Mohammed Ben Sulayem is taking on the F1 establishment as the first ‘outsider’ president of Formula One’s governing authority since the election of Jean-Marie Balestre in 1973. Back then F1’s regulator was a sub-organisation within the FIA called the Fédération Internationale du Sport Automobile (FISA).
Balestre was a controversial figure and rode a storm of publicity which depicted him wearing Nazi uniforms in the early 1970’s. The Frenchman also was a key figure in wha became known as the FISA-FOCA war over the control and finances of Formula One and lasted for 3 seasons between 1980-82.
FIA president with no F1 experience
Eventually Enzo Ferrari brokered a deal between the FIA and the teams representative Bernie Ecclestone which saw the FIA responsible for the regulation of Formula One while FOCA owned the commercial rights. This is enshrined today in European law and American media giant Liberty Media currently hold the commercial rights to F1.
Balestre was accused of abusing his powers as president and meddling in F1 matters during the 1989 season following a crash involving Alain Prost and Ayrton Senna in Suzuka. Rumours were published in Autosport that Balestre had manipulated the world championship in favour of Prost as Senna would be disqualified from the race and fined.
Balestre also threatened to revoke Senna’s F1 super license although the Brazilian was later included on the 1990 F1 entrant list.
Max Moseley runs for FIA presidency
The allegations of manipulation led to Max Moseley deciding to run for the FISA presidency race which he won. FISA was then dissolved and the FIA took over the legal responsibilities for regulating Formula One, with Moseley as its president in 1993.
Since the election of Moseley, the FIA has been presided over by someone from an F1 background until the election in 2021 of Mohammed Ben Sulayem. The Emerati was elected as president of the Automobile and Trouing Club of the UAS in 2006 and has won 14 Middle East Rallying Championships.
Since his election as the head of the FIA, Ben Sulayem has found himself at odds with the drivers, the teams and even the Formula One rights holders Liberty media who were unimpressed when he announced unilaterally the formal 2023 F1 calendar which is usually a joint media event between the two parties.
Ben Sulayem criticised by his own delegates
Now Ben Sulayem appears to have crossed one of his own part time appointed delegates who is a driver steward each year at a handful of F1 races.
FIA race steward Emmanuele Pirro now warns that F1’s system for appointing an F1 race director is failing and needs to change. Following the departure of F1 race director Michael Massi, Mohammed Ben Sulayem decided to replace him with two F1 race directors who would rotate during the season.
Pirro stresses that alternating the man at the top “cannot work” and he presses for a return to just one F1 race director for the whole season. He further claims there has been a “crisis” in F1 race management since the sock death of Charlie Whiting on the even of the 2019 Australian GP.
FIA race control min “crisis”
Speaking to Formulapassion.it Pirro notes, “It is a difficult situation because we are coming from a long period where one man, Charlie Whiting, was at the centre of everything: race director, safety representative and he was the point of contact for the drivers and the team bosses.”
“Since Whiting’s death, there has been a crisis: Laurent Mekies, who was supposed to replace him, was brought in by Ferrari, Masi was removed from his position as everyone knows, leaving Niels Wittich and Eduardo Freitas as the best available, but alternation cannot work.
“You have to make sure there are more people ready, because the race director can only grow in his role that way, you cannot train him from outside.”
F1 teams and drivers criticise FIA consistency
There was significant criticism from the drivers and the teams during the 2022 season over the inconsistency in race management as the race directors alternated who was in charge.
George Russell who speaks for the Grand Prix Drivers’ Association took a swipe at the current format when he said it was now unfair because drivers’ could not on reflection discuss decisions they believe to be unfair with the same race director at the next meetings driver briefing.
He explained: “It was frustrating sometimes when we were talking about a certain incident on track and the stewards who actually made that decision weren’t there to give their views on this.”
Russell has also called for a permanent panel of F1 stewards rather than the current system which appoints some of the stewards from the local or regional motorsports association affiliated to the FIA.
Will F1 teams be accused of hypocrisy?
The problem for there teams is they have long argued they need to rotate their race track personnel and even Toto Wolff and Mattia Binotto did not attend certain races towards the end of the 2022 season. So the precedent has kind of been set that with the exception of the drivers, with such a long season F1 personnel need to be afforded a break from the F1 travelling circus.
There was a glimmer of hope that F1 was set to abandon the rotating race directors following the 2022 Japanese GP. Eduardo Frietas decided to instruct a recovery tractor onto the live circuit when visibility was appalling with the result of an Alpha Tauri flashing past at over 200kph just metres from the mobile crane. Freitas was dropped for the final four races which were adjudicated alone by Neils Wittich.
F1 set to continue with multipole FIA race directors
However in the past 2 weeks Mohammed Ben Sulayem has confirmed the FIA will continue with 2 race directors for the 2023 season but as yet only Neils Wittich is confirmed.
Further, Ben Sulayem confirmed the FIA would be launching a training programme for potential stewards and race directors and today at the Monte Carlo Rally confirmed 8 and 16 candidates respectively are signed up for the plan.
As well as that two-day event on February 18-19, trainees will be given a bespoke programme of experience-building through attendance at FIA events to shadow and observe senior officials.
Wittich will mentor the race director candidates during the 2023 season in a live scenario.
Ben Sulayem criticises Jean Todt legacy
“You see, I inherited a lot,” Ben Sulyam explained. “I won’t say it was a good inheritance, but I am very happy that the pathway for race directors and for stewards is going well. There will be in February the training in the FIA headquarters, and you will see changes an evolution thereafter.”
In a slightly bizarre additional comment the FIA president claimed the best racer directors would be found from his own sport in the form of co-rally drivers.
“Who is in charge of the pathway?” he said. “An ex-rally co-driver, Mr [Ronan] Morgan. So you see, they are very structured people. Very analytical. You can say rally co-drivers are more structured than the rally drivers.”
This comment alone is likely to inflame attitudes from senior figures within Formula One, given the sport has a number of series specific inbuilt procedures and processes where actual experience provides invaluable insight.
— Mark Lane (@MarkLaneF1) January 23, 2023