until Abu Dhabi Autonomous Racing League

Formula 1

The FIA court problem exposed by Mercedes’ abandoned appeal

by Scott Mitchell-Malm
5 min read

When the FIA begins its in-depth assessment of what happened at the end of the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix Formula 1 finale, one area that would merit review is the judicial process it led to.

It has become clear since Mercedes dropped its appeal and allowed a line to be drawn under the 2021 championship and its widely disputed conclusion that the decision was influenced by the perception the FIA would be ruling on its own controversial conduct.

Dec 16 : Why Mercedes dropped its appeal

Major organisations, not just F1’s governing body, are not to be trusted when it comes to holding themselves to account. They close ranks. Protection trumps transparency. This is a weakness of any system that results in internal inquiries.

So, the key question is whether the FIA International Court of Appeal would feed into this process, or can be trusted to fulfil its stated purpose of being “an independent body with its own administration detached from the main structure of the FIA”.

The name itself does not inspire confidence of much separation, nor does the fact the 36 (highly qualified) members of the court get their position through FIA nominations, selections, and elections. But it must be stressed that members must not belong to any other FIA body or exercise any role within a member of the FIA.

Even if you look past the obvious political nature of the FIA as an organisation and the influence the various bodies within it wield, this is at the very least an important matter of perception – one that has probably stoked the narrative that there’s little reason to believe Mercedes would have got the most fair and straightforward hearing.

Especially as it would have been in the FIA’s wider interest for the appeal to fail, given what a successful appeal would represent: the failure of the race director and the stewards at the highest possible level.

Mercedes even made a point of stressing that in a regular court its case was “almost guaranteed” to win, but this isn’t a “regular court”.

Anyone can see the issue of what appears to be an FIA approved court made up of FIA appointed panel members, reviewing the actions of FIA stewards who have defended the actions of the FIA race director.

How can you expect total accountability in that situation? Has the FIA not made a rod for its own back with that composition?

The FIA is the sole regulator and controller of everything that happens in the world of Formula 1 with the exception being for doping matters, which is expressly outlined in the FIA statutes as being a matter for the Court of Arbitration for Sport.

That means if anyone has an issue with the FIA itself – say, for instance, the actions of the race director and the FIA-appointed stewards’ defence of those actions – that aggrieved party must go through an FIA-branded court or no court at all.

Mercedes’ Toto Wolff referred to this as the FIA “marking its own homework”. It would be a dire indictment of the process if there’s no sensible recourse to have the process gone through properly and fairly, with an independent regulatory body, when the FIA itself is effectively under protest.

But that third party system is exactly what the FIA International Court of Appeal is supposed to be.

Motor Racing Formula One Testing Test One Day 1 Barcelona, Spain

This is a good opportunity for F1 and the FIA to establish two things: whether that’s what it is, and perhaps just as (if not more) importantly whether that’s what people trust it is.

It’s unfair to dismiss the credibility of the highly qualified ICA judges just because of FIA letterheads or branding. The ICA has ruled in favour of appealing parties before.

But it’s never had a case like this, where the original issue is ‘competitor vs FIA’ – not ‘competitor vs competitor’. And the political proximity to the FIA – such as the judges being elected by the FIA General Assembly – is tough for people to look past.

Reform is always a good idea, especially when things aren’t fit for purpose. And this situation shows the judicial process may at worst not be fit for purpose when it’s the FIA that would be on trial, or at best may be seen to be a compromised court.

The FIA has total control of motorsport for a reason and the teams agree to those statutes when they sign up to compete in F1. Presumably the FIA claimed ‘naming rights’ to the court for a reason.

But perhaps it needs to go further to make motorsport’s final appeal tribunal completely separate, so it is undeniably a third-party entity.

If it doesn’t, it will be easy for anyone to keep questioning the independence of the court and for people to have doubts – even if that’s all misplaced. Whether there’s actually a problem of independence or just a perception that the independence is questionable, that’s an issue for the FIA.

Motor Racing Formula One World Championship Abu Dhabi Grand Prix Race Day Abu Dhabi, Uae

The review that’s been promised in the wake of the Abu Dhabi argument “tarnishing the image of the championship” will almost be restricted entirely to the specific events of what happened in the race.

But this particular issue isn’t about who won the world championship. This is the right time and opportunity to consider whether the FIA needs to reform the way it is policed, or how the judicial process works.

It would be wise for that chance to be taken. Because if the International Court of Appeal’s effectiveness is beyond question, it’s in motorsport’s best interest for every effort to be made to protect that.

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