Why F1’s relationship with the FIA has reached breaking point

A series of flashpoints have put a spotlight on the growing tension between Formula One and its governing body. With the latest exchange resulting in a threat of legal action, the BlackBook examines how we got here and what comes next for Mohammed Ben Sulayem’s presidency.

Barely a month into 2023 and Formula One has already threatened its governing body with legal action.

It came after International Automobile Federation (FIA) president Mohammed Ben Sulayem shared several tweets commenting on the reported interest from Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund (PIF) in purchasing the global motorsport series. This was the straw that broke the camel’s back for Formula One, which has been locked in a series of disagreements and clashes with its governing body in recent months.

The feud all appears to be centred around the actions of Ben Sulayem, who has proven to be antagonistic, direct, and impulsive in his leadership style. Indeed, it is perhaps no coincidence that the usually consistent Twitter poster has gone quiet on the platform since questioning the amount that PIF would be prepared to pay for Formula One.

Voted in for a four-year term in December 2021, the 61-year-old is due to be in office until 2025. Yet, if rumours are to be believed, Formula One Management (FOM), which owns the sport’s commercial rights, is pushing for the end of his presidency to come around much earlier.

Despite FOM’s obvious discontent, it cannot depose of the leader of its governing body sheerly by throwing its weight around. Either way, the president finds himself on unsteady ground, especially amid recent allegations of historic sexist comments, but Sport1 reports that he can only be overthrown if real gross misconduct can be proved.

This is just the latest in a long line of controversies dominating the build-up to the new Formula One season. The BlackBook examines the key incidents so far and looks at how the situation could play out over the coming months.

How did we get here?

Ben Sulayem has only known controversy in his 13 months as president of the FIA. After all, he assumed the role in December 2021 amid the fallout from Formula One’s most contentious championship finale. Those unstable foundations seem to have set the tone for his time in charge.

Formula One has always been influenced by the decision-making of the FIA, with casual fans often conflating the organisations. This is why the ongoing rift has become so important, as never before have there been so many casual fans watching the sport. As it is, mistakes being made at the top are time and again being viewed as the failings of Formula One.

The first sign of things to come was at last year’s Italian Grand Prix. Due to the number of drivers taking engine penalties for the race, it was difficult to determine who would actually be starting where following the conclusion of qualifying. In the end, it took almost four hours following the end of the session for the FIA to publish the starting grid.

Those frustrations were still lingering when, less than two weeks later, the FIA revealed a record-breaking 24-race calendar for the 2023 Formula One season. Great news commercially for the sport, but none of the Formula One teams were warned before the announcement. Not only that, but Formula One itself was given no prior warning. The series had planned to publicise a three-year contract extension for the Monaco Grand Prix, but instead it was blindsided by an early announcement that was expected to come three days later.

At the time, The Guardian reported that the confusion had ‘compounded the sense of fatigue and disconnect the teams feel with the FIA’, with one team member reportedly describing the federation's attitude as “unacceptable”.

Completing the set another two weeks later – these events all happened within the space of a month – was the use of a recovery vehicle at the Japanese Grand Prix, which was the scene of Jules Bianchi’s fatal crash in 2014. It was disturbing to see the use of a recovery vehicle at the same track in similar conditions, especially with the additional context of on-board footage from Pierre Gasly’s car, which showed just how close he was to a potential accident.

With the potential knock-on impact to Formula One’s commercial business, it’s hardly a surprise that the sport was becoming increasingly concerned by the actions of the FIA, which accepted responsibility for the mistake in Japan.

The pressure was also clearly beginning to weigh on Ben Sulayem, who let his frustrations get the better of him at the FIA’s end-of-season prize giving gala in December. It was there that he joked about Red Bull’s cost cap transgression before reacting to Christian Horner commenting on the “confusion” around the event in Japan, where Max Verstappen’s title celebrations were delayed because it was not immediately obvious if full points would be awarded for a race than ran just over half distance.

Appearing to believe the Red Bull team principal had called the situation ‘controversial’, Ben Sulayem retorted: “One thing you said about Japan, you said it was controversial. No. The FIA was blamed for the points but it was not the FIA which made the rules, it was the teams who made the rules and we were implementing it.”

What about recent developments?

If the FIA’s prize giving gala was the conclusion to a sequence of events that formed the kindling, then what followed was the match that lit the ongoing fire.

The end of December brought with it the announcement that the FIA was banning all drivers from making political, religious and personal statements without gaining prior approval. The instruction clearly affects the likes of Mercedes driver Lewis Hamilton, someone who has become one of the most prominent athlete activists in recent years, and the ruling has not been well received. Helmut Marko, an advisor to Mercedes rival Red Bull, labelled the FIA’s decision as “clearly wrong”.

Lewis Hamilton, who has become synonymous with athlete activism, protesting the unlawful killing of Breonna Taylor at the 2020 Tuscan Grand Prix

Meanwhile Paul Scriven, a member of the House of Lords, described Ben Sulayem as “discourteous and unprofessional” after 90 lawmakers wrote to the president expressing concern over Formula One races being held in the Gulf region, only to receive no response.

Ben Sulayem then allowed his frustration to get the better of him again. This time, he tweeted his disapproval for the adverse reaction of Formula One teams to the proposed Andretti and Cadillac partnership for a future Formula One entry.

Then, in the Emirati’s most recent tweet, he described the US$20 billion value being placed on Formula One during its reported talks with Saudi Arabia’s PIF as an ‘inflated price tag’.

‘Any potential buyer is advised to apply common sense, consider the greater good of the sport and come with a clear, sustainable plan – not just a lot of money,’ Ben Sulayem wrote.

‘It is our duty to consider what the future impact will be for promoters in terms of increased hosting fees and other commercial costs, and any adverse impact that it could have on fans.’

The speed at which Formula One and its owner Liberty Media called out these ‘unacceptable remarks’, reminding Ben Sulayem that the FIA ‘may be liable as a result’, only further highlighted the growing disconnect between the two sides. The series’ main point of contention is that Ben Sulayem is getting involved in a commercial matter that does not sit within the global governing body’s remit, which relates more to sporting issues.

As Quentin Warren, Prism Sport and Entertainment’s head of motorsport, notes, it is the latest example of a shifting relationship.

“The latest developments between F1 and the FIA have no doubt made headlines and increasingly it is occurring in the public domain,” Warren tells the BlackBook.

“What's particularly of interest is the flashpoints are no longer solely about sporting matters. Whether or not PIF’s interest is firm, since Liberty took control of F1, its commercial value has clearly increased – recent reports suggest to around US$15 billion.”

What’s next?

Ben Sulayem is currently navigating his own personal controversy, with historic sexist comments having surfaced from an archived website.

“The remarks in this archived website from 2001 do not reflect the president's beliefs,” an FIA spokesperson told Sky Sports.

“He has a strong record on promoting women and equality in sport, which he is happy to be judged on. It was a central part of his manifesto and actions taken this year and the many years he served as vice president for sport prove this.”

FIA president Mohammed Ben Sulayem will be halfway through his four-year term at the end of this year

The comment, in which Ben Sulayem said that he does “not like women who think they are smarter than men”, is one that the FIA appears keen to sweep under the rug as quickly as possible, especially as Formula One appears to be looking for any excuse to remove him from his role.

Not only that, but Liberty Media reportedly has lined up former Benetton team principal and current chairman of Motorsport UK David Richards as a possible successor.

New Ferrari team principal Frédéric Vasseur has claimed that any disagreements between Formula One and the FIA will fade into the background once racing resumes, stating his hope that “we'll be able to stay focused on the sporting side”.

However, one incorrect application of the rules in the first few months of the season could quickly render those hopes futile.

While Ben Sulayem’s ongoing absence from Twitter might prevent any further conflict in the near future, the immediate focus needs to be placed on improving communication lines between the FIA and Formula One if a relationship of trust is to be truly restored.

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