Unity is a rare thing in Formula 1, but the current FIA regime has managed to achieve it - only not for any positive reason.
Following what Ferrari calls “embarrassing” stories about the FIA’s needless and hastily concluded ‘investigation’ into the professional integrity of Toto and Susie Wolff, former FIA president Jean Todt has gone on the attack, too - heaping further pressure on his successor, Mohammed Ben Sulayem.
This is yet another unwelcome negative storyline for the FIA, coming off the back of an F1 season where the FIA’s governance of the championship has again regularly been called into question.
Think track limits, track inspections, singling out Lewis Hamilton for crossing a live circuit, and questioning Toto Wolff and Fred Vasseur for using vulgar language in a press conference no one was watching.
Oh! And then there’s the not-insignificant matter of the FIA president blindsiding everyone by unilaterally instigating a process to enter an 11th team into F1 when none of the other stakeholders wanted that to happen.
At a pre-Christmas media briefing at Maranello, attended by The Race’s Edd Straw, Vasseur was asked about worsening relations between Formula One Management and the governing body.
He called these stories about Toto and Susie Wolff “quite embarrassing for our sport” and suggested the FIA would have been best served to take greater care over its public pronouncements.
But this is just the latest misstep in a long-running saga of negative publicity for the FIA.
Its relations with the commercial rights holder and F1’s teams have basically been heading downhill since Charlie Whiting passed away suddenly in 2019, and seem to have nosedived further since Michael Masi made a mess of Abu Dhabi 2021 and the FIA adopted a more pedantic approach to policing F1 to the nth degree.
By that point, ex-Ferrari team boss Todt had stepped away from his 12-year tenure as president of F1’s governing body. And to add to his successor’s growing body of woes, Todt has now felt moved to pile in by defending his own presidential record against perceived attacks by his successor.
In an interview with respected French publication L’Equipe, Todt called Ben Sulayem’s character into question, and also took aim at some of the key decisions made by the FIA since he stepped away.
A DISAGREEMENT OVER MONEY
Todt devoted the largest part of this interview to defending his regime against accusations from the sitting president that the FIA was left heading into 2022 “with a nearly €25million deficit in our operating costs” plus “court cases maybe going over €100m”.
Ben Sulayem claimed in an interview with The Race’s Edd Straw that he’d “never been told” about this situation, despite being on the FIA’s World Council.
“When I came, we had financial issues for four years in the past,” he said. “How can I run this FIA? It’s impossible.”
Todt’s response claimed the FIA would have disappeared entirely during the Covid years of 2020-21 without F1 being able to operate in spite of the limitations imposed by the pandemic.
He also claimed to have left the FIA with “250million euros in reserves” and said “when I arrived in 2009, there were barely 40[million]”.
The FIA has moved to address that by issuing figures that show it was, an FIA spokesperson said, "incurring significant losses".
It was deemed after Ben Sulayem took office that "the financial state that was discovered was unsatisfactory and unsustainable".
These figures will be published in upcoming FIA Activity Reports.
“As certified by the FIA’s auditors, the FIA’s operating loss amounted to €-12.8m in 2019, €-22.1m in 2020, and €-24.0m in 2021,” the spokesperson said.
“The FIA has reduced its operating loss to €-7.7m in 2022. For 2023, it forecasts a €-3.0m loss, which it plans to further reduce in 2024, targeting a balanced operating result at the latest in 2025.
“The senior leadership’s mission is to sustain the FIA, and while we are not for profit, we do need to at least have balanced books and ideally create a surplus to strengthen equity for unforeseen events and to invest in research and development in the areas of safety, technology, and regulation across sport and mobility and to meet our primary purpose of supporting our member clubs.”
Todt also claimed to have “multiplied by almost three” the federal budget, and added new streams of income through Formula E, the World Endurance Championship and cross-country rallying - though he conceded that expanding the FIA’s workforce from “less than 80 jobs to more than 200” added costs, as did the FIA’s innovation fund, which Todt admitted “might be a little too generous”.
FIA accounts do show its operating loss grew to €24million by the time Todt left office, though of course it is possible to operate at a loss without dipping into those ‘reserves’ Todt mentioned.
Nevertheless, as the FIA's response backs up, there is an insistence from the current regime that finances were unsustainable.
An outstanding lawsuit over the patent for the halo is something Todt absolutely didn't dispute - but he did dispute Ben Sulayem’s claim to have “never been told” of this and other potential liabilities.
“It wasn’t swept under the rug,” Todt told L’Equipe. “It was well documented and monitored. We presented it to the senate and the world council before I left, and the current president attended this presentation.
“This was a lawsuit brought in Texas by an engineer who owned a patent that was only valid in the United States and for a short time. So when I left, there was nothing secret. And only one ongoing case, that one.
“But I wasn’t surprised, I knew who my successor was. I know the character.”
FIA 'TURNED UPSIDE DOWN'
Having slightly disingenuously claimed he starts “from the principle that when one chapter closes, another opens and we do not allow ourselves to attack its predecessor” - OK, fine, you’re not having a pop at Max Mosley but you have no qualms about letting rip on the bloke who came after you? - Todt pointed to the improved deal he secured for the FIA in terms of its income from Formula 1.
He also mentioned gaining a stronger share of the vote for the FIA in F1's modern governance, before then claiming “everything that was put in place during my mandate was turned upside down”.
This he called “factual” and claimed that since Masi stepped away from race management in F1, “the whole organisation has been turned upside down”.
Todt makes a clear inference that Masi was scapegoated for the Abu Dhabi 2021 debacle, describing him as a “very good professional” who produced “impeccable work over the years” and arguing “a championship can be lost in the last race” when questioned over suggestions Masi might be brought back into a frontline role by Ben Sulayem.
Todt also described these apparent attacks on his tenure by Ben Sulayem as “smoke”.
“It doesn’t matter to me,” Todt said. “There is no point launching into allegations, especially when they are false.”
The clear suggestion here is that the current president of the FIA is playing fast and loose with the truth and undoing what Todt clearly feels was his own good work in massively improving relations between the FIA and F1 and its teams.
Maybe that in itself presents too rosy a picture of F1’s recent past - but certainly it’s difficult to argue those relations haven’t plumbed new depths over the past two years. And that’s something the current FIA president will ultimately have to answer for.