Formula 1: FIA president Mohammed Ben Sulayem faces new allegations of ‘sexism and bullying’

New allegations of sexism and bullying hit FIA president ahead of Baku Grand Prix

For Formula 1 fans, it’s been a long ol’ four weeks since the last race. It’s only a few days now until our beloved 20 drivers return to the track as they prepare for the Baku Street Circuit in Azerbaijan but once again the return of F1 will come with a shroud of controversy.

Mohammed Ben Sulayem, the president of the FIA, is reportedly facing more pressure after The Telegraph published fresh allegations of sexism and bullying at motorsport’s world governing body.

A newly published investigation by The Telegraph has revealed that the former interim secretary general for motorsport, Shaila-Ann Rao, sent a letter alleging numerous instances of sexist behaviour prior to her abrupt departure last December and the claims were never investigated. It has been understood that the letter was sent to Ben Sulayem and to Carmelo Sanz de Barros, the president of the FIA Senate.

Since learning of the letter, The Telegraph Sport also noted that they then spoke to dozens of current and former FIA staff, including elected officials, who have also described the bullying which has allegedly taken place behind the scenes.

Mohammed ben Sulayem in October 2022 at Austin GPMohammed ben Sulayem in October 2022 at Austin GP
Mohammed ben Sulayem in October 2022 at Austin GP

This is not the first time that allegations of sexism have pervaded the air around the 61-year-old former rally driver. Emirate Ben Sulayem has already denied allegations of sexism once this year after remarks from an old website resurfaced in which he had said he did “not like women who think they are smarter than men…for they are not, in truth.” The FIA then responded saying the remarks did not reflect the FIA president’s current beliefs.

Who is Mohammed Ben Sulayem?

Ben Sulayem is an Emirati former rally driver who competed in the Middle East Rally Championship from 1983 - 2002, winning 14 times. The 61-year-old first became embroiled within the FIA in 2008 when he was appointed Vice President.

He first took charge of the organisation when Jean Todt left at the end of 2021, weeks after the controversial Abu Dhabi Grand Prix which saw Max Verstappen win his first driver’s championship.

At the time, the FIA was widely criticised and Ben Sulayem has, himself, had a strained relationship with F1 ever since. Disputes between the President and the sport have ranged from the number of sprint races on the calendar, to the jewellery rules and to this season’s latest development which has limited drivers from speaking out at races on sensitive issues.

Ben Sulayem congratulates Christian Horner following controversial Abu Dhabi Grand Prix in 2021Ben Sulayem congratulates Christian Horner following controversial Abu Dhabi Grand Prix in 2021
Ben Sulayem congratulates Christian Horner following controversial Abu Dhabi Grand Prix in 2021

F1’s owners Liverty Media have recently accused Ben Sulayem of making ‘unacceptable’ remarks about the championship’s commercial value and added that the FIA ‘may be liable’ for any damage, The 61-year-old then ‘relinquished day-to-day control of F1’.

Ben Sulayem has most certainly adopted a lower profile this season at races and while he was seen in Bahrain, he was then not around in Saudi Arabia or Australia, following the tragic death of his 29-year-old son, Saif, who died in a car accident last month.

It has been understood that the president will return to the paddock in Baku this weekend.

Who is Shaila-Ann Rao?

Rao is a British lawyer who first started working for the FIA under the former president. She then left to join Mercedes F1, rising up the ranks to become a special advisor to the team principal, Toto Wolff.

Rao returned to the FIA last summer in a highly controversial move due to her links with the Silver Arrows franchise but was understood to be highly regarded by Ben Sulayem.

She was only appointed on an interim basis but it was believed Rao had been under consideration for a wider brief before her abrupt departure in December.

A number of sources as reported by the Telegraph, have said that Rao felt ‘humiliated’ by her treatment with one such source describing Ben Sulayem’s behaviour as ‘gaslighting her’.

What has been said?

Following the letter Rao sent, an FIA spokesperson told The Telegraph: “Shaila-Ann Rao was a temporary director at the FIA from June 1 2022 and then became interim secretary general for motor sport. In Nov 2022 it was decided by both parties that she would leave that position. Mutual privacy terms have been agreed as is commonplace in business. Neither party has made a reference to the FIA Ethics Committee.”

At last year’s Belgian Grand Prix, witnesses saw Ben Sulayem shouting at Rao in the FIA’s paddock while other sources have also said they heard him refer to her as “that woman.”

One source said: “He was very condescending to her. I’ve had team principals call me who said ‘You should have seen how he treated Shaila-Ann’ and it was in front of other people. He would have a go at her in a very unqualified manner. That’s how he was. Shaila-Ann dared to say no in front of other people which seemed to trigger his behaviour.”

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