Now that the FIA and its president Mohammed Ben Sulayem have given the Andretti Formula 1 team their official blessing, will they withdraw from the controversial issue of new teams while F1 has conducted its part of the process itself and come to its own conclusion on whether Andretti should be given the grid seat ?
This was never likely. This has happened both because the new teams/Andretti debate has become so central to 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 group from the web that it was unlikely that Ben Sulayem would resist the chance to remind the world how strongly he and the FIA stand behind him.
Indeed, Ben Sulayem took aim at F1 and existing teams in an interview with Reuters during the Qatar Grand Prix weekend.
He took the opportunity to remind the opposition of all the things they would dare say no to: a manufacturer-backed American project that has already been fully approved by the FIA.
“If you say no to a team that has been approved by the FIA, it’s very difficult to say no,” said Ben Sulayem, adding, referring to Andretti’s collaboration with Cadillac: “The FIA should be asking and pleading with the OEMs [car manufacturers] come. We shouldn’t just say no to them.”
He described it as his “dream” to secure “one American team from an OEM and PU [power unit] and from there the driver. Then maybe go to China 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, to be fair, Andretti has tried to buy Sauber before and has talked about trying to buy Haas).
“You can’t force Andretti/GM to buy another team just because [current team owners] I want to sell,” said Ben Sulayem.
“I won’t name names, but they wanted to convince me to do it.
“It’s not my job. I wasn’t chosen for this. I’m not a middleman.”
Are you concerned that the tracks and facilities are too small for more teams? So how do they fare in the extra team for the Brad Pitt/Apple F1 movie?
“We could have 12 teams,” Ben Sulayem said.
“Some teams said, ‘Oh, it’s going to be crowded.’ Really? We already have a Hollywood team with us.”
And finally, a quick mention of the Liberty-led push to expand the calendar, which many in the paddock feel unfairly burdens staff: “The tracks should have enough garages and space for 12 teams… I think the number of races is too many [rather] than the number of teams.
“We need more teams and fewer races.”
Regardless of the broader advantages and disadvantages of allowing more teams into F1, there is no doubt that the issue has become a pawn in the FIA and F1 tensions over who Really runs the championship.
“We are not a service provider. We own the championship. We rented it, we own it. Therefore, it must be respected,” as Ben Sulayem put it.
“It was never my intention to embarrass or put anyone in a corner, whether it be Liberty or FOM. I’m here because of the spirit of this sport.”
However, under the current arrangement, the FIA has no power to force F1 to approve Andretti. The only comments Ben Sulayem can make for now is to increase the pressure on F1 and make sure that the significant portion of F1 fans who want more teams (and/or Andretti in particular) on the field know that the FIA is on board their website.
There are worst-case scenarios in which Andretti races with FIA approval but without a commercial agreement with F1, or legal battles could ensue.
Mark Hughes outlined these prospects last week on The Race F1 podcast.
“If the FIA gave permission to start, the question is whether, theoretically, the team could start without a commercial agreement,” explained Hughes.
“It’s not entirely clear, and if it did happen it would be terrifyingly complicated. Not to mention Andretti’s terrible finances.
“But without the trade agreement, FOM would not be able to show Andretti’s cars on television, for example.
“There may therefore be a tit-for-tat escalation in this direction. This is just the beginning.
“This could drag on for a long time, quite significantly in the courts.”
Could Ben Sulayem have predicted that Andretti would race as an interloper on the grid under FIA jurisdiction, but F1 would not acknowledge its existence or have a commercial agreement with it?
“We hope not,” he said. “But it can happen. It can happen.”
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