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FIA confirms whistleblower complaints against president regarding Saudi Arabia and Las Vegas races

Red Bull driver Max Verstappen of the Netherlands, center, who qualified for pole position, speaks with FIA President Mohammed Ben Sulayem after qualification ahead of the Formula One Bahrain Grand Prix at the Bahrain International Circuit in Sakhir, Bahrain, Friday, March 1, 2024. (AP Photo/Darko Bandic) (ASSOCIATED PRESS)

The FIA said Tuesday that its compliance officer has received two complaints “detailing potential allegations involving certain members of its governing body" in seeming reference to whistleblower claims against the president of Formula 1's governing body.

The BBC reported this week that FIA President Mohammed Ben Sulayem allegedly intervened to overturn a penalty given to Fernando Alonso at last year's Saudi Arabian Grand Prix. A second BBC report says the same whistleblower also claims Ben Sulayem told officials not to certify the Las Vegas circuit for its high-profile race last November.

“The Compliance Department is assessing these concerns, as is common practice in these matters, to ensure that due process is meticulously followed,” the FIA said.

The FIA confirmed no details about the allegations or even that Ben Sulayem is the target. In an additional statement given to The Associated Press, an FIA spokesman said: “It is unfortunate and a source of great concern that the matter has been disclosed to the media without any prior authorization and that certain elements of the report were inaccurately reported.”

The BBC reports follow a dramatic month in which Red Bull investigated team principal Christian Horner over allegations of misconduct involving a team employee. The complaint was dismissed days before Saturday's season-opening race in Bahrain, won by Max Verstappen of Red Bull.

Even after Horner was cleared by Red Bull's parent company, a trove of alleged evidence against him was leaked to more than 100 industry members during practice in Bahrain. Horner has denied all allegations and his wife, Geri Halliwell, was by his side on race day for Red Bull's 1-2 finish.

After the race, Verstappen's father told The Daily Mail the team will implode if Horner is not removed from his position.

Now attention has shifted from the Horner saga to allegations against Ben Sulayem, who has been heavily scrutinized through his first two seasons as FIA president.

The whistleblower is believed to be a former FIA employee who now works for Formula One Management, a person with direct knowledge of the complaints told AP speaking on condition of anonymity because the name and other details are not being disclosed by FIA.

The allegations against Ben Sulayem are part of what appears to be a bitter power struggle between the governing body and F1 itself. Ben Sulayem was elected FIA president by its membership in 2021 just days after the controversial season finale cost Lewis Hamilton a record-breaking eighth title and gave Verstappen his first world championship.

Ben Sulayem has been a target since his election. He has been accused by F1 rights holder Liberty Media of harmfully downplaying F1's commercial value; he publicly backed Michael Andretti and General Motors' bid to expand the 10-team grid despite the refusal of F1 to allow the Americans entry, and he apparently blocked an agreement between the teams and Liberty to double the number of sprint weekends for 2023.

Most recently, Ben Sulayem infuriated Mercedes boss Toto Wolff and his wife, Susie, who runs the all-female F1 Academy, for questioning if there is a conflict of interest with their respective jobs. The FIA launched a compliance inquiry into the Wolffs that was dropped two days later.

The Wolffs may pursue legal action and angrily defended their integrity. The other nine F1 teams in identically worded statements released simultaneously all denied filing a complaint about the Wolffs.

The FIA maintains it must have a complaint before it can investigate any improprieties and has never clarified what triggered the investigation into the Wolffs. At the same time, a lack of formal complaint filed to FIA against Horner has been cited as the reason why the FIA has not launched its own investigation.

In the latest allegations, the whistleblower reportedly told the BBC that Ben Sulayem called Sheikh Abdullah bin Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa - the FIA’s vice president for sport for the Middle East and North Africa region — to make clear he thought a 10-second penalty against Alonso last season should be rescinded for work done on his car while he was serving a previous five-second penalty.

The penalty dropped Alonso from third place to fourth. The penalty was overturned and Alonso nudged George Russell of Mercedes off the podium.

Last fall, Ben Sulayem reportedly told race stewards to find a way not to declare the Las Vegas circuit safe for racing.

The temporary street course was not completed in time to be inspected in the FIA's required window ahead of an event. The inspection happened early in the morning of the first practice and Carlos Sainz Jr. ran over a loose drain cover that destroyed his Ferrari and ended the session after just nine minutes.

The entire course had to be reinspected, leading to lengthy delays and a second practice that ended at 4 a.m. with no spectators in attendance. Ferrari said last month it has yet to come to a financial resolution with F1 over the cost of repairs to Sainz's car.

The BBC said the whistleblower was contacted by their manager, “who on behest of the FIA president instructed him to find some concerns to prevent the FIA from certifying the circuit before the weekend of the race”. The BBC said the compliance report quotes the whistleblower as saying that “the purpose was to find fault with the track in order to withhold the license."

The Las Vegas Grand Prix debut race was the first promoted by F1 and Liberty Media, and an estimated $500 million was spent on the event. It has not been revealed why Ben Sulayem would have wanted to sink the marquee event, which overcame all its hiccups to produce one of the best races of the 2023 season.

There had been two years of tension, the BBC reported, between Liberty Media and the FIA over the costs of Las Vegas with Ben Sulayem allegedly wanting more money from F1 for the sanctioning body to oversee the event.

F1 races in Saudi Arabia this weekend.

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AP auto racing: https://apnews.com/hub/auto-racing