The Formula 1 off-season has begun with a surprise early controversy, with the FIA looking into allegations about the conduct of Toto and Susie Wolff that have been emphatically rejected.
The FIA’s compliance department is looking into an allegation of “information of a confidential nature being passed to an F1 team principal from a member of FOM personnel”, which subsequently led to the Wolffs being named as the subjects, along with more specific allegations about them being detailed too.
F1, Mercedes (in lieu of a personal one from team principal Toto Wolff) and F1 Academy boss Susie Wolff herself issued stinging responses to not just the allegations but the FIA’s conduct, with Mercedes inviting "full, prompt, and transparent correspondence from the FIA compliance department regarding this investigation and its contents".
So what happens next, and what's at stake?
A FULL INVESTIGATION?
The priority here is getting to the bottom of the allegations, establishing if there is any truth to them, and either acting if necessary or dropping the matter entirely.
Information from the FIA on the process is sparse, but it seems to feed into its Ethics and Compliance division, which the governing body says embodies a zero-tolerance approach towards misconduct.
Within the remit of this part of the FIA are alleged or real violations of the ethical principles contained in the FIA regulations, for example discrimination, harassment, bribery, corruption, conflict of interests, fraud and money laundering.
When someone or something is reported, it will be treated in three stages - initial assessment, investigation, and conclusion.
And although the word ‘investigation’ has been used quite freely around this, that’s in the generic ‘this is being looked at’ sense. We can probably assume the FIA’s actual process is currently only in the initial assessment phase.
What that means is reviewing whether the concern of misconduct falls within the scope of this procedure and whether the allegation is supported by facts sufficient to warrant further inquiry.
Should it proceed to the next stage, a timescale will be established for the investigation phase and the Wolffs will get the opportunity to respond to the allegations.
Even a full investigation may lead to no outcome, though. The case will be closed if it finds there has been no misconduct.
If the investigation reveals misconduct has taken place, the conclusions, supporting evidence and any proposed corrective actions will be forwarded to another body within the FIA to take a decision.
ANOTHER FIA/F1 FLARE-UP
There’s always a certain tension between the FIA, which regulates F1, and commercial rights holder Liberty Media. But relations between the two have been getting worse for some time.
To understand why, it’s necessary to take a broader look at the landscape. The FIA is not only the regulator, but it also owns the commercial rights. But because of European Commission demands to split its regulatory role from the commercial side, these were sold off as a 14-year deal in 1995, followed by a subsequent 100-year deal.
That’s why FIA president Mohammed Ben Sulayem likes to stress it is the landlord of F1, as well as the regulator.
Liberty Media, of course, sees things a little differently. The FIA gets an income stream via the Concorde Agreement and regulates and runs the nuts and bolts of F1 - so race control, the stewards, timing, the technical department etc - and Liberty Media is working to steer F1 towards greater growth and prosperity.
That has manifested itself as something of a power struggle. It’s not the first time that this kind of thing has happened; think the FISA/FOCA war of the early 1980s and the championship breakaway threats of the first decade of the 21st century.
Today, a similar thing is happening. And there have been multiple flashpoints in 2023. In January, Ben Sulayem questioned rumours of a sale to Saudi Arabia with a $20billion price being put on F1. He called that “inflated”, then F1 responded by telling Ben Sulayem to butt out of commercial matters that don’t concern the FIA.
While Ben Sulayem subsequently said he was moving back from day to day involvement in F1, he remains very active behind the scenes.
That led to the next flareup with Ben Sulayem opening an expression of interest for new team bids. His argument was that the FIA was doing exactly what the regulator should be given the Concorde Agreement allows up to 12 teams.
Liberty Media was not happy, but the FIA eventually accepted the Andretti bid which still awaits commercial approval or rejection from F1. And don’t underestimate how contentious that process was.
This is the third big flare-up this year. That Ben Sulayem’s FIA is looking into the accusations of information of a confidential nature being shared is a clear broadside at F1. And the fact F1, and the Wolffs, responded so forcefully, suggests that it hit its target.
WHAT'S AT STAKE
This latest tiff might just be another skirmish in what has so far been a phony war. But it also has the potential to explode up into something far bigger. It’s certainly another blow for trust between the FIA and F1 and that’s already been in short supply.
Aside from the existing points of tension, there’s also the wider question of the negotiation of the next Concorde Agreement, which will start in 2026. The FIA is known to be pushing for more money, and influence, with Liberty Media understood to be giving the idea short shrift.
So this is all part of the same war that’s raging quietly in the background.
With growing talk in the F1 paddock about a potential breakaway, creating a new championship with the FIA far less involved, the question is whether this particular incident could ignite the tinderbox that is the political landscape of grand prix racing.
Both the FIA and Liberty Media believe they are on the virtuous side, but they can’t keep scrapping like this.
This can do a huge amount of damage to F1 and it’s incumbent on both sides to make this work. After all, for the millions watching it’s simply sport and the petty political squabbles mean nothing - other, of course, then jeopardising the growth of F1.
These spats can’t keep happening, so that tension between two of F1’s primary stakeholders has to be resolved. Perhaps this saga can be a trigger for that.