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Formula 1

Ben Sulayem escalates pressure on F1 to let Andretti in

by Matt Beer
4 min read

Now it had given the Andretti Formula 1 team its official blessing, would the FIA and its president Mohammed Ben Sulayem step back from the contentious new teams issue while F1 itself conducted its part of the process and came to its own conclusion about whether Andretti should get a grid slot?

It was never likely. And that was both because of how the new teams/Andretti debate has become so central in the tensions between the FIA and F1, and because there appears to be such a groundswell of fan support for the idea of Andretti (and others) joining an expanded grid that it was unlikely Ben Sulayem would resist a chance to remind the world how firmly in favour he and the FIA are.

Sure enough, Ben Sulayem took aim at F1 and the existing teams in an interview with Reuters during the Qatar Grand Prix weekend.

He took the chance to remind the opposition of all the things it would be daring to say no to: an American-based, manufacturer-backed project already fully approved by the FIA.

"Saying no to a team which has been approved by the FIA, it’s very hard to say no," said Ben Sulayem, adding in reference to Andretti's partnership with Cadillac: "The FIA should be asking, begging, OEMs [car manufacturers] to come in. We should not just say no to them."

He described it as his "dream" to secure "one US team from an OEM and a PU [power unit] and a driver from there driving. And then go to China maybe and ask for the same thing and do it".

Suggestions that it would be healthier for Andretti and Cadillac to buy an existing F1 team? That's not the FIA's job (and in fairness, Andretti had previously tried to buy Sauber and has spoken of trying to buy Haas).

"You cannot force Andretti/GM to buy another team just because they [current team owners] want to sell," said Ben Sulayem.

"I won’t mention names but they were after me to go on and convince GM to do that.

"It’s not my job. I was not elected to do that. I am not a broker."

Concerns the tracks and facilities are too small for more teams? Well how are they fitting in the additional team for the Brad Pitt/Apple F1 movie then?

"We are allowed to have 12 teams," said Ben Sulayem.

"Some of the teams said, 'Oh, it will be crowded'. Really? We are already running a Hollywood team with us."

And then for good measure, a quick reference to the Liberty-led push for calendar expansion that many in the paddock feel is unfairly stretching its personnel: "The circuits are supposed to have enough garages and space for 12 teams...I think the number of races is too much [rather] than the number of teams.

"We need more teams and fewer races."

Whatever the wider merits or drawbacks of letting more teams into F1, there's no doubt this matter has become a pawn in the process of FIA and F1 tensions over who really runs the championship.

"We are not a service provider. We own the championship. We leased it, we are the landlord. So that has to be respected also," is how Ben Sulayem put it.

"My intention was never to embarrass or to put someone in a corner, Liberty or FOM. I am here for the spirit of the sport."

But under the current set-up, the FIA does not have the power to force F1 to approve Andretti. All comments such as Ben Sulayem's can do for now is increase pressure on F1 and make sure the significant proportion of the F1 fanbase that wants more teams (and/or Andretti in particular) in the field knows the FIA is in their corner.

There are the worst-case scenarios of Andretti racing with FIA approval but no commercial agreement with F1, or of legal fights ensuing.

Mark Hughes outlined those prospects on The Race F1 Podcast last week.

“If the FIA has granted permission to run there’s a question whether the team could in theory run without a commercial agreement in place,” Hughes explained.

“That’s not altogether clear and if it did happen like that, it would be horrifically complex. Not to mention financially horrible for Andretti.

“But without a commercial agreement, FOM wouldn’t for example be able to show the Andretti cars on TV images.

“So there could be a tit-for-tat escalation along those lines. That’s just the start of it.

"This could drag on for a long time, quite considerably through the law courts.”

Could Ben Sulayem foresee Andretti racing as an interloper on the grid, under the FIA's jurisdiction but with F1 not acknowledging its existence or having a commercial deal with it?

"We hope not," he said. "But it could happen. It can happen."

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