How important are the Federations in motorsport today? The answer is: very little
FIA President Ben Sulayem’s departure from the scene, after an attempt to occupy the centre of the Formula 1 ring, reminds us that it is Liberty Media that manages the top slot of motorsport, like motorcycle racing with Dorna
These are difficult times for the Federations and their presidents, as confirmed by yesterday's stepping back by the FIA president Mohammed Ben Sulayem. The man who succeeded three strong personalities such as Jean Marie Balestre (1986-1993), Max Mosley (1993-2009) and Jean Todt (2009-2021) has virtually abandoned Formula 1, after several missteps.
The executive of the Emirates paid for his presenteeism and gaffes that weakened his position, so much so that yesterday he announced a step back, leaving Nikolas Tombazis (ex-Ferrari) and his team, declaring that he wants to "focus only on strategic issues”.
It remains to be seen what those will be seeing as the entire technical responsibility was already in the hands of Tombazis and the sporting one with Steve Nielsen.
Liberty Media: No playing around with the value of motorsports
Probably after stumbling upon various gaffes, the threat of punishment for Lewis Hamilton for deserting the awards at the end of 2021, the absurd ban on drivers from expressing themselves freely on subjects unrelated to sport, he crossed the line when he made it clear that he wanted to manage the entry of new teams into F1. But the straw that broke the camel's back was his intrusion into the possible purchase price of F1 which when it was acquired by Liberty Meda in 2016 was worth 4.4 billion and today could be valued at 20. MBS judged the value to be excessive.
Good heavens! Liberty Media, judging his words as interference in its business, sent the president a harsh legal letter which, among other things, reminded Ben Sulayem that the F1 rights belong to Liberty Media for a longer period than his presidential mandate: 99 years.
Nothing new under the sun: in 2019 the newly elected President of the FIM, Jorge Viegas, took the liberty of giving some advance information about the Superbike world championship, alluding to a possible change of scenery.
The Portuguese, speaking about the management of the production-based world championship, said to Prawda Moto, a Polish youtuber magazine: "this is not the correct path and I can also say that I already have a plan, but that I can't talk about it yet. I must also point out that there are historical reasons why Dorna started managing SBK as well. This is not the ideal solution and what I can say at this moment is that within the FIM, and I in particular, we are working to change this situation. There will be news soon. I am very sensitive to this topic, because I must also say that Dorna itself is not completely satisfied with this situation. SBK cannot be a second division of MotoGP, this is not the right way to manage it".
That might have been enough, but the rumours triggered by the declaration – maybe a potential replacement for Dorna for the management of the Superbike world championship, MSVR (the company that holds the rights to British Superbike and which over the years has eliminated the electronics from those bikes, also managing to create a huge spectator presence on the track in each round of the championship), were enough to infuriate Carmelo Ezpeleta, CEO of Dorna who in a subsequent interview with us immediately weakened the position of Viegas by asserting that the Portuguese had expressed himself badly or had been misinterpreted in English.
This confirms that at the moment the real power in motorsports is no longer in the hands of the Federations but rather of those who exploit their commercial rights. Dorna Sports has a contract with the FIM, and holds the MotoGP rights until 2041 and the Superbike rights until 2036.
It must be said that in the face of a preponderance of rights managers in various championships, so much so as to suggest a monopoly, these were in any case able to get the championships to overcome the two terrible years of the Covid epidemic which, perhaps, in other hands, would have led to the collapse of Motorsport.
However, the lesson that this story brings us, for the FIA and the FIM, is that the Presidents must be very careful about meddling in the management of the championships...unless they are Highlanders!