Exclusive: Mark Blundell feels FIA ‘slightly out of alignment’ with F1’s growth

Thomas Maher
FIA flag on display at the F1 Dutch Grand Prix. Netherlands, September 2022. Budget cap Red Bull

FIA flag on display at the Dutch Grand Prix. Netherlands, September 2022.

Former F1 driver and Le Mans winner Mark Blundell believes the FIA have fallen slightly out of sync with Liberty Media in recent years.

Perhaps the biggest story of the winter break between the 2022 and ’23 F1 seasons has been the squabbling between the governing body the FIA and the sport’s commercial rights owners Liberty Media.

Liberty purchased the rights to the sport over five years ago, with those commercial rights leased from the FIA, with the Federation retaining ownership of the Formula 1 World Championship itself.

Liberty’s embracing of social media, the commissioning of Netflix series Drive to Survive, and its willingness to expand and work in new markets has resulted in an explosion in F1’s popularity worldwide.

Over the past few months, there have been plenty of hints of discontent behind the scenes between the two parties, with the most egregious example being that of FIA President Mohammed Ben Sulayem tweeting about the reported approach of Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund (PIF) to purchase the rights from Liberty Media for $20 billion.

“As the custodians of motorsport, the FIA, as a non-profit organisation, is cautious about alleged inflated price tags of $20bn being put on F1,” Ben Sulayem wrote on Twitter in response.

“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.”

His comments resulted in a letter being written up by F1’s General Counsel, Sasha Woodward-Hill and issued to the teams to comment on Ben Sulayem stepping beyond his remit as FIA President by commenting on F1’s market value. Shortly after, sexist comments published on Ben Sulayem’s website back in 2001 were uncovered – adding fuel to an already raging fire of discontent against the FIA boss.

Reports in German media even suggested that Liberty were upset with Ben Sulayem to the point of wanting David Richards, chairman of Motorsport UK, to replace the current FIA President. Since then, Ben Sulayem has confirmed his intent to take a step back from the day-to-day operations of Formula 1 – a move which was always planned since taking over from Jean Todt as FIA President.

Mark Blundell: Communication between FIA and F1 hasn’t been clear

Reflecting on the past couple of months of turmoil between the FIA and F1, former racer and renowned broadcaster Mark Blundell believes the two parties have fallen out of sync with each other – partly as a result of Formula 1’s rapid growth in the last half-decade.

“I would say Liberty have done a great job in growing Formula 1 globally, I think that’s very obvious for everyone to see,” Blundell told PlanetF1.com in an exclusive interview.

“No doubt the teams are very, very happy with that side of things. Because it’s only maybe what, four years ago, that you were looking at several cars on the grid that were very plain with no commercial sponsors.

“Where we are today, I think everybody’s clamouring to get their name on the side of a Formula 1 car. So there’s huge growth in that area.

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“Netflix’s Drive to Survive has been very key to that, and the North American market – that is exponentially growing. Where the FIA sits, and where it’s gone, for me, it’s been slightly out of alignment with the growth of the sport. But that’s just Formula 1, bearing in mind that the FIA sits across all of global motorsport on every level.

“But, ultimately, F1 is the pinnacle. So I just think there’s been a little bit of a misalignment. That’s never a good thing. It’s also quite difficult for people to understand when there’s, in effect, two sort of governing bodies, a sporting side and a technical and commercial side that are part of one sport.

“So the communication hasn’t been clear. We’ve had several areas of the FIA being key communicators with things that have gone on in F1 over the last sort of 18 months or so.”

Mark Blundell: Difficult for Mohammed Ben Sulayem to understand F1’s inner workings

Amongst all the legal mud-slinging that’s been going on between the two sides, the possibility of a breakaway of Liberty Media’s F1 from the FIA isn’t a likely one – given the complexity of starting afresh with circuit promoters and the risk to big-name companies and manufacturers of rowing in with an unproven brand, which the ‘new F1’ would have to be.

Asked whether F1 needs to keep itself aligned with the FIA in order to maintain its own checks and balances, Blundell said: “It’s a difficult topic, because, if you look across most sports at these levels, there’s always a governing body that’s some sort of regulation framework around it.

“You’ve got football – you’ve got FIFA, you’ve got the Premier League, the actual Premier League that sits above all of the clubs in terms of putting them together and hosting the championship. Maybe the Olympics is probably the only one that doesn’t really have anybody that gives any outside information to set guidelines.

“But F1 breaking away from the FIA, as such, would be an interesting concept. We did have some breakaway series that mooted many, many years ago, and it was a long way down the line in many areas. So it’s not unforeseeable but, whether or not it’s the right thing to do, I don’t know. I think there are a few things that could be done before it got to that stage.”

As for whether Mohammed Ben Sulayem is the right man for the FIA presidency role, Blundell believes the Emirati, who hails from a rallying background and not F1, is having to approach F1 as a semi-outsider.

“Whoever heads up the FIA is sort of damned if you do and damned if you don’t,” he said.

“But it’s always going to be tough to get someone to understand the inner workings of something where they haven’t been part and parcel of it. The previous president, Jean Todt, had come out of the Formula 1 pit lane, and was very understanding of how F1 worked. So that gave some insight.

“We’re talking about Formula 1, but the FIA is much more than that. So it does need somebody to have a grasp of the sport but, at the same time, the picture is much bigger.”