FIA president Mohammed Ben Sulayem investigated for ‘attempt to interfere in F1 race result’

Mohammed Ben Sulayem, president of the FIA motorsport federation, prior to the 1st free practice session leading up to the F1 Grand Prix of Belgium at the Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps on August 26, 2022 in Spa, Belgium.
Mohammed Ben Sulayem has been in place at the head of the FIA since the end of 2021 - Getty Images

FIA president Mohammed Ben Sulayem is reportedly under investigation by motorsport’s ruling body for allegedly attempting to interfere with the result of a Formula One race.

The BBC says a whistleblower 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 contained in a report by an FIA compliance officer, Paolo Basarri, to the governing body’s ethics committee, which has been seen by BBC Sport.

Aston Martin's Spanish driver Fernando Alonso reacts after finishing third place at the end of the qualifying session of the Saudi Arabia Formula One Grand Prix at the Jeddah Corniche Circuit in Jeddah on March 18, 2023

The FIA has not yet responded to requests for comment but Telegraph Sport has heard from other sources that the story is correct.

Ben Sulayem, an Emirati former rally driver, took over the presidency from Jean Todt in late 2021. His tenure has been littered with controversy.

Ben Sulayem took over in the immediate wake of the season-ending 2021 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix where Max Verstappen was awarded his maiden world title at Lewis Hamilton’s expense.

The FIA’s handling of that affair, which ended with the governing body dismissing its own race director after what it called a “human error”, caused a major rift with Mercedes and their team principal Toto Wolff in particular.

Ben Sulayem has also had an extremely strained relationship with Formula One and the sport’s owners Liberty Media, holding up a deal between the teams and commercial rights holder to double the number of sprint weekends for 2023, and commenting on the value of the sport.

The 62 year-old stepped back from “day-to-day involvement” in the sport around this time last year, shortly before Telegraph Sport published an investigation into the FIA president following allegations of bullying and misogyny.

There was also the bungled episode over the winter when the FIA launched a short-lived investigation into Wolff and his wife, F1 Academy managing director Susie Wolff, after saying it had received complaints from rival teams over an alleged conflict of interest.

That probe was dropped after two days after all nine of Mercedes’ rivals denied having made a complaint. It is understood Mercedes and Susie Wolff are still seeking redress over that.

Mercedes GP Executive Director Toto Wolff and Managing Director of Formula 1 Academy Susie Wolff enter the paddock during previews ahead of the F1 Grand Prix of Las Vegas at Las Vegas Strip Circuit on November 15, 2023 in Las Vegas, United States
An investigation into the Wolffs was dropped - Getty Images/Kym Illman

Wolff told Telegraph Sport in January that he was “concerned” by the departure of so many FIA figures in recent months. Sporting director Steve Nielsen, the head of the women’s commission Deborah Mayer, FIA single-seater director Tim Goss, Gerd Ennser, the head of German motorsport’s authority the ADAC, who quit his role as an FIA steward, and lawyers Pierre Ketterer and Ed Floyd have all left the governing body.

“You’ve got to ask yourself why is it suddenly that so many people have decided to call it a day?” Wolff said.

The latest allegation, as reported by the BBC, 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 after his pit crew touched his car while he was serving a five-second penalty during the race. The penalty demoted him from third to fourth, behind Mercedes’ George Russell.

The report 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.

In the end, Alonso did have the penalty overturned, lifting him back up into a podium position.

At the time there was no suggestion of impropriety. Rather, credit was given Aston Martin’s sporting director Andy Stevenson, who successfully made the team’s case in a right of review, showing the stewards videos of seven examples of penalty pitstops involving Mercedes, Alpine, AlphaTauri, Haas and McLaren where jacks were touching.

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