Mohammed ben Sulayem will be one of just two names on the ballot for FIA President in December, to succeed Jean Todt in the most powerful job in motorsport as head of the worldwide federation that owns and regulates F1 and the other World Championships. If successful, Ben Sulayem would be the first non-European to lead the FIA.
The 59-year-old is one of the most prominent figures in motorsport from the Middle East. A former multiple regional rally champion as a driver, he is President of the UAE motorsport federation and since 2008 he has sat on the World Motor Sport Council as an FIA Vice President for Sport. So why has he decided to stand for FIA President?
“Motorsport has given me a lot, most of my life, “says Ben Sulayem. “As a driver for 20 years I’ve won 14 times (Middle East rally Championship), then became an organizer in charge of motorsport at home. I believe it is time to give back to the sport and the federation. I’m passionate to make a change and to improve, to follow some of the steps but also to evolve.”
Ben Sulayem has been weighing up a run for FIA president for some time and the retirement of Todt after three terms presents the opportunity. He recently published his manifesto and is standing on a ticket that promises to grow participation in the sport worldwide as well as more financial transparency.
Ben Sulayem’s vision for running the FIA differs from Todt’s and that of his deputy president Graham Stoker, who is Ben Sulayem’s opponent in the election, in one key respect: he would employ a CEO to run the Federation. Under Todt and his predecessor Max Mosley, the President runs the FIA, while the two pillars of sport and mobility (road transport) are each managed by a Secretary-General. This new vision would create a very powerful new role and see the FIA run more like a business.
“The day-to-day management, it's not for the President,” he says. “I don't want to micromanage. I want to be a President, to lead, but to hand the day-to-day to a CEO, who can bring the sport and mobility together.” If elected he and his appointed CEO would put the emphasis on growing participation, with a promise to double the number of participants worldwide in four years.
Ben Sulayem argues that if Finland with a population of 5.5 million people has 11,000 competition license holders, then there is huge development potential in China and India which have only around 4,000 license holders each. So how will he do that? He gives the example of Cross Car, which is the FIA’s concept for low-cost entry-level rallying, essentially an off-road buggy powered by a motorbike engine, like go-karts is a gateway to circuit racing.
“(You need to) have affordable vehicles in the introductory level,” he says. “We started something called Cross Car. And that was amazing, I believe it is the future. But the costs are supposed to be like €8,000, no more. And then it jumped to €25,000. If you look at India and China, they have engines, why do we impose on them? We take the blueprint, we make sure we supervise and implement the safety regulations in it and let them go into their own local championship and regional championships? If we put a target in four years to double it, it is achievable.
“Formula One and WRC are in good shape, they are very healthy. But the world needs more than that. I mean, we're talking about local or regional level, you need local participation, you need local events, and you need regional events. That can only happen if we do it in an affordable way.”
As well as seeking to double the participants in motorsport, Ben Sulayem wants to boost the power of the regional motorsport hubs and to have greater transparency on the financial side of the Federation.
“The financial (side) of the FIA is not healthy, we want to go and have a look at the financials and the proof to make also the FIA back into the business in a positive way, “ he says. ”Transparency and accountability are very important if you want to be taken seriously in the world. So for example, the FIA accounts, when we wanted to take a look at them, were very hard to achieve or to obtain. So I believe we should follow the leading Federations in the world, like the IOC, which we are part of, you will see all the accounts being listed on their website.”
Ben Sulayem’s running mate as Deputy President for Sport is former world rally champion co-driver, Robert Reid, while one eye-catching name on the ticket is Bernie Ecclestone’s wife Fabiana, who is running as a vice president for sport for the South American region.
The election will take place on December 17th in Paris. It will be a significant moment for the sport because, with all the challenges facing motorsport from environmental concerns to the need for greater diversity, the next four years will be important for setting the course for the future.