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Both F1 and the FIA have been engaged in a dangerous public game of one-upmanship, despite scenes of unity seen here at the 2022 Austrian Grand Prix (Image Credit: @Ben_Sulayem on Twitter)

FIA vs F1: how far will this dangerous game go?

Fallout between governing body and commercial rights holder risks placing F1 in a precarious position

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As the battle for control of the sport between the FIA and F1 rumbles on, the image of F1 itself risks becoming tarnished. Look past the headlines and tweets, it is clear a dangerous game is in play. 

Andretti and Cadlilac's proposed entry into F1 is in the middle of a dangerous game being played by the F1 and the FIA (Image Credit: @FollowAndretti on Twitter)
Andretti and Cadlilac’s proposed entry into F1 is in the middle of a dangerous game being played by the F1 and the FIA (Image Credit: @FollowAndretti on Twitter)

The unpleasant saga of F1 threatening to take legal action against the FIA has been truly tragic to watch unfold. The recent culmination of President ben Sulayem of the FIA and F1’s gamesmanship indicates a plague of spite festering beneath the surface on both sides.

To fully understand the reasons why the powers that be are constantly attempting to gain the upper hand over the other, it is important to understand what is at stake. The answer is, of course, simple, money and power. But there is more to this than meets the eye.

F1 has seen unprecedented growth since the introduction of Drive to Survive in 2019. A legion of new fans has entered the sport bringing more revenue. Manufacturer interest in the sport continues to grow which is another potential avenue to exploit F1’s popularity. The sport has rarely had things so good. Even the events of Abu Dhabi 2021 generated headlines and income for the sport despite the infamy. All news is good news after all.

With F1 now a goldmine, who is the power that looks after the sport? This is where F1 has done the traditional act of shooting itself in the foot. The problem is, the FIA and F1 are two very different organisations, with set principles. Both at present cannot perform the same role, and this is leading to friction and very public disagreements.

FIA’s operation
The FIA has a strained relationship history with its top motorsport series, sometimes playing a dangerous game with F1 (Image Credit: FIA.com, photo by Ker Robertson/Getty Images)
The FIA has a strained relationship history with its top motorsport series, sometimes playing a dangerous game with F1 (Image Credit: FIA.com, photo by Ker Robertson/Getty Images)

The role of the FIA (Federation Internationale Automobile) is to govern the sport. It looks after the regulations, monitors the teams for transgressions and chairs the World Motorsport Council. Its function is by its nature regulatory. On the surface, the FIA does not dive into commercial matters. It only deals with sporting issues.

However, the “Don King” clause within the commercial rights agreement allows the FIA to intervene regarding ownership. If the FIA deems F1 is not being sold to a “fit and proper” owner, the FIA can veto the sale.

The FIA President’s recent media interactions stating the rumoured $20 billion figure F1 is now rumoured to be valued at was inflated led to a sharp rebuke from F1 itself. The FIA President has been silent since. While the veto was not formally activated as the potential Saudi sale only proved to be a rumour, the tweets can be seen as a way of President ben Sulayem flexing his muscles.

After a quiet era under the management of Jean Todt, President Mohammed has been more active with the media. While Todt gave the occasional press conference, he rarely spoke at race events. Ben Sulayem by comparison is an active Twitter user, recently using the platform to announce the FIA was opening a tender for new teams.

Who gets credit?
F1 and the FIA at Audi's announcement will compete in F1 in 2026 (Image Credit: FIA.com)
F1 and the FIA at Audi’s announcement will compete in F1 in 2026 (Image Credit: FIA.com)

The tender itself has also proved to be an interesting chapter in the war between the FIA and F1. Andretti has received the cold shoulder from F1 itself, for a multitude of reasons. However, President ben Sulayem has thrown his very public support behind the venture, pushing the potential entry hard. His stance has hardened since the announcement General Motors and Cadillac will be part of the venture. F1 is wary of the entry, so why is the FIA pushing this so hard? One word: Audi.

Audi’s confirmed entry into the sport is a massive win F1. The hard graft did not come from the FIA, but from Stefano Domenicali and F1 itself. The FIA has been present at announcements and unveilings as part of its attempts to show unity. But the push for Andretti and the Twitter scandals of attempting to influence F1’s value and any potential buyout of the sport from Liberty Media shows the FIA could be positioning itself for an attempt to wrestle elements of commercial control away from F1. The “Don King” clause could prove to be key in years to come.

F1’s new outlook under Liberty Media
F1's outreach is now substantial, now with a motorhome to match (Image Credit: Autosport)
F1’s outreach is now substantial, now with a motorhome to match (Image Credit: Autosport)

Formula One Management and its owner Liberty Media are the Commercial Rights Holders for the sport. The role of these organisations is by nature commercial. The ventures deal with rights to show F1 on TV, hosting fees for races, chasing new races and general race organisation. The lease for the commercial rights come from the FIA itself, who sold them to Bernie Ecclestone in 2000 after he had spent years building the political power do so.

Liberty Media’s takeover in 2017 from CVC Capital Partners and Ecclestone  ensured a smooth transition of power as well as of F1’s commercial rights.

The sale heralded a new era for the sport. F1 became more open and accessible. Greater influence has been placed on fan engagement, with the sport’s traditional races being publicly reassured of their importance. The outdated app that debuted in 2014 finally became usable. F1 TV became affordable and accessible to those who wanted documentaries, classic races and everything in between.

Liberty’s approach has been to rapidly expand the sport’s appeal and reap the rewards. The addition of Saudi Arabia, Miami and the new headline act of the Las Vegas race, F1 is now very much in a golden era of popularity.

Not content with expanding the calendar, Liberty and F1 have pushed for new manufacturers to join the grid. With the removal of the costly MGU-H element from the power units in 2026, F1 successfully lured the VW Group into the sport after years of courting. Ford has confirmed its 2026 comeback, with other manufacturers also investigating F1 bids.

The FIA attempting to influence conversations over F1’s value and pushing for a particular entrant into the sport has rattled F1 and Liberty. Both want a piece of the lucrative and profitable business has now become. Both could want more power. A very dangerous and public game has started, which needs to be quelled quickly to prevent escalation. The worst-case scenario is a split.

Is a split possible?
The Formula One Teams Association (FOTA) played a dangerous game of politics with the FIA, resulting in the threat of a breakaway series to rival F1 (Image Credit: BBC Sport)
The Formula One Teams Association (FOTA) played a dangerous game of politics with the FIA, resulting in the threat of a breakaway series to rival F1 (Image Credit: BBC Sport)

After the metaphorical slap on the wrist from F1 and Liberty Media, the silence spoke volumes. The FIA has, at least for the time being learned its lessons. As reported by Sky Sports, “positive conversations” have taken place between F1 and the embattled FIA President.  What will be interesting as the new season begins in earnest is the profile President ben Sulayem has in public.

If he continues to be vocal and seeks to gain further influence over F1’s dealings, then the risk of a split comes a very real possibility. The CVC and  Ecclestone days that preceded Liberty kept F1 tightly controlled, with Ecclestone the main broker of any deals. But in 2009, discontent between FOTA (Formula One Teams Association) and the FIA reached boiling point, and the threat of a breakaway looked set to happen.

2009 was the last year where manufacturers dominated the grid: with the likes of Toyota, BWW, Cosworth, Mercedes, Renault, and Ferrari all present. Politics is power in F1 as well as a fast car, and the FIA needed to reign in the power of these teams.  With spiralling costs, the FIA stated a mandated cost cap would be introduced in 2010. Fierce resistance followed, and an agreement could not be found. The FOTA teams reacted by  announcing their intent to form their own series. The dangerous game now had potentially stratospherically high stakes.

Once again, Bernie Ecclestone’s role as a deal broker proved to be invaluable. Ecclestone and CVC met with all teams as well as the FIA to thrash out a new Concorde Agreement. This contract binds the teams and FIA together and ensures the sport’s survival.  The deal was signed after initial objections, were overcome. The breakaway threat disappeared, though sadly BMW and Toyota followed at the end of the year.

A chance to avoid history repeating itself

The 2009 cost cap saga was caused by the FIA simply doing its role to lower costs and govern the sport. Factions on both sides saw the game being played, the stakes as melodramatically high.  What rattled F1 and Liberty was the FIA President attempting to influence sporting matters.

The difference between now and 2009 is one word, communication. Whilst disagreements seem to be had, both sides sitting down for constructive discussions show a willingness to move on before issues escalate shows that times are changing. The battle for power goes on, but in today’s world of give and take no quarter, communication is now key. The teams are equally unimpressed by recent events, supposedly calling for the FIA President to be removed from his position. 

We are a long way from the 2009 saga repeating, but F1, Liberty and the FIA need to heed warnings from the sport’s history.  A game of cat and mouse can easily become unmanageable and escalate beyond recovery if not judged correctly. The commercial and sporting sides of the sport battling in public or behind the scenes is a very dangerous game to play.  If both parties do not communicate, the consequences can be catastrophic.

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