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FIA exit for ex-Mercedes lawyer was inevitable after controversies

RacingNews365's Editorial Director Dieter Rencken analyses the exit of Shaila-Ann Rao from her position as FIA interim Secretary-General.

That Shaila-Ann Rao, appointed the (Interim) FIA Secretary-General for Motorsport by President Mohammed Ben Sulayem in June of this year, has left the governing body after just six months in the job, is no real surprise to students of paddock politics: For whatever reasons, she seemingly became a part of whatever F1 controversies were doing the rounds at whatever points in time.

The term ‘whatever’ extends to her appointment, too - initially as Director in the Office of the President, which morphed into the (I)S-G role.

“Whatever was the reason for her appointment?” was an oft-asked question amongst F1 team bosses (and others) after the London-trained barrister was recruited from Mercedes F1, where she initially acted as Legal Counsel, then latterly as Special Adviser to CEO Toto Wolff.

Significantly, one of MBS’s first tasks after taking office in mid-December 2021 had been to visit all F1 team bosses, with the topic of that Abu Dhabi finale topping the respective agendas.

Clearly the trickiest to appease was Wolff, whose team was aggrieved after the loss of the Drivers’ Championship. He and Lewis Hamilton had refused to attend the FIA Gala on the eve of the elections and clearly sought answers, if not full-on revenge.

			© XPBimages
	© XPBimages

Rao appointed to FIA position

What transpired behind closed doors in Brackley during MBS’s meeting with Wolff is unlikely to become public; it is, though, likely a deal was struck for Rao to join the FIA.

This is, of course, purely a conspiracy theory but that does not make it categorically wrong (or right). Expressed differently: if it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it usually is a duck…

At the time of Rao’s appointment, Ferrari team boss Mattia Binotto expressed concerns about what was effectively a seamless transfer from a major team to the Federation, saying: "It’s down to [the FIA] to ensure there will be no conflicts of interest, to behave properly and it’s down to the President to ensure it. I’ve got the trust they will do it."

Saliently, Wolff saw matters differently: "The FIA is changing its structure and organisation and the President has to make his decisions and we certainly shouldn’t interfere in any of the decisions…" adding that in her S-G role she would be responsible for improving the governing body’s transparency and governance.

"Toto would say that under the circumstances, wouldn’t he?" commented an opponent at the time.

Rao at centre of two big stories

Possibly Rao, who had been the FIA Legal Director for almost three years in 2016-18 ahead of joining Mercedes, was badly served by circumstances upon her return to the Federation.

She was almost immediately parachuted into the caretaker S-G role after the abrupt departure of incumbent Peter Bayer, who apparently lost the confidence of MBS, seemingly over progress with 2026’s power unit regulations.

'If' Rao had continued in her Director in the Presidential Office role, matters may have panned out differently for her; ‘IF’ is, though, F1 spelt backwards, and the fact is that in her S-G role she seemed to attract controversy at every turn - so much so that she was linked front and centre to the season’s two main controversies: a ‘bouncing’ Technical Directive issued a fortnight after she started, and the budget cap saga.

In the first case there were suspicions that continuing links to her former employer Mercedes resulted in the TD designed to raise ride heights – the Three-Pointed Star’s car suffered particularly when run low to the ground as others could.

While in September, Mercedes was amongst the first teams to have details on Red Bull’s overspends, tellingly a week before the team was officially informed by Rao. Go figure.

Speaking during the Canadian Grand Prix, Red Bull boss Christian Horner was particularly suspicious about the TD, pointing out that the matter had not followed due process yet a team - believed to be Mercedes - had arrived in Montreal with the appropriate parts before the TD was even published.

"It has [first] to be discussed in a technical forum [which it wasn’t], plus it is overtly biased to sorting one team’s problems out – the only team who turned up here with it, even in advance of the technical directive,” he said. So, work that one out…

			© Getty Images / Red Bull Content Pool
	© Getty Images / Red Bull Content Pool

Budget cap leaks

After the budget cap leaks – which were, as it transpired, totally accurate - Horner was incandescent with rage, threatening legal action and demanding an investigation into the source.

While stopping short of accusing Rao of involvement in the saga, Horner’s response was telling when asked a direct question as to whether he suspected her of being the source of leaks: "It’s not my place to comment."

On Saturday in Abu Dhabi, Ben Sulayem convened a select media call attended by RacingNews365.com

During the 30-minute session he deflected accusations that Rao was in any way biased in favour of Mercedes or against Red Bull.

Tellingly, while the FIA has made much of the fact that the S-G role was an interim one, she has not returned to her original position in the Office of the President.

Either way, the bottom line is that in six short months, Rao had become the story, which in turn became a major distraction for the FIA. When that happens, the result is inevitable…

RacingNews365.com understands that incoming FIA CEO Natalie Robyn, recruited to this newly-created role from Volvo Switzerland and scheduled to start in the new year, will oversee a root-and-branch restructure of the Federation; thus no Secretary-General for Motorsport appointment will be made until that time.

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