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Posted March 4, 2024 04:01 PM

FIA president Ben Sulayem investigated for alleged race interference

Mohammed Ben Sulayem: FIA president under investigation for alleged attempt to interfere over F1 race

Mohammed Ben Sulayem, president of motorsport's governing body the FIA, is under investigation for allegedly interfering over a Formula 1 race result.

A whistleblower has told the FIA that Ben Sulayem allegedly intervened to overturn a penalty given to Aston Martin's Fernando Alonso at the 2023 Saudi Arabian Grand Prix.

The claim is in a report by an FIA compliance officer to its ethics committee, which has been seen by BBC Sport.

Ben Sulayem and the FIA have not responded to requests for comment.

The allegation made by the whistleblower is that Ben Sulayem called Sheikh Abdullah bin Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa - the FIA's vice-president for sport for the Middle East and North Africa region, who was in Saudi Arabia for the race in an official capacity - and made it clear he thought Alonso's penalty should be revoked.

Alonso had been given a 10-second penalty for work done on his car while he was serving a previous five-second penalty.

The report, by compliance officer Paolo Basarri, says the whistleblower reported that Ben Sulayem "pretended the stewards to overturn their decision to issue" the penalty to Alonso.

In Italian, the word "pretendere" means to require or expect.

The ethics committee is expected to take four to six weeks to issue its report.

The penalty in question had dropped Alonso from third place - behind Red Bull drivers Sergio Perez and Max Verstappen - to fourth, also behind Mercedes' George Russell. Withdrawing it returned him to a podium position.

In addition, BBC Sport has verified the information with several senior figures at high levels in F1 and close to the FIA. None would go on the record, but all said they had the same information.

What happened in Saudi Arabia 2023?
Alonso received an initial five-second penalty for placing his car partially outside his starting box on the grid for the race.

This was served at Alonso's first pit stop, but the two-time champion was then given a 10-second penalty because Aston Martin were judged to have contravened the rules by working on his car.

The penalty was imposed because Alonso's car had been touched by the rear jack before the full time duration had elapsed, in contravention of F1 rules.

At the time, the justification given by the stewards for overturning the decision referred to a discussion that had taken place between the F1 teams and the FIA on the subject of working on cars while serving a penalty in the pits.

The right of review decision said: "We concluded that there was no clear agreement, as was suggested to the stewards previously, that could be relied upon to determine that parties had agreed that a jack touching a car would amount to working on the car."

At the time, article 54.4c) of the sporting regulations said: "While a car is stationary in the pit lane as a result of incurring a penalty in accordance with Articles 54.3a) or 54.3b) above, it may not be worked on until the car has been stationary for the duration of the penalty."

After the race and following the Alonso situation, an additional sentence was added: "In this context, touching the car or driver by hand or tools or equipment will all constitute working."

Had this sentence been in place at the time, there would have been no question that the stewards had made the right initial decision.

What is the context for this?
The revelation of an attempt to interfere over the penalty decision is the latest in a series of controversies to embroil Ben Sulayem since being elected in December 2021.

Most recently, the FIA launched a compliance inquiry into Mercedes team principal Toto Wolff and his wife Susie on the basis of claims in a magazine of a conflict of interest.

The inquiry was withdrawn after just two days, following angry interventions from Mercedes, F1 and the other nine teams, who all said they had not made a complaint.

Insiders say that the FIA may face legal action over the Wolffs matter.

A series of controversies through 2022, Ben Sulayem's first year in office, led to widespread concern in F1 about his presidency and calls from senior figures for him to be replaced.

After pressure over the winter of 2022-23, Ben Sulayem said he would take a step back from direct involvement in F1, saying it had been his "stated objective to be a non-executive president".

The controversies included but were not limited to:

Blocking for six months an agreement between the teams and commercial rights holder to double the number of sprint weekends for 2023

Receiving a "cease-and-desist" letter from F1's lawyers following his reaction on social media to a story claiming Saudi Arabia's Public Investment Fund had tried to buy the sport for $20bn

The emergence of a historical website that quoted him making misogynistic remarks

Ben Sulayem has said his intervention over the sprints was to ensure the FIA had sufficient resources to handle the change; he has not commented on the cease-and-desist letter.

He defended historical sexist remarks on his website in an interview with the Press Association last November, saying: "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."

A number of senior figures have resigned from the FIA in recent months. These include Steve Nielsen, who took on the role of sporting director in early 2023 and resigned before he had spent a year in his role; the head of the women's commission Deborah Mayer; Gerd Ennser, the head of German motorsport's authority the ADAC, who quit his role as an FIA steward; lawyers Pierre Ketterer and Ed Floyd; and FIA single-seater director Tim Goss.

None of these figures have given public explanations for their departure from the FIA. Goss, a former McLaren technical director, took a job as chief technical officer of Red Bull's RB team.

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