The election of a new FIA president is a rare occurrence, when you consider that only Jean Todt and Max Mosley have served in the role since 1991. So for 30 years – the entire span of many motorsport fans’ followership of the sport – these two giants have been at the helm.
It is in that context that we have to approach the election of Mohammed ben Sulayem of the UAE, a former multiple rally champion and more recently organiser in the Middle East region. He is the first non-European ever to be elected president and he’s a man in a hurry, with an ambition to double the number of worldwide competition licence holders in his initial four-year term.
Ben Sulayem takes on the most powerful role in motorsport at a time of great change in the world outside. Motorsport is only half of his new mandate as he also heads the Mobility side of the FIA, which relates to topics around general motoring; road safety, crash tests, vehicle emissions and so on. The automotive industry is arguably at the greatest pivot point in its history since the invention of the internal combustion engine, and everything that happens in motorsport is downstream of that.
However, some would argue – and I would be one of them – that motorsport should also be viewed as being upstream, as so much of the technological progress that is seen in road cars comes from what is proven first on the race track. There are countless examples from seat belts to disc brakes, but it is in the field of electric motors, hybrid engines and sustainable fuels that motorsport has real future relevance.
This is one of the most powerful arguments for its validity, particularly at a time when the world’s population is becoming increasingly engaged in the arguments on climate change. And it will be up to the new FIA administration to make that case at the highest levels of government, led by ben Sulayem, but also by his deputy president for sport Robert Reid, World Rally champion with Subaru in 2001 as co-driver to Richard Burns.
Ben Sulayem’s election, beating Graham Stoker – the ‘continuity candidate’ as Todt’s deputy president for sport – by 61.6% to 36.6%, was a signal from the clubs around the world who voted that it’s time for a change. Ben Sulayem and his team had done more than 2000 hours of consultation with national federations, listening to their concerns and ambitions. His manifesto gave them the narrative they were looking for; a change of approach, a new world order.
Bin Sulayem marks a break from the previous regime headed by Todt
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This takes nothing away from Todt’s legacy, and a great deal has been achieved in his 12 years as FIA president. But there are some significant changes that have taken place with this election that fans will become aware of over time and that will reshape global motorsport.
Ben Sulayem will depart from the model used by Mosley and Todt and will appoint a CEO to run the day-to-day activities. Todt and Mosley were the de facto CEO in their administrations, combining both the political and business management of the federation. Ben Sulayem will be a different kind of president, focusing on the political and strategic side. Many national federations operate in this way with a CEO beneath the chairman or president, including Motorsport UK, whose chairman David Richards publicly backed ben Sulayem’s campaign.
The ultimate authority in the FIA lies with the World Motor Sport Council. This is the body that meets four times a year and approves calendars, rule changes and so on. The composition of the WMSC, post elections, is quite different with no seat for representatives from Italy, France, Germany or Japan. The UK has a seat and is represented by Richards, who becomes a more powerful figure on the world stage as a result of this election. Many new countries now have World Council representation such as Barbados and Turkey.
What does this mean? It means a turning of the page from the old order; the influence of the old powerhouse nations will diminish (excluding the UK) and the federation will move forward with more of a priority on developing the sport and empowering the regions, especially those outside Europe.
It means an emphasis on making motorsport more accessible to participants and to fans and reducing costs, particularly in developing countries. The new administration wants to help regions such as Africa, Asia and the Middle East to build motorsport infrastructure to be able to develop their own stars of the future, male and female. Gaming and Esports will also play an important role, both as a feeder for real motorsport but also as a participation sport in its own right.
It also means a return, albeit in the background, for Bernie Ecclestone. The former F1 CEO, now 91 years old, is a supporter of ben Sulayem and is represented in the leadership team by his wife Fabiana, who was elected vice-president for sport for South America. How much influence Ecclestone wields from the back seat over matters relating to Formula 1 and other branches of motorsport, time will tell.
Ben Sulayem won the support of Motorsport UK chairman Richards, but it’s in developing regions where his greatest impact is set to be felt
Photo by: Sutton Images