Unlikely F1 team solidarity points finger back at precarious FIA position

Thomas Maher
FIA President Mohammed Ben Sulayem with F1 CEO Stefano Domenicali.

Mohammed Ben Sulayem on the grid with Stefano Domenicali.

An unprecedented level of solidarity amongst the teams has resulted in the FIA being exposed as to the motive behind an investigation into ‘a team boss’.

A short little message from the FIA confirming an investigation into an unnamed team boss has triggered uproar, with all of the F1 teams coming together to form a position that leaves the governing body in a very awkward position.

With the FIA understood to be investigating based on ‘multiple complaints’ from other team bosses, all nine ‘accused’ teams have distanced themselves by means of a coordinated release of statements that appears to point the finger of accusation back at the governing body.

How has the FIA landed itself in this mess?

To loosely quote the 1980 Talking Heads hit Once in a Lifetime, the big question to arise from the FIA’s tossing of a smoke grenade into the room early this week is clearly, “How did we get here?”

It’s been a relatively controversy-free year in Formula 1, thanks to the ongoing dominance of Red Bull and Max Verstappen which meant there was little by way of team boss histrionics nor, indeed, sporting conflict between rival teams.

But, just a few days after the final race of the season, the governing body elected to spark off a winter storm of intrigue and discontent, in order to investigate the alleged possibility that ‘a team boss’ came into possession of confidential information handed over by a FOM employee – the exact timeline of this not being made clear.

The allegations were sparked by a report in the oft-maligned magazine headed by Tom Rubython, BusinessF1. There’s no need to reproduce the rather detailed assertions made by the magazine but, needless to say, the allegations could be seen as highly damaging to the reputations of the people involved in the story.

The magazine to publish the allegations has been guilty of questionable editorial choices in the past, this is true – my colleague Sam Cooper has detailed some of those choices in his earlier column – but the eye-opening fact of the matter is the possibility, however faint or unlikely, of them being true requires due diligence to investigate. After all, that is the remit of the governing body – to ensure that the personnel operating within the sphere of the F1 World Championship are operating within the rulebooks.

To that end, the FIA has set upon the matter of investigating the team boss involved, as well as the FOM employee, in order to ensure compliance with its own Code of Ethics, with the investigation being led by Compliance Officer Paolo Bassari through his role as Secretariat of the Ethics Committee.

Covered under the FIA’s rules on ethics are two pertinent areas that appear to be at the crux of the issue. FIA parties, of which F1 team bosses are, are expected to treat as confidential or secret any information, which is not public, communicated to them in the exercise of their duties.

As a result, it would be remiss of the FIA not to investigate if there’s even the slightest hint of meat to the bones in an allegation printed. However, the interesting point is that the publication in question is no stranger to printing unusual ‘truths’ – at least, in their eyes – and wouldn’t usually warrant further analysis.

Particularly pertinent is the fact that Rubython has been sued for libel on multiple occasions, to the point where he’s ‘lauded’ as the British journalist with the most libel suits against him during his career. Interestingly, a historical suit included a victory against the FIA’s former director of communications Richard Woods.

All F1 teams move to deny involvement in investigation

A statement from Mercedes on Tuesday night revealed that, according to an internal off-record FIA briefing, Toto Wolff’s name has been linked with the FIA’s statement confirming the investigation, as well as strongly refuting the linking of Wolff’s name.

Therefore, the suggestion implied by the FIA’s announcement is that their Compliance Department will be looking into the possibility of whether or not Wolff received information from a FOM employee. Wolff’s marriage to Susie Wolff, managing director of FOM’s newly-established F1 Academy, resulted in the Scot releasing a statement of her own on Tuesday night to condemn the announcement from the FIA.

“It is disheartening that my integrity is being called into question in such a manner,” she said.

“Especially when it seems to be rooted in intimidatory and misogynistic behaviour, and focused on my marital status rather than my abilities.

“Throughout my career in motorsport, I have encountered and overcome numerous obstacles and I refuse to let these baseless allegations overshadow my dedication and passion for F1 Academy.

“As a woman in this sport, I have faced my fair share of challenges but my commitment to breaking down barriers and paving the way for future generations to succeed remains unwavering.

“In the strongest possible terms, I reject these allegations.”

But a source familiar with the situation has indicated to PlanetF1.com that it’s not just the media reports that have sparked an investigation – it’s also complaints coming from ‘multiple’ team bosses. But who? Not one of them has had the cajones to come forward on that just yet, although the obvious candidate – Christian Horner – has already come out to deny he or Red Bull had any involvement in the situation.

Fred Vasseur? James Vowles? Both are close personal friends of Wolff, but does that mean anything in the ‘Piranha Club’? Zak Brown? Would the McLaren boss want to cause trouble for the man over Mercedes’ motorsport programme, just days after confirmation McLaren will continue working with Mercedes as a customer for several more years?

In what has been a rapid circling of the wagons, all nine rival teams to Mercedes have issued statements confirming they had no involvement or made no complaint to the FIA about any other team boss. In an extraordinary display of solidarity from the teams, all have confirmed, or at least stated, that they have had no involvement in the situation or made any complaint about a rival team boss to the FIA, and indicated their support for the F1 Academy headed by Susie Wolff.

This leaves the FIA frightfully exposed – either a team (or more) is bare-faced lying, or the governing body’s motives for investigating are not as clear-cut and honest as initially thought. Indeed, it could be interpreted as a very public display of a lack of support for the FIA or its President.

After all, Susie Wolff’s comments don’t make it clear either whether she is targeting the publication responsible for the initial rumours, or the FIA directly, in her statement – it’s worth noting that Ben Sulayem has faced allegations of misogyny in the not-too-distant past, allegations he has publicly addressed and denied.


It’s clear, then, that Mercedes, Wolff, and Wolff are absolutely aghast at how the situation is playing out. But does that mean the Wolffs are innocent?

After all, this is a sport where there is currently legal action quietly taking place about the outcome of the 2008 championship due to a team ordering a driver to crash on purpose. Is it really that far-fetched to imagine that the Wolffs may occasionally let slip information to each other over dinner that they, under a microscope, shouldn’t be?

Is it possible? Of course. Is it likely? That’s down to your own personal opinion of the characters and the integrity of the Wolffs.

Someone has got things badly wrong, or is lying – but who?

In the eyes of the FIA, nothing is too far-fetched to warrant a closer look. However, it’s unlikely that Susie – through her role with F1 Academy – is standing around close to Stefano Domenicali at the exact moment he’s revealing state secrets that could benefit a team to know in advance, before scarpering off home to tell her husband all the news over that evening’s vol-au-vents with chips.

But, taking the people linked out of the scenario entirely, what’s become evident is that the rift between the FIA and FOM only appears to be widening. Under Liberty Media, the question marks over just how important the FIA is to the successful running of the sport have increased.

Murmurings of discontent over how President Mohammed Ben Sulayem has handled control of the sport since assuming the presidency in late 2021 resulted in him opting to take a step back from the coalface earlier this year, handing day-to-day running to Nikolas Tombazis, Steve Nielsen, and Natalie Robyn in a newly-created role as FIA CEO.

With media, fans, and Mercedes blindsided by the FIA’s announcement of the matter being passed to their Compliance Department, it came as just as much as a shock for FOM itself. In a statement provided to PlanetF1.com, F1 “noted the public statement made by the FIA this evening that was not shared with us in advance. We have complete confidence that the allegations are wrong, and we have robust processes and procedures that ensure the segregation of information and responsibilities in the event of any potential conflict of interest.

“We are confident that no member of our team has made any unauthorised disclosure to a Team Principal and would caution anyone against making imprudent and serious allegations without substance.”

With the FIA taking matters into their own hands by investigating a matter involving FOM and the potential leaking of information – whether beneficial to a team boss or not – it’s a clear indicator from the governing body of their true power as custodians of the sport. FOM or not, break the rules, and their power will be wielded.

Will it do much to help the uneasy relationship between the FIA and FOM, who have also been linked with the idea to forge their own path with a breakaway series (not for the first time)? Absolutely not. But would it be irresponsible of the FIA to turn a blind eye if ‘multiple complaints’ have been made about a team boss? Absolutely, yes.

The FIA’s own Code of Ethics outlines how information, including investigations into ethics breaches, is expected to be kept confidential, as well as how conflicts of interest can arise: “Conflicts of interest arise if one of the FIA Parties or Third Parties has, or appears to have, financial or personal interests that may detract from his (sic) ability to perform his duties with integrity and in an independent and diligent manner.

“Financial or personal interests include gaining any possible advantage for himself (sic), his immediate family, or any person with whom he has a close professional or private relationship.”

It’s this confidentiality expectation that means we’re unlikely to hear anything but whispers about how this situation unfolds, unless Bassari finds reason to escalate.

Should the Compliance Officer find any reason to do so, it will go before the FIA’s Ethics Committee in order to establish an Investigation Panel – a confirmed breach of the FIA Code of Ethics can entail the initiation of disciplinary proceedings before the FIA International Tribunal.

The timing of the FIA’s announcement, just days before the FIA Prize-Giving Gala, means we might not have to wait too long for this situation to evolve further, although expect denials and dismissals to be par for the course for now – on all sides.

It’s a fascinating case to watch play out – the FIA taking matters into their own hands to investigate a FOM employee and the firestorm the governing body has unleashed by making that investigation known. Someone, somewhere, has got something very wrong and it’s going to lead to huge fallout over the coming weeks and months.

Will Rubython be adding to his long list of legal battles? Have the Wolffs overstepped the mark in their personal conversations at home? Has the FIA completely misjudged the situation to mistakenly hint a team boss and a FOM employee have been leaking confidential information, based on nothing but a controversial report in an obscure magazine, only to then hide behind anonymous complaints that the teams have all come together to deny?

In a sport bereft of recent controversy, the FIA’s simple statement released on Tuesday has sparked off a raft of possibilities of misconduct or ill judgment, but who is going to end up exposed?

F1 – same as it ever was, eh?

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