Born in Saint-Rémy-de-Provence in 1921, Jean-Marie Balestre was a self-made man who had a life-long interest and involvement in motor sport. Following WWII, during which he had volunteered for the French army at the age of 19, Balestre began working as a journalist and soon founded the successful French automobile magazine L'Auto-Journal. In addition to this, he became director-general of the Hersant media group.
In 1950, he proposed the idea of creating a Fédération Française du Sport Automobile (FFSA) and quickly obtained government agreement and the support of over 80 clubs, 150 sporting competitions and 1800 members. From 1953 to 1955, Balestre created the ‘Union des Licenciés du Sport Automobile’ and recruited over 2000 new members, as well as organising the first French Congress for Auto Sport.
He was also instrumental in building up the karting movement in Europe which gave young people access to motor sports. He launched Belgian, Swiss and French karting federations and was later elected President of the ‘Fédération Française de Karting’. In 1963 he created the ‘Commission Internationale de Karting’ (CIK) in conjunction with the FIA and became, a year later, founder and Secretary General of the ‘Syndicat National des Automobiles Français’. In 1968, Balestre received the Légion d'Honneur for his services to France during the war.
Balestre was eventually named president of the FFSA and a member of the International Sporting Commission (CSI) in 1973. Five years later, he was elected President of the CSI and played a central role in the transformation of the commission into the Fédération Internationale du Sport Automobile (FISA), with membership from 72 countries.
In 1981, he became Deputy president of the ‘Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile’ and signed the first Concorde Agreement, under which the Formula One Constructors’ Association (FOCA) was granted the commercial rights to Formula One, while the FIA retained control of all sporting and technical regulations.
While remaining president of FISA, Balestre was elected President of the FIA in 1986. His aim was to bring the various factions of the federations closer together, speaking with one voice. FISA would once again become an integral part of the FIA. He also dramatically improved safety regulations in Formula One through changes in engine regulations, and introduced the first ever mandatory F1 crash tests.
In the presidential elections of 1993, Balestre decided to stand down, and proposed that FISA be abolished and Max Mosley replace him as president of the FIA. Balestre maintained the presidency of the FFSA until the end of 1996 and also became the first president of the FIA Senate. He remained an active participant in FIA affairs for several years afterwards and was asked to preside over the FIA Academy that was established in 2002.
Jean-Marie Balestre died on 27 March 2008, aged 86.