Exclusive interview - Force India's Vijay Mallya 12 Dec 2007
At the recent Barcelona and Jerez tests, Force India staged one of the biggest 'shoot-outs' for a seat that Formula One racing has ever witnessed. Seven drivers, including well-known names like Giancarlo Fisichella, Vitantonio Liuzzi, Ralf Schumacher, Christian Klien and Franck Montagny battled it out to line-up on the 2008 grid in the former Spyker teams second car, alongside Adrian Sutil.
Above all else, this epic clash of the titans demonstrated new co-owner Vijay Mallyas ambitious aspirations to get the squad back on track for 2008. We caught up Mallya to find out more
Q: Vijay, with yourself becoming a team co-owner, the country getting its own race from 2010 and an Indian driver enjoying a test outing, India has made real inroads into Formula One racing over the last couple of months. Are you satisfied with these developments?
Vijay Mallya: There are two things I am particularly pleased about. One is that my prediction that there will be an emotional connection between the young upwardly mobile aspirational Indians with the Force India F1 team has been accomplished, with an almost 60 percent jump in TV viewership since I have announced that I would buy Spyker. So the emotional objective of putting India as a nation on the Formula One calendar has been successfully accomplished.
Of course, I realise the huge responsibility on my shoulders now to improve the performance of the team. So I am very pleased to say that from the test in Barcelona to the test in Jerez the performance has already shown some remarkable progress. I think that the car always had a lot of potential but that the team in the past was not in the position to get more experienced drivers to show that potential, which we are now able to do. I was absolutely thrilled to see that on day two in Jerez Christian Klien was in seventh position and that there has been a less than one second gap between the Ferrari and the Force India car. So I am cautiously optimistic for the 2008 season - although I dont want to promise too much.
But every little step forward in this challenging environment is a gigantic step forward for India. I may be copying what Neil Armstrong said when he stepped on the moon but it underlines what a big leap forward this is for India. And now that Bernie Ecclestone has signed a contract with a large Indian developer to stage the first Indian Formula One GP in 2010 there is even better news for me as it reinforces the belief I had in acquiring the team. Now young India can not only look forward to their own Formula One team but also to a GP in their home country and I think that makes it so much more attractive in every way.
Speaking of Karun Chandhok, he is like a son to me as we have an excellent family relationship. The fact that he tested for Red Bull Racing was fantastic but I think he has a little way to go. I am sure his father is very keen that I sign him up for Force India F1 but I made it clear that he needs to show me his performance in GP2 next year, and if he is good enough, there can be nothing better than a Force India team, an Indian GP and an Indian driver. That would be absolutely perfect! But even if two of the three elements are covered it is still a huge accomplishment.
Q: In what ways has India embraced the fact that there will be a team called Force India on the 2008 grid?
VM: For the young India it is absolutely fantastic. Some old-fashioned people ask why use the word 'India'. But the word India is not the proprietorship of anybody. I have introduced the word 'India' into the team name because I love my country and it is a matter of pride for all of us. And this is the emotional bridge between a team that races all over the world and the country from which I come. And the word Force stands for everything that is Formula One and its challenges.
Q: You have spent some time at the Force India factory and have been at the Barcelona and Jerez tests. Have you decided what your main targets for improvement will be?
VM: Firstly, I inherited a team that had lost its initiative, lost its enthusiasm - one that was struggling for its sheer survival. Everything was today and for today. Nobody looked at tomorrow and the day after, nor at 2008 or 2009, because nobody thought that they would survive that long. When I came in, I showed them that there would be strong financial backing - a financial backing that was commercially strong and sensible and not a blank chequebook, as money cannot buy performance. I will give them a balanced budget to allow them the opportunity to carry out all the technical developments they want to do - but I will hold them accountable for their performance. So in a short period the mood of the team has changed tangibly and the enthusiasm is back. They look to the future with confidence and when I tell them that in 2010 at the Indian GP we will aim for the podium they really believe that they can do it because they now believe that they will be there in 2010. Secondly, we managed to get so many experienced drivers to test our car. This meant that our engineers got feedback which they never got before. We have an excellent driver with Sutil but as he has never driven other Formula One cars his ability to help the engineers is limited. With Liuzzi, Klien and Fisichella in the cockpit we got a lot of feedback, and this feedback has already helped the team to set up the car better. It has shown in the performance already, as all those drivers testing our car have had a magical impact on the morale of the engineering team.
Q: The second cockpit at Force India is still undecided. At the two recent tests, you invited several established Formula One drivers including Klien, Liuzzi, Schumacher and Fisichella to compete for the seat. It looked like a real shoot-out. Is that the impression you intended?
VM: Absolutely! And it will be a very difficult decision that I have to make. All of them are very good - they would all bring different strengths to the team. Clearly we have Sutil on the one side and I need to make sure that the driver in the other car is able to raise the bar, so that both drivers keep raising the standard of performance all the time and help the engineering team along. In the past the team was looking for money, so money was the prime motivating factor for the driver line-up. Now that has changed. For me the prime factors are performance and the ability to give feedback to the engineers.
Q: Is there a time frame in place for the announcement of the 2008 driver line-up?
VM: At the end of December. I want to think very clearly about who will sit in the second cockpit. It is a very important decision for me and the team and I do not want to jump into anything. I will evaluate all the facts and then make my move.
Q: A visible sign of your strategy to strengthen the development team was the recent signing of Mark Smith and Ian Hall. What effects do you think their arrival will have? How quickly do you believe they will make an impression?
VM: I told Mike Gascoyne: you are a top class designer and I expect performance from you. So you tell me what you want so that you can perform for me. One was budget, which we went through in great detail and I gave him the budget he wanted. Secondly, he wanted more technical resources. So he identified Mark Smith, who has already joined the team, and Ian Hall, who will join in January. I have given Gascoyne all the resources he needs; now he has to deliver me the results. That is my management style - I do not want to impose myself on others. I allow them to come up with ideas and try to give them all the resources and tools that they ask for. But I will then hold them accountable for their performance.
Q: How long do they have to enhance the performance? One year? Two years?
VM: Formula One is an extremely competitive game. It represents the highest level of technology. Developing a car aerodynamically is easier said than done and we are not the only ones working on enhancing car performance - there are others who are trying to improve their car even more. But having Airbus on our side to do our CMT development is a major step forward because they have a huge amount of resources to assist us. We have our own two wind tunnels, which both are running 24/7 - so I have given the engineering team everything for success. The time frame? I have given one very clear objective - at the 2010 Indian Grand Prix Force India has to be on the podium.
Q: And what are your objectives for the near future? What are you expecting from 2008?
VM: I cannot predict how far to the front I will go. Certainly, Im not going to be at the back. The last row is too much of a walk!