The last time the FIA faced an ‘open’ election, one without an incumbent candidate, was in 2009 after the extremely controversial and scandal-ridden Max Mosley agreed to stand down, thus setting the scene for the Jean Todt versus Ari Vatanen show down on October 23rd that year.
“I believe the right person to head [the FIA] would be Jean Todt,” Mosley, who passed away earlier this year, said of the man who went to set serial records as Michael Schumacher’s Ferrari team boss, also telling Reuters, “Jean is unquestionably the outstanding motor sport manager of his generation and arguably of any generation.”
In a later letter to FIA member clubs Mosley wrote that Todt, “The ideal person to continue but also to extend the work of the last 16 years.”
Given Mosley’s divisive character one wonders whether these endorsements ultimately helped or hindered Todt, but the facts are that he beat his former driver-turned-presidential rival by 135 votes to 49 with 12 abstentions after an arduous and acrimonious battle which, amongst other unsavoury incidents, saw Vatanen unceremoniously ejected from Mosley’s office after he questioned his impartiality.
Whatever, Vatanen now admits that ultimately the better man for the times won the election, with Todt’s three (uncontested) terms of office of four years each restoring the body’s global standing after Mosley’s dictatorial 16-year reign. The Todt era, though, ends 17 December this year due to having reached maximum electable age (75) in February. In addition, Todt will have reached the three-term limit introduced under his watch.
The race to replace him has started, with two candidates – in order of announcement, Emirati Mohammed bin Sulayem and current FIA deputy president for sport Graham Stoker – having thrown their hats into the ring. The processes and workings of the FIA’s ever-widening range of activities – be they sporting, touring or mobility – for which the body carries global responsibility, were outlined here in April this year.
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Crucially, the FIA’s sporting activities and championship carry the highest public profile and generate the most income on an overall basis through the sale and leases of commercial rights, and thus the primary focus at member club level is sport orientated although touring clubs provide the bulk of the FIA’s membership heads.
Since April both candidates have elaborated on their election agendas by publishing further details on their policies and announced further appointments to their respective teams. Indeed, Stoker and his team this week published a 14-page motorsport policy document in four languages.
Whether further candidates will emerge later is unknown at this stage, with Motorsport UK chairman David Richards craftily hanging about the background and cagily refusing to deny his interest. The word is that Vatanen’s 1981 world championship-winning co-driver is playing a waiting game to see how electioneering pans out before committing himself on closing day, November 5th. Thus he has over two months to decide.
What, though, distinguishes this campaign from 2009 is that the two confirmed candidates plus Richards are all ‘FIA insiders’, having served global motorsport with distinction in official capacities after climbing up the member club ranks, whereas both Mosley and Todt were rank outsiders who had been parachuted in.
Bin Sulayem, a 14-time Middle East rally champion and regional motorsport and touring heavyweight, is campaigning under the slogan ‘FIA for Members’, is assembling his ‘slate’ of 14 office bearers as required by FIA statutes and internal regulations, and recently announced Brazilian-born Fabiana Ecclestone, wife of former F1 CEO Bernie, as sport vice-president for the South American region should be elected.
Bin Sulayem’s team has yet to publish a full manifesto although the website outlines three policy areas: a member-led approach, so bottom-up rather than top-down; respect for FIA traditions and purpose, and promote member passion for motoring; and fresh thinking and proactive leadership. In addition, the website headlines equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI), with a particular focus on the Middle East and Africa.
Bin Sulayem’s team recently launched The FIA University and E-Library, an initiative designed to improve education, training and research in motoring and motorsport activities, with the intention being to provide 24/7 access to the FIA’s archives and those of Alliance of International Touring clubs, the FIA’s associated touring body.
The university project is led by deputy president candidates Robert Reid (sport), former world rally championship-winning co-driver to Richard Burns and Canada’s Tim Sherman (touring). In addition, FIA clubs may nominate members to study at the FIA University, where subjects will cover the full spectrum of sporting and mobility topics, ranging from academic to vocational including:
E-Learning and Training – Research
Scholarships – Motorsport Training
E-Library and Archive – Mobility Education
Leadership Programmes – Talent Development Schemes
Medical and Safety Training – Engineering and Technician Support
“Our campaign is focused on seeking greater mobility and sport collaboration in the development of FIA member clubs, and this new FIA University plan will play a central role in this process if we are successful in our election bid,” the duo said in a joint statement.
As bin Sulayem’s campaign slogan implies, his team’s policies focus on FIA clubs and their members, members whereas Stoker, a sport barrister with a life-long interest in motorsport, is standing under the ‘FIA For All’ banner, a subtle but telling difference for it implies a widening of the net beyond purely FIA members.
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In the team’s motorsport policy document published this week and sub-titled ‘Motorsport for All’, Stoker and his candidate deputy president for sport Tom Kristensen, a record-setting nine-time Le Mans winner and 2013 WEC title-winner, outline the primary initiatives.
These include: prioritise safety; ensure motor sport is sustainable, environmentally responsible and accessible to all anywhere in the world; rebuild confidence and investment in championships, to be proud custodians of motor sport history and, last but not least, to growing the sport’s fan base.
To achieve these objectives they plan a number of activities, including identification and nurturing of young talent and creation of more low-cost series, to review and institute diversity and inclusion across the full spectrum, optimise calendars to prevent overlap and foster advanced engineering and STEM activities via FIA commissions and in conjunction with universities.
“I’m delighted to present this comprehensive vision for the future of motorsport worldwide,” said Stoker, adding, “We want to build on the strong work of the FIA over the last 12 years and create a sport that is truly progressive, representing all nations and open to anyone that wants to get involved, regardless of background or finances.”
As is to be expected, the fundamentals of both sets of policies are essentially largely similar yet differ vastly in detail, a situation which bin Sulayem’s advisers will not doubt expand upon in due course, in turn potentially leading Stoker and company to add more flesh to their brochure, and so on. Ultimately, such documents are dynamic and can be amended to reinforce certain aspects or clarify others.
If the teams’ manifestos are similar, the characters of the two main candidates could hardly be more different. One is a lifelong motorsport enthusiast from a wealthy, privileged and well-connected background, one whose family was an advisor to Dubai’s ruling Maktoum family and has the wealth and status to ensure that he wants for nothing – but, crucially, bin Sulayem has delivered on- and off-track at all levels.
One wonders whether Gulf rivalry factors in his decision to stand: Qatar hosts the FIFA World Cup in 2022; the UAE presides over global motorsport from 2021…
The other candidate has the air of a typical British barrister, which, though, belies his deep love for motorsport – Stoker raced in junior single seater series before switching to administration – and has been Todt’s deputy for the past 12 years. This in turn speaks volumes: despite having a wide choice of office bearers to choose from, Todt, widely acknowledged as a hard taskmaster, has thrice appointed Stoker to oversee motorsport.
Which team is likely to best deliver the goods for global motorsport for (at least) the four years after Todt steps aside? At this early stage the answer is at best subjective and thus has no place in this analysis for ultimately it is the presidents of member clubs who get to vote, and not the media or motorsport fans, regardless of how enthusiastic and passionate they may all be.
Equally, all FIA member clubs carry the same vote: for example, a Pacific island with 100 members has the same status as a US touring club with six million members – provided both are fully paid-up and in good standing with the parent body. With both candidates harking from a (predominantly) sporting background they certainly need to appeal to the mobility and touring faction in order to stand any chance.
Here Stoker likely holds an advantage: his nominated deputy president is Thierry Willemarck, currently Todt’s deputy president for Automobile Mobility and Tourism so not only is the Belgian’s face familiar to mobility clubs, but he offers all-important portfolio continuity.
That could prove decisive given that the current split of the 245 FIA clubs is: 90 mobility, 71 sport, 75 mobility and sport (plus seven ‘other’), with the composite clubs having a single vote despite representing both categories. Those 75 dual votes could prove crucial to either candidate.
The final question, then, is: how will either candidate influence Formula 1? Both are known fans, bin Sulayem having for many years been a member of the Abu Dhabi grand prix committee and having demonstrated (and crashed) a Renault F1 car – sponsored at the time by his brother’s DP World company – at Dubai Autodrome.
Stoker’s credentials, as an international steward, as senior official in Britain’s governing body, as an FIA delegate on various international sporting bodies and as deputy president for sport and chairman of various FIA committees, too are impeccable.
Where in 2009 Todt had the resources and support from the incumbent president while his opponent had little of the former and none of the latter, in 2021 there are no clear-cut distinctions: While Todt studiously avoids endorsing either candidate – RaceFans understands FIA personnel have been instructed to be impartial – his retention of Stoker for 12 years suggests tacit support.
On the flipside, bin Sulayem is considerably better resourced – there are those who suggest that he enjoys UAE government backing – but he and Todt have not worked closely together despite various terms of office held by Bin Sulayem over the years. Thus, in the final analysis the election hinges on the question of resources versus continuity – provided, that is, no further candidate suddenly emerges.
Once differences between the two protagonists and any similarities in their policies are set aside, the choice ultimately boils down to a choice between the FIA membership going with tried and trusted (Stoker), or with the all-new (Bin Sulayem): will the rank-and-file presidents vote for the status quo or go with the first non-European (and non-white) presidential candidate in the FIA’s 117-year history. December 17th will tell.
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