FOCA with the grace of Enzo Ferrari, agreeing to a fairer distribution of revenue to all teams, a set timetable for technical regulations and changes to allow time for adaptation and design no matter the team size. Teams all agreed to appear at every race thereafter and abide by the rules set out by the governing body.

The major battles in the FISA-FOCA War may have concluded nearly 40-years ago but it’s effects are here to stay. The Concorde Agreement sets out the terms for the distribution of prize money and TV revenue. Before the agreement had been drawn up, smaller, independent teams protested the pay system in place within the sport. The Concorde Agreement is agreed upon by all teams in the sport. As the contract is in place for a fixed period, teams with less significant financial backing will be able to forecast their income more accurately increasing the likelihood of keeping teams in the sport for longer. It can also make the sport more appealing to new teams as there is greater predictability for sustenance however as evidenced in recent history by HRT, Manor and Caterham, a competent team handling business back at a teams headquarters is still imperative.

The FISA-FOCA war also impacted the sports personnel drastically with an entente cordiale between the two organisations opening the door for Max Mosley and Bernie Ecclestone to further their careers — Mosley as FIA president succeeding Balestre and Ecclestone as chief executive of F1 until 2017, who also remains the president of FOCA until this day. Although fans often still ask questions of where the FIA’s loyalties lie, it is undeniable that the pair have been instrumental in transforming F1 into the lucrative series that it is today.