Formula 1 | Why has the FIA/FOM ‘war’ been going on for so long for F1?

In the sometimes confused and collusive world of Formula 1, especially in its top governing bodies, 24 January 2023 was not a day like any other: indeed, yesterday the FIA ​​and FOM presented their differences on the big day. . In F1, dirty laundry is sometimes washed as a family…

But let’s go back to the immediate source of the controversy: January 23, 2023. FIA President Mohammed Ben Sulayem, who saw the rumors about the purchase of Formula 1 by the Saudi Arabian state investment fund for $20 billion “Healthy mind”.

Let’s remember his words: “As motorsport’s watchdog, the FIA, a non-profit organization, is wary of the $20 billion estimate for F1. Any potential buyer is advised to use common sense, consider the greater good of the sport, and provide a clear and sustainable plan, not a lot of money. »

So the next day, in response to this media blast, the FOM publicly announced that Muhammad Ben Sulayem “Exceeded the limits of the FIA’s attributes”.

In addition, FOM has threatened to take the FIA ​​to court if it deems Mohammed Ben Sulayim’s comments to be damaging to F1’s image or reputation.

The meaning of the argument

To fully understand why the FIA ​​and FOM tear each other apart during the day, it is first necessary to remember the clear separation of powers between the two bodies. On the one hand, the FIA ​​(since the FISA-FOCA conflict was resolved with the signing of the Concorde Treaties in 1987) manages the regulatory aspect of F1 (specifically the three sports, financial and technical regulation); he is the sporting “judge” of the sport and is responsible for things like setting penalties, appointing race directors, training and overseeing marshals during Grand Prix, etc. carries the duty.

On the other hand, FOM manages the commercial aspect of F1 by owning the Formula 1 brand: it sells and negotiates TV rights, promotes the sport at marketing level, negotiates with promoters and redistributes profits to the teams… and the FIA! In short, FOM has a business aspect and FIA has a purely sporting aspect.

If FOM’s speech is so open and violent, it is because Liberty Media (owners of FOM) believes that Mohammed Ben Sulayem clearly does not respect this established division of duties.

Indeed, the FIA ​​president went right into the FOM field, even allowing an estimate of the sport’s commercial value, suggesting that $20 billion was too good for F1.

However, such a prediction could have dire consequences for Liberty Media, which is listed on the stock market (F1 itself is listed): so one can imagine the impact on stock prices if investors conclude from this speech that F1 is. not worth that much money.

In essence, moreover, according to FOM’s own calculations, the cost of sports will be about 20 billion dollars (18 billion, the financial press reports…).

In short, there is more to this than a war of egos or power, but potentially billions of…

Muhammad Ben Sulaiyim’s attitude must therefore be questioned in the light of these considerations: what did he gain by making this speech, which he could not ignore the fact that it would irritate the FOM?

The prospect of competition with Stefano Domenicali cannot be ruled out, of course: with this speech, Mohamed Ben Sulayem will undermine Liberty Media’s efforts to always promote the sport better and more, to play its role as a distraction…

But it is more interesting to note that Muhammad Ben Sulayem presents himself as a “white knight” in his speech, especially emphasizing that the FIA ​​is a non-profit organization (like FIFA in football). Mohammed Ben Sulayem would thus create an image of resistance against the extreme commodification of sport, against its indefinite expansion. It is also a way to present oneself as a defender of traditional sports values ​​and Olympic values ​​in front of the “American sofa” who wants to commodify everything in its path.

Such a dichotomy, of course, will raise a smile, because the FIA ​​also brews millions every year, willy-nilly, as it thrives in a universe of more and more billions and fewer and fewer millions.

Moreover, the FIA ​​did not hesitate to cross swords with the FOM just a few months ago, precisely because of money, especially in relation to the planned doubling of sprint races (see below).

A crisis from afar?

To fully understand this unfolding crisis, we must also understand that it has come from afar and has been brewing for at least several months.

You’d either have to be too optimistic or too optimistic to believe Mohammed Ben Sula, who claimed he had a real honeymoon with Stefano Domenicali in November 2022…

“I talk to Stefano every day and if I don’t he’s going to call me? It’s like that, even before any meeting or decision – it’s like a marriage that will last I have a very good professional and personal relationship with FOM Why? Because I have a strong interest in sports. I am listening [Domenicali]he listens to me and we both know that this marriage needs to last and go further. To be honest, our relationship is getting better.” He put his hand on his heart and promised with words that naturally make people laugh today.

Deep grounds for disagreement between FIA and FOM

In fact, disagreements between the sports arbitrator and the commercial rights holder have multiplied in just one big year.

Even more recently, the Andretti-Cadillac affair revealed a fundamental disagreement between the FIA ​​and the FOM. While Mohammed Ben Sulayem quickly appeared very enthusiastic about the project and even said he wanted to welcome a 12th team in Formula 1 step by step, FOM (and the teams) showed a more mixed, even cold reaction. “to protect the integrity of the sport. »

Mohammed Ben Sulayem also declared to this group (hardly hiding his resentment towards FOM): “It’s surprising that there’s been a negative reaction to the news about Cadillac and Andretti. In recent years, the FIA ​​has accepted entries from smaller, successful organizations. We should encourage potential F1 entries from global manufacturers like GM and fierce rivals like Andretti and others. The interest of teams in developed markets adds diversity and increases the appeal of F1. »

The second big topic Dispute between the FIA ​​and the FOM: the hasty publication of the 2023 calendar. In September 2022, the FIA ​​published the provisional calendar for the next season in advance (three days before the proposed date) and unilaterally. Normally, the FOM and the FIA ​​publish the calendar together: this time the FIA ​​went it alone, apparently to Stefano Domenicali’s big surprise.

However, the FOM, FIA and the teams had signed an agreement to keep everything secret. In the process, hotels, planes, etc. spun, irritating the teams, the FOM and even the media who had not completed all their bookings before the general public was informed.

Mohammed Ben Sulayem was even more upset, which he also mentioned in a press release “The arrival of new events and the continuation of traditional events underlines the good governance of the sport by the FIA”, minimizing the work done above by Stefano Domenicali and FOM. Again the war of egos and powers!

The third theme The dispute between the FIA ​​and the FOM that started in recent months: the doubling of sprint races.

Although the teams and the FOM agreed to go for sprint races 3 to 6, the FIA ​​seemed to block the process for a long time. Reason ? Mohammed Ben Sulayem, of course, never disclosed this, but British press sources agreed that the news of the war, pointing to the money. Because the FIA ​​thought it should get more money from the FOM in exchange for doubling the number of races – because that would mean the race directors and marshals would be overworked.

Mohammed Ben Sulayem’s disbelief was evident at the time: “We have time to decide” He said in May 2022. “We are not talking about the current season, but about 2023. There is no fire. And we are in a democracy: Formula 1 votes, teams vote, I vote too. If I don’t have the right to abstain or study the proposals, then there is no more freedom and democracy. »

Differences (ie fourth point of contention) appeared in February 2022, after Russia invaded Ukraine. According to the British press, Mohammed Ben Sulayem would have long asked for Russian athletes to still be allowed to compete under a neutral flag in F1, while the FOM wanted to ban them altogether. FOM, supported mainly by British teams, eventually won their case.

The fifth theme Controversy: The intransigence of the FIA ​​over the jewelry business at the beginning of the takeover by Mohammed Ben Sulayem. We especially remember the real scam, led by Niels Wittich but with Mohammed Ben Sulayim behind the scenes, to force drivers in general, especially Lewis Hamilton, to run away with excess jewelry.

This attitude once again deeply irritated the FOM: why invest so much in a fairly secondary topic when the FIA ​​has so many internal problems to manage, especially after the 2021 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix? Why give the image of a sport that also wants to curb the personal expression of its pilots? Because this was the right opportunity for Mohammed Ben Sulayem to defend his authority against the pilots and the FOM at the beginning of his mandate? Can be…

The sixth major theme A rift at the start of Mohammed Ben Sulaym’s mandate, the issue of Abu Dhabi 2021 (but there are undoubtedly others).

Stefano Domenicali would like the FIA’s post-Abu Dhabi 2021 report to put more effort into transparency. Above all, Michael Masi’s will to identify his personal mistake and not question the FIA’s actions would therefore have been very badly experienced.

Is Ben Sulayem’s “bulldozer” style in question?

Even as F1 continues to grow, it is only natural to encounter inappropriate and even childish infighting.

But it is equally permissible to doubt that the errors were distributed fairly: if we look at all this history, it is really the style of Muhammad Ben Sulayim that gives the impression of aggressiveness, impulsiveness, improvisation (the last example of evaluation). F1 testifies to this) and authoritarianism that seems to be questioned.

The question is asked: Doesn’t Mohammed Ben Sulayim have other projects to manage, especially at the level of race management (see our article), other battles to fight apart from the evaluation of Formula 1?

On the other hand, at Liberty Media, how long can the FOM allow itself to find not an ally in the FIA, but a pebble in the shoe or an increasingly difficult partner? Remember that the FIA ​​needs the FOM more than the FOM needs the FIA; FOM is the owner of the Formula 1 brand (the FIA ​​only provides the ‘label’ and increasingly contested technical and sporting expertise).

Will divorce in words become divorce in deed with the new FISA-FOCA style split? Could the FOM argue for such a split by creating a championship outside the FIA ​​or threatening to drop the FIA ​​tag? That would certainly be a strong argument, but it would also be pushing the red button.

But despite the gestures of the “bulldozer” Muhammad Ben Sulaiyim, he is not the strongest, the one who shouts the loudest…

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