Ben Sulayem counters critics: ‘I know who is attacking me’

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After a tumultuous season marked by tensions between Formula 1 and the FIA, Mohammed Ben Sulayem says he knows who within the sport is behind the attacks on him.

Elected in December 2021 at the helm of motor racing’s governing body, Mohammed Ben Sulayem promised renewed energy and an innovative approach to propel the FIA into the future.

But so far, the Emirati’s two-year tenure has been a controversial affair littered with tensions and disputes, not only with Formula 1 but also within the institution’s very own organisation.

Ben Sulayem’s troubled leadership kicked off in 2022 with the FIA’s insubstantial report on the events that had marked F1’s season finale in Abu Dhabi in 2021, which failed to address the core of what had gone wrong.

Thereafter followed a bickering with F1 over drivers wearing jewellery and non-regulation underwear, with Lewis Hamilton seemingly targeted by the tedious ruling.

This was followed by Ben Sulayem publicly criticizing drivers speaking out on political or human rights issues, an opinion that left drivers unimpressed.

Meanwhile, there was discontent in the ranks of F1 about the FIA’s race control operations and the stewards’ rulings, mainly on track limit issues.

The FIA’s unilateral decision to launch an application process to identify prospective F1 entrants added another layer of tensions with Formula One Management, which has been against expanding the grid from the outset.

But F1 was downright incensed in January 2023 when Ben Sulayem posted a series of tweets calling into question the inflated value of F1 in response to rumors that Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund had tabled an offer to acquire the sport from Liberty media for $20 billion.

Additional concerns were raised shortly later when an archived article on a website resurfaced and revealed misogynistic statements by Ben Sulayem. In these remarks, he said that he did not “like women who think they are smarter than men, for they are not in truth”.

(L to R): Max Verstappen (NLD) Red Bull Racing RB19; Charles Leclerc (MON) Ferrari SF-23; and Sergio Perez (MEX) Red Bull Racing RB19 - crash at the start of the race. 29.10.2023. Formula 1 World Championship, Rd 20, Mexican Grand Prix, Mexico City, Mexico, Race Day. -, EMail: © Copyright: Bearne / XPB Images

In February, the FIA announced that its president would be taking a step back from his day-to-day involvement with Formula 1.

But that commitment was actually short lived, with MBS present on the grid at every race and continuing to publicly comment on the sport’s affairs and especially on the prospects of adding an eleventh team to F1’s ranks following the FIA’s green light to Andretti Cadillac’s plan to enter F1.

But wait, there’s more! The end of 2023 was marked by two more conflict-inducing stories.

Mercedes team principal Toto Wolff and his wife, Susie Wolff, faced an investigation over a potential conflict of interest. However, the FIA quickly dropped the case within 48 hours.

But just before Christmas, it was revealed that Steve Nielsen, the FIA’s sporting director of F1 had resigned after being in the post for less than a year.

It was reported that Nielsen experienced frustration due to the FIA's reluctance to address the changes he deemed necessary, expressing dissatisfaction with the organization's direction.

Curiously, despite the turmoil caused by the FIA and its president in the sport, Ben Sulayem perceives himself as the one consistently under attack from Formula 1, insisting that he is not easily deceived.

"I know who attacks me. And they think I don't know,” he said in a recent interview with Motorsport-Magazin.

“Do you really think I would be in this position if I had stupid people around me? Of course, my team is very smart. The paddock is a very small habitat, everybody knows everybody.

You know, whoever leaked or made up something about me, I know. And what do I do? I smile at them. I know who is behind it and then I smile at them.

"I only ask for sincerity. I am not interested in the share price or ticket sales. We just need honesty. That is my mission."

The growing tensions between Formula 1 and the FIA have brought back the old spectre of a breakaway F1 series. Ben Sulayem laughed off the speculation.

“Some people are talking about a split," he added. "Do they really think that the big constructors would race in a championship without having a regulatory body?

Mohammed Bin Sulayem (UAE) FIA President on the drivers' parade. 03.09.2023. Formula 1 World Championship, Rd 15, Italian Grand Prix, Monza, Italy, Race Day. -, EMail: © Copyright: Coates / XPB Images

"Do they really think that they would invest? Do they really think that it would become another [World Wide] Wrestling and you know who will win? Where someone invests and suddenly, they change the rules?

"No, it's about having clear rules first and then you can invest. That [Wrestling] is a show. This is not.

“Here we have a show, but with a governing body, a show with rules and we make it fair and well controlled. The rest is up to you, your team and your driver."

"I say only one thing, and I say it modestly and clearly: the day will not come when we wake up without the FIA,” Ben Sulayem concluded.

"With respect to others, it's different. Liberty has every right to sell and so there could be another reality and tomorrow F1 would no longer be with them. Therefore, we would have to relate to others.

"I respect Liberty. They are here to make a profit. They are smart people and I support them."

Ben Sulayem insists all the FIA wants is “clarity and fairness” in its dealings with F1's commercial rights holder.

"I am not involved in the stock price or ticket sales – we just need fairness here, that’s my mission,” he concluded.

“We define clarity between ourselves and FOM, Liberty Media. That’s good. We need to understand who I represent – I represent the head of the house.

"We are not a service provider. I keep saying that and I believe it too. Friction is sometimes healthy to bring out the best."

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