Under-fire International Automobile Federation (FIA) president Mohammed Ben Sulayem has conceded day-to-day control of Formula One.
The 61-year-old Emirati’s shock decision comes after a number of controversial weeks at the helm of world motorsport – including the threat of legal action from Formula One, and the exposure of historical sexist remarks on his now-defunct personal website.
The FIA, which governs Formula One, insists Ben Sulayem’s move has long been in the pipeline, and follows a restructuring of the organisation after he assumed the presidency from Jean Todt in December 2021.
But his revelation in a letter to the sport’s team principals and Formula One bosses on 6th February that the FIA’s director of single-seater racing Nikolas Tombazis should now be their main contact has sent ripples around the grid with the new season less than a month away.
Sulayem, who remains in charge of the FIA, was centre stage in Formula One last season, sitting with the drivers in the moments before races, and handing out trophies at a number of Grands Prix.
More recently, he has used his social media platforms to address the thorny topic of new teams in Formula One.
However, in an extract of Ben Sulayem’s letter, which was published by the Daily Mail, the former rally driver wrote: 'My stated objective was to be a non-executive president via the recruitment of a team of professional managers, which has now been largely completed.
'Therefore, going forward, your day-to-day contact for all matters on F1 will be with Nikolas and his team, while I will focus on strategic matters with my leadership team.'
Last month, Ben Sulayem was quoted on an archived version of his old website as saying that he does “not like women who think they are smarter than men”. The FIA said the sexist remarks do not reflect his beliefs.
He was also accused of “unacceptable” interference by Formula One in response to a series of tweets in which he said a US$20 billion valuation of the sport was “inflated”.
Ben Sulayem was told that the FIA could be “liable” for harming the value of Formula One’s owners, Liberty Media.
It is understood that the high-profile controversies have caused anger among a number of team principals and national sporting authorities.
He clashed with seven-time world champion Lewis Hamilton over the wearing of jewellery in the cockpit last season, while the FIA has recently moved to prevent drivers from making “political, religious or personal” comments without prior approval.
Speaking at Williams’ launch earlier this week, British-born Alex Albon said the drivers were “concerned” by the FIA’s decision to effectively silence them.
Formula One boss Stefano Domenicali said: “F1 will never put a gag on anyone. Everyone wants to talk, so to have the platform to say what they want in the right way the better it is.
“I believe the FIA will clarify what has been stated.”
On 8th February, an FIA spokesperson told the PA news agency: “The president’s manifesto clearly set out this plan before he was elected – it pledged ‘the appointment of an FIA CEO to provide an integrated and aligned operation’, as well as to ‘introduce a revised governance framework’ under ‘a leadership team focused on transparency, democracy, and growth’.
“These goals, as well as the announcement of the new structure of the single-seater department, have been planned since the beginning of this presidency.
“The FIA president has a wide remit that covers the breadth of global motor sport and mobility, and now that the structural reorganisation in Formula One is complete this is a natural next step.”