With F1’s most recent controversy surrounding a possible Saudi buy out for $20 billion, it’s left many people questioning what will the future of the sport look like if the tension between the FIA and F1 continues to rise? Over the past few years, the credibility of the FIA has been called into question on more than one occasion by drivers, teams and fans. It looks like those at the top are in constant conflict but how did we get here and can it be resolved?
Whilst it’s normal for new leadership to encounter a few problems during the transition period, the number of new headlines that have come out since Mohammed ben Sulayem’s appointment have left me wondering if he was the right person for the job. Looking back at previous FIA Presidents, such as Jean Todt and Max Mosley, they were able to maintain a strong enough relationship with the teams and personnel to warrant the respect that they needed to do their job. Although that did not necessarily mean that everyone was always in agreement, it meant that they could be trusted to do what would be best for F1 and people were assured that F1 would be heading in the right direction under their leadership. However, the same cannot be said for the most recent leader Mohammed ben Sulayem, his ‘unique’ style of leadership has rubbed many the wrong way with teams already being uncertain about his credibility only 1 year into the job.
It’s not just the new appointment of the FIA president that has caused dismay but some of their decisions over recent years have created the spring board that catapulted the current issues that we’re seeing into the spotlight. The premature appointment of Michael Masi as race director in 2019 proved to be a turning point in F1 that started the downhill spiral that we’re currently seeing. Now, there’s no point beating a dead horse and bringing up that infamous incident that caused a major uproar within the world of F1, but this was not the first sign that F1 has made a poor decision with the appointment of a new race director. There were many examples that we can retrospectively look back at, such as Turkey 2020 or Azerbaijan 2021, which signalled that Masi was not ready for this role or at least needed some support from the FIA, but instead nothing changed and this incompetent leadership continued until the world of F1 forced a change.
The change that occurred was initially presented as something positive that would get F1 back on track, but after one year my personal view is that this has not really worked. There have still been dangerous and reckless decisions made from the race directors, as seen in Japan, as well as the constant criticisms of the new FIA President. It feels as though Sulayem has a new scandal coming out every other week, whether that be surrounding his previous inappropriate comments leading to accusations of sexism, the awkwardly unprofessional exchange at the 2022 prize giving ceremony or the recent twitter debacle that landed him in hot water with senior officials within F1. Sulayem’s response to the supposed $20 billion offer for F1 led to a furious reaction from F1 officials as in a now leaked letter from Formula 1 to the FIA, senior officials stated that the FIA President’s interference with F1’s rights were “unacceptable” and claim that he “overstep[ped] the bounds of the FIA’s remit”. With things looking like they’re going form bad to worse it’s worth examining why the relationship between the FIA and F1 are breaking down and what this could possibly mean going forward.
I know I’m not the only person who has heard people question whether F1 would be able to move forward without the FIA, as it’s starting to look like they are constantly at odds – as seen with the Andretti x Cadillac bid – and a separation between the two is looking like more of a possibility, in short it would be complicated. With Liberty Media’s purchase of F1 in 2017 for $4.6 billion, they are exclusively entitled to F1’s commercial rights as agreed in the monumental deal between F1 and the FIA that handed over the rights in a 100-year lease. In order to break away from the FIA this would give rise to multiple issues namely the commercial rights of F1, there are also other points to consider such as who would buy F1 and what changes would they make to the organisation. Given that Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund (PIF) were reportedly willing to pay $20 billion for F1 it begs the question, could this become a reality in the near future? Whilst the separation between the F1 and FIA remains just a distant idea for now, new leadership in F1 is something that we have seen before. The FIA have historically never vetoed a new leadership offer but would this be good for the actual sport?
Saudi Arabia are having an increasingly larger hand in many global sports such as football and golf, and whilst F1 already have a race in the country it may not be too long until they assert an even bigger influence over the sport. Based on what we have seen in other sporting events, most recently the World Cup, this would prove to be an extremely controversial topic as the 2022 Saud Arabian GP already brought intense scrutiny into Formula 1 and gave rise to a debate over whether it is morally right to race there. This discussion of a Saudi take over coincidentally coincided with F1’s own controversial rule surrounding drivers’ rights to protest as they have been doing in recent years. At the moment none of us know what a Saudi take over would look like exactly, nor do we know if it is even is a possibility but this is a topic that we definitely haven’t heard the last of.
The current state of Formula 1 appears to be confused, the teams, commercial rights holders and governing bodies are all at odds. No one can seem to agree on anything and no one know where this will go next.