Ben Sulayem became the successor to Jean Todt in last December’s election, and arrived at motor racing’s governing body in the days after the controversial 2021 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix.
But reflecting on his experiences over the past 12 months, Ben Sulayem says that there was no honeymoon period for him as he walked straight into a legal issue.
This involved a court case in the United States regarding a potential patent infringement of the halo by the FIA. The action had been brought about by its inventor Jens H. S. Nygaard.
In the end the matter was settled, but it still took a lot of Ben Sulayem’s focus in the weeks after he took over the presidency.
“Imagine yourself being elected in the role after all these years of trying, everybody having a party on the night of the 17th (December), then you go to the office on the 18th and 10 o’clock in the morning, the first thing you meet is your legal people and they say you have a big court case with the halo,” he said.
“We cannot talk much about it, but the feeling I had was not good. But you go on, it’s huge but I’m very happy that a month ago that was cleared.
“It was a big burden on my shoulders, because as president, it would have affected us in a very legal, financial way. Now it’s behind us, and the halo is patented to the FIA, so that’s good.”
A huge FIA flag flies on the grid
Photo by: Mark Sutton / Motorsport Images
Sulayem also says that adding to his difficulties over recent months was clearing a cash deficit at the governing body.
“There was a financial issue that we didn’t know about,” he said. “We had a deficit, even before the pandemic, but I’m pleased to have cleared that.”
The financial deficit was one of the reasons that the FIA set about hiring former Volvo, Nissan and DaimlerChrysler executive Natalie Robyn to become its first CEO.
Ben Sulayem added: “We never had a CEO for 118 years. And if we want to deal with the challenges that’s going on, I cannot go and micromanage.
“When you go to the CEO, you’re talking about policies, you’re talking about managing the structure, you’re talking about day-to-day running of the FIA, and you’re talking about the finance.
“We all know and I’ll be very honest with you, we had an issue with the finance. We had a deficit this year, which was over $20 million. I’m very happy to know that even with it, we never stopped any of the support of the grants or the efficiency of the FIA towards any ASN or any club. And we’re still saving.”
Ben Sulayem says he has learned a lot during his first year in charge, but thinks the process of improving will never stop.
“It has been one year of learning and one year of studying what’s going on, not just in the Formula 1, but in the FIA in general,” he said.
“As you know, we have a very unique sport. When I talk to our colleagues in football, I say, what you have is a bit easier. You have two sides in football, you have one size of a football goal, and you have one ball.
“But here, we have just one small discipline that has so many configurations, is always evolving and always changing depending on a lot of factors. I mean, even if you look at the economic factors, the social factor, everything is changing. So the challenge is there,
“I don’t think we can address just one regulation and leave it and then say that’s it, we fixed it. We are always open to suggestions, we always learn from the drivers, we learn from the teams, we learn from ourselves. So the process of evolving is always there.
“It hasn’t been easy. We had a few of the issues, but there is no blame game. I feel that, with the right people, we are in the process of improving the sport.”