Racing Rules: Formula 1 and the FIA

By: Victoria Guevara

October 17, 2022

“And it’s light’s out and away we go!” famous British broadcaster David “Crofty” Croft says to mark the start of each Formula 1 Grand Prix. Although Netflix highlights the racing and driver drama, there are many legal battles going on behind the scenes that aren’t as emphasized. From Mercedes-AMG Petronas Formula One Team driver Lewis Hamilton’s jewelry protest to the real estate challengesinvolved with the Miami Grand Prix in May, the legal issues that arise in Formula 1 cover a wide variety of topics. But what lies underneath it all? What are these rules and regulations team Principals like Toto Wolff use to back their protests? Where do the car constructing protests stem from? The answer to these questions and more involve a closer look at the Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile (“FIA”), and the regulatory structure of international motorsport.

History of the FIA

       The FIA is the governing body and federation of many international auto racing events, like Formula 1, European truck racing, Formula 2, karting, and so much more. Drivers among the many events hail from a wide range of countries, so the FIA was created in Paris on June 20th, 1904, as an association of national motor clubs. It was initially called the Association International des Automobile Clubs Reconnus (AIACR, or “International Association of Recognized Automobile Clubs” in English), and was designed to represent the interests of the drivers and oversee the international motorsport scene. In 1922, the AICR delegated the organization of auto racing to the Commissions Sportive Internationale (“CSI”), which set the regulations for the Grand Prix. After the Second World War, the AIACR was renamed to the Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile.

       While the CSI determined the regulations and calendar of the international auto racing championships, there were individual race organizers. In F1 specifically, this led to tensions between different teams, which formed into the F1 Constructors Association (“FOCA”) in 1973. In the 1980s, both FOCA and the CSI (named Fédération Internationale du Sport Automobile, or “FISA” at the time) had a political battle over control of F1 that led to races being canceled or boycotted, and disagreements over technical regulations of the cars and enforcement. This “FISA–FOCA War”  Eventually, the dispute ended with the Concorde Agreement in 1981. This Agreement dictates how the teams compete in races, and how television revenue and prize money is shared. It has undergone seven different versions since, with the latest one being in 2021. In 1993, the new FIA president Max Mosley restructured the organization by dissolving the FSIA and putting motorsport under the direct management of the FIA.

       After safety concerns significantly increased due to the deaths of Ayrton Senna and Roland Ratzenberger in the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix, the FIA formed an Expert Advisory Safety Committee to research and improve safety in motorsport. This Committee worked to strengthen the crash resistance of the cars, stringent crash tests, new safety standards for helmets and suits, and also improvements on circuit safety. However, the 1990s were not without some legal  conflict yet again regarding the FIA.

       The Competition Directorate of the European Commission and the FIA disputed the commercial administration of motorsport in the 1990s. In 1999, a new Commissioner, Mario Monti, took over and opened a formal investigation into the FIA. The Commission alleged many breaches of European competition law regarding the FIA’s administration of licenses required to participate in motorsport and the control of television rights. The investigation closed in 2001 after the FIA, and the FOA, the Formula One Administration, which controlled F1’s commercial rights, agreed to conditions that prevented a conflict of interest between the FIA’s regulatory rule and any commercial advantages it may gain from championship successes.

       The FIA had its fair share of more ups and downs in the early 2000s. In 2001, the FIA Foundation was established as the FIA’s charitable organization. The Foundation used grants to fund research of road safety and environmental impacts of motorsport. At the same time, FIA president Mosley was elected unopposed to a third term in 2001. He was re-elected unopposed again in 2005, and had a vote of confidence called in June 2008 in response to allegations concerning Mosley’s sex life published by British media. He won the vote but still faced criticism from many motor clubs and motorsport drivers. In 2009, there was a dispute with the newly-formed Formula One Teams Association with regard to the potential budget cap for the 2010 season. Like the FISA-FOCA War, this dispute ended in a new Concorde Agreement, and Mosley stepped down at the end of his term in 2009. Former Scuderia Ferrari team principal Jean Todt succeeded Mosley in 2009, then stepped down December 2021. He was succeeded by former Emirati rally driver Mohammed bin Sulayem who appointed the first FIA CEO, American Natalie Robyn in September.

Current Structure

       With hundreds of millions of dollars at stake, adherence to the FIA’s regulations and challenges to them are a big deal. F1 law comes from the FIA regulations. Understanding the history of the FIA helps put into perspective the reasons why certain regulations exist, such as safety regulations for circuits. Teams and drivers in F1 must follow the International Sporting Code and appendices, as well as the F1 Sporting Regulations and the F1 Technical Regulations. The technical regulations include the regulations that are the “formula” teams must follow when constructing their cars. The sporting regulations govern the races and practices. Most of the issues are settled out on the race track, but the FIA has its own courts in case things get out of hand. The FIA judicial system consists of an International Tribunal (“IT”) and International Court of Appeal (“ICA”).  The IT and ICA are quasi-criminal courts where the FIA President can prosecute teams and individuals, and seek to impose sanctions like fines and bans from competition.

       Although there are many regulations for teams to look through, teams try to be clever with interpretations that would be advantageous to their team, like the “Pink Mercedes” controversy involving Racing Point (Alpine’s former team name) and use of rear brake ducts similar to the championship-winning Mercedes cars. The argument there, and in many other disputes, are heavily imbued with statutory interpretation of the FIA Regulations. Although it “should be quite straightforward,” as Mercedes driver Geroge Russell stated, sometimes teams do not interpret the FIA Regulations the same way. With new regulations every year, new interpretative disputes always loom on the horizon. As British F1 Managing Director Ross Brawn said, “It wouldn’t be F1 without disputes.” Understanding the structure behind the governing body of the rules and the challenges and tribulations it has overcome can give fans and legal scholars alike another perspective of a regulatory state and statutory interpretation in action in the field of international law. 

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