National Motorsport Academy

Tutor Talk: The Process of Governing F1

Governing any sport is a challenge. Governing F1 must be a nightmare! With the expectations of teams, manufacturers, sponsors, drivers and fans all weighing heavily, the FIA is responsible for writing the rule book and making it stick. But who really holds the power?

Sporting governing bodies are constantly under fire for one thing or another. Whenever a scandal, safety or political issue arises, the governing body has to be seen to take action. At the same time as controlling the effects of external influences, they are also responsible for the sport’s longevity and popularity. For profitability and accessibility. It’s not an enviable task. Here, tutor Gen discusses governing the complex circus that is F1 and reflects on how the events at Abu Dhabi will change the balance of power in future. 

Tutor Talk

Gen Gordon specialises in international sports law and heads up the NMA’s Business School, giving post-graduate students a unique insight into the regulatory and governance side of commercial motorsport.

Hal Morgan-Short has a Master’s in Sports Law and is a keen follower of Formula 1.

Governing the sport of Formula 1 is a complex operation. F1, as with all motorsports, presents technical challenges and intricate sporting regulations which can lead to criticism of over-regulation. Therefore, the governing body of F1, the FIA, must constantly tread a fine line between suffocating the innovative nature of the sport – one of F1’s main appeals – and allowing a free-for-all amongst teams in what it allows- potentially paving the way for the sport to evolve beyond all recognition. Treading this line is a challenge, and governance in Formula 1 has been unpredictable both in its administration, and its reception by fans and teams alike.

However, beyond this usual dichotomy, focus has recently turned to the interactions between team principals and FIA officials- with the fears that the ability to govern may bend to the will of who shouts the loudest at the race director. On one hand, it may be presented that those who have a most vested interest in the administration of the rules should be entitled to voice their opinions. However, criticism that this has gone too far has been heralded by prominent F1 figures, particularly when in reference to those who represent the biggest teams. Whilst the discussions between Toto Wolff of Mercedes, Christian Horner and Jonathan Wheatley of Red Bull, and race director, Michael Masi during the controversial final lap of Abu Dhabi last year may be fascinating, the need for them during the race, and furthermore being broadcast to the world watching on, was nothing short of bizarre. Whilst viewers may be accustomed to footballers berating referees following a decision, the idea of Sheikh Mansour or Txiki Begiristain, Manchester City’s owner and director of football respectively, ringing the officials at half-time during a game, to do the same, seems dystopian.

Image: Getty Images - Jose Mourinho is another culprit for arguing with the referee

The FIA can implement the most convoluted and intricate regulations as part of its governance as it seems fit, buttressed by severe sanctions and formal appeals processes. However, their control and power remain entirely undermined by teams being able to interrogate those who are supposed to be their superiors, and even attempt to strike a bargain. Not only has this proven to whittle down penalties and alter race outcomes- but it can now arguably be seen to decide Championships. This is detrimental to the governance structure but hints at a future where team principals and those hired into the motorsport industry are done so based on their ability to charm an FIA executive, as opposed to their racing, business, or legal acumen. Whilst it is likely this will soon be stopped, either the broadcasting of the messages or the ability to communicate between FIA officials and team representatives, Abu Dhabi 2021 will remain the latest bizarre chapter to reflect upon in the history and evolution of the Formula 1 governance structure.

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