The UAE is throwing its growing motorsport weight behind the candidacy of the former Ferrari F1 team director Jean Todt for the presidency of Formula One in the October 23 election.
UAE backs Frenchman in race for FIA presidency
ABU DHABI // The UAE is throwing its growing weight in the world of motorsport behind the candidacy of the former Ferrari F1 team director Jean Todt for the presidency of Formula One in the October 23 election. Amid concerns over the policies of Finland's Ari Vatanen, Mr Todt's rival for the presidency of the Fédération International de l'Automobile (FIA), the decision to back the Frenchman is significant: the arrival of F1 in Abu Dhabi means the emirate is emerging as the centre of regional motorsport.
According to Mr ben Sulayem, the president of the Automobile and Touring Club of the UAE, Mr Vatanen has lost the UAE's support and that of most other Arab motorsport federations because of his plan to repeal the FIA members' voting statute and on account of his well-known displeasure at F1's increasingly international calendar. Mr ben Sulayem, who is also the FIA's vice president for sport, spoke out after securing support for his position from the highest level of UAE motorsport.
He believes other regional federations will follow suit. Mr Vatanen favours a change in the voting arrangements that would end up "emasculating the large majority of the members who would become, effectively, mere associates", Mr ben Sulayem said. "I have publicly stated to my fellow club presidents that a vote for Vatanen could be our last and final vote." The FIA is governed by what is essentially a one-vote-per-country system.
However, countries such as the UAE, which have representative bodies in both the sports and mobility classes, are granted two votes. Small nations match larger ones in voting power. In a July interview with the magazine Autosport, Mr Vatanen said: "Currently, it is very biased towards small countries." But in the most recent election newsletter on his website, he said, "I have never, and I repeat, never had the intention to reduce the influence of smaller clubs in any way."
Mr ben Sulayem believes the UAE had no choice but to back Mr Todt after Mr Vatanen followed up his apparent change of heart with a statement that moving F1 around the world was "alienating its traditional customers". To that Mr Sulayem said: "While I respect tradition, I cannot respect a Europhile who would deny the global development and spread of F1. "If the clock were turned back, we may not be looking forward to the Grand Prix in Abu Dhabi at the end of this month. How can I support such a policy?"
The UAE's official backing of Mr Todt's candidacy comes hot on the heels of a controversial Dead Sea summit in Jordan, where the kingdom's Prince Feisal Al Hussein - the chairman of Jordan's motorsport federation - accepted an invitation to be the Middle East vice president for sport in Mr Vatanen's prospective cabinet. After that meeting, UK media reports said 80 per cent of the Arab voting bloc supported Mr Vatanen. Mr ben Sulayem insisted that the figure was closer to 20 per cent.