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ben sulayem

Inside Line: Ben Sulayem doing it his way at what peril?

ben sulayem

It’s been 77 days since I wrote my last Inside Line! First, before we talk racing let’s tackle the biggest talking point of the moment ahead of the 2023 Formula 1 World Championship season – Mohammed Ben Sulayem.

First, the lack of Inside Lines is lamentable, as the stories are stacked in my brain but no way to get them to my fingertips when it matters. Call it burnout from these long seasons… by the end of November the mind was willing but the gas tank was empty if you know what I mean. Enough excuses, here we go again!

What would Formula 1 be without politics? And boy since Ben Sulayem became FIA President, there has hardly been a dull day for our sport, with fires of controversy dotting today’s landscape at the highest level of motorsport.

The Emirati inherited a ship anchored in the harbour of complanceny, that was the FIA under his predecessor Jean Todt, and has since the new President has been plugging the holes, changing the crew, getting his own people to the helm at 8 Place de la Concorde and, as is well documented, making waves, of the tidal kind in our sport.

To sum him up: an undoubted petrolhead, Ben Sulayem loves the sport and the limelight as much, which he tends to milk with his position. If you have been around him, you will know he is always quick with an opinion, or quip on anything motorsport related, he is also not shy to take on the heavy-hitters.

From drivers with their jewelry last year, now their free speech rights, and then of course, irking F1 owners Liberty Media to the point they have taken offense publically.

And therein lies the rub, the manner in which Liberty responded triggered what could be the start of a war with Ben Sulayem, his reaction we await.

The sabre rattling began last month when the FIA chief took control of the script when he questioned the $20-billion valuation of F1 amid reported Saudi flirtations, and then brazenly brought up the ‘hush-hush’ FIA-FOM 100-year F1 commercial rights lease that Bernie Ecclestone construed with his great pal and FIA President in 2001, Max Mosley. A meager $300-million was the price tag that ultimately separated F1’s commercial and regulatory activities, the latter remaining in the control of the FIA. Bernie getting the big-bucks side of the deal.

As a side note, talking of documents, it was telling that the FIA tweeted photos of old FIA documents from the organization’s vast archives, signaling to all who saw the Twitter post that the current regime are leaving no stone unturned.

Is there a message in it, one could ask? A ‘you search about me and we will search about you’ warning. It’s the kind of stuff that springs to mind as we chomp popcorn and watch this intriguing saga unfold.

Ben Sulayem’s rivals dug out sexist quotes attributed to him which did the rounds on various websites. ‘It was a long time ago’ was the message from the FIA, the boss has since shown his true colours, namely empowering women.

Clearly, Ben Sulayem is not afraid to battle on multiple fronts, suggesting he has nothing to hide, because in this kind of battle, under the bright spotlights of our keyboards, the digging will be deep and relentless by his detractors.

This week the FIA this week announced the official launch of the application process for new F1 teams to participate at the highest level of motorsport. Now, we all know none of the ten teams wants this to happen and (oddly) F1 chief Stefano Domenicalli is on their side.

That’s a lot of action from different fronts, what next is on the FIA agenda?

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A quick audit of the current state of affairs shows that the FIA President has ignited what could be a mighty battle with Liberty Media; at the same time drivers are not going to stay muzzled, and teams are going to be fuming if Andretti Global gets a ticket to ride in F1; no secret Ben Sulayem has been coaching the Michael Andretti on how to get the boxes of acceptance ticked.

That’s at least three explosive situations that are gathering steam, only time will tell if they will explode or be diffused somehow.

Be sure that the delusional calls for Ben Sulayem to be replaced are farcical. He was elected by heads of auto associations around the globe and guaranteed that those who voted him into power – from an FIA delegate perspective – are fully behind their President. They see him putting the FIA back where it belongs, with a new set of dentures. A vote is well cast, according to more than one source.

Believe me, Ben Sulayem has the support of elected FIA delegates, so much so a second term is a mere formality unless his opponents can conjure an alternative candidate – David Richards is being bandied about as a lackey for their cause.

Richards is a big name in the sport if you’re British, but it won’t be that simple. First, who will fund the campaign? Mohammed’s war chest is formidable. Furthermore, winning over the British media and getting support from ten teams and F1 is one thing, getting 203 delegates to vote for you is another altogether, it takes decades of schmoozing.

For the record, to succeed Todt as president, Ben Sulayem received 61,62% of the votes from FIA Member Clubs to, British sports barrister, Graham Stoker’s 36,62% and abstentions were 1,76%.

From the outside looking in, unless I am missing a blatant trick, it is hard to fault Ben Sulayem’s prying into the archives of the organisation he leads and finding that $300-million, 100-year-deal that Max and Bernie struck.

That document is sure to ring alarm bells for anyone wanting to clean up shop in an organisation such as the FIA. Not questioning it would be a dereliction of duty on any President’s part (no matter who) as it is the largest elephant in the room F1 has.

Ben Sulayem enjoys the cameras as Presidents tend to do, but is it to his detriment?

Ben Sulayem: Our house isn't on fire

However, it is the manner in which Ben Sulayem is going about his business that raises eyebrows. Airing dirty laundry is noble, but in this age of social media disinformation and poison, one has to ask if the whole saga, with Liberty Media, could not be resolved amicably, behind closed doors.

Then it has to be asked how important is it really to be muzzle F1 drivers in an official capacity?

But the FIA President enjoys the sound of his own voice and likes to have access to the social media ‘microphone’ in a Trump-ish manner, notable Ben Sulayem also uses Twitter as a voice to the people, and that too has bitten him.

Years ago in Dubai, Ben Sulayem built the Automobile & Touring Club of the UAE (ATCUAE) like a mini-FIA, controlling most things automotive in the country, including motorsport.

In retrospect, one could say it was his dress rehearsal before he took his show global. In the UAE – where he is virtually untouchable, a step down from a Sheikh –  he built the ATCUAE in an autocratic ‘my way or the highway’ manner. Nothing stood in his way because that’s how it works there.

But on the world stage, the rules of engagement are vastly different, less lopsided, every move is scrutinised, and of course, far more vicious than he ever experienced empire-building at home. From now on there is nowhere for anyone to hide and accountability essential.

As for Ben Sulayem’s endgame, his slogan seems to be to ‘Make The FIA Great Again’ and in this high-profile process bolster himself too, because that’s how he is wired. Simple. Unstoppable object versus unmovable wall springs to mind.

I admit, even from the little I know, I don’t see Mr. Prez backing down on issues he puts out there; I am assuming that this is well thought through with his team at the FIA. And that’s why there will be an 11th team by 2026. Maybe a 12th?

How the other flashpoints (Mo vs drivers; Mo vs Liberty; Mo vs Whoever Is Next) end up, is anyone’s guess but be sure that the manner in which he goes about his leadership of the FIA won’t change. How he handles the landmines that are likely to be set in his path remains to be seen.

Ben Sulayem’s detractors have been present throughout his career, from his rally days to the present

Why do race fans doubt Mohammed Ben Sulayem as new FIA president?

Make no mistake Ben Sulayem has his detractors, from those of long ago who question the manner of his rally victories during his time as a serial winning driver, a career in which he was a 14-time FIA Middle-East Rally champion, peaking in the late 1980s through the 1990s.

There are those, some big deals in UAE motorsport, who accuse him of taking credit when credit was not due him for motorsport projects as well as critics that suggest Ben Sulayem does what’s best for Ben Sulayem; and of course, they all point to his giant ego.

Currently, depending on who you ask, since he took control of the FIA, the feedback is contradictory: there is dissent in Paris, a President on the loose pushing his own agenda and seldom present at the FIA HQ – unsubstantiated.

Others tapped up for inside info claim the opposite, a new broom is sweeping clean, deadwood is being ejected, unity and sense of purpose like never before with a busy President asserting FIA authority where it belongs – unsubstantiated.

Unsubstantiated? Yes. No one will go on the record, which makes it difficult for us outsiders to really gauge what the mood is in the trenches of the FIA as their President carves his way through history.

In closing, whatever the case, I have no doubt that Ben Sulayem (and his team) will get a second term as FIA President without challenge, and, I for one, have yet to be fully convinced it will be a bad thing; and I will remain on the fence until there is a blatant offense, and I am not alone as our Poll below shows our readers are almost 50/50 on the subject of too much meddling. Please vote if you haven’t.

But, I could be wrong, it may be as bad as several colleagues and mates believe it is, folks whose opinions I deeply respect, think quite differently from me which illustrates how divisive Ben Sulayem’s performance at the helm of the FIA is becoming.

Only time will tell who is correct, whatever the case, the journey in 2023 is already extremely interesting, with no end in sight tbh!