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Red Bull Racing Team Principal Christian Horner talks with Mohammed ben Sulayem, FIA President, on the grid during the Sprint ahead of the F1 Grand Prix of United States at Circuit of The Americas on October 21, 2023 in Austin, Texas.

Mohammed Ben Sulayem (right) chatting with Red Bull team principal Christian Horner
Photo: Chris Graythen (Getty Images)

FIA President Mohammed Ben Sulayem is under fire for alleged abuses of power as the head of international motorsport’s governing body. A whistleblower within the FIA claims Ben Sulayem told inspectors to fabricate a reason to withhold certification for the Las Vegas Grand Prix track, a setback that could have canceled the race. He is also accused of directing Formula 1 race officials to overturn a penalty at the 2023 Saudi Arabian Grand Prix.

The compliance report to the FIA’s ethics committee claims that the delayed track inspection in Las Vegas last November was intended to allow time to create a reason to deem the circuit not safe for competition. According to the BBC, the report states, “(the whistleblower) said that issues on the circuit were meant to be artificially identified regardless of their actual existence, with the ultimate goal of withholding the license.” The orders weren’t followed and the track was approved after inspection. However, the first practice session was coincidentally halted for two and a half hours after a loose water valve cover punched a hole in Carlos Sainz’s Ferrari.

The allegations suggest that Ben Sulayem has taken a “don’t back down, double down” approach to sports governance. Heading into the 2023 season, the former Emirati rally champion announced he was stepping back from direct involvement in Formula 1 after a tumultuous first year in office. There was a growing divide between F1 and the FIA. F1 was seeing record profits as the FIA struggled to climb out of a perpetual deficit, one of his campaign promises. Ben Sulayem picked fights with F1 by vetoing the doubling of F1’s sprint race weekends and advocating for Andretti’s entry bid.

The figurative declaration of war came in January 2023. F1’s commercial rights holder sent him a cease-and-desist letter after he called the championship’s rumored $20 billion price tag was inflated. Bloomberg reported that Saudi Arabia’s $700 billion Public Investment Fund tried and failed to buy F1 at that price point.

Third placed Fernando Alonso of Spain and Aston Martin F1 Team celebrates on the podium during the F1 Grand Prix of Saudi Arabia at Jeddah Corniche Circuit on March 19, 2023 in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.

Photo: Peter Fox (Getty Images)

The report also claims that Ben Suyalem stepped to throw out a penalty at the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix just two months later. Aston Martin’s Fernando Alonso was given a five-second stop-and-go penalty for improperly lining up in his grid spot during the race start. While waiting in the pit lane to serve his penalty, his crew’s rear jack touched the car before five seconds had passed. The two-time world champion was given a ten-second time penalty for the error, pushing him out of a podium position.

A regulatory nightmare ensued as the race officials, the teams and TV pundits debated if a jack touching the Aston Martin counted as working on the car. Ben Sulayem allegedly told race stewards to overturn Alonso’s ten-second penalty through a vice president attending the race. The stewards stated their official reason for the reversal as “there was no clear agreement” on the matter. It’s not clear why Ben Sulayem wanted Alonso’s penalty overturned. However, it should be noted that Aramco, Saudi Arabia’s state-owned oil company, is a sponsor of Aston Martin’s F1 team.

The FIA’s ethics committee is expected to issue a report on the matter in the next four to six weeks. If Ben Sulayem is able to see out the second half of his four-year term, it’s difficult to see him having any meaningful impact on Formula 1.

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