As the sun set on the FIA’s Parisian headquarters on Tuesday night, a light bulb went off inside president Mohammed Ben Sulayem’s head.
He decided that a single report from a less-than-trustworthy Formula 1 magazine was worth an investigation.
Said report was regarding Toto Wolff and his wife and F1 Academy managing director Susie Wolff. The fanciful allegations are hardly worth repeating but the crux of the story was that the pair were sharing confidential information and Toto apparently outed this during a recent team principal meeting.
Mohammed Ben Sulayem remains on a collision course with F1
Being any kind of journalist teaches you to question the source which is clearly not something Ben Sulayem felt like doing. This is a publication that previously suggested W Series racers should use their sexuality more to sell the competition. That would be the same W Series that was made up of many teenagers.
After soon-to-be Haas driver Nikita Mazepin was filmed groping a woman, the magazine defended his actions as something 21-year-olds just do and in a separate article they claimed Lewis Hamilton uses the race card too much.
Putting aside these frankly appalling pieces of ‘journalism’, a consideration of the situation would hopefully have the FIA seeing sense. First of all, just what information would the F1 Academy managing director have that is useful to an F1 team principal?
Furthermore, why would Toto Wolff feel like passing on information to FOM to the detriment of Mercedes, the team he runs and is part owner?
The questionable nature of that original story meant that F1 media largely steered clear but they were forced to report on it when a message appeared in the FIA WhatsApp group at 5.30pm GMT.
It read: “The FIA is aware of media speculation centred on the allegation of information of a confidential nature being passed to an F1 team principal from a member of FOM personnel. The FIA Compliance Department is looking in to the matter.”
But one of the most alarming revelations was Mercedes’ allegation that the FIA had not contacted them before telling the world’s media.
For the FIA, this is not an isolated incident either. After the US Grand Prix, they announced they would be reopening an investigation into Hamilton crossing the track in Austin with the newly created metric of ‘being a role model.’
It was completely unnecessary and the FIA would have been smart to consider the optics of singling out the one Black driver for failing to live up to standards they themselves have created.
Wind the clock back further and Ben Sualyem put himself in the crosshairs of F1’s owners FOM once again when he suggested a reported $20 billion bid for the commercial arm of the sport was “inflated.”
That handed him a strongly worded letter from FOM reminding him that the FIA has no say in the selling of the sport’s commercial side.
Around the same time, historic sexist comments were attributed to the FIA president from his own website which said he does “not like women who think they are smarter than men.”
Facing intense pressure, Ben Sulayem then stepped back from F1 related duties but has begun to appear more frequently at races including in November when he defended his comments for the first time.
He told PA: “What did I say, if I said it? Let’s assume it was [me]. I tell you exactly what it said. It says: ‘I hate when women think they are smarter than us’. But they hate when men think they are smarter than them.
“Did I say we are smarter? No. Did I say they are less smarter? No. For God’s sake, if that is the only thing they have against me, please be my guest, you can do worse than that.”
Considering the year he has had, Ben Sulayem may have been smart to lay low as the season ended but he has done the opposite. If he believes there has been a breach then by all means investigate but do it the proper way and not the way that will receive most publicity.
The investigation into Wolff seems like the latest move in a power tussle for F1’s soul. The Andretti case is the perfect embodiment of this with the FIA on one side and FOM on the other. But in this particular matter, the reality is it is none of the FIA’s business. Susie Wolff is an employee of FOM so if any party should be investigating, it is them, not the FIA and FOM have already stated they believe there to be no breach.
From the outside, it appears Ben Sulayem is trying to position the FIA as the ‘good’ force in the sport but the way his organisation has gone about it has been heavy-handed to say the least which brings us onto another question, how many lives does Ben Sulayem have left?
He is two years into his four-year term and has already upset the apple cart far more than predecessor Jean Todt did in his 12-year tenure. F1 and the team principals will surely only be tolerant of this for a short while longer.
An FIA president should be neither seen nor heard but Ben Sulayem seems determined to be the focus of attention even if it comes at the determinant to the sport itself.