Max Mosley, the former president of the International Automobile Federation, who forged a career that helped him emerge from the shadow of his notoriously fascist British parents but who became ensnared in legal battles later in life over a secretly recorded sex video, died on Monday. He was 81.
His death was confirmed by his family, who said in a statement that he had died after a “long battle with cancer.”
Mr. Mosley was president of the F.I.A. from 1993 to 2009. During his tenure, he advocated safety reforms in a sport that was often plagued by safety issues.
Shortly after he became president of the F.I.A., the deaths of two drivers during the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix provided urgency to that effort, and in 1996, he led a successful campaign to strengthen crash test standards in the European Union.
The F.I.A., or Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile, said in a statement on Monday that Mr. Mosley’s work as its president left “an indelible mark on the world of motor sport and mobility.”
Jean Todt, who succeeded Mr. Mosley as president of motor racing’s governing body, said in a statement that his predecessor was “a major figure in Formula 1 and motor sport,” adding that as president of the organization, Mr. Mosley “strongly contributed to reinforcing safety on track and on the roads.”
Mr. Mosley was born in London on April 13, 1940, to Oswald Mosley, a British politician who founded the British Union of Fascists, and Diana Mitford, a socialite who was friends with Adolf Hitler. The couple were imprisoned during World War II for their association with Hitler — who was a guest at their wedding — and Nazi Germany.
When he was introduced to motor racing, Mr. Mosley found “a whole new world,” he wrote in “Formula One and Beyond,” his 2015 autobiography.
“It was the first time I felt that whatever interest there might be was about me rather than my family,” he wrote. “If I could do something in motor racing, my antecedents would probably not come into it.”
Mr. Mosley raced briefly, but after realizing he did not have the talent to become the best competitor, he became a racing carmaker and team owner before starting his ascent in the administration and politics of the sport.
Mr. Mosley told The New York Times in 2015, “I did try to make a life of my own without basing a lot of my interests on my parents.”
As a child, Mr. Mosley was surrounded by wealth and notable figures, including the Duke and Duchess of Windsor. But he grew close with Bernie Ecclestone, the son of a fisherman who would become chief executive of the Formula One Group, as the two endeavored to bolster the sport of motor racing.
“We came from different sorts of upbringings, but we just got on well together,” Mr. Ecclestone said in an interview on Monday. He noted Mr. Mosley’s advocacy in vehicle safety, adding that “he wanted to make sure the public at large had cars that were built properly, were not dangerous, were not fragile.”
But Mr. Mosley’s legacy as a reformer in the world of motor racing was overshadowed in 2008 when a now-defunct British tabloid, The News of the World, posted a video online of Mr. Mosley involved in what it described as “a depraved Nazi sadomasochistic orgy.”
The video, which was later removed from the internet, showed him counting in German and yelling in German-accented English. He acknowledged participating in the session, but denied that the role-playing was Nazi-themed.
A British court ruled in July 2008 that The News of the World had breached Mr. Mosley’s privacy and awarded him damages equivalent to about $120,000. The judge ruled that there was “no evidence” that the gathering was “an enactment of Nazi behavior or adoption of any of its attitudes.”
Mr. Mosley said at the time that while the video was “totally devastating” to his wife, Jean, and his two sons, Alexander and Patrick, the ruling was also devastating for The News of the World. “It demonstrates that their Nazi lie was completely invented and had no justification,” he said.
Mr. Mosley was preceded in death by his son Alexander, who died in 2009. Information about survivors was not immediately available.
In 2013, a court in Paris, the Tribunal de Grande Instance, granted a petition by Mr. Mosley asking the court to order Google to remove photos and videos of the episode that had continued to circulate on the internet from its search results.
Mr. Ecclestone said he regretted not supporting Mr. Mosley when he “had his bloody problems,” referring to the scandal.
“Max was a very genuine, straightforward guy,” Mr. Ecclestone said. “He was very firm in that way.”
Ian Parkes contributed reporting.