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SPIELBERG, AUSTRIA - JULY 08: Pole position qualifier Max Verstappen of the Netherlands and Oracle Red Bull Racing talks with Mohammed ben Sulayem, FIA President, in parc ferme during qualifying ahead of the F1 Grand Prix of Austria at Red Bull Ring on July 08, 2022 in Spielberg, Austria. (Photo by Bryn Lennon/Getty Images)

Ben Sulayem: I was elected to serve not to be served

SPIELBERG, AUSTRIA - JULY 08: Pole position qualifier Max Verstappen of the Netherlands and Oracle Red Bull Racing talks with Mohammed ben Sulayem, FIA President, in parc ferme during qualifying ahead of the F1 Grand Prix of Austria at Red Bull Ring on July 08, 2022 in Spielberg, Austria. (Photo by Bryn Lennon/Getty Images)

FIA President Mohammed Ben Sulayem and Agnes Carlier sat down earlier this month for an exclusive and wide-ranging interview, where they discussed matters relating to his term heading up Formula 1’s Governing Body.

Two years packed with turmoil from the day he stepped into the office vacated by Jean Todt, inheriting a labouring behemoth of an organisation amid the highly volatile 2021 season finale in Abu Dhabi, his first challenge on a road packed with them ever since, from the questioning of F1’s value when Saudi Arabia was said to be tabling a bid for the sport; the whole  F1 driver jewellery saga; F1 race direction and on a personal note, the tragic loss of his son earlier this year.

Below is one of the first interviews given by President Ben Sulayem since his loss:

Q: Do you feel established now as a President of the FIA?

MBS: After one year and five months… It’s a long journey. It is a marathon. I really do not look at it that way. I look that there is always work to do in the FIA in developing the sport and growing it. So, the work never ends. It’s an ongoing thing. It’s really a marathon.

Q: Is the sport where you want it to be? Or not yet?

MBS: No, not yet. Of course, I wish it was. If it takes a year to do that, then you’d go into something else… The challenge is every time. When you are FIA, you are the regulator or the custodian, you are responsible for so many things. And it’s not easy.

The responsibility is to be dealing with regulations that are always evolving, always changing. The challenges change every time. Even if you look at the broad picture: It is the economy, it’s the political issues, it’s the economical issues, it’s the technologies and the electronics. The challenges are always there. And we cannot also be just reactive and wait for the challenge to go.

When we have free time we go out and look: Where is the area that we can improve? You know very well, that the nature of our sport is not like any other sport. One small discipline and the regulation is by far more complex than in any other sport you see. Look at the regulation for a go-kart. When spectators look at it, they see a machine driven by young drivers. But when you look at it, in detail, there are regulations for engines, geometry, fuel, emission… all of this.

And then you look at the track, and you see the challenges, and there too, it is an ongoing challenge. Not only for me but for the team of the FIA.

Q: If I say a word like “diversity”, has diversity progressed?

MBS: Yes, yes. If we look at the officer for diversity at FIA. She has been in touch with all of the clubs. When it comes to our initial project or when it comes to our educational side of it. And then when it comes to the pathway of race directors for instance or stewarding.

At the FIA, we do not just go and rely on one source, we have to be engaging with our members. And that is where diversity comes in. We should not only speak about diversity and do as if we do, not really act…. I am happy with that side of it.

Q: Are you happy with the new “day-to-day” organisation at FIA?

MBS: Yes, I am happy with what we have been doing in the last year. I mean, if you look at me, I was getting involved in all of these small things.

Why? Because I wanted to know in detail what are the needs of the FIA. Where are we weak? And if you don’t engage with these things, I wouldn’t know.

I cannot sit in my chair and say I’m the president and everything will be okay. It doesn’t work like this.
So, we restructured for instance. We have been restructuring the single-seater setup. Now, it is much better than before. I am not the one who is just getting phone calls from everyone about results. We have to respect the results of the stewards or the results of the technical departments. And once you give them a new trust, they update the regulations and they go into areas where we haven’t been before.

Now, as a team, you know where to go. You don’t have to come to the president. Now, teams go straight away to the department and see if they have an issue. But it takes time. To tell you the truth, we work very well with FOM. And that’s why we have Steve (Nielsen) [Sporting Director]. I mean, he came from there.

It’s just, it’s a message that people always like to have to trigger an action if there is a problem. The issues will always be there, even in a small family, but it’s for the best of the sport. You see, having Steve Nielsen there, is a plus. It took time. We brought him in for the best of the sport. We are shaping our single-seater program. I’m very happy with that because it is the spinal cord.

Before it was a bit hollow. I was worried if something happens, we need to be ready for it, to be reactive is not what we want in a dynamic sport. We need to be proactive.

Q: Are more teams bidding for entry into Formula 1? They have till the first of June to place an application. There are two or even three teams who want to place an application… what can you tell us?

MBS: There are a few teams wanting to come in. We are happy that they express interest. We have been working with FOM and with Stefano Domenicali [Formula 1 CEO]. That’s very important to do due diligence.

And they realize that the FIA is also one of the main partners in that. And we both agree that having a team or a new team… we cannot really force big teams to say yes or no. It’s up to them. I mean, you see what we already did: That was a transition that they went for it.

Q: Do you understand the concern of the existing F1 teams?

MBS: I can see the questions of the team. It is something important. We at FIA have also this concern. You know, when you’re talking about the expression of interest, I mean, there are still regulations there and we cannot shut the application down and say no, because we have another choice and we cannot also say no to them if they fulfil the application. So really, I understand the other teams’ concerns when it comes to another team. Also we’re not breaking the rules.

And I would expect them to understand our position when it comes to that also. That’s the way we can go forward together. You see. As I said, I understand, but also I’m sure they will understand our position. One thing that I will not do is break the rules.

Q: Honda has just made their presence known for 2026. How many more engines would you expect to be in F1?

MBS: We have six manufacturers. With more engine makes, you will have a much more accessible sport and we talk about the prices going down.

Q: The big dream of having prices going down…

MBS: Yes. Is it the solution? Is it what we are talking about? If you have to decide on a number, is it 10? But is this the solution? You really don’t know, some of the teams will not like it.

But as we have currently now, I am happier that we will not be exposed and they will not be like that teams get less, for they don’t get what they want. Aston Martin went through a lot to get to Honda. And it’s good to see. Another thing that six or 60% , that’s sufficient.

Q: How do you assess the competitiveness? And the health of Formula 1? How do you assess the effectiveness of Formula 1?

MBS: The sport is very healthy. If we see the commercial side, nobody would say it’s not healthy. It is going from strength to strength. FOM and the teams also understand very much, that the FIA is trying their best when it comes to the spirit of the sport.

To keep it, there is no doubt about the commercial side of it, no doubt about the money, no doubt about the competition and no doubt about the entertainment side. Our position is strong. FIA is healthier for the future. A strong FIA is working hand in hand with them. We have issues all the time. That’s normal.

Imagine a world where it’s perfect. Where is that? Even in movies, we don’t see it. It’s true. When you say give me a mean. We are used to it now. For instance, when it comes to results or points. The system in place is the one that they have chosen. The teams are the ones who choose the system and proofed with us the system of the points. Then you see them not happy about it in Japan when it was raining. But FIA did not implement that out of the blue… It went through the teams; they approved it for FIA. So, why then do they blame anyone else? That’s the truth. We will get used to it.

Q: How is the WEC actually?

MBS: It is having many manufacturers. The more manufacturers, then the more difficult is the competition and then the more competition and the more political issues… again. But I feel that we are on the right track. It is going from strength to strength.

Q: What are the challenges?

MBS: There are two types of challenges. One of them is to grow motorsport in other parts of the world, we have to make it affordable. And in the other part of the work, it only helps motorsport in general. But at the end of the day, it’s motorsport.

Motorsport is about our fans also, and making the sport accessible to the fans, allowing them to access affordable motorsport, this is what we are doing. I know it’s taking a bit too long. I am coming from motorsport myself and sometimes I get frustrated about delay. We are going into many other aspects, tyres, braking… People don’t see that the heavier the car, the more consumption of tires and brakes if you go with a heavier car… I believe that both the combustion chamber production and the electric, or hybrid utilize the same brakes and tyres, but a bit more heavier pegs because of the heavier weight.

So, our challenge is the same. And that’s where if we combine our forces I believe that we are on the right track, I would prefer to be much, much faster. But really, these are the challenges. And motorsports have to be appealing to the fans.

Q: Online abuse?

MBS: One thing that we are now fighting is online abuse. I mean, this is the biggest problem. I get support from other federations like FIFA, the IOC and the EU, and from other big companies that are into social media. If we don’t really work together and unify our forces, our sport will be damaged beyond repair.

It’s coming to the point where stewards ask why they should give their time, as a volunteer, when fans go and accuse. You know very well what happened to our stewardess: She was abused. And if I didn’t take a step, honestly, FIA will end up saying thank you very much… Our well-being is more important.

As the President of FIA and as a person, I care about every single person when it comes to motorsport. That’s my duty. And unless we do something… FIA looked at AI – artificial intelligence. I remember that last year before the General Assembly (from October until December, which is less than two months – precisely seven weeks), we blocked 3400 abuses in our area.

And we work together with you. Our sport relies on volunteers at the end of the day. If we do not really take it seriously in their pyramid… then what if the volunteers just say they are not coming? Then we would have no race. As simple as this. If we don’t do something now, it will be worse in the future. And I believe that we are doing the right thing.

Q: WRC has a little bit of a crisis… Because the regulation was not firmly established, and the manufacturers didn’t know if the sport continues or not.

MBS: As you know, rallying is very dear to me. The best people are working on it. The Deputy is Robert Reed who is from rallying. I consult with the teams. We have some plans. We are also trying to get more manufacturers in the sport. I believe WRC can do better. I believe that.

Formula 1 took a lot of my time in my first year of mandate. Now, I can see the results coming. I have a bit of free time to make sure to take care of rallying. I have no doubt. Soon, we will come up with the new regulations. We are studying the current regulations.

Q: Now Cyril Abitboul (Hyundai) was a bit worried about the commercial point of view of WRC. Now rally is a theme like .. for the old people. The young people don’t care about the rally, you are pro-rally. So how would you attract the young audience to the rally?

MBS: It’s more than just that. I believe that, therefore, I should take more decisions. Ideas about how to involve new young people is a must.

So, we have to go on and make sure the stars are well known. Your point about young people in rallying is a must.
Maybe we should learn something from Formula 1. And you know, that and some other discipline that it is at the end of the day, like Netflix.

I met some of people who said to me last week something very interesting… They said to me that they never watched any races. But now they said after three years. I’m watching F1 because of Netflix. We should make sure that with the right promoters, we should get this discipline attractive.

I was impressed. Really impressed. Because they said it was because of Netflix. And I know the characters and they need it as a theme. You see. So, we should look into running to appeal and making sure that with the right local promoter and the right organizer, we can have it appealing in the United States.

Is the WRC Okay? We should have the rally-style which is just right for the sport.

Q: We saw the king of Malaysia in the paddock. How do you see an extension for Asia and Middle East in Formula 1?

MBS: I met with the king of Malaysia. The King came to our hospitality. And we met and we expressed that we have the FIA Asian Games, which will be organised in Malaysia this year. We have about 23 clubs and as sporting authorities from around and we have to expect over 100 drivers to be involved.

I personally am concerned about the whole of FIA Malaysia. It is not only Malaysia. Malaysia itself is not a stranger when it comes to Formula 1. One of the best Formula 1 races took place there. They have a beautiful circuit. I am very happy now that the sporting power is back (AAM) after about four years of problems.

Q: Let’s talk about China, China was left out of the calendar like – three years.

MBS: We have had many meetings in sports and mobility. I feel we did not scratch the surface. China is a very important player to the FIA.

Last year, China was off the Formula 1 calendar due to the COVID. Chinese are very clear about that. And I do respect the way they act, We are working hand in hand. I am not talking about F1 only. I’m also talking about mobility, which also works in harmony with the sport. And I am talking about one of the biggest, if not the biggest, countries and manufacturers. So, we can learn together.

We are hoping to establish a regional in China. FIA has a regional office in Brussels, why not have it in China, because China is a hub for manufacturers that can benefit the sport and mobility together. Our plan with China is more for a long-term plan than just something short-term like bringing the Formula One race.

It’s only a matter of time. I’m very impressed with the way they go through the steps and with the FIA. And they are always there, at the top table with us, they are in the World Council. The Chinese representatives are in the Senate.

So, they are there. They just need a bit of guidance. They need us to partner with them. The process is on the way in China. You have to respect the way the Chinese are doing.

Q: Are you fully happy with the way FIA has moved since you are in charge and where do you see the FIA in Five years?

MBS: I am happy. The results that I can see are by far better than when I came. I can see also our team is very positive. The team has realised that the FIA exist. Stefano Domenicali knows that he wants a stronger regulator like FIA.

They want a stronger FIA because they see FIA as a regulator. This is a huge championship. Who would invest in a championship that is not being regulated? With a strong body?

No way. It would not help anyone if the FIA is weak. But the challenge is there. I believe in the investment that we did when I’m saying that investment is not a financial investment but also investing our time with our team. Finding a good team is not easy. But I am confident that we are on the right track. You get some turbulence around. I imagine that if there were no turbulence, it would be boring.

One thing that we can say is that you can see the action and we will not stop reading that the FIA is behind all of this; one person said to me. Now they’re blaming the new President for everything. He said he wouldn’t be surprised if they blame him for the assassination of Kennedy…

Or we might even hear that the new FIA President is the one behind the COVID issue and he’s behind the war somewhere…. It is always easy to place the blame.

They accuse you of something even if they can’t find the proof on that. It comes with being a President. If you don’t accept this, don’t be a President!

Q: In your point of view is the FIA responsibility more than what you expected?

MBS: No, I never expected it to be easy, because I don’t like easy things. That’s me. And easy things are boring. And to bring the FIA to where I want to have it is along endurance trip. Believe me, it is a long marathon. But I am happy with the results. Maybe, I wish it is faster, because I come from motorsport and faster is better in the sport.

But then you know, you get locked by, by legal, but the legal is not there against me, the legal is there to protect me. So, I have to understand one thing they said to me. At the end of the day, it doesn’t take anything against anyone. Everybody’s trying to do his job. So, when it comes to that I look at it much further.

Where do I see myself in 10 years? I am healthy. I’ll be doing something that I know that I need to be doing. It’s a plan, and then I stick to it. Of course, that plan might change, you will know very well when you are executing it for better or worse. But definitely, we are on the right track.

Definitely, the sport needs attention. It’s good to fix the relationship with F1 because FIA needs to strengthen each department, you cannot be just trying to be reactive to how big and important is Formula 1.

Where does it go? Now? I mean, if you do something straight away,

Look at our virtual Race Control, it’s working, we are improving it. It helps us a lot. We don’t have the small incidents that were happening before. Yes, we take the responsibility. One thing you’ll see, I’ve never run away from any issue I face. And I will be the first one to raise my hand and say yes, I will take the blame for my team. I’m more than happy to do that.

Q: So the team feels protected?

MBS: Yes. So, I take it. I said: Okay, we did, but we’ll fix the relationships. And there are reports, as you see, where every time there was a problem, there is a report – straight away. It takes time. It really takes time to set the new culture.

And I’d say one thing, the difference? The difference between me and the three previous presidents. No one of them came from a member club. It is a culture. I think, as a member, I think as a sportsman, I have been elected to serve. Not to be served. I enjoy making them happy. I am happy. I was elected to serve not to be served.
So, I enjoy making them happy. I enjoy answering them.

And now I am happy also that, that our new Secretary General is acting. And I was very clear. When they elected me I said one thing I will emphasize that I would like to see a list that you take the books and you call the members.

And believe me, if you talk to them, members are very easy people, they just want someone to talk to them.
Communication is important. And what they need in this region is different than in other regions. I guarantee you that even neighbouring countries, you will see different needs for them.

So really, I’m happy with the new Secretary General, he is dynamic and he is young. He comes from motorsport. He understands the culture of the members. So, it’s good but it’s a long way to go. The only thing I would also always say to myself that I will have to enjoy a collaboration with like IOC.

Q: You talk about a collaboration?

MBS: We are members and that is why we have the drivers commission. They have like a virtual sports, including the model. So, that’s why we have the drivers’ commission, but we want more than that. It’s not just the young people. But we are working now and I am activating that, to have a meeting with the President of the IOC, and then go through the future of us together working, which I believe it’s doable. What you mentioned is full electric karting for youth. And we are targeting that also. But we have to start working and start working and it should be also with a team, a proper team that will go forward. So, I am optimistic.

Q: Okay, so do you see the future maybe like cardio, you can do like one make or a little bit like, maybe like bicycle, or something in the Olympics?

MBS: Yes, that’s what we want. But we have to go through the process of consulting with them of listening and then producing. I’m putting a team together to handle that. But our target is that we have the youth driving fully electric cars. When it comes to electric cars, we have to be also very careful that it comes from a legal source.

Q: Where did you reach with the engine development?

MBS: I believe that the engine development is different. The issue at the time was also the brakes. The brakes and the tyres are worse than the engine now.
When you look at the electric car, the combustion or the hybrid, they all use tyres and they use brakes. So, to them, it is an issue and the more weight you put because of the batteries and the end is the more you’re consuming.

Q: So we must discuss one other key point for the new teams

MBS: At the end of the day, we have to make sure that it is not just a closed circuit that we open to big teams. So now with the PU, there was only one or two at the start and we will have six. I’m really happy the way it goes.
Because now the PU manufacturers can see I mean even the teams and for me that whatever is done.

I don’t do it for me I do it for the sport. And that will take time to know the way of dealing with our new systems. If you go back you’ll see the changes that are different from the previous ones, but that doesn’t mean it’s better. Now, it’s just different: Times change.