Formula 1 is never more than a chicane away from an unseemly spat as the surfacing of tensions between the sport’s custodians the FIA and its owners Liberty Media demonstrated last week.
F1 is basking in a resurgence of popularity, fuelled by the exploits of its leading actors Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen, adrenaline-sapping wheel-to-wheel racing, and an expanding fanbase driven in part by the success of Netflix’s fly-on-the-pitlane-wall series “Drive To Survive”.
Yet purported Saudi interest in adding F1 to its growing sport portfolio beyond LIV Golf and the Premier League has triggered a row that threatens to act as a damaging backdrop to the 2023 season just weeks away from the opening race in Bahrain.
It was a tweet from FIA president Mohammed Ben Sulayem on Monday that ignited Liberty Media’s indignation.
Ben Sulayem described as “an inflated price tag being put on F1” a report in Bloomberg that Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund (PIF) had tried and failed to buy F1 for $20 billion.
Despite respected F1 media outlet motorsport.com suggesting a Saudi bid was “wide of the mark” Ben Sulayem’s intervention sparked an angry response from Liberty Media.
Liberty Media and Ben Sulayem square up in the wake of statements made by him
Colorado-based Liberty Media, which took over the sports’ commercial rights holder for $4.4 billion in 2017, called Ben Sulayem’s comments “unacceptable”.
A letter seen by various media to the FIA said the remarks “overstep the bounds of both the FIA’s remit and its contractual rights”.
It came with a threat – that the FIA “may be liable” for any damage to Liberty’s value.
One senior paddock source quoted by motorsport.com suggested the letter spelt “open warfare” between the sport’s rulers and its commercial rights holder.
In his Twitter posts Ben Sulayem, a former rally driver who succeeded Jean Todt as president of the FIA in 2021, wrote that “any potential buyer is advised to apply common sense, consider the greater good of the sport and come with a clear, sustainable plan – not just a lot of money”.
He added: “It is our duty to consider what the future impact will be for promoters in terms of increased hosting fees and other commercial costs (in the event of any such sale).”
Liberty hit back in what the BBC called “a dramatic escalation in the strained relationship between F1 and the FIA that has been evident during Ben Sulayem’s 13-month presidency”.
In blunt terms, Liberty told the FIA chief to stop meddling in affairs that did not concern him
The letter, drafted by F1’s chief legal officer, pointed out that under the 100-year contract, F1 has “the exclusive right to exploit the commercial rights in the FIA F1 World Championship”.
“The FIA has given unequivocal undertakings that it will not do anything to prejudice the ownership, management and/or exploitation of those rights,” it added.
And it sent a clear message to the Saudis or any other potential suitor that the FIA has no jurisdiction over an eventual sale: “The circumstances in which the FIA would have any role in a change of control of the F1 group are very limited. Any suggestion or implication to the contrary, or that any potential purchaser of the F1 business is required to consult with the FIA, is wrong.”
The week’s clash, whilst by far the most serious, comes after a series of rifts between the two bodies since Ben Sulayem assumed his role as the sport’s regulator-in-chief.
Among these was the FIA’s handling of the last lap drama of the 2021 season in Abu Dhabi where Verstappen controversially ended up champion over Hamilton, an apparent initial blocking of more sprint races this campaign, and the publishing of the record 23-race calendar without F1’s knowledge.
The row has evoked memories of the stand-off between Bernie Ecclestone, F1’s former ringmaster and the FIA under Jean Jean-Marie Balestre in the 1980s.
Whatever happens, F1 followers will be hoping the flames are doused on this particular issue so that the only sparks flying in F1 come March are from cars negotiating chicanes.
As the guns turn toward him in what has the smell of ‘war’ the FIA and its president have the next move, or rather: we await the next salvo from 8 Place de la Concorde, will it be hostile or shall we see a white flag waved by Ben Sulayem? Unlikely, so watch this space!