With Formula 1 teams pulling the covers on their cars for the 2023 season, and preseason testing right around the corner, a new year is about to get underway.
But the impending return to the track continues to be overshadowed by events away from it.
The latest twist in the F1 offseason came on Monday, when Mohammed Ben Sulayem, President of the Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile (FIA), informed the F1 teams that he was relinquishing control over F1. In a letter to the ten F1 teams, obtained by The Daily Mail, Ben Sulayem stated that day-to-day control of F1 would now pass to Nikolas Tombazis, FIA’s Director of Single Seater racing. “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.”
According to both President Ben Sulayem and FIA, the move was planned in advance. When Ben Sulayem campaigned for the role of FIA President, he campaigned on the idea of a member-led organization. He produced a platform, titled “FIA for Members” that promoted the idea of a “revised governance framework,” and “greater member participation in strategy setting and decision-making.”
FIA acknowledged that manifesto following the news. In a statement provided by a spokesperson, FIA outlined how the shift reflected President Ben Sulayem’s stated vision for FIA. “The president’s manifesto clearly set out this plan before he was elected,” said an FIA spokesperson. “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’.”
President Ben Sulayem appointed Natalie Robyn as the FIA’s CEO last September.
However, the timing of the move calls into question all those stated goals. This shift comes as President Ben Sulayem is facing increased criticism on several fronts, calling into question his relationship with F1, and his future. President Ben Sulayem waded into the potential sale of F1 by calling a potential $20 billion price tag “inflated.” Those remarks drew an official rebuke from Liberty Media, the current owners of F1, as well as F1 itself. In a letter, those two organizations called the comments “unacceptable,” and outlined that they “overstep the bounds of both the FIA’s remit and its contractual rights.”
Liberty Media and F1 also threatened legal action if the comments damaged the value of F1.
FIA’s President is also facing criticism from F1 drivers regarding another shift in policy, which is a potential ban on drivers from making political statements “without approval.” At the end of 2022, it was announced that FIA and F1 would follow changes to the International Sporting Code that precluded athletes from making “political” or “personal” statements without prior approval.
Two of F1’s most prominent drivers, Valtteri Bottas and two-time Drivers’ Champion Max Verstappen, blasted the policy in recent days. F1 CEO Stefano Domenicali sided with the drivers, insisting that F1 would never “gag” anyone”
“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. We have a huge opportunity because of the position of our sport which is more and more global, multicultural and multi-valued.
“We are talking about 20 drivers, 10 teams and many sponsors, they have different ideas, different views. I cannot say one is right, one is wrong but it is right, if needed, to give them a platform to discuss their opinions in an open way.
“We will not change that approach as a sport. That should be the line of our sport, to give everyone the chance to speak in the right way, not with aggressive tones or to offend but with respect.”
Then there are comments from President Ben Sulayem that resurfaced recently, made on a now-defunct personal website in 2001. In those comments, Ben Sulayem was quoted as saying he did not like “women who think they are smarter than men, for they are not in truth”.
FIA defended President Ben Sulayem, stating that “the remarks in this archived website from 2001 do not reflect the president’s beliefs. 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.”
Then there is the growing controversy over the size of the F1 grid. Back at the start of January, Andretti Autosport announced a partnership with General Motors to place a team in F1. During that announcement, made to media members including SB Nation, Michael Andretti talked about President Ben Sulayem and his desire for another team on the grid. “In the end it is still an FIA series, and the President [FIA President Mohammed Ben Sulayem] has shared that he would really like to have an 11th team on the grid. He is a racer and he understands the importance of that itself....having our great partnership with Cadillac we have a very good shot at checking every box and being able to be on the grid soon.”
In the wake of that announcement, President Ben Sulayem continued to express support for both the Andretti-Cadillac bid and the general idea of expanding the field.
Yet, not everyone is convinced, and there is a growing war of words over the idea of expanding the F1 field.
Now, one of the participants in that war is seeing a change in his status regarding F1, and growing questions over his job security.
Those questions may linger, but in recent days FIA invited applicants seeking to join F1 to submit applications. In a Call for Expressions of Interest, FIA invited potential teams to apply for membership. In a statement, FIA indicated that the governing body “welcomes interest from entities with a serious intent to enter the FIA Formula One World Championship. The high level of interest from a number of potential candidates is further proof of the popularity and growth of the Championship.”
President Ben Sulayem provided his own statement at the time, noting that “[t]he growth and appeal of the FIA Formula One World Championship is at unprecedented levels. The FIA believes the conditions are right for interested parties, which meet the selection criteria, to express a formal interest in entering the Championship.”
These moves indicate that President Ben Sulayem may ultimately get his wish of seeing the F1 field expand.
But given the results of the past few weeks, is it fair to wonder if he will still be President when that happens?