With the Hyderabad Formula E round, India hosted its first international world championship race in nearly decade (the last one was the final F1 Indian GP in 2013). But FIA President Mohammed Ben Sulayem believes we haven’t even scratched the surface of the country’s potential in the overall motorsport landscape.
In an exclusive conversation with Autocar India at the Hyderabad E-Prix, he highlighted how India is part of the FIA’s big picture.
India, China together have only 8,000 competition licence holders
Growing Indian motorsport at the grassroots is key
Electrification not the only path to net zero
Tapping into a +1 billion market
India and China account for over 35 percent of the world’s population today, but both countries have just a fraction of FIA competition licence holders when compared to some much smaller European nations. What this implies is that there is tremendous growth potential in countries like India, with a market of over 1.4 billion people waiting to be tapped into.
“As the FIA, we are international. If we want to grow motorsport and mobility, we have to reach all markets,” Ben Sulayem stressed. “It doesn’t make sense to me that the two biggest countries in the world – India and China – with all of their manufacturers have just 8,000 [competition] licence holders of motorsport, whereas some countries like Finland, which has less than 6 million population, has over 12,000 [licence holders].”
Sulayem concedes that India doesn’t have the rich motorsport culture that a lot of European countries have. So while hosting events like Formula E certainly does a lot to get India noticed on the global stage, it’s focusing on the grassroots that will bring about true change, and develop a culture for the sport believes Ben Sulayem. That includes focusing on developing young talent, and having karts and cars that are made in India to bring down the entry costs.
“We have to start doing something. So the first thing I did is I appointed India back into the World Motor Sport Council,” he said, referring to FMSCI (Federation of Motor Sports Clubs of India) president Akbar Ebrahim’s appointment as the president of the FIA’s International Karting Commission in 2022. Ebrahim was the first Indian to be assigned the role, and this ensured that India continues to be represented in one of the apex bodies responsible for all aspects of international motorsport.
“I am convinced that we’ll find the right path with Akbar being on the World Council. India now has the power and the top people,” Ben Sulayem added.
National motorsport bodies know best
Unlike football or cricket, motorsport covers several different disciplines – karting, rallying, circuit racing being just a few. Each have their own unique rules pertaining to the engines, dimensions, fuel, tyres, the sporting aspect, and more. “The FIA is just complex and unique. If I take only one discipline of just the CIK, and not even the FIA, the regulations we have are more severe and complex than the whole of FIFA,” he explains.
The best way to ensure that motorsport continues growing globally, then, is to let national racing bodies and local clubs come up with their own plans, while still strictly adhering to the FIA’s stringent safety requirements. As Ben Sulayem puts it, “who knows India better than the Indians themselves? So that is why we empower the ASN [national sporting authorities] and the clubs because they know better than us. We listen to them and in my [election] manifesto we invested over 2,000 hours listening to clubs. And we delivered. So to me, we haven’t even scratched the surface yet.”
He also adds that India has tremendous potential in other areas of motorsport as well, not just drivers. “You look at [India’s] engineers and software, there is potential.” To tap into that potential, the FIA has teamed up with Cranfield University to offer motorsport engineering scholarships for people across different nations.
More than one road to net zero
Of course, the pertinent topic in the automotive space right now is the global race to go net zero. Several countries and leading manufacturers have announced plans to go all-electric in the coming years. And motorsport plays a key role in this space, too. After all, it’s widely considered the ultimate test bed for future technology that makes it to the road.
But Ben Sulayem believes that electrification isn’t the only way to achieve net zero, highlighting sustainable fuels and hydrogen in particular. The best example would be F1’s plans to have their new engines (from 2026 onwards) run on fully sustainable and synthetic fuel. This fuel will be generated using non-food biomass or even through carbon capture by drawing CO2 from the atmosphere. You can head here to learn more about how this tech could help make internal combustion engines greener.
“There are so many ways to reach that net zero goal, it’s not only electrification,” Ben Sulayem says. “We are looking into net zero. Whatever it means, as long as it is ethical, we are going for it.”