The saga was dumped on Ben Sulayem’s plate before he even took office. Since then the FIA’s first non-European President has had to rebuild and realign the organisation to his vision. With stumbling blocks along the way, as he tackled issues that many felt were not his to deal with, and opening cupboards most wanted to be kept shut, so to speak.
Resentment grew in the F1 paddock, and it was only a matter of time before the contentious statement he made, namely that he does “not like women who think they are smarter than men, for they are not in truth” surfaced in an archived version of his personal site, dredged up by British media – which is largely the PR arm for the country’s F1 interests and power within the sport – who lapped up the sensation.
At the time, the FIA were adamant the statement did not reflect Ben Sulayem’s true beliefs. But the matter did not end there, and clearly still irks the President who was asked about the allegations during an interview with PA Media: “What did I say, if I said it?
“Let’s assume it was (me). I tell you exactly what it said. It says: ‘I hate when women think they are smarter than us’ but they hate when men think they are smarter than them. Did I say we are smarter? No. Did I say they are less smart? No.
“For God’s sake, if that is the only thing they have against me, please be my guest, you can do worse than that. People can go back and see what has been said, and if I have said anything against women. In 117 years of the FIA, I am the only president who brought in a female CEO [Natalie Robyn].”
Ben Sulayem: Don’t fabricate and throw things at me
The FIA boss continued: “I made the commission for EDI [Equality, Diversity and Inclusion], and I brought a woman in [adviser, Tanya Kutsenko]. There is disrespect to women if you say we have to have 30 per cent [female staff]. You bring them in on merit and credibility. And that is why they are there.
“Look at Bernie Ecclestone’s wife. [Fabiana Ecclestone, Vice-President for Sport in South America]. She is one of the most active. They said that I brought her in because of the support from Bernie. But Bernie doesn’t have any connection with any votes. He has no power over them.”
62-year-old Ben Sulayem remains a high-profile personality on Grand Prix weekends, the racer in him cannot avoid the limelight and his presence on TV which subliminally lets people know who’s the boss.
Ben Sulayem, whose son Saif was killed in a road accident in March, was not done: “The attack on me earlier this year was inhuman, with the tragedy that I had. I would love that if I did these things that I was accused of, you sit with me, challenge me and confront me.
“But don’t fabricate and throw things at me, and then when I tell you to prove it, you run away and don’t come back. That is not the way,” insisted Ben Sulayem.
Ben Sulayem: I am doing the right thing
Two years into his reign, the FIA is not the same organisation now as the one Todt left behind for his successor. Many key players have left and others are now on the field, and it’s fair to say the FIA is far more ‘visible’ on the F1 landscape of late.
With regards to the bad press he attracted and asked if he was being targeted and why, Ben Sulayem replied: “Yes. Because I am doing the right thing. Imagine in my campaign, in Europe, that someone said to me: ‘Don’t ever think we will accept our president of the FIA to be an Arab Muslim with the name of Mohammed’.
“I laughed because I knew how to beat him – by winning. But my Christian team were so upset with him. I said, ‘No, leave it, please, this is something I expect from them’. But can we go back to work? And work for the passion that we love, which is motorsport, and improve it?”
The 2021 Abu Dhabi debacle was the result of a multitude of storms brewing in F1 as an apparently disinterested Todt marked time before he had handed over the FIA keys to Ben Sulayem. The storms gathered into one massive imperfect Michael Masi storm that forever tarnished that night at Yas Marina.
Too much has been written about how Lewis Hamilton was denied an eight title and Max Verstappen ‘gifted’ his first. A bitter wedge was driven between the two driver camps and for some pathetic folks they simply cannot forget.
Michael Masi and Abu Dhabi were Jean Todt’s farewell ‘gifts’ to his successor
Thus it was Ben Sulayem’s team that had to deal with the greatest mess in F1 history, which aptly summed up Todt’s inadequate rule of the FIA, and acknowledged “human error” after which Masi was sent packing.
Ben Sulayem recalled the chaos he walked into at the FIA: “I cannot apologise for something which was done before my time. OK, I will make the apology, but I will bring Michael Masi again. Do you think that is right?
“The poor guy is a person who has been attacked and abused. Michael Masi went through hell. Hell! And if I see there is an opportunity that the FIA needs and Michael Masi is the right person, I will bring him.
“I even had people threatening me to kill me because I had the power to change [the result]. But I said to them: Sorry, the World Cup of 1966, England against Germany, was that correct? Did they change it? No. Did they give it to Germany? Nein.”
According to his bio on the FIA website, Ben Sulayem is a 14-time Middle East Rally Champion in a driving career that spanned nearly two decades of driving from 1983 until 2002. Winning 61 international events as a driver from 1983 to 2002.
His roles in the FIA included: Vice President for Sport and Member of the World Motor Sport Council (2008-201 3 and 2017-2021); Founding Member of ACTAC; Chair of ACTAC (2012-2021); Vice President for Automobile Mobility and Tourism (2013-2017); Member of the Innovation Fund Steering Committee (2017-2021); FIA President (since 2021)