F1 Drama After Whistleblower Accuses FIA President of Shenanigans

Matt Posky
by Matt Posky

A whistleblower has accused FIA President Mohammed Ben Sulayem of abusing his authority to influence the results of the 2023 Saudi Arabian Grand Prix. The alleged action was attributed toward influencing the results of the Formula 1 event.

According to BBC Sport, Ben Sulayem was said to have intervened to overturn a time penalty issued to Fernando Alonso during the race. A 10-second penalty was issued when the Aston Martin crew touched Alonso’s car while it was enduring a separate 5-second penalty in the pit lane — something that is explicitly against the rules.

The matter was included in a report compiled by an FIA compliance officer and sent along to the ethics committee, citing a whistleblower claim that Ben Sulayem (Sheikh Abdullah bin Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa) went out of his way to have the penalty against Alonso revoked. As the FIA's vice-president for sport for the Middle East and North Africa, he attended the event in an official capacity and anything he had to say on the matter would have been highly influential. However, it’s not entirely clear what actions he took and whether this constituted him overstepping.

From BBC Sport:

The report, by compliance officer Paolo Basarri, says the whistleblower reported that Ben Sulayem "pretended the stewards to overturn their decision to issue" the penalty to Alonso.
In Italian, the word "pretendere" means to require or expect.
The ethics committee is expected to take four to six weeks to issue its report.
The penalty in question had dropped Alonso from third place - behind Red Bull drivers Sergio Perez and Max Verstappen — to fourth, also behind Mercedes' George Russell. Withdrawing it returned him to a podium position.
In addition, BBC Sport has verified the information with several senior figures at high levels in F1 and close to the FIA. None would go on the record, but all said they had the same information.

The initial penalty was issued due to Alonso having his car parked beyond the confines of the starting grid. When he made his first pit stop, he was required to serve the five-second penalty — which prohibits any work being carried out on the vehicle until the time has concluded.

Aston Martin was struck with an additional ten-second penalty after judges noted that the crew had worked on Alonso’s car before the original five-second period had ended. It was said that the rear jack made contact with the car prematurely, ensuring one member of the pit crew had a very bad day and setting the stage for the contentious revocation.

The original reason given for overturning the decision (following a Right of Review by Aston Martin) was reportedly a discussion between F1 teams and the FIA on what actually constitutes work when a vehicle is serving time in the pits. Citing there being no real consensus, Ben Sulayem allegedly pushed to have the penalty overturned. Meanwhile, FIA regulations are pretty clear that the car cannot be moved at all while counting down a penalty time out, with the emphasis lying on any “work” being done.

Complicating the matter further is the fact that the confusion from the 2023 Saudi Arabian Grand Prix resulted in the relevant regulatory articles receiving additional context and larger starting boxes. The rule now clearly states that “touching the car or driver by hand or tools or equipment will all constitute working.” Despite the initial rule arguably being clear enough, Ben Sulayem and Aston Martin can now fall back to saying the rule was modified due to the alleged confusion in Saudi Arabia.

But some of the pressure may be political, which is hardly new for Formula One. Ben Sulayem’s role as head of the FIA has been called into question on numerous occasions. The early concerns were that his politics were not in line with the modern version of motorsport. There were criticisms regarding decades-old comments where he expressed annoyance with women that believed they were smarter than men, to be followed by backlash over the decision to ban all drivers from wearing “non-compliant underwear” or jewelry (including wedding rings) while in the cockpit.

Habitual F1 champion Lewis Hamilton was the most outspoken on the issue, presumably because he likes to wear jewelry almost as much as he likes to complain. But even Sebastian Vettel mocked the underwear rule by wearing a pair on the outside of his suit. Other concerns, namely the decision to prohibit drivers from "the general making and display of political, religious and personal statements,” have also been an issue.

However, some of the blow back seems to boil down to disparate groups wanting to maintain control of Formula One. Ben Sulayem was vocally supportive of allowing the U.S. Andretti-Cadillac to join F1 and even said the team didn’t need Formula One Management because the FIA is supposed to be the governing body. That did not go over any better than his efforts to try and depoliticize the sport by discouraging drivers like Hamilton from being so outspoken about the issues of the day. A former rally driver himself, Ben Sulayem has said his primary goals are expanding the reach of F1 and restoring an emphasis on racing.

Yours truly probably isn’t the best person to be objective on these issues. Formula One has always seemed like a venue for petty rich people to bicker about status and who should be in charge. The more recent efforts to stymie American teams and manufacturers from joining, combined with the injection of driver politics, has presumably made the sport unwatchable for some when IndyCar is still on the menu. F1 rarely even bothers to hold the races at a reasonable time for the American fans, even when the race is taking place on U.S. soil.

Meanwhile, every season seems to be plagued by a competitive imbalance made worse by the near-constant power battles held between various teams, F1 leadership, and the FIA. Despite seeing a boost in viewership in 2018, and the motorsport continuing to add global partners to help expand global appeal, Formula One seems to have plateaued in the United States with the worldwide number of TV viewers likewise declining. That may simply be the result of people pivoting away from television in general or the fact that Formula One’s previous rise in viewership would have been difficult to maintain. However, there does seem to be a sense that the sport has gotten quite dull with minimal overtaking, overtly dominant teams, and a focus on nursing the cars through an event to save the tires rather than pushing multi-million-dollar vehicles to their absolute limit.

F1 would arguably be more exciting to watch if the big stories were about daring exploits taking place on the track, rather than the internal drama of its obscenely wealthy leadership. But that’s just the opinion of one man who has basically stopped watching everything but the post-race highlights. Truth be told, the FIA President being accused of maleficence is probably the most interesting thing that's happened since the Andretti team was told to kick rocks and neither issue is doing anything to improve the sport.

[Images: F1]

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Matt Posky
Matt Posky

A staunch consumer advocate tracking industry trends and regulation. Before joining TTAC, Matt spent a decade working for marketing and research firms based in NYC. Clients included several of the world’s largest automakers, global tire brands, and aftermarket part suppliers. Dissatisfied with the corporate world and resentful of having to wear suits everyday, he pivoted to writing about cars. Since then, that man has become an ardent supporter of the right-to-repair movement, been interviewed on the auto industry by national radio broadcasts, driven more rental cars than anyone ever should, participated in amateur rallying events, and received the requisite minimum training as sanctioned by the SCCA. Handy with a wrench, Matt grew up surrounded by Detroit auto workers and managed to get a pizza delivery job before he was legally eligible. He later found himself driving box trucks through Manhattan, guaranteeing future sympathy for actual truckers. He continues to conduct research pertaining to the automotive sector as an independent contractor and has since moved back to his native Michigan, closer to where the cars are born. A contrarian, Matt claims to prefer understeer — stating that front and all-wheel drive vehicles cater best to his driving style.

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6 of 17 comments
  • Zipper69 Zipper69 on Mar 06, 2024

    When all you can see of a driver is the top third of his helmet, I lose interest.

    • See 1 previous
    • Zipper69 Zipper69 on Mar 06, 2024

      I'm spoiled, I was watching auto racing in the 50's when the driver in short sleeves was visible down to the waist....

  • JMII JMII on Mar 06, 2024

    FIA the same group that penalized Ferrari after the Las Vegas track (they signed off on) broke his car. For this first 2024 race all the drivers were told no stopping at pit exit and almost everyone did, yet no penalties. The FIA might as well hold a lottery at the end of each race to hand out random penalties.

    I saw a TicTok on how to make F1 exciting - just put a piece of tape over position #1 (Max) and suddenly the event is actually kind of interesting. I still watch but my only interest is seeing how close 2nd place gets to Max. Everyone says the Schumacher and Hamilton years were boring but back then they occasionally broke on track or qualified further down. With Max its: pole position, fastest lap and the win every week.

    I'll be at the St Pete GP for Indycars this weekend - I have NO idea who is going to win and neither does anyone else. Way more entertaining (and affordable).

    • See 1 previous
    • Carson D Carson D on Mar 06, 2024

      Max Verstappen had more wins from deep in the field over the past two seasons than any other driver in history. He has 40% more wins than pole positions, an indication that he is less dependent on having the fastest car than any other driver with three or more titles since at least Piquet.

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