Formula 1 Is Suffering Through A PR Nightmare

Sergio Perez To Secure Seat By Playing Second Fiddle
Sergio Perez To Secure Seat By Playing Second Fiddle

Formula 1 is suffering through a PR nightmare so far in 2024.

The on-track action has been anything from exciting and events off it have been extremely controversial. Before we even saw a wheel turned in pre-season testing, Christian Horner was under investigation for alleged inappropriate and controlling behaviour against a female colleague.

F1 should be riding the crest of a wave with the growing popularity of the sport and the huge success that Drive to Survive has been. Right now, though, the pinnacle of motorsport has descended into chaos and none of this is going away anytime soon.

So, what’s happened and where does F1 go from here?

Formula 1 is Suffering Through a PR Nightmare

There have been more scandals in Formula 1 so far in 2024 than Grands Prix. Even by F1’s standards, these first few weeks of the season have been a PR disaster. The latest high-profile figure to be implicated in an investigation is the FIA’s President Mohammed Ben Sulayem.

After the Bahrain Grand Prix, Ben Sulayem was accused by a whistleblower of allegedly interfering over a Formula 1 race result. The race in question was the 2023 Saudi Arabian Grand Prix, where Fernando Alonso was originally penalised and dropped out of the podium before being reinstated.

FIA President Accused Of Tampering With F1 Race Result

Ben Sulayem allegedly called the FIA’s vice-president for sport for the Middle East and North Africa Sheikh Abdullah bin Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa to make it clear that he thought Alonso’s penalty should be revoked.

Alonso was given a ten-second penalty for incorrectly serving a five-second stop/go penalty. After seeing evidence from Aston Martin of drivers doing the same in previous races and being unpunished, the stewards reversed this decision.

Ben Sulayem is now under investigation by the FIA and if these allegations turn out to be true, it would be disastrous for both the credibility of Formula 1 and the FIA. The ethics committee is expected to take four to six weeks to issue its report on this alleged incident.

But wait, there’s more!

As if to double down on the controversy, a second allegation has been made against Ben Sulayem earlier today. The same whistleblower alleges that the President of the FIA told officials not to certify the Las Vegas circuit for its race last year.

The whistleblower alleges that race officials in Las Vegas were told “on behest of the FIA president” to find a way not to pass the circuit safe for racing. The whistleblower added that issues on the circuit were meant to be artificially identified regardless of their actual existence, with the ultimate goal of “withholding the licence.”

Las Vegas Strip Circuit

Why Ben Sulayem would want to do this isn’t clear, but this was a controversial circuit last season, partly down to Carlos Sainz’s Ferrari ripping up a drain cover in a scary incident. That delayed practice and put the race weekend in doubt, so perhaps Ben Sulayem knew something we didn’t.

Either way, this adds to the air of discontent at the FIA, as a number of senior figures have resigned in recent months. Steve Nielsen (Sporting Director), Deborah Mayer (Head of the Women’s Commission), Gerd Ennser (Head of ADAC) as well as lawyers Pierre Ketterer and Ed Floyd and Tim Goss (Single-seater Director) have all resigned for as yet undefined reasons.

Has this ever happened before?

The President of the FIA being accused of race fixing is totally unheard of. The only thing that is remotely comparable is the Crashgate Scandal of 2008. This was where Renault ordered Nelson Piquet Jr. to deliberately crash and bring out a Safety Car in order to benefit their lead driver Alonso.

Once Piquet revealed the truth and the investigation had concluded, the FIA threw the book at the guilty parties. Flavio Briatore was initially banned from F1 for life and wouldn’t return for over a decade, with Pat Symonds spending years out of the sport.

Singapore 2008 Crashgate
Image credit: GP Fans

This also signalled the demise of the Renault team in F1, as they’d leave the sport as a constructor after 2011.

If both of the allegations against Ben Sulayem are accurate, he will likely be stripped of his position, banned from motorsport for life and the FIA will need to find a new President to steady what is currently a sinking ship.

And then there’s Horner…

Just when most people thought that Hornergrate was over, there’s a new development. After Horner was cleared of inappropriate behaviour by Red Bull, some Team Principals called for more transparency about this process and the evidence in it.

Their requests were answered in a sense, as a Google Drive with screenshots of Whatsapp messages allegedly between Christian Horner and the complainant. We can’t verify if these are real, but if they’re not, they’re very good fakes.

Christian Horner All Smiles As Focus Returns To The Track
Image credit: Getty

Regardless of their legitimacy, Red Bull are under immense pressure to reveal more details about their internal investigation into Horner. Even Max Verstappen’s father, Jos, has said that the team is being “driven apart” over this scandal and Max has refused to give Horner his full backing in public.

All of this has fueled speculation about Verstappen leaving Red Bull for Mercedes next year. If that’s true, and the Verstappens’ comments hint at that, then Red Bull would much rather keep their superstar driver than a Team Principal that could be publically cancelled if those messages are real.

We can’t ignore the snoozefest on track, either

The mood in F1 definitely lifted after Sir Lewis Hamilton was announced as a Ferrari driver for 2025, but this optimism has well and truly dissipated since then with Max Verstappen’s crushing victory in Sakhir last weekend.

Verstappen has won the last three driver’s championships in a row and stood on the top step of the podium for the most recent eight Grands Prix. He is in devastating form and the opposition simply cannot compete with him, including his teammate.

F1 Grand Prix Of Bahrain Qualifying
Image credit: Getty

Formula 1 fans have endured dominant periods in the past, but this is more one-sided than anything we’ve seen before. Even Michael Schumacher and Hamilton didn’t enjoy this level of supremacy over the sport.

So, with dull racing on the track and massive controversies off it, Formula 1’s bubble of growth could well and truly have begun to burst.

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