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Analysis: How secure is FIA President Ben Sulayem's position?

FIA President Mohammed Ben Sulayem has suffered much media criticism in recent weeks, seemingly aimed at forcing his resignation. But RacingNews365.com Editorial Director Dieter Rencken wonders whether the campaign could have the opposite effect.

Another day, another media critique of the FIA under President Mohammed Ben Sulayem, primarily instigated by sections of the British media before being Google-translated into other languages. Indeed, one hears of orchestrated campaigns amongst leading Formula 1 figures to drip-feed anti-MBS sentiments into the public domain in attempts to force him out by whatever means. Given the icy relations that have prevailed between the FIA and Liberty Media – holder of the lease over F1's commercial rights – since MBS started a four-year term in office in December 2021 after a two-thirds majority in an FIA membership vote, one can safely assume the current onslaught was strategised not in North Korea or Siberia, but somewhat closer to F1's heartland. At the centre of the conflict lies Liberty’s relentless push for ever-increasing revenues and shareholder value versus the FIA's determination – under the Emirati, who campaigned for the presidency under the "FIA for Members" slogan – to put the interests of affiliated clubs (ASNs) first. They, after all, founded the F1 World Championship in 1950, whereas Liberty merely owns the right to commercially exploit the rights

Little known is that the organiser of a Grand Prix is the local ASN, not F1 (as the division of Liberty is known), nor even the appointed promoter. Crucially, a Grand Prix could conceivably be organised without a promoter but not without an ASN – as Monaco's event annually proves. It follows that more the number of Grands Prix, the more ASNs are involved and thus the greater the burden on their memberships, who provide essential services such as stewarding, marshalling, scrutineering, time keeping, and medical and administrative functions. Without such passionate volunteers – who regularly suffer the sort of adverse weather conditions that drivers refuse to race in – no F1 event could be staged. The issue is, though, that after well-nigh 30 years under Max Mosley and Jean Todt – who, unlike MBS, had not worked their ways up ASN ranks but been parachuted in from outside – the lines between governance and commercial affairs had become increasingly blurred and/or tilted in favour of a succession of CRHs of which Liberty is the latest, having acquired the rights at an enterprise valuation of $8bn in 2017. As such, Liberty shareholders demand ever-soaring returns on investment, in turn resulting in increased hosting, broadcast rights and sponsorship fees, driven by sustained and exponential growth in F1's global popularity. Whichever way it is sliced, that means higher costs for the end user – evidenced by increasing ticket prices and TV subscriptions – which ultimately affects fans, many of whom are ASN club members.

MBS's sentiments are made clear in a tweet which cautioned potential investors (these were not named) "to apply common sense" should they consider acquiring F1's rights (saliently at a premium of 250% over the price Liberty paid five years ago). The Arab urged buyers to consider "the greater good of the sport", "the future impact for promoters" and "adverse impact it could have on fans." Understandably, his (inflammatory and arguably unwise given the situation) comments infuriated Liberty, who sent him a no-punches-pulled letter, copied to team bosses and senior FIA officers. However, the overriding question is: Was he wrong in expressing concern about the impact on fans, many of whom now cannot afford an annual Grand Prix visit or even a TV subscription? Crucially, many of the essential services outlined above are tendered by volunteers for little or no remuneration while Liberty pulls hundreds of millions in annual profits via their promoters. Suggestions of slavery may be wide of the mark, but easy 'exploitation' sure springs to mind. Ultimately the conflict boils down to US dollars vs the FIA member and fan interests, not West vs Arabic values as suggested by some.

Much is, though, made of sexist comments allegedly published 20 years ago in a long-defunct website bearing MBS's name, and while these cannot be condoned under any circumstances, if he made them, one must believe the man has moved on since – why would he have insisted upon appointing a female as CEO of the governing body? FIA members were made aware of the alleged comments in April 2021, so why leak them now? The FIA World Motor Sport Council has greater percentile female (and diversity) representation at 25% (50%) than, say, Liberty’s main board, which sits at 12.5% (ditto). Apart from a single female who ticks both boxes, it comprises seven greying white males; F1's management profile is little different, nor for that matter are the management structures of F1 teams said to be plotting MBS's ousting. F1's engineering bursaries are open only to European passport holders. That said, folk who call for MBS's exit would do well to study the FIA statutes: The governing body's membership determines its presidency, NOT Liberty, F1 team bosses or the media. This is best illustrated by a June 2008 no-confidence vote won by Mosley with a two-third majority in the face of widespread calls from F1 figures, the then-CRH and media outlets to step down in the face of lurid sex revelations. He stayed. The bottom line is that by putting FIA interests ahead of F1, MBS is perceived by rank-and-file club members and fans as a crusader fighting on their behalf against a faceless, listed empire that is dispassionately exploiting 'their' F1. Ironically, the more the likes of the BBC attack Ben Sulayem, the more secure his position is likely to become should it come down to the no-confidence vote they seek. As this is written news has broken that MBS plans to adopt a hands-off role, non-executive presidential role , as outlined in his ‘FIA for Members’ election manifesto. The problem is MBS’s administration inherited issues such as Abu Dhabi 2021 and US litigation over patent rights to halo - the FIA is said to have settled for around US$18m including costs after potentially facing claims five times that - got in the way. The duly appointed CEO - US-Spanish dual national Nathalie Robyn, who previously held various executive motor industry positions - now has her feet firmly under the desk and the single seater department has been totally restructured, providing an opportunity for MBS to adopt a more presidential role as per his predecessor, Jean Todt. Thus, day-to-day activities will be left to those now appointed to such positions. Here is, though, betting that sectors of the media will be critical of his stepping up to his original role. Which is exactly where we came in…

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