Bernie Ecclestone and the Constructors' Association are losing the battle with the sports authorities. While the president of FOCA continues to threaten a split and the organization of an outlaw championship (about ten races in the United States, three or four in Europe, and one in South Africa), on Tuesday, October 7, 1980, the plenary assembly of FISA meets. Delegates express confidence in the policy adopted so far by Jean-Marie Balestre. However, Ecclestone faces a severe blow from sponsors, who announce that they will only participate in a regular and official World Championship. For example, Marlboro and Essex openly align with FISA. The assembly approves the sporting and technical proposals for the upcoming Formula 1 World Championship. For 1981, it is decided to abolish the side skirts, increase the weight of the cars by 10 kilograms (from 575 to 585 kilograms), adopt reinforcement structures in the pedal area, set maximum allowed measures for tires (18 inches in width and 26 in diameter), and grant two sets of time tires for each driver in qualifications. Additionally, it is decided that special reinforcements to the side structures of the chassis will be mandatory in 1982. For the period 1983-1986, engines will maintain the same characteristics as current ones (3000 cc aspirated, 1500 cc supercharged), and regarding fuel consumption reduction, in-race refueling will be prohibited, and tanks cannot contain more than 225 liters (currently the maximum allowed is 250 liters). Furthermore, there will be reductions in the dimensions of the rear and front wings, and the adoption of a flat bottom on the cars. The assembly also approves a motion stating that all FISA member countries hosting irregular races will be deprived of their license for any type of motor racing competition, while drivers and constructors participating will be suspended from all activities. It is also announced that the London Court declares itself incompetent to decide on Bernie Ecclestone's request to organize races without the approval of sports authorities, although English organizers have stated they have a contractual obligation with FOCA. As it can be inferred, things are really going downhill for Ecclestone now. However, it remains to be seen how FOCA will react to these decisions. In the meantime, the rumor about Mario Andretti and a possible agreement with Alfa Romeo, leaked in the days following the Italian Grand Prix, is confirmed on Sunday, October 12, 1980, by engineer Carlo Chiti. The technical head of the Milanese team, during a television interview, clearly states that the 40-year-old Italian-American will race next year alongside Bruno Giacomelli.
"I cannot officially announce the news, but I confirm that Andretti will be our second driver. We did not choose another young Italian because there could have been a coexistence problem with Giacomelli, which we prefer to avoid. Moreover, we needed a good tester, and I believe Mario is one of the best on the scene. He has a lot of experience. I am also convinced that the young De Cesaris, who we tested positively in the last two races of the season, will find a good place in another team. This way, he can mature without too much responsibility".
Beyond any nationalist or economic considerations, the fact remains that Mario Andretti, despite his age, is still a valid driver. Although he has often been surpassed at Lotus by Elio De Angelis in recent times, the Italian-American, an excellent professional, seems to have not lost his enthusiasm and willingness to take risks, as happened this year with the 30-year-old Jody Scheckter. Probably, the Andretti-Alfa Romeo agreement only lacks the signature, although a general understanding has already been reached. In reality, only the contract between Marlboro, which sponsors the team, and Essex (financier of Lotus), which intends to have the driver's suit available, needs to be finalized. This is the reason why engineer Chiti has not been able to make the official announcement yet. In any case, by now, we are accustomed, with the two Italian car manufacturers involved in Formula 1 (Alfa Romeo and Ferrari), to living on rumors and leaks. That De Cesaris would have competed in Canada and the United States was learned by chance, and that Ferrari had presented a mediation plan between FOCA and FISA in recent days, only a few insiders knew. The natural question arises: what are the sports directors and press officers in these teams doing? Perhaps only telling that, after the Formula 1 World Championship concluded, on Tuesday, October 14, 1980, Didier Pironi shows up at the Fiorano track, starting his work behind the wheel of the 312 T5. Between morning and afternoon, the Frenchman completes 65 laps, also achieving good times. The fastest is 1'09"72, just under a second from the absolute record held by Gilles Villeneuve. Pironi is quite satisfied.
"I particularly liked the flexibility of the engine and the precision of the gearbox, but naturally, everything is still difficult for me because I don't know the track, the car, and the tires well. The track was also quite dirty, making it impossible to achieve better times".
There were also some excursions on the grass with slight damage to the car's side skirts. Pironi will continue testing with the T5 in the coming days, while Villeneuve, expected on Wednesday, should start work with the 126 C Turbo. Pironi (it had been twenty-one years since the 1959 season when a French driver, Jean Behra, raced for Ferrari) also says that Fiorano track is suitable for turbo tests since he considers it rather slow. Although the programs have not been defined yet, it is likely that the Friulian-born driver will start working with the 126 C in the next week. Enzo Ferrari is also present at the tests, giving his new driver a nickname, calling him Didi, thus recalling the one of the first president of the Ferrari team in 1930, Count Trossi di Biella. Ferrari also takes the opportunity to reiterate his thoughts on the FISA-FOCA issues. The Modena manufacturer confirms that he is for legality and adheres to what has been established by the sports authority, as he had already stated on behalf of Alfa and Renault. Regarding Bernie Ecclestone's threat, president of the FOCA, not to supply Cosworth engines to teams that will not adhere to his alleged parallel Formula 1 championship (the one that foresees the use of cars with side skirts), the Modena constructor is asked if Ferrari is willing to provide its engines.
"It won't be up to me to decide; the decision will be up to the Ferrari CEO".
In the meantime, FOCA decides to take the FIA and its sports branch, FISA, to court in Paris for the issue of side skirts, whose use has been banned in the upcoming championship. A similar action, filed in London, had been rejected by the English judge for incompetence, as the FIA is a French organization. Bernie Ecclestone, president of the Association of F1 Constructors and owner of Brabham, does not lose heart, and on Thursday, October 16, 1980, he makes a quick trip to Milan with his personal jet. The reason for the visit: to defend the positions of FOCA and present the programs for 1981 to the assembly of the main sponsors held in the Lombard city. Half an hour of hearing to personally explain his point of view, and then Ecclestone waits for the verdict in the hall for almost the entire afternoon, jumping from one phone to another. In the end, the verdict: the sponsors do not directly support either FOCA or the sports authorities and demand an agreement between the two parties involved, under the penalty of suspension of funding. The indefatigable Bernie is hit. Gray-faced, the English manager says that it will be very difficult to achieve in a short time what has not been achieved in a whole year of discussions and quarrels. But he does not lose his determination or his eloquence. Attack is his motto, and with this method, playing in bluff like a skilled poker player, he has won many battles.
"I stick to my idea. Balestre, president of FISA, wants to assume all the power. He acts like Napoleon and tries to get rid of those who bother him. I have an alternative championship ready, contracts in hand with the organizers. If things don't get sorted out, we will come to race in Italy as well, precisely in Imola".
But how do you think you can win this war? You would have sports authorities from almost all countries against you...
"I didn't start this war. I brought Formula 1 to an exceptional level of popularity, and now they want to cut me out. It's not fair. It's certainly not about a technical issue like that of the miniskirts that we're fighting. It's a matter of power and money. And also, increasing safety is not achieved by abolishing miniskirts. Accidents are inevitable at 300 km/h. We just need to improve active safety, creating more protections for the driver on the car. We all agree on this. And it's not logical to accept the technical arguments of only one side. Some have invested their money in engines, designing and building turbos, and others have taken a different direction, working on aerodynamics. I don't see why we should favor the former and block the latter".
So, an agreement with FISA and therefore with Alfa Romeo, Ferrari, and Renault, which are aligned with the authorities, is impossible?
"Let's say it's very difficult. I don't see, at the moment, any openings. Of course, the threat of sponsors is serious: without money, Formula 1 ends. We'll see. Meanwhile, I have prepared new programs that should make our races even more popular: I am studying a Grand Prix to be held in May in the heart of New York, in Manhattan. If my championship goes through, I will replace the classic Monaco Grand Prix with the one I have planned for the streets of the American city. In any case, next week there will be the FOCA assembly, and we will decide our future".
Thursday, October 30, 1980, among the splendid historical artifacts of the Martini Wine Museum in Pessione, three Formula 1 figures roam - admiring and surprised. The president of FISA, the loquacious Jean-Marie Balestre, arrived to give an official seal to what can be called the baptism of the new World Sports Championship, and the two drivers Riccardo Patrese and Eddie Cheever, who will be protagonists of the Tour of Italy driving Lancia-Martini cars. Jean Marie Balestre, skillful in dialectics, easily dismisses - during the press conference - some accusations made by people linked to Bernie Ecclestone. Balestre reaffirms his right (that of FISA) to decide on regulations and programs. In private, the president of the sports federation responds more precisely about the future of Formula 1. As known, with the deadline of November 15, 1980, the limit for the submission of applications for the 1981 season, the championship could split in two, one legitimate, FISA's, and the other, pirate, by Ecclestone.
"Time is running out, but I still have some small hope of reaching an agreement. Next week, I will meet with Ecclestone. In any case, remember that this is not a private war, a power struggle between me and the president of FOCA. The truth is different: the reason for the dispute is the turbocharged engine. English manufacturers insist on keeping miniskirts only because they hope to be able to get rid of the turbo in exchange for abolishing movable side partitions".
So, there will never be a resolution of the dispute...
"Not necessarily. Many problems would be overcome if someone, for example, prepared turbo engines to supply all the teams that requested them. Now, however, there is not much space left to resolve everything: Mr. Ecclestone, however, must remember, in his threats of division, that not all teams adhering to FOCA are ready to follow him. I would have doubts about Talbot, McLaren, and even Lotus. In any case, within a few days, we will know everything. We will stand firm because we are convinced we are on the side of reason".
The threat of a definitive break between FISA and FOCA worries, among others, Eddie Cheever, who has signed a contract to race with Tyrrell in 1981.
"I am happy to have been hired by Ken Tyrrell, although the English constructor was too kind in announcing the agreement. I only tried for a couple of afternoons, and being compared to Stewart and Depailler seems exaggerated. I would have preferred him to say that I am a good tester. Although I am set for 1981, I fear for my future: if the World Championship splits into two, and I am forced to race with Ecclestone, I would be banned for life by FISA and could no longer compete in federal races. So, I would be in crisis in my relationship with Lancia for the World Sports Championship. I find all this deeply unfair because we drivers are not to blame".
These problems, for now, don't worry Riccardo Patrese too much, who is still looking for a team for the next year. The situation, however, seems to have improved for the Paduan, who should be close to an agreement.
A few days before the decisive meeting with his great enemy Jean-Marie Balestre and a couple of weeks before the deadline for the registration of the Formula 1 World Championship, Bernie Ecclestone unleashes his great offensive. On Friday, October 31, 1980, the president of FOCA presents a dossier containing programs, regulations for an alternative championship, and a chronicle of events leading to the rupture between sports authorities and the Constructors' Association, seen from his side. The incredible - and it must be acknowledged, well-organized - Mr. Ecclestone has a fictitious World Federation of Motor Sport (WFMS) present an equally mysterious Professional World Drivers Championship, in perfect antithesis to the official one organized by FISA. The program is more than enticing: 10.000.000 dollars in prizes for a racing season, including 1,000,000 dollars for the potential World Champion of Drivers, twelve participating teams with at least twenty-three cars, fifteen races scheduled in twelve different nations (and three more to be defined). In essence, it would not only be an illegal World Championship of Formula 1, in opposition to FISA's, but also a new Federation managed and administered, of course, by FOCA professionals. Without specifying who will be the president of WFMS and who will be the members of the board, Ecclestone reveals the names of the teams that should be part of the new organization. These are, in alphabetical order, Arrows, Brabham, Ensign, Fittipaldi, Ligier, Lotus, McLaren, Ram Racing (the team led by English driver Rupert Keegan and owning two Williams), Tyrrell, and Williams. Obviously, the drivers hired by these teams would be obligated to race in the pirate World Championship. The regulations adopted are more or less those used so far in Formula 1, with some variations proposed for safety reasons: reduction of the area of the monocoque's floor, limitation of engine power, reduction of tire volume, maintenance of the minimum weight limit at 575 kilograms (which, with the reduction of the chassis, would be sufficient for a safe construction).
Ecclestone's document, full of contradictions, at least in its Italian translation, then contains a series of arguments and accusations against FISA and specifically against Balestre. The French president is heavily pointed out as the one responsible for all the troubles in Formula 1 in recent times (sometimes rightly so, as Balestre often behaved confusingly). Some statements, however, surprise, such as the one where it is said that FOCA helps and occasionally supports television. When it is well known that Ecclestone's organization imposes heavy tolls for each broadcast. And there is also the attack on sponsors who are accused of participating in Formula 1 just for publicity and threatened to be replaced by other financiers if they dare to have dealings with teams adhering to FISA. The threats against sports authorities continue with the announcement that other motorsport formulas could turn to the new WFMS to organize their championships. And then there is the usual refrain (with photocopies of signed documents, one of which for the French Grand Prix at Dijon is signed by Balestre himself) of organizers who are under contract with FOCA and who, according to the organization of the English manager, could not escape their commitments. The attack, therefore, is complete and in many directions. Bernie Ecclestone spares no effort, and certainly, he has many cards in hand to support his arguments to the end. However, there remains doubt that this move is the desperate last-minute bluff. It is not seen, in fact, how a genuine World Championship can be organized without the support of sports authorities. The same step has already been attempted in other sports (in tennis, where, however, the international federation and the professional association agreed, in athletics where it practically failed, in skiing surviving at a genuinely professional level only in America) with little success. It is a pity, however, that Ecclestone's actions, to whom everyone recognizes great commercial skill, are also supported by his Italian sponsor, Parmalat. Instead of mediating, the important Emilian industry lets itself be maneuvered by the Brabham boss. At this point, not many believe in the possibility that the pirate World Championship can be truly launched (besides, nothing is known about this mysterious new rebellious Federation), but it is certain that the chances of a last-minute agreement are diminishing by the hour. And with two World Championships for Formula 1, it will only be chaos.
"The relations are broken. I was supposed to meet Bernie Ecclestone next week to discuss the lingering issues in Formula 1. Now we have nothing more to say to each other".
This is how the president of FISA, Jean-Marie Balestre, comments on the announcement made in Paris by the representative of FOCA, Bernie Ecclestone, about the creation of a pirate Formula 1 championship sponsored by a new federation called the World Federation of Motor Sport, in an interview with the Parisian newspaper Le Figaro.
"From now on, there is no possibility of compromise between FISA and FOCA because Mr. Ecclestone's desire to create another world federation for motorsport exceeds all limits. He wants to organize a pirate Formula 1 championship. I don't see how we can reach a compromise. Even though Ecclestone has the right to create any organization, we will know more concrete details within two weeks, by November 15, the deadline for the registration of teams participating in the Formula 1 World Championship. On November 20, the interested parties (Federation, manufacturers, sponsors, circuit officials, drivers) will meet to assess the next season".
Balestre finally dismisses Ecclestone's raised issues of skirts and technical modifications as pretexts, stating:
"What FOCA and Ecclestone simply do not admit is being subject to the protection of a federal body".
Meanwhile, from Monte Carlo, South African Jody Scheckter, still president of the GPDA, states his opposition to the new motor racing federation: "It is unthinkable for us drivers to join this federation. We must remain within the scope of FISA".
The 1979 World Champion adds:
"The problems of the drivers should not be confused with those related to the commercialization of the Grand Prix. Furthermore, we still need to know the position of the sponsors, with whom we are bound by contracts. And also, if we were to go with Ecclestone, who would ensure the safety of the circuits?"
Riccardo Patrese is even more rigid:
"Two alternative championships damage motorsport because whoever wins the title will never be a true world champion. I don't know yet who I will race with next season, but I would prefer to participate only in official races and not in those of Ecclestone".
Eddie Cheever, on the other hand, says:
"I prefer to wait for the decisions of my new team and sponsors. I hope, however, that an agreement is reached, and Formula One remains unified and unique".
On Tuesday, November 11, 1980, the front of teams aligned with the sports authorities for the upcoming Formula 1 World Championship is further strengthened. After Osella officially announced its participation alongside Ferrari, Renault, and Alfa Romeo on November 10, 1980, there is indirect but sure confirmation that two more constructors will be on the track in 1981 for the races organized by the FIA and managed by FISA. These are the Anglo-French team Talbot (associated with Ligier) and the English Toleman team, winner of this year's European Formula 2 Championship with Brian Henton. The assurance that Talbot and Toleman will enrich the lineup of the Formula 1 World Championship is given when the following statement is issued from Milan after a meeting held at Alfa Romeo:
"On November 11, 1980, representatives of Formula 1 constructors from Ferrari, Osella, Renault, Talbot, Toleman, and Alfa Romeo met at Alfa Romeo in Arese to examine the organization of their participation in the FIA 1981 World Championship. All present constructors confirm that they will exclusively participate in the Formula 1 World Championship organized by the FIA. Furthermore, Alfa Romeo, Ferrari, Osella, and Renault already assure their participation in the 1982 edition of the same championship".
This is another hard blow for Bernie Ecclestone's FOCA, which, in its megalomaniac presentation book of the new anti-FISA Federation, had mentioned Ligier among the adhering teams. In any case, the most important news concerns Toleman's entry into Formula 1, which will use Pirelli tires. This fact enriches the technical reasons for the legal World Championship, which will see various tire manufacturers competing. Toleman should have British Petroleum (BP) or the Italian household appliance industry Candy as sponsors. In the first case, it will hire English drivers Henton and Warwick. In the second case, it will have at least one Italian driver, most likely the Rimini-born Sigfried Sthor, who, despite the German-sounding name, is a true Romagnolo. It is not excluded, before Friday, the deadline for registrations for the FIA World Championship, that there may be other surprises, still hoping for an agreement between FISA and FOCA. Participation in the official World Championship is already interesting, and this will certainly anger those who, as is the case in Italy by certain paper tigers, support only Bernie Ecclestone's cause after dramatic turnarounds, forgetting not too distant times when they attacked the English manager weekly in the same way they attack Jean-Marie Balestre today. While discussions continue, on Friday, November 14, 1980, Mario Andretti, tanned from the Arizona sun where he raced on Sunday, November 9, 1980, with a pageboy haircut, the Italian-American driver, forty-one years old on the upcoming February 28, appears in the morning at the Bella Luigina estate where Alfa Romeo has set up one of its main experimental centers for the first contact with the team he will race for in Formula 1 in 1981. If it weren't for the seasoned professionalism with which the Italian-American driver always behaves and for the extreme skill with which he moves in life, he would have seemed like a rookie. Great enthusiasm, extreme curiosity for everything, for the equipment available to the Milanese team, for the car he wants to try right away. Andretti takes a few laps to get to know the track he had never seen before (reaching 280 km/h on the straight with the old model car) and then has a long conversation with journalists, a kind of press conference that does not need prompting. Without forgetting a warm greeting to the mechanics he had obviously known for some time. A few jokes, just to warm up the atmosphere, and then serious discussions.
"I come from Phoenix, where I finished second in an IndyCar race. Before that, I stayed at home for a few days for the presidential elections. I voted for Reagan. After all, who voted for Carter? Even St. Nicholas would have had a better chance of being elected. I want to clarify immediately that I did not come to Italy to play or for a vacation. I feel the same as twenty years ago when I made my debut in motorsports".
The results of the past season and the fact that you were almost always beaten by your teammate Elio De Angelis would suggest that the years are taking their toll...
"1979 and especially 1980 were years to forget for me. But not because of me. Try going hunting without a gun, and then you'll see. I was in the same situation with Lotus. Some talk about the champions' decline, satisfaction, lack of motivation. But these are personal opinions that do not concern me. I always burn with the same desire to win; the title won in 1978 is not enough for me. Otherwise, I would have quit by now. Of course, when you are fighting for eighteenth place, a young driver may take more risks. I have nothing to prove. Give me a competitive car, and then we'll talk".
So, next year, will you be competing with your teammate Giacomelli, or will you be his guardian?
"Neither of the two. Each will go his own way. Giacomelli has nothing to learn from me, and I obviously have nothing to learn from him. We will try to bother the others".
How does it feel to be back in Italy? In an autobiographical book, you wrote that the best day of your life was when they gave you the American passport...
"The passport doesn't change people's blood. I live in the USA; I built my life there, but I was born and lived the first years of my life in Montana, near Trieste. Coming back to Italy is something special for me. I can't forget that. I accepted Alfa Romeo's offer because it is a team with incredible potential, and in just one season, it has made giant strides. I wanted a competitive car, and I believe I have obtained it".
Your son Michael, at only eighteen, is already winning his first races; he is potentially a champion. Don't you mind that he also becomes a driver, that he has chosen such a dangerous profession?
"No. Everyone is free to do what they want. And besides, after driving for a lifetime, taking risks one after the other, I can't tell my son that it's a dangerous job. It would be like denying many years of activity. I would rather like to race once with Mike, maybe compete together in a 24 Hours of Le Mans".
What do you think about the delicate current situation in Formula 1?
"FOCA, FISA... Maybe it's better to think about a beautiful girl. Jokes aside, I believe the only possibility to move forward is to stay united. And I think Ecclestone is smart enough to have understood these things. I hope that, maybe even at the last moment, an agreement will be reached".
Mario Andretti will stay in Italy until next week. Weather permitting, he will test the old model car on Saturday and Sunday. From Monday, he should have the new 179 C available for testing and development for the car that will be prepared for the World Championship. In the meantime, Engineer Chiti announces that if Alfa Romeo, to enrich the ranks of the FISA World Championship, were to race a third car, they would hire the young Roman Andrea De Cesaris as the third driver. Thursday, November 20, 1980, the roles between FISA and FOCA are reversed. By this date, a press conference by Bernie Ecclestone was expected, but Jean-Marie Balestre, president of FISA, speaks instead. For an hour, the French executive explains what could happen on Friday at the very important Formula 1 meeting, where all interested parties are invited: legal and non-legal constructors, organizers, and sponsors. It's a very precise speech, a harsh attack on Ecclestone. In the elegant FISA headquarters at Place de la Concorde in Paris, the president meets journalists in his office. Tired, with a drawn face, Balestre says right away:
"I have nothing to declare; I will speak tomorrow, after the meeting, at 6:00 p.m".
However, prompted by questions and driven by the desire to clarify his position, Balestre vents his frustration.
"At the end of the meeting, everything must be decided. There's no more time for words; it's time to act. If FOCA does not accept our proposals at the end of the discussions, we will attack, I personally and FISA as an entity. So far, we have been passive to insults, defamation, and all attempts to manipulate the situation. We will bring Ecclestone and his followers before all the courts in the world, dismantle their plans to organize a pirate championship point by point. In short, we will not give them any respite".