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Five things we learned from the FIA Gala

The FIA’s annual Prize Gala is the moment when the champions of the season are all officially crowned.

Max Verstappen, FIA Formula One World Champion, Mohammed Ben Sulayem, FIA President

FIA

This year the event took place in Baku, not far from the street circuit that has hosted a Formula 1 race since 2017.

The Gala is perhaps the biggest gathering of racing people away from the intensity of the competition – and it always prompts some moments of reflection and intrigue.

Friday night was no exception, as we run through five big takeaways from the celebrations.

Verstappen admits to Abu Dhabi podium moment

Max Verstappen has gotten well used to collecting trophies this year, after his record-breaking run to a third consecutive F1 title.

But as he collected the official F1 drivers’ word championship silverware, he admitted that there was one podium that stood out for him as being a bit different this year.

And that was the final one in Abu Dhabi when, looking back over his team and the dominant RB19 that was on the ground in front of him, he realised it was the last time he would get to race that car in anger.

“Of course, through the year we were on a great roll and you want to perform every single race weekend,” he said about his feelings through the year.

“But I think it did hit me a little hard once I was standing on the podium in Abu Dhabi.

“You realise the season is over, and you don’t get to drive this car any more unfortunately. But it has been incredible… I am extremely proud of what we have achieved this year but of course I hope also it doesn’t stop.”

Lewis Hamilton, FIA Formula One World Championship - 3rd Place

Photo by: FIA

Lewis Hamilton, FIA Formula One World Championship - 3rd Place

Verstappen took the trophy, but Hamilton remains a champion

The annual end of season FIA Prize Gala is a chance for champions to soak up the glory of their successes as they are officially crowned.

But each championship’s regulations stipulate that the top three drivers must attend the spectacular – which has not always been something that those who did not win have especially liked.

Effectively being the support band is not something that any of F1’s greats revel in, but for third placed Lewis Hamilton in particular, this Gala was especially notable.

It was his first time back to the event since he unsurprisingly skipped 2021 in the wake of the FIA’s mishandling of the safety car restart at that year’s Abu Dhabi Grand Prix which cost him the crown.

But his appearance also came against the backdrop of this week’s controversy over the FIA’s confusing decision to go public that it was looking into allegations of a potential conflict of interest between Toto Wolff and wife Susie.

The governing body’s action, which ultimately ended in an embarrassing U-turn when it called off the probe after just 48 hours, is unlikely to be end of the matters amid the reputational damage that the Wolffs and Mercedes have suffered.

Hamilton was clearly annoyed at events – and especially the way Susie Wolff had been dragged into things – as he spoke out in the pre-Gala press conference when he called the FIA’s response ‘unacceptable’.

But Hamilton also showed he was a champion later on in the official ceremony when he acted the gentleman on stage in being polite, professional and considered in front of the FIA member guests and champions.

“Big congratulations on this year,” he told the room. “It’s been amazing to see so many of you fighting in the different series you’ve been in, and congratulations on your awards.

“For everyone it’s been a very, very long season and I am very much looking forward to a winter break. But working very, very hard on making sure we are fit, and we come back strong next year.”

And while he did not enjoy being beaten week in week out by Max Verstappen and Red Bull this year, he also was unprompted in offering a pat on the back to his rival.

“I have to say a big congratulations to Red Bull, and Max, and Checo, who have done an incredible job this year,” he said. “Max was faultless and the team really raised the bar.

“We have a lot of work to do to close the gap, but I do believe we can close that gap. Thank you also to my team because they never gave up this year. We started off with the sister of the previous year’s car, which was not good and not fun to drive for most of the year, but no one gave up, everyone continued to show up every day and that is what was most inspiring.”

Hamilton then wished everyone a Happy Christmas, before disappearing into the night – straight to Baku airport and away for his winter break.

Oscar Piastri, FIA Rookie Of the Year awarded by Ronan Morgan, FIA Drivers' Commission President

Photo by: FIA

Oscar Piastri, FIA Rookie Of the Year awarded by Ronan Morgan, FIA Drivers' Commission President

Piastri hopes he has won his last rookie award

Oscar Piastri has a habit of instantly being brilliant in everything he does. He was rookie champion in Formula 3 and Formula 2 and has just come off the back of a stellar debut season in Formula 1 with McLaren.

After battling for podiums over the second half of the year, and taking that impressive sprint victory at the Qatar Grand Prix, it was not really much a surprise to find out that the Australian was awarded the FIA’s Rookie of the Year.

It was the second time that Piastri has taken the trophy – the last time being when he won F2 in 2021. And in his trademark deadpan humour he hoped it would be the last time he got it!

Asked on stage if he felt McLaren’s strong end to this campaign could be built on in 2024, he said: “I hope so.

“If we can start next year as we finished this season then we will be in good shape. It’s been a massive team effort and a big turnaround. I’ve enjoyed my rookie season in F1 a lot. I hope it is the last rookie season of my career…”

Fernando Alonso, Aston Martin F1 Team, 3rd position, arrives on the podium

Photo by: Mark Sutton / Motorsport Images

Fernando Alonso, Aston Martin F1 Team, 3rd position, arrives on the podium

Nothing excites Alonso more than a good battle

Formula 1 is a better place for having drivers like Fernando Alonso who give their all, are passionate about racing and always give us entertainment.

The 2023 season saw Alonso back to his best, as he helped Aston Martin emerge as a force at the front, even if it had a bit of a rollercoaster campaign.

Alonso’s never-say-die spirit remained on show at all times over the course of the season, and was perhaps never shown better than his last lap repass of Red Bull’s Sergio Perez for a podium spot in Brazil.

Having briefly lost the position, he pulled off a brilliant overtake into Turn 4 and then masterfully managed the last lap – plus the exit of the final curve – to hold on by just 0.053 seconds as they crossed the line.

It was a moment that helped Alonso win the FIA’s Action of the Year Award – something that the Spaniard seemed to be especially proud of.

And it was clear that what Alonso loved about it the most was not that he had come out ahead, but that this had been the perfect example of what pure racing is about.

“Any battle on track needs the collaboration of two,” he said in a video message.

“I think this should be an example not only for the present but also for future generations, where we must promote clean driving without any contact between cars.

“So hopefully see you next year with more action on track - and thanks to all the fans and the FIA.”

Mohamed Ben Sulayem, FIA President Anar Alakbarov, Azerbaijan Automobile Federation President, Max Verstappen, FIA Formula One World Championship - Champion, Lewis Hamilton, FIA Formula One World Championship - 3rd Place, Nasser Al-Attiyah, FIA World Rally-Raid Championship - Champion

Photo by: FIA

Mohamed Ben Sulayem, FIA President Anar Alakbarov, Azerbaijan Automobile Federation President, Max Verstappen, FIA Formula One World Championship - Champion, Lewis Hamilton, FIA Formula One World Championship - 3rd Place, Nasser Al-Attiyah, FIA World Rally-Raid Championship - Champion

Ben Sulayem’s low-key approach couldn’t hide shadow of Wolff controversy

One topic stood out above almost everything else when you spoke to FIA people at the Gala – the controversy over the probe that was launched and then dropped into Toto and Susie Wolff.

The decision to go public that it was looking into a potential conflict of interest, only to do a U-turn and admit there was nothing to actually look at just 48 hours later, has left the governing body in a tricky spot.

And with FIA president Mohammed Ben Sulayem believed to be at front and centre of the whole affair, the events unfolding on the eve of the governing body’s biggest night of the year was far from ideal.

There had been the prospect of Ben Sulayem, a man who is well known for speaking his mind, fanning the flames by speaking out at the FIA event – with the matter already subject to legal exchanges with Mercedes.

Indeed, Ben Sulayem had been due to speak first at the pre-event FIA Gala press conference. But, shortly before the allotted time, it was announced that he had been taken unwell so could not attend.

An FIA spokesman said: “Several days ago the President took ill and suffered a fall and concussion. He received care in hospital and will make a full recovery. He would like to thank the medical staff and Mr Anar Alakbarov and his team for their help, and to all those in the FIA family that have sent their well wishes.”

Two hours later though, Ben Sulayem did turn up to the Gala – although did not look in the best of spirits as he seemed to have less energy that normal.

Whether it was the result of his illness, or the fallout from the Wolff case, he was notbaly low key during his appearances on stage when he was called up to congratulate winners.

As Verstappen was handed his drivers’ trophy, Ben Sulayem said: “People say he is winning everything…can you do something as the president of the FIA to slow him down? I say how can I punish success? So obviously well done and I wish more success for everyone, not just for you, to make it more interesting….”

And that was it. There was no going off script and commenting on matters he should not really have – which some within the FIA will have been relieved about.

But while the week’s events did not garner any official comment on Gala day, the repercussions are going to play out for a while yet.

Mercedes has reserved all its legal rights as it bids to get to the bottom of what really happened this week, and it is fair to say that there are a few within the FIA who are far from happy with how things were dealt with at the very top of the organisation.

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