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Opinion: State of the F1 Nation

The FIA's unilateral 2023 calendar declaration of Tuesday caused a stir in F1 circles. RacingNews365 Editorial Director Dieter Rencken analyses the backstories.

The release by the FIA of Formula 1’s 2023 calendar late on Tuesday 20th September not only created a stir by not containing references to or quotes from Commercial Rights Holder (CRH) Liberty Media (trading as F1), but pre-empted subsequent confirmation of the Monaco Grand Prix’s extension – old news to RacingNews365 readers after the circuit distributed pricing to agents - and further information about Las Vegas’s F1 race. It later emerged that F1 (and the teams) were seemingly not in the loop on the timing of the calendar, in turn raising questions in the media about the relationship between the governing body and the CRH. Some even suggested a rift existed while others spoke of a breakaway series, with F1 taking the teams with it.

All not well between F1 and FIA

Such talk is, though, sensationalism: While the relationship is not as cordial as it was during, say, the joined-at-the-hip Max Mosley/Bernie Ecclestone era, both parties are acutely aware of a deep-rooted need to function hand-in-glove for the sake of the championship. Liberty has eight billion bucks - mostly shareholder funding - riding on the success of F1. Dump the FIA, and Liberty likely faces investor revolt. Such interdependence does not mean, though, that all is heavenly in the Garden of Formula 1, particularly given the seismic shift in the FIA/F1 dynamic in the wake of last December’s FIA presidential elections, where Emirati Mohammed Ben Sulayem was voted into office for four years. He came out on top over Briton Graham Stoker, Jean Todt’s Deputy for Sport, by collaring 65% of the poll. Where Todt and Ecclestone were matey and when the latter’s successor Chase Carey stepped into F1’s hot seat, he relied heavily on guidance from folk such as Ross Brawn, who had worked for Todt. Subsequently Liberty elevated Carey to F1 chairman and appointed Stefano Domenicali, who held various positions under Todt at Ferrari and the FIA, as F1 president/CEO. Then came the 2021 elections. Significantly, MBS, formerly president of the UAE motorsport federation and variously a member of FIA world councils and commissions, is the first ‘insider’ FIA president to have been elected since Jean-Marie Balestre was ousted by Mosley in 1992. Todt was also deemed a ‘foreigner’, having been elected on a Mosley ticket. However, after 30 years of outsider rule, the FIA membership - comprising 240+ clubs across the world - made clear they wished to control the federation’s destiny by voting for 14-time Middle East Rally Champion and WRC competitor Ben Sulayem and his ‘slate’ of office bearers, who had collectively campaigned under the slogan ‘FIA for Members’. From the outset the incoming administration made clear that the interests of member clubs - some of which have no sporting interest, being caravanning and touring institutions - came first, ahead of F1’s imperatives. It was a shock to F1 and its American owners, who perhaps should have foreseen that the FIA presidency potentially changes every four years. Even when a president is re-elected there is invariably some upheaval in Paris. Where Ecclestone, Mosley and Todt were steeped in F1 - having run Brabham, March and Ferrari respectively before moving upwards - MBS is a rally man, as is his deputy president Robert Reid, a former WRC champion co-driver

FIA looks at different challenges - not just F1

Indeed, the FIA is unlike other sporting bodies in that it does not govern only a single discipline such as rugby, football, swimming or athletics – its remits (note plural) extend way beyond purely motor-sporting matters by embracing touring and road safety. Crucially, the governing body owns the FIA Formula 1 World Championship: Liberty merely holds a lease over the sport’s commercial rights (running from 1998-2110). Before ratifying this 113-year agreement (effectively a long-term lease) between the FIA and F1 (then controlled by Ecclestone), in 2000 the European Union (EU) imposed a hard split between sporting/technical (FIA) and commercial matters (F1). Neither party is permitted to encroach on the other’s territory. However, in the past this decree was occasionally applied rather selectively - for example, the word is the employment contracts of some individuals were split across the two, potentially creating divided loyalties. The Contract Recognition Board process is enshrined in the (commercial) Concorde Agreement despite competition (super)licences being a de facto sporting function. Equally, F1 takes credit for 2022’s technical and sporting regulations - as it should after putting in the bulk of the work – despite the EU’s insistence that technical matters remain the responsibility of the FIA. Against this background, soon after being elected MBS and his team set about studying the mutual obligations outlined in the 113-year agreement - where the deal started and stopped, what the fine print between the two extremes stated and, crucially, did not – in order to ascertain where the FIA and its member clubs stood with regard to F1. And vice versa. That much was clear in April when MBS refused to back F1’s proposal to up the number of 2022 sprint races from three to six, arguing that he first wished to establish the impact of any additional races per weekend on members of the local FIA-affiliated motor club (ASN), which in terms of the sporting regulations is the de facto race organiser. F1 may be the promoter but the ASN is the organiser – a crucial distinction. When F1 pushed for the 2026 engine regulations to be finalised the FIA took its time to ensure they are as solid as possible; ditto its refusal to countenance ‘concept’ calendars dotted with asterisks approved by the FIA World Motorsport Council, only for changes to be made thereafter - as was historically the case. Hence the lateness of 2023’s complex, record-breaking 24-race calendar, the final draft version of which was presented by F1 to the FIA last week.

Work to do on both sides

Let’s be clear: Constructing the calendar is F1’s responsibility given the CRH deals with promoters and sets hosting fees, but ratification and distribution of the final calendar is a sporting matter – thus falling squarely within the WMSC’s remit. It has been thus since at least 1998: F1 veterans such as Ecclestone recall that confirmed calendars for the following season were communicated by WMSC bulletins, not F1 press releases. By the same token, F1 teams have no active involvement in calendars: by signing the Concorde Agreement they commit to participation in the FIA F1 World Championship provided timing, number and geographical spread of events is adhered to; if not, it is F1’s duty to negotiate with the teams to find solutions. It was also a matter of record in FIA/F1 circles that the WMSC was meeting on Monday 19th-Tuesday 20th September - Domenicali is a member by right - and that the calendar would be e-voted by 16:00 on the Tuesday. Thus, it is obviously misguided to suggest the FIA was obliged to share its timing of the final calendar release with the teams after it was e-approved by the WMSC. True, the FIA could as a matter of courtesy have advised them (and F1) that the WMSC intended publishing the 2023 calendar after voting, but there is and was absolutely no onus to do so. Was the unilateral release an oversight or a deliberate attempt to regain ‘lost’ territory? That much is not clear, but either way a red line was drawn in the sand. What is, though, equally clear is that both parties need to put their obvious differences aside in order establish a better working relationship within the overall wording of the 113-year deal - for the overall betterment of F1.

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