Grandprix247’s Agnes Carlier sat down with FIA president Mohammed Ben Sulayem during the weekend of the 2022 Monaco Grand Prix for an in-depth and exclusive interview with the man who now runs Formula 1‘s governing body.
I love watching movies. From Citizen Kane to Paddington 2, I’ll watch anything. For me, movies always offer something I can take away and keep. When in Monaco, on occasion of its 2022 Formula 1 Grand Prix, I was given the chance of an exclusive interview with the newly elected President of the FIA, Mohammed Ben Sulayem.
I thought I was staging in a Netflix series with big players and even bigger personalities, running through the hot pitlane to reach the quiet Presidential office in the control tower. This Monaco movie set-up drew me deep into the description of the World of Sport’s Governing Body.
Just like in every good story, there are also winners and losers in this scene. Mohammed Ben Sulayem won the election one week after the controversial 2021 Formula 1 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix. After six months on the job, and is now is fully immersed in the top job in the automotive world.
It is clear that the President has the grace to listen to all while being open enough to share the strengths and the weaknesses of an organisation he inherited. The newly elected FIA chief is ready to act like a Magician if the need be, to get his ‘house’ in order.
He applies his traditional own recipes: The smallest detail counts as he seeks to maintain his winning goal for the FIA as he has done in the projects he has been involved with in the past, his reputation is one of a man with the Midas-touch in Middle EastJ motorsport, and beyond.
Q: Mohammed Ben Sulayem – 14 times FIA Middle East Rally Champion – you started as a Rally driver, can you shed light on your journey and how this winning spiral began?
Ben Sulayem: “I believe I was very busy driving at that time. I just wanted to win at that time, and that was something that I’ve had in mind. First comes the driving. So, I wanted to win and I also wanted to drive. Just enjoyed the driving and enjoyed driving fast, so for a while I was mainly busy with that.
“And then of course, the element of winning was there. And after winning, you win again and again and again. At one point you start being afraid of losing. And what kept me winning was not only about the glory of winning but I was also so scared of losing. So, both of these kept me going.
“And then I came to a point where I was questioning: ‘Am I going to do this all the time?’, and then I came to realize there is more in life than driving. Then I became involved in the ASN in Dubai, UAE, which is the club itself (ATCUAE.AE). I saw that I can give at least a home to the UAE motorsport talents when they started.
“FIA President Max Mosley supported us in the Gulf . Max Mosley was always fair. In the end, the club was re-established again. The sport went healthy again and then suddenly you can see Bahrain F1 and then Abu Dhabi F1 exist. But now that I am in this position it is also challenging. It is enjoyable.”
Q: Can you give us an idea of what your management style is and will be as FIA President?
Ben Sulayem: “I always go back to my team before I take a serious decision. I will ask different experts for their opinion. It does not mean that I will follow the solutions they suggest. But I need to know what is going on. Because what I want may not be possible to implement.
“I just have to do the right thing. Let’s say I take a decision today. I can later say I made a mistake and this is the correction, because maybe in three months’ time what was a good decision now may not be a good decision anymore. In three months, just change it, so what? It doesn’t matter. I always say it is not expensive to be nice. If I admit a mistake, it is strong leadership. It is not weak leadership
“You can make a lot of damage if you make a mistake and leave it because of your ego. In the long run, you will suffer and it will fire back on the sport, you and the federation. And no way do I want to leave this federation with something so that they say ‘he did bad’.
“Of course, you cannot be ‘Mr. Perfect’, it is impossible, but at least there is common sense. Common sense is very important and fairness too.”
Q: What values are you bringing to the sport?
Ben Sulayem: “Rallying also gave me tolerance, gave me communication with a lot of people. Meeting a lot of people. With a lot of diversity, you go rallying you meet a lot of different cultures, different religions, different races, different societies, different languages, different environment and different terrain.
“So really, it builds you up in a different way than a normal race driver who is on a circuit. Because you are only there at that circuit and then you meet the same people every time, and they are limited; it’s like playing tennis or something. So, rallying really gave me that point.
“I remember I had so many issues with what to eat and the language barrier. So, I take a pen and I draw. “I don’t eat pork” so I show them. And then I started bringing small photos with me. It shaped my current personality.”
Q: What is the “Federation International Automobile” (FIA) to you?
Ben Sulayem: Going back: “We call it ‘Federation International Automobile’.
“So, it is international, it is not limited to someone from a different region but it has to be headed by a President who is more credible, who is liked, and who can do the changes, regardless of his skin, religion or something.
“We talk about gender and diversity. I am one of the persons who has never even thought that our sport doesn’t have limitations.”
Q: Tell us about the plans to remove the barriers that has traditionally favoured men?
Ben Sulyam: “You look at go-karting, they are all there. You look at rallying, I had female co-drivers with me, but you never feel it’s a difference.
“Our discipline always allowed that. So, why do we look at it as ‘oh we allow women’? Women are present everywhere: Even in drag-racing in America, circuit racing, rallying and everywhere else.
“And when not, we should bridge to make it happen. There is this issue with F2 and F3 and women: maybe it’s physical, maybe the way the cars are built, so we said to our medical commission ‘We would like to remove this barrier’.
“But then if we remove the technical barrier and the lady drivers don’t qualify, there are no barriers. Who is eligible is up to them but there are no more any of these technical barriers … FIA removed the barrier.”
Q: At FIA, what is the state of the finances since you took over the helm from Mr Jean Todt?
Ben Sulayem: “I asked the opinion of a global management consulting firm, McKenzie & Company. The finance side is weak. I don’t see anyone intended to misuse the budget. It was negligence. We have 23 million euros for our operation. I am confident that with the right team, right approach, the right plan and a beautiful federation, we will break even within less than two years.
“Delloite and McKenzie are working on the audits to analyze and give us their thoughts. So, it is going well. But the challenges will never stop. In the first six months up to now, I would say it has been challenging.”
Q: Does FIA need to reinvent themselves and innovate?
Ben Sulayem: “One of the things that the research showed is that FIA is “old”. When you say ‘old’, of course it is ‘old’ with 117 years of existence. But not old in personnel, ‘old’ in thinking. We can’t be ‘old’ in a dynamic sport. Look at all this technology, you have to keep up with it and to upgrade all the time.”
Q: What is the “FIA manifesto” and will the FIA stick to it?
Ben Sulayem: “I do not run away from responsibility because problems will never disappear, they will only get worse. So, you go on. You listen and that is what we did in our ‘FIA manifesto’. Over 2’000 hours were invested in the manifesto, listening to members- worldwide. And when you talk to some of the members, you realize that they want nothing. They just want to be listened to.
“Some of them want more, and you have to be a person who is not just always saying yes or always saying no. You have to listen and then do the best for them. Now, we can say that FIA is a diverse federation.
“Yes, we will stick to the manifesto because I believe that is was a realistic manifesto. It was not something nice just to attract people and then it’s unachievable. It was an achievable manifesto.
“When I said we will empower people, our members are doing it, when we give high budgets for the growth of motorsports. Countries like India, China, South America and Africa are untouched.
“The countries there need affordable vehicles, especially for starters. Grassroot is not only CIK but it is also producing a cross car.
“I always say nobody can afford a go-kart program that comes from the FIA. It’s just nearly unaffordable for them and impossible. The cost of the cross-car really goes higher and higher. I was in the world cups in 2012. We were thinking of doing a cross-car that was about $8,000 and it went to $13,500. So, how to solve the situation?
“I suggested to the staff in charge to take the blueprint and give it to all of the regions in order to allow them to start ‘homemade’ competition programs. But with one unique condition: that safety regulations are implemented.
“The regions can use whatever engine. No reason to stick to one engine manufacturer. Or otherwise, it becomes a monopoly.”
Q: What does ‘diversity’ mean for the new President of FIA?
Ben Sulayem: “Diversity is, for example, when you have spotted a talent, anywhere in the world; in order to grow, they need to have the opportunity. That’s where diversity comes in. You need to given an opportunity for this talent to grow.
“Whether in Africa, in America, in South America or in Asia, and not just only the driving lane but even in being part of the FIA; and that is the development of our university now. It is possible to be joining the sport and the mobility through the life-long learning University programs.
“In the end, not everybody can be a driver. Only 20 of them are F1 drivers. But then what about the engineering side. That is where we come in. That is why we are now talking in depth with teams, to help us in getting more scholarship programs for some of the engineers.”
Q: Do you think that motorsport has a tendency to be too political?
Ben Sulayem: “Sadly, in a way yes. You try to separate sport from politics. We have it in our FIA status ‘neutrality’. But I think some people only see neutrality and governance when it suits them.
“For me, I come from that black or white world and it is very hard to do it. When it is governance, it has to be governance, when it is neutrality, it has to be neutrality. We are therefore for one reason and one reason only, and that is sports. Now you have to be political sometimes, but not really be a politician.
“Where do you have the balance? FIA should be careful not to be dragged into politics without forgetting our roots of motorsports.”
Q: What should the sport NOT become in your opinion?
Ben Sulyam: “Niki Lauda and Alain Prost only cared about driving. Now, Vettel drives a rainbow bicycle, Lewis is passionate about human rights and Norris addresses mental health. Everybody has the right to think. To me, it is about deciding whether we should impose our believes in something over the sport all the time.
“I am from an Arabian culture. I am international and Muslim. I do not impose my believes on other people? No way! Never. If you look at my operation in the UAE: 16 nationalities! Name me one federation that has that many nationalities.
“On top, there are over 34% women and 7 religions. And even more Christians than Muslims. I am proud because it creates credibility and merit.
“But do I go and pose my beliefs? No. The rules are there, even now there are issues when it comes to – for example- jewellery, I didn’t write that.”
Q: Who are the racing legends (outside of rally) from the past that you admire?
Ben Sulayem: “If you look at the drivers in Formula 1, there was a star shining in every era. Looking at the leaderboard in Formula 1, you really don’t know who will be at the top in the quali sessions. That is something really good. The championship is healthy. The regulations allowing overtaking are getting even better.”
Q: From the past, would you admire Fangio ?
Ben Sulyam: “Yes, Juan-Manuel Fangio of course! I have one regret: I was doing tests during the Argentina rally and my co-driver and Carlos Sainz told me: ‘let’s go and say hello to Fangio’. I don’t know what I was doing that day… I didn’t find time to go and see Fangio. I really regret it.
“Of course, I admire many World Champions. I enjoy communicating… with many like Kimi Raikkonen. Of course, I knew Michael Schumacher, we hope and pray he becomes better. Now, Fernando Alonso, with his age, even Lewis who is already 37.
“You see F1 does not change very much. The age of the Champions became a bit lower. Because world champions now are a bit younger. Maybe it is an over-extension because of the better understanding of the physics of the sport. Of course, I know other F1 drivers: David Coulthard for instance.”
Q: Does the FIA need to make changes?
Ben Sulayem: “Yes, we need to change our approach to motorsport. For example, I would like to see it even if something happens; what if I decide tomorrow to retire or if I don’t want to be the person in charge….
“The sport must continue without missing me. Look at the stewards, F1 is challenging. It is the pinnacle of the sport and the pinnacle of technology, and then we have to look for race directors. GPDA told me about the situation regarding the race directors.
“I was asking them to help me find the directors we need: do I go to Google or look into Amazon…. This is no overnight decision! You have to find them and you have to raise and train them. This is why I went back to the old school of rallying scheme: my co-driver and the Rallye drivers are more structured.
“Co-drivers in rallying are very structured and they are tolerant. We can go in a rotation pattern. If someone disappears because he is sick. How do we handle this? What do we do? The event stops or we put someone in charge who has nothing to do with it?
“It still works. You have a rule. But the event and the sport have to go on. We need to train them to replace. If we don’t do it now, we will have the same problem the following year. So, we are training people. We already started this with the virtual FIA race control.
“The virtual race control is now functioning from Geneva. When I went to some of the clubs, I saw this system and I wondered why we would not adapt it and develop the system at FIA.
“Of course, the FIA can do it in a different way. What are the advantages? First of all, backup for the stewards, secondly which is the main reason in my opinion: better training of the stewards.”
Q: Where do you see FIA in 5 years’ time?
Ben Sulayem: “I see the sport healthier, and dynamic. Now the challenges are different, so we need to do good changes. I just want to see it. There are certain things that I am currently not happy with.”
Q: Now that F1 is in a better shape, why do you think that F1 is successful?
Ben Sulayem: “I think it has to do with the pandemic. The pandemic affected the mentality of the people. People want to live and appreciate now that they have an extra year of living the way we are. We sometimes take things for granted. Who would have imagined that we would be locked down for so long and that people were dying from Covid? It was a nightmare.
“Now, in every country, people want to enjoy life. I feel it is a major reset in a way. I hope it does. Look, I have this sickness and I am taking this tablet. Be grateful you have that tablet, imagine our ancestors, they never had this.
“Even clean water and all of this exists. So we will just be appreciative. One positive thing is that America is also coming back.
‘There were attempts to have American drivers before, and USA GP. FIA were successful for a while, but the efforts did not succeed. And now it is coming back, Americans are different.
“At FIA, we have to combine how to keep it right and maintain also the regularity part. I am working very close with Stefano Domenicali to be both competitive and entertaining and to keep the business side to it.”
Q: In the end, does the sport have to change and upgrade to new technologies?
Ben Sulayem: “Yes, and I am proud of my FIA team. Everyone has been working hard at FIA. I have never seen deputies or head of senate members NOT working.
“If you ask: where is the Head of the FIA senate today? He is in the UK having a meeting. Where is my deputy sport? In South Africa, with the cross-car formula.
“All the members have the same hard dedication. We have to, otherwise, the FIA would be behind and the teams would be ahead of us. I cannot accept that.”
Other high-profile issues on the President’s agenda
Among the several matters in the hands of the new FIA president, there is the connection between the F1 and the world of gambling. While during Bernie Ecclestone’s tenure as president the F1 avoided any sponsorships from the gambling world, the situation changed in 2020 when a partnership was announced between 188Bet and F1 Asia.
With several new online casinos and sports betting operators fighting to secure lucrative sponsorship deals, we are wondering if the F1 will strengthen its ties with the gambling industry in the near future.