UAE's new motorsport president Mohammed Ben Sulayem aiming for an explosion of talent

The Dubai-born former rally driver reveals his plans for F1 - and his interest in an Emirati karting sensation

New FIA president Mohammed Ben Sulayem after his election. Reuters
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History maker Mohammed Ben Sulayem took on Lewis Hamilton, mighty Mercedes and the troubles of beleaguered Formula 1 but still had a word for a young Emirati karting superstar.

And this was only day one of the toughest job in world motorsport.

The 60-year-old Emirati walked into the record books as the first non-European president of the sport’s governing body, the FIA, winning more than two-thirds of the vote.

And in the same breath as he spoke of Hamilton and the F1 crisis created at the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, he professed a hope for 13-year-old Emirati karting sensation, Rashid Al Dhaheri.

In a response to a question from The National on whether the first Dubai-born leader of world motorsport could envisage having a locally born racer reach F1 during his four-year tenure he said: “It’s not about the Emiratis it’s about diversity.

“How many people have talent but do they have opportunity? If we can bring the two together, it might even be talented people somewhere else. There are so many regions, I am not biased for my region.

“There is a young driver, I hope will attract sponsors. He’s proven himself, he’s a young karter, his name is Rashid. He’s been racing in Italy and with [good] results.”

That’s to put it mildly. A passion for motor racing triggered by a visit to the Ferrari Grand Prix pit on Yas Island when he was just five has seen Al Dhaheri follow in the footsteps of both Hamilton and controversial new F1 king Max Verstappen to become a world karting champion himself, with his sights set on F1.

Ben Sulayem, one of the Arab world’s leading motor sport figures, is now the most powerful man in F1, elected on a ticket of diversity and expansion, vowing to double the number of racing licences across the planet.

In a steely first public appearance, the 14-time Middle East Rally Champion refused to be drawn into tokenism or trying to win public, or F1 team, support with glib gestures.

Instead he insisted there would be no knee jerk reactions to the biggest issue on his extensive job list, the controversial ending to this year’s F1 championship in Abu Dhabi, nor an easy route to redemption for Hamilton and Mercedes for snubbing Thursday night’s FIA prize-giving gala as a consequence and abandoning their legal commitments as a competitor.

“It's easy to be nice to people. And it is cheap to be nice. And it's also to motivate people. But definitely, if there is any breach, there is no forgiveness in this,” said Ben Sulayem.

Hamilton and his Mercedes team failed to attend the ceremony after the FIA’s all-powerful race director Michael Masi engineered a final lap winner-take-all sprint that allowed Verstappen to seize an unexpected victory and the coveted driver’s world title.

The seven-time champion has gone into hiding and failed to comment publicly, even to his prolific social media following, as his boss Toto Wolff hinted his disillusioned driver could even quit the sport entirely.

But Hamilton’s mood was not quite dark enough to cancel a visit to the UK the day before the Paris gala on Thursday to collect his knighthood from the heir to the British throne, Prince Charles.

Abu Dhabi Grand Prix - in pictures

As a garlanded former driver himself Ben Sulayem professed some sympathy for Hamilton’s distress.

But he added: “Rules are rules, humans made them, they can be improved and changed by humans. I know Lewis is really sad and one word I would use is broken.

“But we have to look to see if there was any breach. I have been a president for a few hours and I cannot just start giving answers without going back to the facts.”

Some have accused the FIA of fixing the result at Yas Marina and blatant disregard for the rule of law.

“If you talk to me about the credibility of the FIA, yes, we rely on good statutes, good teams there is always a place for improvement. We just have to look at where we are,” said Ben Sulayem.

“The FIA are credible. Then you ask me about Masi. I would not jump to conclusions without going back to my team.”

The extreme public reaction has led to calls for Masi to be sacked but Ben Sulayem backed the decision by the previous administration to await the findings of an internal investigation.

“It’s my responsibility to see that we forget the past and look to the future for improvement. We have to improve in every aspect,” he added.

“As a driver I would be so upset for a while but time is factor that will cool and [bring] the new. The holidays are here, Christmas and the New Year, and then we can start afresh, no doubt.”

Ben Sulayem’s elevation reflects the increasing influence of the Middle East in motorsport.

Qatar and Saudi Arabia staged their first Grands Prix this year, joining Bahrain and Abu Dhabi on the calendar.

But the region also hosts Formula E, the Dakar Rally, world endurance, Extreme E and a MotoGP.

“One person said to me, I will not forget it, now that America had a black - that was his word - President, and the Vatican had a non-European Pope, we do not mind someone from your part of the world with the name Mohammed.”

Ben Sulayem recalled how he was forced to race as plain Mohammed Ben when his career started because motorsport was “not acceptable”.

“When I started winning they saw my photos and then they accepted it,” he added.

It’s a history that could serve him well in his professed mission to create exponential growth for the sport, largely from the developing world like China where there are just 8,000 competition licence holders in a population of 2.8 billion.

“We have a lot to do. Yes, we are ambitious, it but all is achievable. Not easy, but achievable. This is a mission. It is not part time,” he added.

Updated: December 18, 2021, 6:31 AM