FIA President Mohammed Ben Sulayem investigated for interfering with 2023 result: Report

FIA President Mohammed Ben Sulayem is reportedly being investigated by the FIA ethics committee for allegedly interfering with the result of the 2023 Saudi Arabian Grand Prix, according to BBC Sport.

The allegation is that Ben Sulayem contacted Sheikh Abdullah bin Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa, who serves as the governing body’s vice president of the Middle East and North Africa, about Fernando Alonso’s penalty, wanting it overturned. The stewards handed the Aston Martin driver a 10-second penalty because it was deemed that work was done on his car while he was serving an initial five-second penalty. Because of the added penalty (that caused plenty of confusion), Alonso initially lost his 100th podium finish. But the penalty was later overturned and rule clarifications were made about what “working” on a car during a pit stop means.

An FIA spokesperson confirmed to The Athletic that the matter is being discussed internally.


How Alonso lost his 100th podium finish to a post-race time penalty — then got it back

How Jeddah 2023 unfolded

The 2023 Saudi Arabian Grand Prix was confusing, to say the least. 

When teammate Lance Stroll triggered a safety car due to a car issue, Alonso dove into the pits on lap 18 of 50 to serve the five-second penalty he had received for lining up slightly outside of the starting box at the beginning of the race. During that five-second stop, a mechanic touched his car with the rear jack.

The regulations state: “Whilst a car is stationary in the pit lane as a result of incurring a penalty … it may not be worked on until the car has been stationary for the duration of the penalty.” But what was peculiar is that race control contacted the stewards on the final lap of the race — nearly an hour after the alleged infraction — and shared they didn’t think the penalty was served properly. An investigation ensued and resulted in a 10-second post-race penalty that was applied after Alonso had received the trophy for third place on the podium. The stewards felt that “touching the car would amount to ‘working’ on the car.” The penalty dropped Alonso to fourth, behind George Russell.

Aston Martin subsequently appealed the decision, and it was overturned, returning Alonso to third place. The argument was that the teams had an “agreed position” that a jack holding a car didn’t qualify as working on the vehicle — even though it was not in the rulebook — and the FIA agreed. The rules were later clarified with the governing body sending the teams a sporting directive. “For clarity and until further notice, in this context, the physical touching of the car or driver by hand, tools or equipment (including the front and rear jacks) during any such penalty will all be considered to constitute work,” wrote Steve Nielsen, the FIA’s single-seater sporting director.



F1 clarifies what ‘working’ on a car means after Alonso penalty mess

Another controversy surrounding Ben Sulayem

Ben Sulayem was elected as FIA president in December 2021, and since he took office, controversies have continued to arise. Throughout his presidency, there has been continued tension with Liberty Media, F1’s commercial rights holder. Ben Sulayem was subject to a legal letter from Liberty last January after suggesting a $20 billion valuation for the racing series was “inflated,” and was reminded commercial matters were outside of his remit.

He has also been strongly in favor of expanding the grid to 11 teams and gave his approval to Andretti’s proposal last October, only for F1 to reject the entry last month.

Early last year, an old website emerged that quoted Sulayem making misogynistic remarks, such as how he doesn’t like talking “about money, nor do I like women who think they are smarter than men, for they are not in truth.” At the time, an FIA spokesperson said, “The remarks in this archived website from 2001 do not reflect the president’s beliefs.” In a Nov. 2023 interview with the Press Association, Ben Sulayem defended the remarks. “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.”

In February 2023, the president said he’d be taking a step back from being directly involved with F1, but he remains a visible figure at most F1 races. He was on the podium in Bahrain to award Max Verstappen the FIA medal for winning the race.

Over the winter, the FIA launched an investigation into Toto and Susie Wolff over an alleged conflict of interest, as he is the team principal of Mercedes and she is the managing director of F1 Academy, the all-women racing series. Mercedes, F1, Susie and the remainder of the F1 teams all spoke out against the probe, and it was dropped after just two days. The last public statement on the matter came from Toto in early December when he shared Mercedes was “in active legal exchange with the FIA.”

The most recent controversy that has captivated the F1 world is the allegations of inappropriate behavior made against Red Bull Racing’s Christian Horner and the subsequent aftermath. Ben Sulayem met with the team principal last Friday in Bahrain and spoke with the Financial Times following the discussion. He said the ongoing situation was “damaging the sport” and “damaging on a human level.” However, he said the FIA could not “jump the gun” on any potential action.

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(Photo: Andrej Isakovic / AFP via Getty Images)

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