Decision-makers at Liberty Media are reportedly angered by FIA president Mohammad Ben Sulayem’s comments on the business of Formula 1, calling them a “major overstep”.
While tempers flare and a power-struggle brews over new teams potentially joining the grid, including the US-backed Andretti setup, a fresh issue has raised tensions between the FIA and F1.
The Saudi Arabian Public Investment Fund (PIF), which purchased Premier League team Newcastle United for around $410m (£305m) in 2021, has apparently been sniffing around Formula 1. They were unsuccessful with a whopping $20 billion bid last year, as detailed by a Bloomberg report.
Liberty Media purchased Formula 1’s commercial rights in 2017 for $4.4 billion, overseeing a Netflix-fuelled explosion of popularity that sent the sport’s valuation soaring. It is now worth $15.2 billion.
Outspoken FIA chief Ben Sulayem decided to weigh-in on the failed $20 billion takeover via his Twitter account on Monday.
“As the custodians of motorsport, the FIA, as a non-profit organisation, is cautious about alleged inflated price tags of $20 billion being put on F1,” writes the Emirati former rally driver.
“Any potential buyer is advised to apply common sense, consider the greater good of the sport and come with a clear, sustainable plan – not just a lot of money.
“It is our duty to consider what the future impact will be for promoters in terms of increased hosting fees and other commercial costs, and any adverse impact that it could have on fans.”
The FIA are the world’s chief motorsport regulators, setting the regulations for series’ including Formula 1 and enforcing safety on-track. However, the organisation has no say in matters concerning commercial rights or the sport’s ownership.
Thus, Formula 1 aren’t happy with Ben Sulayem. Sky Sports spoke to a senior figure who described his comments as “a major overstep, short sighted and an unnecessary intervention.”
Sky F1’s Craig Slater offers update on evolving situation
Appearing on Sky Sports News, F1 reporter Craig Slater said that he had seen a copy of a letter that has been circulated from F1 to the F1 teams, addressed to the governing body in the wake of Ben Sulayem’s comments.
“We heard some comments on Twitter by the FIA President Mohammed Ben Sulayem,” Slater said.
“He talked about his concerns about the sport being sold for $20 billion, because he said that would inflate costs within the sport, maybe mean that circuits had to pay extra to host Grand Prix and so on.
“I observed that senior figures from within Formula 1 saw this as a major overstep of what his remit was. Now, we’ve had a strongly worded letter from Formula 1 itself circulated to all the F1 teams, but addressed to the governing body, the Federation Internationale de l’Automobile, significantly from its chief legal officer.
“They see this as, essentially, a legal and contractual matter. So the letter comes from Sasha Woodward-Hill, and it talks of what Mohammad Ben Sulayem said being interference with Formula 1’s commercial rights in an unacceptable manner.
“It talks about the FIA surely being aware that, pursuant to the 100-year agreement, it’s Formula 1’s commercial rights holder Liberty Media, which has the exclusive rights to exploit the commercial rights of the World Championship.
“It also talks about potentially something that it seems that Mohammed Bin Sulayem hinted at – that the FIA would have a strong say, or a veto if you like, on someone potentially coming in to buy these commercial rights from Liberty Media.
“In the letter, it says this you will be aware that the circumstances in which the FIA would have any role in a change of control of a Formula 1 group are very limited – any suggestion or implication to the contrary, or that any potential purchaser of the Formula 1 business is required to consult with the FIA is wrong.
“So they’re essentially saying ‘you have strayed into our territory’, in effect, you’ve overstepped the mark as the sport’s regulator.
“Formula 1, owned by American company Liberty Media is a listed company. If someone of the standing of the FIA president makes an observation as to what the appropriate value potentially is, that could be to the company’s commercial detriment. There are genuine concerns around this.
“But this is just one of a number of issues which, over the course of Mohammed Ben Sulayem’s tenure as FIA president has irked, not just F1 but some of the teams as well.
“I’ve been in contact with a number of F1 teams in the last hour. They’ve had various views on what’s going on this week, but one senior figure has said to me that there is a discussion amongst a number of teams about just how long Mohammed Ben Sulayem can continue in this job as FIA president.
“There are questions being asked about his tenure because of what’s becoming increasing friction between the governing body and the commercial rights holder and, by extension, the teams.
“Ahead of the 2023 season, this is a big conflict at the top of the sport.”
The FIA declined to comment on the situation when asked by PlanetF1.com.
The situation is the latest rift to open between Formula 1 and the FIA, with the possibility of an 11th team joining the paddock a developing saga.
Ben Sulayem wants to welcome the likes of Andretti and Panthera Team Asia with open arms and keep expanding the sport’s reach. The 10 existing teams and Formula 1 aren’t so willing, with concerns about handing an additional team a slice of the income.
F1 issued a flat statement reminding that: “Any new entrant request requires the agreement of both F1 and the FIA.” Ben Sulayem later claimed he was “surprised” by pushback.