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Obituary - Jean Marie Balestre
April 9th 1921 – March 27th 2008

Jean Marie Balestre who has died at the age of 86 was arguably one of the most well-known and controversial characters in motor racing.

At one point he was the most powerful man in motor sport - holding the post of President of the Federation International de l’Automobile (FIA) for 13 years between 1986 and 1993 when he was succeeded by another controversial character, Max Moseley.

A man whose contentious past was to haunt him throughout his life, Balestre had a reputation for being cantankerous and obstinate yet was widely recognised as a most passionate advocate of his sport who was particularly vocal in his belief that racing should be made safer for both drivers and spectators alike.

It is widely accepted that during World War Two, Jean-Marie Balestre spent time as a member of the French SS – an organisation which later imprisoned him – yet he took every opportunity to challenge these accusations, fighting & winning all the law suits which he filed against his accusers, claiming that he was in fact working for the Resistance and anybody who could vouch for him had long since died.

Whatever the truth, the controversy never truly died out, a fact reinforced by his being ‘Sieg Heiled’ at the 1989 Brazilian Grand Prix by irate fans of the late Ayrton Senna who believed that Balestre had manipulated the outcome of the fractious Formula 1 season that year between Senna & Balestre’s countryman Alain Prost – a claim that Senna initially did nothing to disclaim but latterly withdrew.

Prior to his rise to the top job at the FIA, Balestre had started out in journalism – founding the magazine L’Auto Journal in 1950 before amassing a print empire which was to stretch as far as Le Figaro in 1975.

However, being involved in motor sport and furthering its success was the Frenchman’s ultimate desire and he was one of the founding members of France’s own motor sports association, the Federation Francaise du Sport Automobile (FFSA) in 1952, being elected President in 1973.

In 1978 Balestre reached the FIA, becoming the president of the International Sporting Commission whereupon he set up FISA, the Federation International de Sport Automobile, the organisation which was to become one side in the infamous FISA-FOCA wars between the administration & the Formula One Constructors for control of the sporting rights and finances of the premier tier of motor racing.

Between 1980 and 1982 the two sides were involved in a fierce battle for the rights to the crown, ultimately resulting in the signing of the Concorde Agreement which still binds the teams and the governing body to this day.

Balestre continued in his role as head of FISA until 1991 when, following increasing discontent with his perceived high-handed and authoritarian style of management, Max Mosely stood against him and wrested control away from the 67 year old grandee.

Stunned by what he saw as a personal attack on his authority, he was to suffer a mortal blow in 1993 when Moseley assumed the Presidency of a re-structured FIA following the dissolution of FISA.

Tellingly, the Frenchman had decided not to oppose Moseley and even had a hand in supporting the abolishment of FISA – the organisation in which he had played such a crucial role.

Following his stand down from the highest rank of officialdom, Balestre continued to serve on many committees within the FIA but was increasingly a rare sight at major motor sport events in his trademark blue blazer and he finally stepped down from the sport when his tenure as president of the FFSA ended in 1996.

 

David Wakefield - First Take Media

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