Mohammed Ben Sulayem’s sixth visit to Acropolis Rally Greece might have been his most successful yet.
Five times he started in Athens and five times he failed to make the finish. That was then. Last week was now.
The FIA president stood once more beneath the ancient citadel watching competitors cross the start, bound for three and a half days of action. His own journey looks longer, the roads rougher with storms aplenty sitting in wait. And, let’s be honest, there’s plenty riding on this result.
Back in January, Ben Sulayem told DirtFish he’d spent too long looking at Formula 1. The time had come to divert his attention to his first love, to rallying.
“This is the beginning,” he said. “I’ve been sucked into Formula 1, but I have to give more time to rallying because we can fix it.”
Now, nobody’s blinkered enough to think a quick fix was coming, but it’s fair to say this one’s taken longer than folk might have imagined.
Granted another exclusive audience with the president, it was impossible for DirtFish not to return to that promise made in Monte Carlo.
“The major [question] is this transition of technical regulations,” said Ben Sulayem.
He’s not wrong. The next homologation cycle of 2027 is looming ever larger on the horizon. And it’s now – like now – that the manufacturers want to know what’s coming. In fact, if it’s going to be electric, now is already too late.
It’s not going to be electric.
In fact, it’s looking more and more like the world will remain the same for us from 2026 into 2027, with sustainable fuel and potentially more beefy hybrid of some description (whether it’s centrally supplied or derived from the manufacturers themselves is still to be defined).
“The technology side,” continued Ben Sulayem, “it’s mainly between the manufacturers and us. I am waiting now. I was very serious and very clear with them (the manufacturers) and they are also clear: ‘come up with the suggestion that you have, we will look into it and we will come up with something.’
“We don’t need something which is temporary, we need something which will go on with innovation, with the challenges of the environment. And we need something to appeal to the fans also.”
Ben Sulayem admitted discussions in Athens had been enlightening.
“It was educational,” he said, “sitting with the WRC Promoter, the teams and talking to the drivers. We share the same mission and the same issues and we can work for the good result.
“I should engage more. I said to my team: ‘You should be making me a bit more aware and not just when a decision is made.’”
Coming from a highly decorated rallying background, Ben Sulayem can help. He’s been there and done that.
Not that that really means much. His predecessor Jean Todt had also competed at the highest level of world rallying, but on the few occasions he graced the WRC with his presence, the Frenchman failed to fire the media up with anything like the inspiration and motivation MBS managed last week.
It was in his eyes as he looked out across the Acropolis and came away from conversations with crews fearing the rock-laden, storm-ravaged roads sitting in wait. They were set for an adventure they wouldn’t forget, history wouldn’t forget.
And Ben Sulayem wants it shouting from the rooftops.
“The technology side is achievable,” he said. “I believe [the priority] is media, media, media. When it comes to media, rallying deserves more and should have more. I looked in some area where the promoter is not obliged to do things, so maybe he doesn’t want to do the investment – but you don’t get the return if you don’t invest.
I don’t want us to look back and regret anything in two years. I want to improve and I am engaging in thisMohammed Ben Sulayem
“We are contracted [to WRC Promoter] and I didn’t have the contract – I inherited the contract.
“What is good for the future of the WRC? I think what they [WRC Promoter] are doing is good, but I believe we can do much, much more – truly, much, much more. I mean… just big gap between Formula 1 [and WRC].
“I know it’s Formula 1, but when you look at the television [at] the action from the WRC and rallying in general, it’s no less action. I mean, look at you here, I mean you are going through all of this forest and you are going through the mud. My god, it’s the passion that’s driving you, it’s not just that you write and you look at the end how many followers [you have]. It’s more than that that motivates you.”
Right there. He gets it. Yes, Formula 1’s fancy, but rallying is where the real heroes sit.
Granted, Rally1 is only managing 120mph and not topping out at 200. But we’re between the trees, in the cloud, the mud, the rain.
Remind me, what was it David Coulthard said after stepping out of Kalle Rovanperä’s Toyota GR Yaris Rally1 in a promotional shoot earlier this year?
That’s right: “They make F1 drivers look like amateurs.”
That action translates and relates to the wider world in a way F1 never can.
“I don’t want us to look back and regret anything in two years,” said Ben Sulayem. “I just said to our communication department, I want to improve and I am engaging in this.
“Maybe I’m a bit emotional when it comes to rallying, I can see some of the frustration – this is not something we can ignore. If it comes from the heart, it’s because people want to see a difference. Where is that difference? I cannot make a decision or have a solution – let’s talk about that solution.
“We cannot find that solution unless we have the proper engagement. Now I have a good president of the drivers’ commission [in Ronan Morgan] and [we] already decided he will call them and listen to the drivers. We will take their demands and put it with the promoter and the manufacturers and with our media. Why can’t we do a better job?”
Ben Sulayem means business in a business he understands better than any.
Last week was all about forthright discussions and building bridges. Relations between the FIA and WRC Promoter haven’t been entirely synced in recent months, but Athens offered a real glimpse of change.
The sport’s ready and the time’s right for action and for change.
Deliver on those and Ben Sulayem can forever look back on the 2023 Acropolis Rally as one of the biggest victories in his career.