With barely a month to go before the start of the biggest-ever F1 season, with the biggest-ever side mirrors (always good to see what’s happening behind you), the big question is not whether Hamo will sign his contract. Or whether Andretti Cadillac will ever get to race.
But will FIA president Mohammed Ben Sulayem, 61, of Dubai, get the flick?
Twenty readers (and thank you to all those loyal souls who have accosted me on planes, on Zoom and in other places too racy to mention in a family publication, saying I obviously hadn’t counted them but I have and I’m still struggling to convince the boss that readership is in the double figures) think this is a huge story.
This week Bloomberg revealed that Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund PIF (no, really) of Riyadh offered John Malone’s Liberty Media $30bn for rights to F1.
Now a couple of things here before you laugh off F1 packing up and heading to Saudi Arabia where at least the petrol would be cheap. One, PIF is good for the money. It has about a trillion in the bank. Two, it would be a good deal for Malone, considering he only paid $7bn for the rights in 2017. And the share price representing the F1 business has tripled since Covid-19, making it now worth about $20bn.
Anyway, John is reported to have said “not interested” and PIF said “well, if you ever are, you know where we live (the Information Technology and Communications Complex, Building CS01 in the Al Nakhil District)”.
One person who wouldn’t be loving the proposed deal is Hamo. In March last year, Houthi rebels bombed a fuel depot 11km from the racetrack during practice for the Saudi GP.
A couple of weeks before, Saudi officials executed 81 people for terrorism-related activities and for holding deviant beliefs.
Hamo said at the time that the responsibility for holding the kingdom to account over human rights shouldn’t fall on the drivers but he would try to help. I’m not letting the old bloke go to the Middle East. He has too many deviant beliefs.
But there’s already a strong (well $550m strong) connection between the kingdom and John Malone. Saudi-owned oil producer Aramco signed a 10-year sponsorship deal with F1 in 2020.
So where does Ben Sulayem, 61, of Dubai fit in?
Well Ben clearly didn’t like the smell of this and tweeted (kiddies, remember that nothing good ever comes from tweeting or tindering for that matter): “As the custodians of motorsport, the FIA, as a non-profit organisation, is cautious about alleged inflated price tags of $20bn being put on F1.
“Any potential buyer is advised to apply common sense, consider the greater good of the sport and come with a clear, sustainable plan – not just a lot of money.
“It is our duty to consider what the future impact will be for promoters in terms of increased hosting fees and other commercial costs, and any adverse impact that it could have on fans.”
Now, no one in F1 HQ liked Ben’s tweet. Nor did some other trolls, one of whom tweeted in reply: “Honestly Muhammad, you are a joke and a disgrace to our Arab subcontinent and Muslims as a whole.
“You allow discrimination and cheating. What will you say to Allah on the day of judgment when he asks you why you cheated?”
While not as in your face, Liberty Media sent off a strong letter to the FIA, signed by both Sacha Woodward Hill, the legal director for Formula One for 27 years, and Renee-Wilm, the chief legal officer and chief administrative officer for Liberty Media.
“It is wrong to say that any interested buyers should consult the FIA first. Ben Sulayem has overstepped his authority.
“Any individual or organisation that comments on the value of a listed entity, especially by implying that it has inside knowledge in doing so, risks causing substantial harm to the shareholders and investors of that entity, not to mention potential exposure to serious regulatory consequences. Should these comments damage the value of Liberty Media, the FIA could be liable for them.”
Ben has been having a few other issues at FIA. The F1 and a number of the teams are not too enchanted with him.
He had a problem with Hamo’s jewellery, he announced the 2023 F1 calendar by himself, and the drivers and the teams hate the inconsistency of decision making under alternating race directors but Ben has confirmed there will be two again this season. I can see a new TV series: Can Ben drive to survive?
Talking of Saudi Arabia: Toby Price (35, of the Gold Coast) came an unlucky second by 43 seconds after 16 days and 8500km. Toby has been riding bikes since he was two and has had more podiums in the Dakar than he’s had broken bones.
In Paris next week Maradona’s old 1980 Mercedes-Benz 450SLC will go for about triple the $300k estimate from Bonhams. It’s one of only 816 homologation special examples with lightweight aluminium panels and an all-aluminium engine. Only 62,000km on the clock. Diego also owned a rare 1992 Porsche 911 Carrera 2 Type 964 “Works Turbo Look” Cabriolet, which Bonhams sold in 2021 for $750k, double its pre-sale estimate.