Mohammed Ben Sulayem has been president of the FIA for a little over 12 months. During that time Formula 1, undoubtedly the governing body’s most famous series, has kept him busier than he would like.
He was elected to the position five days after the acrimonious conclusion to the 2021 world championship. The FIA’s race director had failed to follow its own rules, leading to a last-lap change of positions which swung the outcome of the title fight, and prompted the governing body to overhaul its race management set-up. The far-reaching changes were finally completed just one week ago.
The 2022 F1 season added more pressing issues to Ben Sulayem’s in-tray. These included concerns over the effect porpoising was having on drivers, and subsequent revisions to F1’s newly-introduced technical regulations. There was also crucial negotiations over F1’s overhaul of its power unit rules for 2026. Later in the year came the discovery Red Bull had exceeded F1’s new budget cap as it took Max Verstappen to the 2021 world championship.
All this added up to a distraction from his other priorities as president of a federation responsible for much more than just F1. Ben Sulayem’s background is in rallying, and restoring the World Rally Championship to its former glory is a passion of his.
He emphasised that point in an interview at the Monte-Carlo Rally last Saturday. “I’ll be very honest with you. I should give more time to rallying,” he told Dirtfish.
“I have been dragged – and I’m being very straight and honest – I’ve been sucked into Formula 1. I definitely relied on a very reliable team, which is my team, to come to me with suggestion. But I believe this is the beginning, I am here, so I am going to manage my time between F1, rallying, and do it.
“I have to give more time to rallying because we can fix it.”
But will F1 continue to be an attention-grabbing focus for Ben Sulayem in 2023? The new structure he has put in place to oversee the series is clearly intended to address that. F1 now has a dedicated sporting director tasked with developing race control and drafting the regulations.
Ben Sulayem will expect the kind of errors which occurred during 2022 are not repeated. One of these which clearly irked him greatly, and for which he believes the FIA was unfairly blamed, was the confusion surrounding the outcome of last year’s drivers’ championship at Suzuka.
The world title hinged on the FIA’s decision to award full points for a race which only ran to 52% of its planned distance, despite new rules having been introduced over the off-season to lower the points allocations for shortened races. It transpired the revised regulations had not been phrased as intended.
Indicating how strongly he felt about this, two months after the messy conclusion to the 2022 title fight the FIA president raised the matter on-stage during the FIA’s prizegiving Gala. After handing the constructors championship trophy to Red Bull team principal Christian Horner, Ben Sulayem told him: “Japan, you said, 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.”
Those rules are to be rewritten again in advance of the 2023 F1 season, giving an early test of how well the new system is working. But while the situation on-track has been addressed, it seems some of Ben Sulayem’s energies will still be devoted to off-track issues.
Two days after admitting he’d been “dragged” into F1 matters throughout 2022, Ben Sulayem sparked a new confrontation with the series. Reacting to a report that the Saudi Arabian Public Investment Fund had made a $20 billion (£16.16bn) bid for F1, the FIA president questioned whether it was worth that much, describing it as an “alleged inflated price tag”. On Twitter the comments were retweeted by the FIA’s official account, bringing them to the immediate attention of their one million-plus followers.
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This was always going to alarm F1’s owners Liberty Media due to the concerns over the potential effect of public statements on share prices – a matter which is making big headlines beyond the motorsport world at the moment. F1 issued a strong response to Ben Sulayem’s remarks yesterday.
However this is the latest in a series of skirmishes which has occurred between the FIA and F1 since Ben Sulayem took over. The FIA delayed F1’s push to increase the number of sprint races from three to six for 2023 (a pity they backed down in the end, many might say).
After F1 CEO Stefano Domenicali said in August the 2023 calendar would not appear for two more months while they awaited the outcome of developments in China, the FIA unexpectedly published the schedule in September. It included a race in Shanghai which, to the surprise of few, was cancelled before the new year had even begun.
But it’s on the issue of expanding the F1 grid to admit a new team such as Andretti-Cadillac that the FIA seems most at odds with the championship. Soon after the new year began Ben Sulayem announced he intended to begin a process for new applicants, which Andretti was first to respond to. F1’s response was much cooler, repeating Domenicali’s earlier insistence that no new team can enter without the championship’s approval.
Whether Ben Sulayem will be able to spend less time on F1 this year and focus his attention on rallying and other subjects may well depend on how eager he is to see grand prix grids expand beyond the meagre 20 cars they’ve been stuck at for years. That is also likely to be the determining factor in whether we see more flashpoints between F1 and the FIA.
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