SHANGHAI, CHINA - APRIL 20: Pole position qualifier Max Verstappen of the Netherlands and Oracle Red Bull Racing, Third placed qualifier Fernando Alonso of Spain and Aston Martin F1 Team and Mohammed ben Sulayem, FIA President talk in parc ferme after qualifying ahead of the F1 Grand Prix of China at Shanghai International Circuit on April 20, 2024 in Shanghai, China. (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)

Ben Sulayem: A weak FIA suits no one, we can’t stop developing

SHANGHAI, CHINA - APRIL 20: Pole position qualifier Max Verstappen of the Netherlands and Oracle Red Bull Racing, Third placed qualifier Fernando Alonso of Spain and Aston Martin F1 Team and Mohammed ben Sulayem, FIA President talk in parc ferme after qualifying ahead of the F1 Grand Prix of China at Shanghai International Circuit on April 20, 2024 in Shanghai, China. (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)

In a wide-ranging and exclusive interview during the 2024 Chinese Grand Prix weekend, Federation Internationale de l’Automobile (FIA) President Mohammed Ben Sulayem was bullish about Formula 1’s governing body he leads.

Topics tackled ranged from the state of FIA finances through to progress made under his watch this far, and obstacles encountered under his leadership, now 136 months into his tenure at the helm of the Federation.

Ramadan this past month meant Ben Sulyam was not in the F1 paddock since the Saudi Grand Prix weekend. In China, the President was back. Available for select interviews. Dapper as always, energised to be back in the F1 paddock and happy to speak passionately about his job, its pitfalls, his goals and a bout of self-assessment. All with little restraint.

In an exclusive interview with GrandPrix247 and AFP in Shanghai this past weekend, Ben Sulayem said: “I’m very pleased with FIA today, we are going to a healthier platform. Our finances are better and better. I don’t know if you followed up with our statement. It’s the first time in the FIA, the first time ever in the history of 120 years that we finished our audit.”

At the end of 2021, when Ben Sulayem took over the presidency of the FIA from his predecessor Jean Todt. The incumbent and his team discovered an ill-organised Federation, mired in debt and a product of decades of mismanagement. Deep cleansing was required.

Ben Sulayem revealed: “We came from over 20-million [euros] deficit in our operating costs to less than 2.5-million. And how do you reduce this gap? By making sure the money is invested right, by making sure that there is income coming in and by making sure there is no waste.

“We can’t stop developing the FIA, I said it before and I will say it again: It suits no one in the world of motorsport that the FIA becomes weak. Our strength is their strength,” insisted Ben Sulayem.

Ben Sulayem: It’s not a job for me, it’s a responsibility

Mohammed bin Sulayem, Geniel De Villiers and Lucas Moraes are seen during the rest day of Rally Dakar2023 in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia on January 09, 2023 // Marcelo Maragni / Red Bull Content Pool // SI202301090260 // Usage for editorial use only //

From a wealthy Emirati family, and rich in his own right, 62-year-old Ben Sulayem was the founder and President of the ATCUAE, which in essence was a national version of what the FIA is across the globe. Anything motoring from sport to transport, was under his organisation’s remit in the UAE since 2005.

That year he became the UAE’s representative at the FIA and the connection forged then has led to the top job in international motoring and motorsport, namely the FIA President.

What does the Presidency mean to Ben Sulayem? He ventured: “It’s not a job for me, it’s a responsibility. I haven’t been appointed I’ve been elected to do my best, to try to make the right decisions. It’s easy to be maybe, it’s difficult to be a President. Not very easy.

“The biggest challenge is to be a leader. It’s different. And to make the right decisions. I make mistakes, but I correct them straight away and that’s part of my journey. I was elected to safeguard and to promote the sport and to be fair,” Ben Sulayem pointed out.

The conversation turned to the astounding news events that have rocked the F1 world more than once this year, from Lewis Hamilton’s sensational move to Ferrari, to the re-signing of Fernando Alonso to Aston Martin.

And, of course, the chance of Max Verstappen ditching Red Bull on a winning streak for Mercedes on a losing streak.

Ben Sulayem: I’m overwhelmed by the support of the members

SHANGHAI, CHINA - APRIL 21: Mohammed ben Sulayem, FIA President, Oracle Red Bull Racing Team Principal Christian Horner, Yao Ming and Stefano Domenicali, CEO of the Formula One Group, talk on the grid prior to the F1 Grand Prix of China at Shanghai International Circuit on April 21, 2024 in Shanghai, China. (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)

“Rumours!” declared Ben Sulayem. “I tell you what if there were not so many rumours… the interest in F1 would go down. The media have to create this. Otherwise, fans would be bored.

“Take my example. Look at me, the media try to massacre me and assassinate me. It is unnecessary but I am standing tall. When there are issues, it is good to look into them, when there are lies and fabricated rumours… not in our sport.

“At the end of the day, the sport needs fairness. You know what I have been through in the last two years. It is like a rotation every year. And then what? What is left of these rumours and fabrications?

“I am active. Look at the support. Go on the FIA website. I am overwhelmed by the support of the members. One thing people have to understand: It is the [FIA] members who put me here, it is not the media, nor the drivers, nor the F1 teams.

“I am saying that in a very humble way. I was not elected to bother about their opinion. I care about what was promised in the manifesto, the manifesto that I approved and I am more than happy to be challenged, did I deliver or not.

“But I was convicted in the court of public opinion. It was not even a question I went through all of this for six weeks in front of the ethics committee. The commission members did their job. The president is not above the law. If we don’t like our system, we improve the system. But we never break it.”

As for his detractors, Ben Sulayem raised the question: “Who are they? They don’t have the courage and the guts to come to me. I can stand tall and look you in the eyes, as a sportsman for 40 years, there are rules that I respect. If I did not respect the rules, I would not be here.

He added somewhat cryptically: “I know who is behind it but I can’t say…”

FIA members rallied in support of the President they elected

ben sulayem fia f1

Now well into the second half of his four-year term as FIA President, Ben Sulayem gave the following assessment: “I’m proud, very proud. Who do I answer to? The FIA members. Their answer was to send letters of support. I am overwhelmed by the positives from our Members.

“When the bull is being stuck…in an arena, the torero and the spectators leave. The members came around me and protected me. I am very proud of that. I must have done something good. I looked at the FIA manifesto, what I promised and what we achieved. If I did not look closely at the finances we would not be there any more. It is a very serious matter, we have salaries to pay…”

Regarding future areas to work on, Ben Sulayem said: “I would like to improve the access of members to the FIA, the growth of motorsport at grassroots level and improve the reach of the FIA to other regions in
Asia, Africa, and the Americas.

“The FIA is not there to please the President, the FIA is not there to please promotors, the FIA is there to serve the members. Start with them. It’s simple once you serve them, the President will be happy,” Ben Sulayem insisted while pointing out that “never one” his predecessors, Jean Todt, Max Mosley, and Jean Marie Balestre, was “a member of a [FIA] club” nor elected through the membership ranks.

Invariably talk of a second term was touched on and it is clear Ben Sulayem has long-term plans to stay in the President’s office: “I am more than happy to challenge anyone if I need to. Whether we like it or not we have to work together which is the best for all the business. Of course, the media hates peace. what do they write about? They need something to write about.

“Do I want to stay? I will wait and see the will of our FIA members. I will never be involved in something that is not right or go in the wrong direction for the sake of dignity. As for judging myself, I’m more than happy,” concluded Mohammed Ben Sulayem, FIA President until the end of 2025 and, most likely, beyond.

(Interview by Agnes Carlier in Shanghai)