Max Verstappen’s controversial last-lap victory over Lewis Hamilton last weekend, and the rulings that led up to it, signaled that Formula One is in the midst of change—and what’s happening on the track is only part of it. Not only does F1 have a new champion, soon the league’s governing body will have a new president.
On Sunday, among the thousands who filled the seats of Yas Marina Circuit in Abu Dhabi was Mohammed Ben Sulayem. He is leading the presidential race against his British counterpart Graham Stoker to lead the International Automobile Federation (FIA), which oversees motor sports globally; elections will take place on Dec. 17. The 59-year-old Emirati thought about running for the top job in 2013 but decided he needed more time to prepare.
Ben Sulayem spent part of his time putting together what he calls “a manifesto” on improving F1, one of the biggest purviews of the top job, and he aims to create a more inclusive FIA for members outside of Europe. “One of the issues is the lack of communication with the members,” Ben Sulayem said in an interview with Sportico. “And actually, what they need is not that much. They need to be heard. We have enough resources to support them.”
He also aims to continue expanding FIA’s footprint, adding new F1 destinations to continue the worldwide growth of the sport.
As a former rally driver and a longtime member of the FIA’s World Motorsport Council, Ben Sulayem is uniquely positioned. “I think the first thing to notice, he’s a racer,” said Zak Brown, the CEO of McLaren Racing. “And what that means is he knows the sport inside out. This gives him a lot of street credibility. He is well-known to the racing community.”
His contacts in the sport come despite a low profile outside of it. “It is striking that Ben Sulayem was never a big-shot international rally driver; at best he was regionally successful,” Simon Chadwick, the director of Eurasian Sports Program in EMLyon Business school in Paris, said in an interview. “As a result, he was always closer to grassroots motorsport, which means that his presidential manifesto seems to be based upon boosting participation… as much as it is anything else.”
His FIA for Members campaign is showing signs of success. He has the backing of all 22 Middle Eastern members, as well as some South American and African clubs. Should Ben Sulayem be elected, chairman of Citi Private Bank Lung-Nien Lee will be his vice president of Asia and former F1 chief executive Bernie Ecclestone’s wife, Fabiana, will be appointed vice president of sport in South America. Last week, Ben Sulayem secured the support of Motorsport UK and the Royal Automobile Club, which should bode well for the election. Royal Automobile Club chairman Ben Cussons and Motorsport UK Chair David Richards said they support Ben Sulayum’s campaign because they believe he can bring change to the organization.
“We feel that the team for Mohammed, they haven’t got all the answers, and they’d be the first to accept that, but they do accept this need for change,” said Richards in an interview after the endorsement. “And we feel that in these turbulent times and what’s going on ahead of us, that’s what’s required.”
The world’s leading car racing authority has gone through many changes over the last few years. In 2017 Liberty Media agreed to buy controlling interest in the Formula One Group for $4.4 billion. Since then the company rebranded F1 from the top-down, created a reality show, added new grand prix locations to the calendar, and worked to expand markets outside of Europe, mainly in the U.S.
Last season, two inaugural races added to Formula One’s schedule (Qatar and Saudi Arabia) brought with them criticisms of sportswashing. Both countries have records of human-rights abuses, and they’ve been scrutinized for their billion-dollar sports investments, which critics argue are PR ploys.
Ben Sulayem’s regional connections will likely play a part in his presidency, should he be elected. “As in other Gulf countries, individuals such as Ben Sulayem do not operate autonomously or altruistically,” said Chadwick. “Government and state consent enables and promotes matters such as his FIA candidacy. Consequently, we can be sure that the UAE’s political and economic interests are also being served by Ben Sulayem securing the presidency. Indeed, we should expect the Gulf to solidify its place as a hub for motorsport activity, but also extend its influence on other territories.”