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Exclusive: Why the new FIA President isn't shutting the door on Masi

Mohammed Ben Sulayem has experienced an eventful start to his time as FIA President. RacingNews365.com's Dieter Rencken sat down for the first extensive conversation with the Emirati to reflect on the journey so far and what's to come.

There are no doubts that Mohammed Ben Sulayem has endured a turbulent introduction to the FIA presidency. Elected on 17 December - less than a week after the debacle that was the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix - as a replacement for Jean Todt, who had reached both age (75) and term (three) limits, MBS' prime task was to institute the enquiry announced by the outgoing President into the farcical events of the season finale . Having won the vote by 62 per cent to the 36 per cent of ex-Deputy President for Sport Graham Stoker - with a 2 per cent abstention factor - his incoming administration faced the Devil's Alternative: given the divisiveness of the matter, they would be damned either way in the court of fan opinion. Compounding the matter was the thorny question of sanctioning Lewis Hamilton for boycotting the Prize-Giving Gala, as required by protocol. Then, within the first 100 days, MBS - as he is referred to informally - and his cabinet discovered the FIA was staring a EU25m annual deficit squarely in the face; a month later he is staring Lewis Hamilton down over the latter's (very public) refusal to comply with the sport's (non) jewellery regulations. "I inherited a lot of things," he exclusively tells RacingNews365.com during the Miami Grand Prix in the first full-length media interview he has granted since taking office, stressing, "I will not run away. I have to confront them to go forward."

Moving on from the infamous Abu Dhabi finale

We're sitting in his makeshift office in the Race Control tower overlooking the Miami circuit, but his USA sojourn is not restricted to matters F1: he has visited Indianapolis and met with circuit and legendary team owner Roger Penske, plus visited the France family of NASCAR fame and taken in Daytona Speedway. It's a far cry from winning Middle East rally titles - 14 in all, scored via 61 victories - and running the UAE touring and motorsport federation, but the FIA presidency is certainly not only about ad hoc trips to Paris. Indeed, there is no job description for the role, nor are there university degrees in FIA presidencies, so he learns on the job, publicly at that. As the first elected non-European FIA President in their 117-year history, MBS is strong on cultural change, and intends to appoint an Equality and Diversity Officer to ensure all demographic groups are properly represented and enjoy equal opportunities. His 'FIA for Members' election manifesto set a high bar, and clearly the Arab billionaire who owns the world's largest fleet of Mercedes 600 classics - 21 in all - has lofty ambitions for the federation. He does not, for example, believe the Abu Dhabi report went far enough, saying: "I don't think what's [being instituted] for Race Control is a cure. We put a bandage for the time being in the aftermath of Abu Dhabi." As an example, he cites the decision to appoint two alternating Race Directors rather than relying on a single individual - the contentious Michael Masi, who has headed back to his native Australia - as had hitherto been the case. "We have Niels [Wittich] and Eduardo [de Freitas], they are good, but what if something happens to either of them?" adds Ben Sulayem. "Niels had Covid [in the run-up to Miami's race] and thankfully he's [now] healthy and strong, but the pinnacle of motorsport should not rely on one person, it should run automatically. The federation should not run because of me, but [because] of the whole team. This is something I'm looking into. It is doable, but takes hard, smart work." Masi settled with the FIA, but given his experience and knowledge of F1, the word is that he could well remain on the roster, but that would surely cause ripples in the sport. Either way, Masi was effectively found not guilty during the investigation into Abu Dhabi, so there is no legal impediment with a return to duty.

Adding a dedicated FIA CEO to the ranks

Apart from a heavy emphasis on grassroots and regional motorsport development and diversity initiatives, the MBS manifesto, though, prioritises a doubling in global motorsport participation within four years, enhanced value for clubs from international series and intensified lobbying for motorsport at political levels. Significantly, he is the first FIA President to be elected from club ranks in 30 years, Mosley and Todt having been parachuted in from outside activities. To achieve their objectives, Ben Sulayem and Deputy President for Sport Robert Reid, the 2001 WRC champion co-driver, plan to ensure that FIA championships leave legacies wherever they compete. "We are not a circus, to go to a country and do something, then leave it and we don't leave an impression or a legacy. It is not right," MBS says earnestly. FIA Presidents have generally set the direction for both future world motoring and global motorsport, but ironically their first years are spent implementing the policies of their predecessors. Thus, Todt initially oversaw various regulation changes as framed under his immediate past President Max Moseley, who signed the 2010-2012 Concorde Agreement and ratified 2014's hybrid formula before stepping aside. Only during his second and third four-year terms could the Frenchman impose his visions, many of which - such as F1's 'new era' regulations, WEC's hypercar framework and WRC's hybrid cars - are now MBS' responsibility. I put it to him that FIA structures lack continuity; that he could well be voted out of office by 2025, leaving his successor to oversee the regulation changes currently being drafted for 2026-onwards. The recruitment of a full-time, heavyweight FIA CEO "to provide an integrated and aligned approach" is currently in process via international head-hunters and should alleviate the lack of continuity while introducing an element of stability. This would free Ben Sulayem to act as global ambassador for the full motoring spectrum.

Where does Ben Sulayem, and the FIA, go from here?

Asked his vision for F1 of the future, MBS trots out the standard lines about increased electrification elements and the need for sustainability, but believes oil companies, many of whom have thus far sent out mixed messages about 'clean fuels', should be technically and commercially involved in developing energy solutions for the formula. "This is what we are now trying to work as the FIA with them. Our commitment to certain championships will always be there, but we also have to find a way that we are not just a reactive federation," Ben Sulayem continues. "There are people who want [to be associated] with our brand in a different way, in a respected way. These companies have been dealing with us to support us in development and R&D," he says before apologising for not being able to name the brands due to confidentiality clauses. "One thing [we have] is a good relationship with Liberty top boss Greg Maffei, [F1 Chairman] Chase Carey and [F1 CEO] Stefano Domenicali. Together we can only improve the sport and to improve the sport we have to be all together. "So, things are going well. It's challenging, I have to admit, and I never expected less than this. But it's a long way to go. We have to be up to the new generation's [views and opinions], so we have to update ourselves and our rules." That he will not, though, be a pushover, was proven by his position on Sprint races during a recent Formula 1 Commission vote: where F1 and the FIA traditionally voted as a block, Ben Sulayem demanded further details on financial and operational implications of sprints on organising clubs and officials. The vote was delayed much to the chagrin of Liberty Media, who realised they merely manage F1; that the FIA actually owns it. That was a wake-up call, and one gets the distinct feeling it won't be the last time the alarm call shrills loudly. That Mohammed Ben Sulayem takes the FIA presidency extremely seriously is evident from his sacrifices since acceding to global motoring's top job: "I am a motorsport person and of course mobility is equally important for me," he says earnestly. "I have no other job, I have no XYZ. I left our [UAE] federation, I left the [UAE] Olympic Committee. I have only the FIA, my passion is here, my heart is here."

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