Motor racing-Formula One accuses FIA head of commercial interference

Formula One F1 - Abu Dhabi Grand Prix - Yas Marina Circuit, Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates - November 19, 2022 FIA president Mohammed Ben Sulayem REUTERS/Aleksandra Szmigiel

LONDON (Reuters) - Liberty Media-owned Formula One has accused FIA president Mohammed Ben Sulayem of interfering with its commercial rights by publicly questioning a reported $20 billion valuation of the sport.

Ben Sulayem, an Emirate elected in 2021 to the top job at Formula One's governing body, took to Twitter on Monday after Bloomberg reported Saudi Arabia's Public Investment Fund (PIF) explored a bid for more than that amount.

"As the custodians of motorsport, the FIA, as a non-profit organisation, is cautious about alleged inflated price tags of $20bn being put on F1," Ben Sulayem said on his personal account.

"Any potential buyer is advised to apply common sense, consider the greater good of the sport and come with a clear, sustainable plan -- not just a lot of money."

He suggested the FIA had a duty to consider the possible negative impact on fans and promoters, who might have to pay more.

The comments followed his support this month for Michael Andretti's bid to enter an 11th team on the grid -- a move most existing teams are resistant to because of the dilution of revenues.

They also fuel the sense of an emerging turf war between the governing body and a commercial rights holder eager to grow an expanding and increasingly popular championship in new directions.

Sky Sports News reported that Formula One's legal head Sacha Woodward Hill and Liberty Media counterpart Renee Wilm had sent a joint letter to the FIA accusing the governing body of exceeding its remit.

The FIA ultimately owns the rights to the championship but signed them over to former supremo Bernie Ecclestone’s Formula One Management in a 100-year deal in 2001 as part of a separation of commercial and regulatory activities.

"The FIA has given unequivocal undertakings that it will not do anything to prejudice the ownership, management and/or exploitation of those rights," Sky quoted Formula One's letter as saying.

"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, sent to the FIA's World Motor Sport Council, said the comments risked exposure to "serious regulatory consequences" and the FIA could also be liable.

"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," they said.

Sources confirmed to Reuters that the details were correct and teams received copies of the letter on Tuesday from F1 chief executive Stefano Domenicali.

There was no comment from Formula One and no immediate response from the FIA.

(Reporting by Alan Baldwin, editing by Christian Radnedge)

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