F1 owners accuse FIA president of commercial interference

Liberty Media and Formula One sent letter to the governing body accusing it of exceeding its remit over Mohammed Ben Sulayem's comments regarding the sport's valuation

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Formula One owner Liberty Media has accused Mohammed Ben Sulayem of interfering with its commercial rights over comments the FIA president made about the sport's valuation.

Ben Sulayem, who was elected as the head of motorsport's world governing body in 2021, responded to a Bloomberg report that Saudi Arabia's Public Investment Fund (PIF) explored a bid for more than $20 billion.

The body's president said any potential buyers of F1 should have a long-term vision for the sport and not just deep pockets.

He added the FIA had a duty to consider the possible negative impact on fans and promoters, who might have to pay more to host and attend races.

"As the custodians of motorsport, the FIA, as a non-profit organisation, is cautious about alleged inflated price tags of $20bn being put on F1," Ben Sulayem said on his personal Twitter account.

"Any potential buyer is advised to apply common sense, consider the greater good of the sport and come with a clear, sustainable plan – not just a lot of money."

The comments followed his support this month for Michael Andretti's bid to enter an 11th team on the grid – a move most existing teams are resistant to because of the dilution of revenues.

Sky Sports News reported that Formula One's legal head Sacha Woodward Hill and Liberty Media counterpart Renee Wilm had sent a joint letter to the FIA accusing the governing body of exceeding its remit.

The FIA ultimately owns the rights to the championship but signed them over to former supremo Bernie Ecclestone’s Formula One Management in a 100-year deal in 2001 as part of a separation of commercial and regulatory activities.

American conglomerate Liberty Media ended Ecclestone’s reign when it bought F1 from private equity firm CVC Capital Partners for £6.4 billion in 2017.

"The FIA has given unequivocal undertakings that it will not do anything to prejudice the ownership, management and/or exploitation of those rights," Sky quoted Formula One's letter as saying.

"We consider that those comments, made from the FIA president's official social media account, interfere with those rights in an unacceptable manner."

FIA president Mohammed Ben Sulayem, right, speaks with Red Bull Racing team principal Christian Horner. PA

The letter, sent to the FIA's World Motor Sport Council, said the comments risked exposure to "serious regulatory consequences" and the FIA could also be liable.

"Any individual or organisation 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," they said.

“To the degree that these comments damage the value of Liberty Media Corporation, the FIA may be liable as a result.

The letter continued: “[That] any potential purchaser of the Formula One business is required to consult with the FIA is wrong,” and that Ben Sulayem had “overstepped the bounds of the FIA’s remit”.

Reuters reported that teams received copies of the letter on Tuesday from F1 chief executive Stefano Domenicali.

There was no comment from Formula One and no immediate response from the FIA. The National has reached out to the FIA for comment.

The new F1 season starts in Bahrain on March 5. A record 24 races are scheduled to take place with Abu Dhabi hosting the final race on November 26.

Updated: January 25, 2023, 6:52 AM