F1 Q&A: Tony Fernandes
Before moving into the interview with Tony Fernandes, allow me briefly to tell you something about F1’s newest team boss: In December each year the great and good of motorsport assemble in Monaco for the annual Motorsport Business Forum. Last year the first day’s keynote address – in the form of a Q&A with presenter James Allen - was delivered by Malaysian businessman Tony Fernandes, whose F1 operation (Lotus Racing, but that is another story...) was the last of four new teams to have its entry accepted by the sport’s governing body, the FIA.
I was in Monaco as part of the invited contingent (not, I stress, as a member of the G+G) and met Tony over a walking buffet lunch. As you can well imagine, there was a crowd waiting the founder of Air Asia, but eventually I got my chance, and we chatted about his passion for motorsport, his career as a (former) senior executive with the Virgin Music and how he found himself in the airline business. All fascinating, but the best was still to come...
I had not see Tony again until a few minutes before the start of the Bahrain Grand Prix – his team’s debut race – and despite the hustle and bustle of pre-race activities for arguably the most public event the straight-talking entrepreneur would ever experience, he immediately recognised me, greeted me by name and asked about South Africa, where he was heading shortly to address a business symposium. Impressive stuff.
We met again in the Australian paddock about an hour before proceedings for the second race of the tear began, and again Tony was not too busy to sit down in the Lotus hospitality area for a chat despite having his nascent team’s race very much on his mind.
Despite being the last to be accepted, Lotus was the first new team to complete its car – from acceptance of entry to lining up for the Bahrain Grand Prix took just six months – and was the only new team to have both cars classified in Bahrain. He hopes to build on that success by becoming a top five team within five years.
Wheels24: What are your objectives for the first four races and have you achieved them?
Tony Fernandes: Objective first, if I can be very long-winded about it, is firstly to gain the respect of the Chapman family and the hundreds of thousands of Lotus fans out there, who were questioning whether we were the right guys to carry on the great Chapman and Lotus tradition. I think that's been achieved. I've received Colin Chapman's black hat, so I think that's been a nice touch.
(The Lotus founder celebrated his team’s victories by throwing his famous black flat cap in the air when his cars crossed the line first. Clive Chapman, son of Colin and now boss of Classic Team Lotus, was in Bahrain with a selection of the Chapman family’s mouth-watering collection of historic F1 machinery as part of F1’s 60th anniversary celebrations, where he presented the historic cap to Tony.)
Number two was to get the car on the grid, which we achieved. Number three was to finish a race. That still continues. We want to finish all the races and that will be a key objective over the next four races. Number four is to be the best of the (now three after the demise of USF1) new teams. That continues as an objective. And number five is to improve a little bit every time in each race, and hopefully have a major improvement in Barcelona (the first European race).
(Our) Objectives haven't changed. They won't change during the season. We've got to realise our own ambitions. Of course I want to be up there with McLaren and Ferrari, but we've got to be realistic. We don't want to stretch ourselves. This is a long-term project and we continue to strive to improve in each race, to learn more and get faster each race, and I believe we can.
The sixth would be to build a new kind of team, and the spirit in Lotus is fantastic, the openness, the transparency, the can-do attitude. Our whole social network and transparency and all that has worked a treat.
W24: To get faster and faster, you have to spend money.
TF: I don't necessarily think it does, to be honest. Toyota spent hundreds of millions of dollars and they never got there. I think it's people more than anything. If someone does an analysis on what's spent in Formula 1, there's a fuck-load of waste. The hundred million doesn't equal 300m of pace, necessarily. And you must remember we are buying experience as well.
So my salary for Gascoyne or for guys who've come with him is for 20 years or 30 years of experience. So I'm getting that bang for buck. I don't have the structure of Ferrari or Toyota and all that. We have a very flexible structure. People can get on and do the job. So let's see, but we aren't here to come last every year.
We are here to build and improve and improve and money will come also with success. I get very little from FOM (Formula One Management – the commercial rights’ holding company headed by Bernie Ecclestone), but if I get up to 10th I get a lot more and that money can go into a better car. As the car gets better I get more money. But I don't think I need 300m pounds.
W24: So you are sufficiently funded for the year?
TF: Yes, no doubt.
W24: Are you still seeking additional commercial partners?
W24: How married are you then to the green and yellow? I mean, if someone comes along with a blue sticker...
TF: We've got to be commercial. I had that argument with Williams. I probably would have spent a lot more money if I they allowed me to put in red. I've learned a lot from being a sponsor with Williams and how I think sponsors want to be. You've got to be commercial.
W24: In terms of the next three or four years, where do you see yourself? When do you think you will be a top-ten team?
TF: After Bahrain I've got the idea that within three seasons we can be up there up in the top five teams. Top ten I would hope this time next year we could be up there. I think it's harder for them to find two seconds, but easier for us, because we've had (only) five months. We built a car that was heavier, we got the wrong radiators, etcetera, etcetera. So I think we can catch them up.
Race pace we are not that far away. Heikki (Kovalainen) was giving (Williams’s Nico) Hulkenberg a bit of a race, so I'm confident we can get to the Saubers and Williams and the Renaults and Toro Rossos. It does seem, even when I say it, it seems tough. I hope (to be in the top five). Lots of things are going to happen over those three years which I think will make it easier for us.
W24: You think Lotus can be a top five team within three years?
TF: I believe so. Naturally a lot can happen in three years, but I see this as a long-term project. That is the way it is structured.
W24: Once the Benetton family made it with their own team it was mission accomplished and they sold. People believe Dietrich Mateschitz will end Red Bull’s involvement once the championship is won. What about you?
TF: For them (Benetton) it was a marketing programme. For me it’s about passion. But I still see it as business. I see very good potential in this business. I mean, Air Asia is not even on the car. There are more cost-effective ways of publicising my own businesses – I mean the Tunes Group is about budget hotels, why put that on a Formula 1 car? In any event, as I said I don’t own 100% of Air Asia, but if Lotus wants Air Asia as a sponsor it (the team) will have to perform at that level.
I just want to add that, in the short term we need to develop in a structured fashion and keep our feet on the ground. We need to develop the right structures and do the necessary things the right way. We have a great spirit in the team. It is a pleasure to watch the team making daily progress.
W24: And you are in F1 for the long haul?
TF: Yes. You don't do it unless you are in for the long haul. We are here for passion but also for the business as well. We think it's a good business. I'm very happy with how we progressed. There are going to be same major disappointments along the year, and I think we just keep our feet firmly on the ground and we keep doing the simple things right and we keep building the right structure and I think the world is our oyster.