The 2023 Formula One season was rather mundane. Max Verstappen easily won the title in a confident and commanding fashion, one of the most dominant performances in the sport’s history. However, after the race ended, there were signs of intense discontent, suspicion, and disagreement among those involved in the sport.
On December 23rd, it became public knowledge that Steve Nielsen, the sporting director for the FIA in Formula One, had stepped down from his position after less than a year. He was appointed in January to address concerns about the FIA’s handling of race control, particularly following the contentious 2021 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix that caused frustration for Lewis Hamilton and Mercedes.
Nielsen was received with open arms, having a wealth of experience and high regard from his time at Lotus, Tyrell, Williams, Benetton, and most recently, Formula One Management (FOM).
The FIA president, Mohammed ben Sulayem, announced that appointing him was a crucial step in the FIA’s efforts to reorganize and enhance their management of F1. There have been reports that Nielsen was dissatisfied with the FIA’s unwillingness to make the changes he felt were needed and was dissatisfied with their approach.
His premature exit comes after a catalogue of turmoil that has embroiled Ben Sulayem and FIA this year and put it at odds with the commercial rights holder, FOM, and, at times, the teams.
Two weeks before Nielsen resigned, the head of the FIA’s commission for women, Deborah Mayer, quit. Both departures were preceded by what had already had been an embarrassing end to the year for the FIA. It had caused consternation by launching a conflict of interest investigation into the Mercedes principal, Toto Wolff, and his wife, Susie, who runs the sport’s all-female series, the F1 Academy.
The investigation ultimately yielded no results. Both Mercedes and Susie Wolff criticized it, with Wolff calling it “disrespectful”. FOM cautioned against making baseless and serious accusations. The following day, all nine teams released nearly identical statements stating that they had not reported any information being shared between the Wolffs.
The FIA quickly changed their stance and declared that there was no wrongdoing, but did not provide an explanation for launching the investigation. This could still have consequences as the matter is being handled by lawyers representing Mercedes and Wolff.
The Observer has knowledge that FOM was very worried about the damage to the sport’s reputation, which seemed to be based on minimal or non-existent evidence. The already tense relationship with the FIA was also becoming more strained.
The FOM has lost trust and faith in the FIA under Ben Sulayem’s leadership. There have been disputes with Hamilton regarding wearing jewelry while racing, objections to adding sprint races, and restrictions on drivers sharing their opinions on social and political matters. This received criticism and had to be clarified that it only applied to topics already regulated by the FIA, like the podium. It was seen as an unnecessary and excessive response.
Ben Sulayem caused controversy when he openly doubted the worth of the sport, leading to a strong reaction from FOM who warned that he had violated their rights in an unacceptable way. In April, he was accused of not taking sexism in the FIA seriously, but the governing body denied these accusations. This controversy stemmed from quotes on his old website from over 20 years ago, in which he expressed his opinion that women are not smarter than men.
Ben Sulayem refuted allegations of misogyny and in response, the FIA declared that his statements do not align with the beliefs of the FIA president. They also highlighted his past efforts in advocating for women and equality in sports. However, according to one insider, he is viewed as a source of ridicule within the paddock.
The perception will remain unchanged despite the events that occurred in the last weeks of 2023. The FIA has not issued a statement regarding Nielsen or clarified the details of its inquiry into the Wolffs.
There is a lack of transparency and trust, but there seems to be unnecessary hostility prevailing. In November, Ben Sulayem stated that he would be willing to have Michael Masi, the race director for the 2021 Abu Dhabi event, return to the FIA if necessary. Masi was in charge of the decisions that likely caused Hamilton to lose the title and were acknowledged by the FIA’s investigation as unintentional mistakes. Mercedes, Wolff, and numerous supporters were angry at the time and continue to hold Masi accountable.
The occurrences bring up doubts about the effectiveness of the FIA under its current leadership, or if the governing body is simply reacting haphazardly. This situation must be addressed. The relationship between the FIA and F1 is already strained, and each new controversy only adds to the tension. More dissatisfaction with the FIA in the upcoming year will only escalate the growing political conflict.