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F1 vs FIA: Understanding the Alleged Sale Controversy and the Role of Ben Sulayem

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Formula One (F1) bosses have accused FIA president Mohammed Ben Sulayem of “unacceptable” interference in the alleged sale of the sport. Reports of a $20bn (£16.3bn) Saudi Arabian bid to buy F1’s commercial rights prompted Ben Sulayem to raise concerns on Twitter about the potential consequences of an “inflated” takeover, such as higher ticket prices for fans if the new owners attempted to recoup their investment.

Ben also stated that a potential buyer of F1 should come with a clear, sustainable plan, rather than just a large amount of money.

Sky Sports News reported on Monday that Ben Sulayem’s remarks angered senior F1 officials, and legal bosses have now written to the FIA warning that his tweets had “interfered with our rights in an unacceptable manner”.

In a letter first reported by Sky News, but also seen by Sky Sports News, F1 general counsel Sacha Woodward Hill and Renee Wilm, chief legal and administrative officer of Liberty Media Corporation, F1’s controlling shareholder, have accused the FIA of straying beyond its remit. The letter has also been circulated to all 10 F1 teams. Sky Sports News contacted the FIA for a response but has received no comment.

Ben Sulayem’s comments were in response to a report last week by Bloomberg News that Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund had explored a $20bn takeover bid for the sport in 2022. Neither F1 nor Saudi’s Public Investment Fund have commented on the report.

The letter warned the FIA that “Formula 1 has the exclusive right to exploit the commercial rights in the FIA Formula One World Championship” under a 100-year deal. It stated that “the FIA has given unequivocal undertakings that it will not do anything to prejudice the ownership, management and/or exploitation of those rights,” and considered Ben Sulayem’s comments, made from the FIA president’s official social media account, to be an interference with those rights in an unacceptable manner.

This response to Ben Sulayem’s comments comes at a time of heightened tensions between F1 and its governing body. The letter from Woodward Hill and Wilm also stated that the suggestion, implicit in the FIA president’s remarks, “that any potential purchaser of the Formula 1 business is required to consult with the FIA is wrong.”

It added that Ben Sulayem had “overstepped the bounds of the FIA’s remit,” and that “any individual or organization commenting on the value of a listed entity or its subsidiaries, especially claiming or implying possession of inside knowledge while doing so, risks causing substantial damage to the shareholders and investors of that entity, not to mention potential exposure to serious regulatory consequences.”

The letter also warned that “to the degree that these comments damage the value of Liberty Media Corporation, the FIA may be liable as a result.”

Ahead of the 2023 season, this is a significant conflict at the top of the sport. Formula 1 is owned by American company Liberty Media, and is a listed company. If someone of the standing of the FIA president makes an observation into what the appropriate value potentially is, that could be to the company’s commercial detriment.

This is just one of a number of issues which over the course of Mohammed Ben Sulayem’s tenure has irked not just F1, but some of the teams as well. A senior figure has stated that there is a discussion amongst a number of teams about just how long Mohammed Ben Sulayem can continue in this job.

There are questions being asked about his tenure because of what’s becoming an increasingly fractious relationship between the governing body and the commercial rights holder, and by extension the teams. It’s a style of leadership as much as anything else.

It all dates back to an unease, which some people in the sport have, of the arrangement by which the FIA (then headed by Max Mosley) over a decade ago sold the lease of the commercial rights for 100 years to an organization then run by Bernie Ecclestone.

This sale has been a source of tension between F1 and the FIA, and it seems that the latest incident involving Ben Sulayem’s comments has only served to exacerbate this tension.

The question now remains as to what the outcome of this conflict will be. Will Ben Sulayem continue in his role as FIA president or will he be forced to step down? Will the FIA be held liable for any damage caused to Liberty Media Corporation’s value? Only time will tell, but one thing is certain, the world of F1 is currently in a state of flux, and fans, teams, and stakeholders alike will be watching closely to see how this situation unfolds.

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