FIA president relinquishes control of F1 after growing teams backlash
Mohammed Ben Sulayem, the embattled president of motorsport’s world governing body the FIA, has relinquished “day-to-day” control of Formula One. But there remains scepticism within the F1 paddock regarding both his reasons for doing so, and his commitment to staying in the background.
The 61-year-old Emirati, who took over from Jean Todt in December 2021, weeks after one of the most contentious episodes in recent F1 history, when Max Verstappen was awarded the 2021 drivers’ title at the expense of Lewis Hamilton, announced the shock decision after a number of controversial weeks at the helm.
Ben Sulayem wrote separately to team principals and to the sport’s chief executive, Stefano Domenicali, outlining his intention to take a more hands-off role, with the FIA’s director of single-seater racing Nikolas Tombazis now their “day-to-day” point of contact.
“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,” he wrote in his letter. “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.”
A number of sources within the sport have told the Telegraph they are sceptical regarding Ben Sulayem reasons for stepping back, with one saying he had effectively “jumped before he was pushed” following a series of recent gaffes which angered both F1 and the sport’s owners Liberty Media.
First Ben Sulayem publicly welcomed a bid from Andretti-Cadillac to enter the sport, which upset F1’s top brass who were lukewarm on their proposed entry.
He was then accused of “unacceptable” interference in response to a series of tweets in which he said a £16.2 billion valuation of the sport was “inflated”. Ben Sulayem was told that the FIA could be “liable” for harming the value of F1.
In a sign that knives were being sharpened, a number of embarrassing remarks that Ben Sulayem made over 20 years ago were leaked into the public domain.
Ben Sulayem was quoted on an archived version of his old website as saying that he did “not like women who think they are smarter than men”. The FIA said the sexist remarks did not reflect his current beliefs.
Those controversies came after repeated clashes with teams last season. There were question marks regarding his handling of the investigation into the 2021 championship denouement, his obduracy over the number of sprint races on the calendar, and his involvement in the Red Bull budget cap row.
Ben Sulayem has enjoyed taking centre stage in the F1 paddock
The FIA insisted in a statement on Wednesday that Ben Sulayem’s decision had been a long time coming, and followed a restructuring of the organisation after he assumed the presidency.
“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’,” pointed out an FIA spokesperson. “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.”
But many feel he will not be able to help himself. Ben Sulayem enjoyed taking centre stage in the F1 paddock last year, frequently turning up for photo opportunities with drivers and celebrities. One source joked that “he made more podium appearances than Max [Verstappen]”, who won 15 races. There is scepticism that he will be able to resist getting involved when the next big issue arises, with another source saying he would be “bound to get involved in a few months once this all blows over”.
The new F1 season begins in Bahrain on March 5, with all eyes on whether the FIA will enforce a new rule which prevents drivers from making “political, religious or personal” comments without prior approval.
Speaking at Williams’ launch earlier this week, British-born Alex Albon said drivers were “concerned” by the FIA’s ruling.
In a sign of the current tension between the FIA and F1, the sport's chief executive Stefano Domenicali made clear earlier this week that his organisation did not back the FIA’s stance. “F1 will never put a gag on anyone,” Domenicali insisted. “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.”