The FIA’s Conflict Of Nonsense

With the FIA launching a Conflict of Interest investigation into the Wolff family, Dre goes off on the shitty optics behind a hypocritical element of the sport.

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Read time: 6 mins

“Now I’m just saying…”

Thanks a bunch, FIA. I was looking forward to a nice quiet off-season where I could finally relax after one of the longest and emotionally draining F1 seasons to cover. But nope. We had to have one last idiotic scandal alongside the Christmas tree. Wonderful.

For those who have finally decided to touch grass post-season (You’re the lucky ones, trust me), an outlet I’d rather not name as to give them the attention they don’t deserve, released a completely unsubstantiated story alleged that Susie Wolff (currently the director of the F1 Academy) and Shaila Ann Rao, former FIA interim secretary-general may have been feeding inside information to Toto Wolff, team principal of Mercedes, while using the smoking gun of Toto finding out the results of the FIA’s cost cap reporting for 2021 early, around the time of the 2022 Singapore GP” via a “former team principal”. Way to narrow that one down.

Not to waste too much time on this, but this is bullshit. It’s conjecture framed as journalism. The only tangible argument the story makes is “pillow talk”, which is another way of saying “Because they’re married”. More on that later, but I don’t think that someone who’s only just come back into the sport recently as an F1 Academy director is suddenly going to have data that could influence a team principal and the Championship they’re competing in. Somehow I don’t think Bianca Bustamante is a sleeper agent. 

The publishers in question have a terrible reputation. They’ve posted multiple stories that come off like an angry white man who’s converted his basement into an axe-grinding facility. The same publication that reported Lewis Hamilton “played the prejudice card”. The same dangerous rhetoric I read in disgust when checking WTF1’s comment section when we reported the story. 

They’ve said the W-Series needed to “play up their sex appeal” to move the needle (Despite having a then 16-year-old Juju Noda on its roster), and made horrible claims that drivers were cheating on their partners and/or were gay. It ticks every box in the exercise of discrimination. The original story was shared in our work Slack chat and quickly, rightly dismissed. 

Annoyingly, this story got a whole heap of social media traction via news aggregators, the Twitter accounts that just blindly share any story that they think is worth the clout. And this story always was going to do that, it played right into the hands of F1 Twitter. A large degree of the talk was rightly dismissing the story, but a lot of it was absorbed by a community that still hasn’t moved on from Abu Dhabi 2021.

We’re coming up to two years since that fateful day, and the pissing contests are still there if you mention anything to do with either Mercedes or Red Bull. I got into many an argument with bad-faith merchants about it a couple of months back and my mentions looked like a chemical spillage for a week. This is the sport’s rabbit hole it refuses to climb out of, and the consequences of it are still clear to see over 700 days later. 

But the smoke became suffocating. On Tuesday, the FIA blindsided everyone by announcing they were launching a conflict of interest investigation into a team boss and a FOM employee. They didn’t name them, but everyone knew it was the Wolffs. It promptly led to quick responses from F1, Mercedes and Susie herself, which were damning dismissals. Susie’s being the most defiant, mentioning the tactics involved were “intimidatory and misogynistic”. For anyone saying this wasn’t the case, or that she “played the card” when your only evidence in your piece is the fact you’re married to a team boss as your kicker OF COURSE, IT’S MISOGYNISTIC. 

The next day every team on the grid released a statement distancing themselves from the FIA investigation and preaching their commitment to the F1 Academy. As much as I’d love to say this was an act of solidarity with Susie, it feels more like them covering their backs.

A snitching accusation after promising a collaboration with the series Susie runs for 2024, only to run to the governing body and accuse her of insider information would be horrendous optics. If the teams are telling the truth, and I have no reason to believe they aren’t, it suggests that the FIA has opened this investigation of their own volition. It’s 11pm on December 6th as I write this and they’ve still not responded to the fact we have a Unicorn moment in this sport – The teams have unanimously agreed on something. I think I’m going to church on Sunday, we’re in the presence of a miracle.

FIA President Mohamed Ben Sulayem needs to tread carefully going forward. If there’s any hint he’s pushed for it, it’d be the second time this year he’s put his reputation at risk. Back in January, he came out with a lengthy thread criticising the potential sale of F1 when Bloomberg reported Saudi Arabia was about to bid $20bn for them. 

F1 primed the lawyers via a thunderous… letter, and within a month Ben Sulayem stepped back from the sport’s day-to-day running. It’s becoming abundantly clear there is dissension between him and the F1 Group, with Andretti’s fight for acceptance feeling like the thermometer, checking the internal temperature of some medium-rare beef. We are far from some of the extreme talks of a split, but for me, this is the most obvious tension between the two parties since the breakaway attempt of 2010.

And you know what the stupidest part of all this is? Motorsport is built on a healthy foundation of conflicts of interest. I could rattle you off half a dozen of these before I even blink an eyelid. Motorsport is an inaccessible closed shop, especially as a niche sport. People have bounced between the FIA and jobs within the teams on the paddock all the time. Everyone liked to flag up Red Bull owning two teams within F1 as a counter to the allegations, but the “good faith” that the sport runs on has both parties not sharing information so neither gains an advantage. It means we crack on without anyone within the sport actually thinking it’s a problem.

The number of relationships I know that run through Motorsport, the natural tendency of most series being on the road 200+ days a year is off the charts. I’ve joked about it in Race Reviews that I watch TNT Sports’ coverage of MotoGP and the leader of the new riders union, a Moto3 team owner and a known rider manager are broadcasters and no one cares. Roger Penske owns IndyCar and still has a team that races in the series. Hell, Susie herself competed against her husband in Formula E as Team Principal of Venturi (A Mercedes customer team no less) and no one even batted an eye. And yet, here we are. As a sport, we like to pick and choose when this is an issue, and that’s the problem. 

But the damage has been done. By most reasonable accounts, the FIA via only their intuition has opened an investigation against one of the most respected and influential women in the game, with its only shred of evidence deeply rooted in misogyny. All this does is prove those people who look at Motorsport thinking we’re a bunch of Neanderthals right when the sport’s governing body can’t do some simple due diligence. Everyone who thinks they’re being clever when they question someone like Susie Wolff within the sport who’s more than qualified to be there will feel vindicated in doing so.

Susie had to spend years trying to gain the reputation and faith to try and push the envelope for better representation within the sport. She’s had to be spectacular to even make it this far, whether it be as a driver, a team boss, or now as leader of the FOM’s push via the F1 Academy. All of that could be potentially torn up in an instant over a baseless accusation that’s baked into the very culture of the sport itself. Women, people of colour, the LGBT+ community, all who have to work so hard to make any sort of an impact in a straight white male-dominated sport shudder in fear of days like this.

As a fan-turned-journalist, it frustrates me to no end. The last 72 hours have been everything wrong with the way sports journalism is going. The brush of “credibility” in this story was given by the FIA and its subsequent poor communication when they let the genie out of the bottle. The lack of media literacy in our community. The fact the rag in question got bumped up by aggregators with their agendas to push. The bad faith actors will use this story as another lashing to the sport’s most toxic recent flashpoint. And the overall embarrassment to Motorsport as a whole. 

As the collective in this sport, we have to do better. Or else this will keep happening. Merry Christmas.

About the Author:

Dre Harrison

Leader of a Broadcast Journalism University project that went WAY out of hand. Even managed to parlay it into a WTF1 gig for a little while.

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