While Hamilton and Verstappen battle it out on track, there’s another battle brewing off the track – for leadership of the FIA.
The F1 World Championship has started and now we look forward to a great season of racing, as Red Bull and Mercedes seem to be very close and the midfield is so tight that pretty much anyone could end up in fifth and below – although I sense that McLaren is probably going to be leading the way much of the time. The teams, of course, have an eye on 2022, as they will want to get ahead on their work for the new rules and it will be interesting to see which teams switch development to 2022 and which stay fighting for the 2021 championship.
But, in the midst of all this and discussions about the rules for the F1 from 2025-2030, there is one big change going on that one ought not to ignore – as it will mean new ideas and new philosophies in the future. It will decide attitudes towards new teams in F1 and a great deal more. We are now used to Jean Todt being the FIA President, and to be fair to him, he has done a very decent job in bringing the FIA into the modern age – in terms of organisation and being a solid and steadying force. He has played the political game well and he has shaped F1 how it should be. But his time is now running out.
The FIA has a rule that no one can be President for more than two four-year terms, and that no one over 75 can stand for office. In February, Todt turned 75, and so when we get to December and the FIA Annual General Assembly, he will be heaped with praise and honorary titles and will then exit the scene. I cannot imagine Jean toiling in a garden and I presume he will go on doing some of his other jobs, and I suspect that if he is allowed to, he will keep a weathered eye on his successor at the FIA.
It seems that there already are only two candidates for the job. The current FIA Deputy President of Sport Graham Stoker, and former rally driver Mohammed bin Sulayem, who comes from the United Arab Emirates. Other possible candidates such as David Richards and Alejandro Agag seem to have decided not to run, which makes sense in some respects. Agag has other things to do and money to make, while Richards is the head of Motorsport UK and running against Stoker would be a little too incestuous. And there is still something of a suspicion in FIA circles about there being too much British influence following the age of Max Mosley and his entourage.
It’s true that the British motorsport industry is still an important force in the world of motorsport, but it’s not quite the same as before. And some clubs see the idea of a non-European President as a good idea. If you look back over the 117-year history of the organisation, it is completely dominated by European aristocrats. The first five Presidents from 1904 to 1965 were all noblemen or Princes. There was a brief interlude with a British bureaucrat Wilfred Andrews between 1965 and 1971, and then it was back to a couple more nobles until the arrival in 1985 of Jean-Marie Balestre. Some forget that Mosley too was an aristocrat. Why is it like that? Because the job is a non-paying role and so it is only really rich men who can consider doing it. Maybe that should change one day, but back in the old days, the thinking was that those who are unaffected by money would be less open to persuasion…
Stoker is clearly a candidate who will benefit from the existing status quo. Todt’s voting bloc will re-elect him if it stays together. He’s been a low profile Deputy President of Sport and doesn’t have a glittering record as a competitor, but he is clearly a clever man to have climbed as high as he has. He a British barrister who has been involved in motorsport since he joined the Royal Automobile Club Motor Sports Association in 1985. He became chairman of the British Touring Car Championship stewards from 1995 to 2001, and then chairman of the Motor Sports Council, which oversees all UK motorsport activities and that led to a role on the FIA International Court of Appeal and his election as a member of the World Motor Sport Council representing the UK in 2004. He has been Deputy President for Sport since Todt was elected in 2009, his inclusion in the Todt ticket being a nod to the British influence. He will be 69 in July and is nearly a decade older than Bin Sulayem, who turns 60 in November.
Bin Sulayem would certainly be a big change for the FIA and the first non-European President if elected. He comes from a wealthy background, having been born into one of Dubai’s most influential families, his father Ahmed was an advisor for many years to the ruling Al-Maktoum family and his brother Sultan is chairman and CEO of DP World, which describes itself as “a global trade enabler”, employing 50,000 people in 150 companies and runs ports and terminals, industrial parks, logistic companies and economic zones, maritime services and marinas.
Bin Sulayem discovered rallying by accident, but had the money to have good machinery – and, between 1986 and 2002, he won the Middle East Rally Championship 14 times and took part in a number of FIA World Rally Championships events. He inaugurated the UAE Desert Challenge in 1991 and in 2006 he became the President of the Automobile & Touring Club of the United Arab Emirates (ATCUAE). He was a big supporter of Mosley and played an important role in helping him win a confidence vote to stay in office after his sex scandal back in 2008. He was rewarded by being appointed an FIA Vice President. But he is something of a maverick, saying some pretty daft things after the Mosley scandal and then getting egg on his face big time when he tried to drive a Renault R28 F1, only to crash it on the start straight… Since then he has calmed down a bit and done good work on the mobility side of the FIA. He has already decided that his Deputy President Sport will be Scotsman Robert Reid (55), who was a World Championship-winning co-driver with Richard Burns and has been active in FIA circles for many years. Reid is a good solid individual and so adds to the value of the Bin Sulayem package.
Stoker has yet to say who will be his Deputy President of Sport, but he needs a good candidate to compete with Reid.
So, while the racing on the circuits will be worth watching in 2021, keep an eye too on the fight for who will be making decisions at the FIA after Todt steps down.
Joe Saward has been covering Formula 1 full-time for over 30 years. He has not missed a race since 1988.