FIA chief denies sexism accusations and claims he faced ‘inhuman’ smear campaign

By Sports Desk November 28, 2023

Formula One boss Mohammed Ben Sulayem has defended historic sexist remarks on his personal website in which he allegedly said he does “not like women who think they are smarter than men” – and revealed that he was subjected to a racist slur as he campaigned to become FIA president.

In a PA news agency interview, the 62-year-old Emirati – elected to the biggest job in motor sport in December 2021 – vehemently denied claims of misogyny and said he had been the target of an “inhuman” smear campaign.

Ben Sulayem also compared Lewis Hamilton’s contentious championship defeat in 2021 to England’s 1966 World Cup final win against West Germany, following Sir Geoff Hurst’s controversial ‘offside’ goal, while reiterating his belief that Michael Masi – the man accused of denying Hamilton a record eighth world title – could return to the sport.

In January, Ben Sulayem was quoted on an archived version of his old website saying that he does “not like women who think they are smarter than men, for they are not in truth”. At the time, the FIA said the comments, which date back to 2001, “do not reflect the president’s beliefs”.

But personally addressing the remarks for the first time, Ben Sulayem told PA: “What did I say, if I said it? Let’s assume it was (me). I tell you exactly what it said. It says: ‘I hate when women think they are smarter than us’. But they hate when men think they are smarter than them.

“Did I say we are smarter? No. Did I say they are less smarter? No. For God’s sake, if that is the only thing they have against me, please be my guest, you can do worse than that.

“People can go back and see what has been said, and if I have said anything against women. In 117 years of the FIA, I am the only president who brought in a female CEO (Natalie Robyn).

“I made the commission for EDI (Equality, Diversity and Inclusion), and I brought a woman in (adviser, Tanya Kutsenko).

“There is disrespect to women if you say we have to have 30 per cent (female staff). You bring them in on merit and credibility. And that is why they are there.

“Look at Bernie Ecclestone’s wife. (Fabiana Ecclestone, Vice-President for Sport in South America). She is one of the most active. They said that I brought her in because of the support from Bernie. But Bernie doesn’t have any connection with any votes. He has no power over them.”

Ben Sulayem took the unprecedented decision to relinquish the day-to-day running of F1 in February after he clashed with the sport’s American owners Liberty Media over the introduction of an 11th team and questioned the valuation of the sport.

A month later his son, Saif, died in a road traffic accident in Dubai. In April, further allegations emerged after the Daily Telegraph reported that Shaila-Ann Rao – the FIA’s former interim secretary general for motorsport – wrote a letter to the governing body accusing Ben Sulayem of sexist behaviour.

“When we opened a position as CEO, Shaila-Ann wanted to be the CEO,” continues Ben Sulayem. “I could not get involved. I said, ‘Shaila, you are good, go through with the process’. We had 150 applications, and everybody went through that process.”

Ben Sulayem then reaches for his phone to reveal a WhatsApp message he claims to be from Rao thanking him for hosting her at the Italian Grand Prix earlier this season.

He adds: “I don’t want to do any comment. But that is from September. Sexism, please! Do they have anything else? Why don’t they come and confront me?”

Ben Sulayem continues: “The attack on me earlier this year was inhuman, with the tragedy that I had. I would love that if I did these things that I was accused of, you sit with me, challenge me and confront me. But don’t fabricate and throw things at me, and then when I tell you to prove it, you run away and don’t come back. That is not the way.”

Asked if he was being targeted, the former rally driver, who is midway through a four-year term, replies: “Yes. Because I am doing the right thing.

“Imagine in my campaign, in Europe, that someone said to me: ‘Don’t ever think we will accept our president of the FIA to be an Arab Muslim with the name of Mohammed’.

“I laughed because I knew how to beat him – by winning. But my Christian team were so upset with him. I said, ‘no, leave it, please, this is something I expect from them’. But can we go back to work? And work for the passion that we love, which is motorsport, and improve it?”

Ben Sulayem succeeded Jean Todt five days after Hamilton was sensationally denied a record eighth world title at the 2021 season finale in Abu Dhabi.

Race referee Masi’s failure to imply the correct rules left Hamilton at the mercy of Max Verstappen. The Dutchman took the championship in the desert before quickly racking up another two titles in his all-conquering Red Bull. Hamilton has not won a race since.

A subsequent FIA investigation blamed “human error” before Masi was removed from his post. However, the governing body stopped short of a public apology to Hamilton.

“I always apologise, but I cannot apologise for something which was done before my time,” said Ben Sulayem. “OK, I will do the apology, but I will bring Michael Masi again. Do you think that is right?

“The poor guy is a person who has been attacked and abused. Michael Masi went through hell. Hell! And if I see there is an opportunity that the FIA needs, and Michael Masi is the right person, I will bring him.

“I even had people threatening me to kill me because I had the power to change it (the result). But I said to them: ‘Sorry, the World Cup of 1966, England against Germany, was that correct? Did they change it? No.’ Did they give it to Germany? Nein.”

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