The current kerfuffle about FIA President Mohammed ben Sulayem’s tweet regarding the possible sale of the Formula 1 group (not that it ever seemed more than a tickle from Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund) is much ado about nothing, but it does highlight a number of things about the sport which probably need fixing.

Some have already extrapolated the story into calls from the F1 teams to have the FIA President removed. This is a pretty daft idea as the F1 teams do not choose the president, unless they can influence all the FIA member clubs around the world. So let us not work ourselves up about such jibber-jabber.

Ben Sulayem is not blameless in this affair, as he has had a tendency since the start of his mandate to want to be seen to be involved in a lot of things. He enjoys the spotlight rather too much than he needs to. One can accept such things in the first year of a new president, wanting to be respected and not really knowing how to achieve that, but if it goes on too long, it can become a problem. In part it is to do with the contrast to Jean Todt’s style of managing F1 problems. He did not seek recognition (one can argue he did that in other areas of FIA activity), but he let F1 get on with things and tried to avoid the kind of dabbling that made Max Mosley’s time as FIA President (before Todt) so stressful for the sport. One can say, perhaps, that Ben Sulayem simply wants to show folks (primarily in Saudi Arabia) that he’s an important figure in the decision-making process.

In respect of commercial matters, he is not.

The FIA has many important jobs to do, in terms of safety, rule-making, licensing officials, competitors and tracks and so on, but commercially it has no say. To be honest we don’t know all the details of this because the celebrated 100-year agreement between the FIA and the Formula 1 group is confidential and the most guarded secret there is in the sport. In theory, legal arguments aside, the FIA still owns the commercial rights to the Formula 1 World Championship, but it has leased these to the Formula 1 Group, now owned by Liberty Media, until the end of 2110. There is, therefore, nothing to worry about for the next 88 years.

Back in 2000, when all of this was being discussed, the FIA General Assembly rejected a deal for Bernie Ecclestone to lease the entire World Championship, but agreed to extend the commercial rights deal he had had since 1997. As a result the governing body continues to supply the administrative and legislative services for the World Championship. The separation of roles was required because the European Commission insisted upon it. Thus Formula 1 was granted an exclusive license with respect to all of the commercial rights to the World Championship, including its trademarks, in exchange for a one-time fee of $313.6 million and annual regulatory fees, which can be increased over time. Many thought this deal was scandalous given the money that F1 generates, but Mosley said that he needed to take action – and it was all he could get from Ecclestone at the time. The FIA put the money into a Foundation, which today has very little to do with the sport, beyond funding some safety research from time to time.

The 100-year agreement is separate from the Concorde Agreements, which are contracts between the FIA, the commercial rights-holder and the participating teams, which set out the basis on which the teams participate in the championship and how they all share in its commercial success. The current Concorde Agreement, runs until the end of 2025.

The 100-year agreement is made up of seven different agreements that cover all aspects of the deal (in much the way as the Schedules in the Concorde Agreement). The fees paid to the FIA are subject to modification in the different Concorde Agreements or, in recent times, the Implementation Agreements, such as in 2013, when the fee structures were reworked to better reflect changes that had taken place. That also included changes to the governance structure of F1.

What we do NOT know are the terms and conditions in the 100-year deal, specifically relating to such things as the duties of the two parties, termination, dispute resolution and so on. Lease agreements usually include a renewal clause and may even include stipulations related to converting the lease into a sale. But we do not have any clear knowledge of how changes of control impact the 100-year deal, except what we have seen when CVC Capital Partners sold the business to Liberty Media. At the time, Liberty said in its SEC filings that the completion of the sale was subject to certain conditions, including the receipt of clearances and approvals by antitrust and competition law authorities in various countries and “third-party consents and approvals, including that of the Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile”. This seems to suggest that the FIA had to give consent or approval for the deal to go ahead. This suggests that the FIA could stop a sale happening by refusing to consent, but we do not know under what circumstances that might happen. However, it is safe to assume that there would be phrases such as consent not being “unreasonably withheld”, conditions such as the change of identity or control “not materially altering the entity that exists” and, obviously, the something to do with the suitability of new owners.

Given that Liberty Media is a listed company, trading on the NASDAQ, it is a little odd that the disclosures required do not include an explanation of exactly how (if at all) the FIA could stop the transfer of its lease deal to a third party.

Much coverage has been given to Liberty Media’s legal people sending a letter to the FIA, which was sent to the teams (thus guaranteeing that it would leak), in which they said that “the FIA has given unequivocal undertakings that it will not do anything to prejudice the ownership, management and/or exploitation” of those rights it has leased.

“We consider that those comments, made from the FIA president’s official social media account, interfere with those rights in an unacceptable manner.”

The letter said that the suggestion that any potential purchaser of the Formula 1 business is “required to consult with the FIA is wrong”.

This is odd given the previous SEC filing.

The lawyers added that “any individual or organisation commenting on the value of a listed entity or its subsidiaries, especially claiming or implying possession of inside knowledge while doing so, risks causing substantial damage to the shareholders and investors of that entity, not to mention potential exposure to serious regulatory consequences” and concluded that “to the degree that these comments damage the value of Liberty Media Corporation, the FIA may be liable as a result.”

The F1 share price has not been impacted by any of this chatter.

The SEC has rules about market manipulation, including when someone is “spreading false or misleading information about a company”.

The point in this case, however, is that we do not know what is false… as Liberty Media has indicated that it requires “consents and approvals” to have a change of control and yet says it is wrong to say “that any potential purchaser is required to consult with the FIA”.

The only conclusion one can draw is that the lawyers are playing semantic games and that only a buyer (rather than a potential buyer) needs approval.

But who knows?

Perhaps it would be sensible if we all did… transparency and all.


  1. Such an interesting sport, parallels to “real life” on so many levels. One can simply enjoy the on-track spectacle, or the tech, or the esthetics, or the people watching, or the behind the scenes melodramas, or the legal wrangling, with little chance of it causing the end of civilization.

    I can see why some just turn directly to the sport pages and ignore the front of what we used to call “The Newspaper”!

  2. Some American lawyers (Probably those retained by Liberty) have hit upon another way to create income for themselves.

    We old gits do remember when Bernie finally managed to offload F1 FOM et al. and the conditions that were required to be met, that were in the public domain at the time, then with rather more detail than it seems to be healthy to admit knowing today. (Their existence not the exact content. )
    That he got Liberty to pay anything at all for an outfit so gigantically in debt is still a miracle to me, the man is a genius!!)

  3. A fascinating piece Joe. Thank you. Rare and insightful food for thought for those of us more serious mortals who never read tabloid tweets.

  4. Where is this all leading to? F1’s reputation is already at stake with referees breaking rules, teams flouting the same, being fined and still defiant as if it’s not even their fault. Now with the sports regulators worrying more about finances rather than the downward spiralling standards, lack of regulation implementation, quality etc….has F1 been relegated to nothing more than another racing avenue for all the punters to bet upon? all money and no substance or heart is already becoming the bane of this once iconic sport but this new involvement and provocation from the middle-east at all levels even pales the takeover by Liberty at an already inflated value and trying to keep it afloat and sustainable without destroying it’s spirit, fans and genuine sport lovers be damned!

  5. Hi Joe, informative as always.
    I have to say though, that I’m not sure that ‘sensible’ and ‘transparency’ are words that anyone within the senior ranks of the FIA would recognise – let alone understand!

  6. Joe, thanks for doing the fact finding and explaining the situation, as well as we know anyway, in a clear and understandable article. This will definitely help frame our understanding when reading other articles around and about the wild west that is the internet. Or maybe we don’t need to read anything else!
    Whatever is going on, let’s hope misguided hysteria doesn’t cause either party to act rashly and affect the running of F1.

  7. And did I see that CVC is dipping its toe into the world of tennis? A precursor to a LIV- like split backed by more Saudi cash? Joe, I see another revenue stream for you!

  8. It isn’t semantics, Joe. A buyer need have no interaction with the FIA.

    If Liberty Media agrees a deal, the FIA after-the-fact probably has the chance to decline that buyer only on a very narrow set of legal grounds – likely including previous bankruptcy, sanctions status, tax compliance etc.

    Matters of opinion and/or price agreed won’t be reasons allowing the FIA to decline. Effectively the FIA is just the rubber stamp as Liberty Media will check compliance before entering into a deal.

  9. Very easy for the Saudi Arabian Public Investment Fund to acquire a WC open wheel event, do what was done in the Pro Golf world. Start your own championship by throwing huge amounts of money at teams and see who jumps. Sure, the FIA would have to sanction it as “true” racing series, but I’m sure a little more cash would do the trick.

  10. I cannot escape the thought that Ben Sulayem’s remarks are designed to enable the Emiratis to buy F1 cheaper than $20 billion.

  11. Thanks Joe. Good explanation of the current situation. I thought the original lease price was $100 million, not the $313 million you mention. Am I wrong?

  12. Is this related to FIA appearing to favor the Andretti/GM F1 entry attempt and the team owners not welcoming the idea? Reminding ben Sulayem who runs the commercial side of F1?

    1. If they want full control forever, they would have to buy it, but they’d still need an organisation to do all that the FIA does, and they would need agreement from the FIA for all of it, because Liberty Media doesn’t want to have to do all the licenses etc. The current solution is best. A few poorly chosen words from MBS does not a civil war make. He got slapped down publicly. End of story.

      1. End of story for last week maybe but it seems that MBS is far from finished with his stance on behalf of the FIA…

  13. Could the semantics be that the FIA has to approve the sale not the purchase, therefore the seller not any prospective buyer is required to consult them? Whether or not such preliminary engagement would be sensible is another matter. Whatever, that F1 and the FIA both feel the need to rattle cages is interesting.

    1. That is not how I remember it, (Unreliably) thinking back to the time of the CVC sale. When I get time and also remember to do so, I will go back to the blog articles of the time when there was much discussion, on a daily basis, of the rules governing the sale. Bernie seemed to be in court a lot, in that era.

  14. In Max Mosley’s autobiography, Max states with reference to the hundred year agreement:

    ” In Particular, we insisted on veto rights to protect the Formula One values and format, its ownership and control”

    He goes on to claim that the FIA blocked the use of Formula One as collateral for a loan, as an example of the FIA’s power in this regard.

    1. Given that the deal seems to be incredibly legally tight (no surprise given Max and Bernie), presumably Bernie set it up so that all the cards were stacked in F1’s favour rather than the FIA from a sale point of view. He couldn’t count on Max being in the FIA and them being able to block or restrict deals and lower the price.

  15. Joe, if the Saudi PIF was to purchase the entirety of Liberty Media Group would it gain control of the Formula One group under such a business deal?

      1. A quick ‘Google’ shows that LMG is currently valued at $13.12 Billion, which, when you consider what it owns, might make it quite attractive should the SAPIF fancy spending some of their $620 Billion.
        What do you think?

  16. In only the first shovelful of my dig, I found this! An article by a certain person. (With whom I have previously disagreed, but in this occasion has provided much information from “A close source”)
    Joe does not allow links normally so if one were to search on ALL the following parameters…
    Forbes Consumer Sports Money
    Sep 17, 2016,07:45pm EDT
    Revealed: CVC To Get Just $354 Million Cash From F1 Sale

    There lies some relevant information regarding the state of things at the time.
    However one must consider the stupid possibility that the FIA signed away its right of approval of they purchaser.
    (Also the level of debt was greater than I remembered, but the bonuses were fabulous!)
    The history of F1 is something that newcomers may find hard to believe.

      1. Wouldn’t have anything to do with a certain journalist formerly of the independent, CityAM and Guardian amongst others who may or may not claim to be an authority on F1 business despite not attending any races, would it?? 😜

  17. He seems to have bought the Jean Marie Balestre guide to being respected, don’t earn it demand it.

    A year in he hasn’t really got much right, but then when you repair things that are not broken and ignore those that are that tends to be the case in my opinion.

    The way Michael Massi was treated was a disgrace, they executed a fella for a parking offence and there has been little harmony over how the series has been administered. Putting aside some of the odd on track decision, being nanny to the drivers just smacks of people looking for something to do as opposed with being tasked with something to be done

  18. Just a person opinion on ownership.

    Liberty are an entertainment business and you look at how they have opened the window to the world on the sport is testimony to that.

    When CVC owned the sport there was absolutely no innovation, no publicity and there was nothing put out unless it could be monetised. They failed to understand how to recruit new fans. Their offering was dull, much like the fella who barged in while Joe was chatting to Ron Dennis as I recall the story.

    If it gets sold again to some Vulture (sorry Venture) capitalist type set up which the regime mentioned is effectively, it will be a step back unless they can maintain all the people that have taken the sport forward.

  19. Interesting that mohammed ben sulayem is head of the FIA and if his old website is to be believed he doesn’t mind men who think they are smarter than woman but he does “not like woman who think they are smarter than men”.

    Unbelievable that a technology driven industry has elected a dinosaur to lead it, but then it’s only in civilised society’s that it’s accepted that men and woman are equal

    1. 20 years ago the world was a different place. I bet you did stuff you regret… and it’s still there somewhere.

      1. Nothing than is a fundamental change of opinion. I stood up to the AWB and other racists when as an mlungu (white) in South Africa this was seen as “going against your race”.

        A racist, sexist, mosogonist and all the other ists’s dont change (or very few do) and learn to hide their views. He comes fro a highly sexist background, there is no evidence he has changes at all. THe old “I was young and stupid argument” trotted by anti-semite Labour MP’s for example dop not chnage that they held these views and generally still do.

        When I am out I love playing scratch a South African and see the racist emerge, because they think because we have the same coat I think in their backward way.

        This fella is a disagrace to motorsport and the automotive industry. The fact the FIA has had to make the statement they have is testiment to that. We live in an age where Hitler would be able to apologise and get away with it as being misguided.

        1. I normally enjoy and appreciate your contributions and admire your stance on the past, but have to agree with Joe in this instance.
          Haven’t been to South Africa, just met a few of SA’s recent contributions to our multicultural society, and suspect, as you say, that many of the “new” attitudes are no more than a veneer.
          Generally most of Europe is pretty balanced and civilised but there are certainly plenty of instances, in both directions, that are trying to impose less benign attitudes. This, however, is a world wide problem.

          1. Sadly it is very much a veneer and pretty thin. As soon as most people see your coat they start complaining about the blecks. Last week someone came to drop something at our house and was calling them kxfxixs, which is not only a prescribed word that can see you imprisoned but even under apartheid was used by the real racists. Not those who just lived under a system. As my father grew up in a homeland we were never going to see black people as anything other than human beings. He could speak isi-Xhosa fluently and understood their culture and beliefs.

            I’m afraid very few people change and that is why I think any defence of something said in the past is unacceptable. The fact the FIA have issued a denial of what the current FIA president has said in the past only reinforces that he was a sexist but like closer racists in South Africa, keeps it under wraps. It’s interesting today to see that an unnamed team principal has said he must go. I would like to see all 10 publicly say he must go, but then the woke brigade will roll into town and make it about him being an Arab and not about the issue that got people to that position.

            As I have a visitor from Blighty at present, last night I took her to my old school club and let’s just say it’s like a window into the old world, no blecks as patrons but doing all the manual work. I only took her as it has an amazing view of the sea. I tend to go to townships to have a beer, they are still 100% black inhabitants, but you get no aggravation. In 4 years of being home only once was their a whiff of an incident and the fella who was making a scene about an mlungu (white) being there was swifty told to behave or leave by the rest of the patrons. My broad feeling is that the majority have forgiven the past not forgotten it, but those that benefitted from apartheid are not interested in nation building or reconciliation. Unlike what you see in the UK mostly where people are accepted as they are. I don’t miss the weather, but I miss the normal society you have in the UK and in places I have visited in Europe.

  20. The storm in an espresso cup today about teams/Liberty seeking to ‘have Ben Sulayem replaced’ seems only to have gained traction because so few people look beyond F1. In practical terms, F1 represents a fraction of one per cent of the FIA’s remit.

    Everyone’s got gripes in motor sport, but Ben Sulayem’s administration seems to work well with its other categories. F1’s rights holder and franchisees (formerly known as teams), are starting to appear a little too big for their clogs, fuelled by gullible ‘meeja’ outlets willing to take the bait for an audience which seems only to enjoy gnashing its teeth.

    Maybe all that travelling around the world in a bubble during Covid has caused some sort of syndrome. Maybe everyone’s quite happy really and it’s all just for consumption on Netflix. Maybe Harry and Meghan will form a new commentary team so that everyone can feel equally hard done by. It’s all a bit tiresome, though.

      1. There will always be parties interested in entering F1. Some will be more serious than others.
        Reckon the FIA know this full well and therefore can probably afford to ignore some teams who believe it is all about them.

  21. Hi Joe,

    As a commercial lawyer I can only assume that the “consents and approvals” which Liberty refers to means that the lease deal has language in the assignment clause in the lease says that they (i.e. Liberty) can only assign “with the consent of the FIA, such consent not to be unreasonably withheld.”


      1. Joe – but you disagreed when I said that above?

        That legalese means there are only very narrow and defined grounds for the FIA to refuse a buyer – bankruptcy, sanctions status, tax status etc – and there is no a priori discussion or negotiation involved.

        Liberty conclude a transaction conditional on FIA approval, present it to the FIA; FIA has to consent unless on those narrow grounds there is a problem.

        Both things are true – the buyer doesn’t have to engage with the FIA, despite the FIA having to give consent. Price is definitely not grounds to refuse consent.

  22. Hi Joe,
    I hope the off season is treating you well.

    I had pictured an Audi takeover of Sauber, I was thinking they would be another works team. Was it a surprise to you that they didn’t buy a controlling share?

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