Currently reading: Interview: FIA boss on his conflict with F1's commercial boom
Mohammed Ben Sulayem talks candidly about his controversies, the need for transparency, and Liberty

The adjective commonly used to characterise Mohammed Ben Sulayem’s first term as president of motorsport’s global governing body to date is ‘controversial’.

How could it fail to be, given that he took office in December 2021, amid the tumultuous fallout from the 2021 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix and the race-control decisions that changed the destiny of the Formula 1 World Championship?

That was a case of tidying up a mess not of his making. The real battle at the heart of the F1 flashpoints in Ben Sulayem’s term since is what can most generously be called ‘tension’ between the FIA as F1’s regulator and Liberty Media as F1’s commercial rights holder.

The two sides must collaborate for the best interests of the series, but even when they’re working closely together, there’s always an undercurrent of discord that has the potential to flare into all-out war if given the right ignition point. It’s well short of that today, though, with ‘frenemies’ perhaps the best way to characterise the relationship. 

As one of the key players at the heart of this, Ben Sulayem has a character best encapsulated by his determination to fight for what he sees is right for the FIA. Interviewing the 61-year-old Emirati in the FIA’s new motorhome over the Belgian Grand Prix weekend makes that very clear.

Mohamed ben sulayem press

“No, never,” says Ben Sulayem when it’s put to him that he seems unafraid of a battle with Liberty, headed by former Ferrari team principal Stefano Domenicali.

“I know where the FIA stands. Whom do I represent? The landlords, the owners of the championship.

“Yes, we leased it to Liberty Media and they’re doing a great job. I have a good relationship with them. But we have to understand where we stand. This clarity is important.

“When you look at the rules, the [new-for-2026] power units or the expression of interest [for prospective new teams], the FIA has to have the first say.”

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Ben Sulayem is a compelling speaker, one with a forceful tone that could be interpreted as confrontational to British ears. That’s misleading, but it does capture his defiance on the issues he believes matter.

He returns to the topic of due process regularly. When it comes to F1, that’s the strongest card in his hand, given that the FIA makes and polices the rules. Outside of that, the ground can be shakier.

For example, Ben Sulayem was admonished for speaking publicly about what he described as an “exaggerated” $20 billion valuation for F1 in a letter that accused him of interfering in commercial matters.

That put him on the back foot. But the principle that the regulator shouldn’t interfere in commercial matters goes both ways, and he’s now leaning heavily on the principle that Liberty should therefore steer clear of getting involved in the shaping of the rules.

Audi in f1

The biggest controversy surrounds mooted new teams bidding to join the F1 grid. Since Ben Sulayem has been president, Audi has confirmed its high-profile entry to the sport, but by buying the Sauber team (which currently competes as Alfa Romeo), yet he wants to actually expand the grid.

In February, the FIA launched an application process that F1 and the existing teams didn’t support. They insist that only a team that would add ‘“significant value” to F1 should be admitted, even with the $200 million anti-dilution fee that must now be paid into the shared pot.

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But Ben Sulayem argues that as the Concorde Agreement that binds F1 commercially permits 12 teams, newcomers can’t be totally shut out. 

He has been vocally supportive of the Andretti operation, run by Michael Andretti – son of 1970s F1 legend Mario – that’s bidding to join in partnership with General Motors.

“Our rules say if there are serious [prospective] teams, we have to open [the process],” says Ben Sulayem. “There are rules; we can’t just say no. Meanwhile, there’s a contract for 12 teams, so we have to follow the process.

“Honestly, I’m not here to upset Liberty Media, but if people think that’s upsetting them, I can pick up on people saying things about the FIA that also upsets us.

“Imagine us saying no to potential teams? We’re here to sustain motorsport. We don’t look at market share; we’re a non-profit. I don’t want any big team to take us to court and say we’ve been blocking them for the wrong reasons.

“Yes, we open the expressions of interest, we do the due diligence, we look at the financial side, technical side and we also look at where we see ourselves in years to come. If we get a [team from the] United States, that would be good. I can’t force anyone to say ‘no, you aren’t allowed unless you buy a team’.”

The timeline for a decision on this is drifting backwards. It’s a fascinating situation, because both the FIA and F1 would have to sign off on a new team. Ben Sulayem’s current choice is to either accept the application of one or more aspirants, thereby putting the ball in F1’s court, or back down.

This is symptomatic of the tension between the two sides, but it’s just one manifestation of it.

F1 cars

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The FIA oversaw the creation of the 2026 power unit rules, with a switch to a 50:50 split of ICE and electric power. Now some teams, notably Red Bull, are lobbying for an adjustment to the weighting in favour of the V6. Ben Sulayem would be open to this – but only if pursued through the right process.

Likewise, there’s the looming controversy of the cost-cap results for 2022, with rumours circulating that one or more teams overspent. Domenicali recently publicly called for sporting sanctions in such an eventuality, but that is of course the regulator’s domain.

And then there’s the issue of the next Concorde Agreement, which is already in the negotiation phase. Ben Sulayem stresses the need for a strong regulator and the fact that Domenicali and F1 see the value of that.

There’s an obvious desire for greater financial resources for which the FIA is pushing in order to provide the improved service that F1 wants. Suffice to say, extra funding is something that F1 is neither keen on nor believes there is scope for.

“We need respect, recognition for the FIA and fairness,” says Ben Sulayem. “We’re getting there. I had good meetings with Stefano regarding it and he’s aligned with the needs of the FIA.

Mohamed ben sulayem pitlane

“We have to be transparent. If we ask for better deals when it comes to money, we have to show where will it go – an improvement of the stewarding, an improvement of the race director pathway programme, an improvement of the ROC [remote operations centre – effectively F1’s equivalent of football’s VAR] and improving our equipment.

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“The [next] Concorde Agreement is two and a half years away, but there are three stakeholders: FIA, FOM [Formula 1 Management, which Liberty owns] and the teams. It has to be fair for all of us. We’re not here to create obstacles. We’re here to go forward together, but we can’t go forward if it’s unfair.”

From witnessing Ben Sulayem’s actions since he became president and now speaking to him, it’s clear that he’s very different from those who came before.

Jean-Marie Balestre, scourge of Ayrton Senna, lost a war with the burgeoning commercial side of F1 before a period when Max Mosley formed a revolving good cop, bad cop partnership with old friend and FOM dictator Bernie Ecclestone and then the low-profile Jean Todt era.

Ben Sulayem’s determination to fight for the FIA’s cause is admirable and in keeping with his election manifesto of “FIA for members” – and his success or otherwise could play a key part if he stands for re-election in just over two years.

By Edd Straw

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sabre 24 September 2023

"That was a case of tidying up a mess not of his making."

Meaning: That was a case of tidying up a Masi not of his making.

Peter Cavellini 24 September 2023

How do new teams get into F1?,if there a field of say 20 cars, can that be increased? ,how can that be done?, will the teams at the back of the grid have to prove they have a right to be there, at the moment it's like Football, if you Team is bought by a mega rich person who can virtually buy the players to make the team a top team, well that's happened now, will that still be the case?

tuga 24 September 2023
What a wonderful puff piece. I'm sure the FIA is very happy with you, which is a good thing, seeing as they're a non-profit organization and thus have very few moments of joy, besides the joy of motorsports, of course.