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Exclusive interview - Force India's Dr Vijay Mallya 19 Mar 2008

Dr. Vijay Mallya (IND) Force India F1 Team Owner.
Australian Grand Prix, Rd 1, Qualifying Day, Albert Park, Melbourne, Australia, Saturday, 15 March 2008 Dr. Vijay Mallya (IND) Force India F1 Team Owner.
Australian Grand Prix, Rd 1, Race Day, Albert Park, Melbourne, Australia, Sunday, 16 March 2008 Dr. Vijay Mallya (IND) Force India F1 Team Owner with Fly Kingfisher Girls.
Australian Grand Prix, Rd 1, Qualifying Day, Albert Park, Melbourne, Australia, Saturday, 15 March 2008 Giancarlo Fisichella (ITA) Force India F1 VJM01 Formula One Testing, Day Two, Barcelona, Spain, 26 February 2008. World © Patching/Sutton Giancarlo Fisichella (ITA) Force India F1 VJM01 on the grid.
Australian Grand Prix, Rd 1, Race, Albert Park, Melbourne, Australia, Sunday, 16 March 2008

The first time is always special, especially your first Grand Prix as a team owner. For Force India’s maiden race, Dr Vijay Mallya’s only wish was to avoid the back row of the grid. With that mission accomplished, the Australian weekend was a winner before the race had even begun.

And while that race could have gone better, there were plenty of more experienced teams also left with double DNFs, and Mallya came away feeling quietly confident about the team’s future…

Q: Vijay, Melbourne marked your first race as a team co-owner. Were you satisfied with the team’s performance?
Vijay Mallya:
I am both satisfied and excited. Excited because this is the debut of the Force India Formula One Team, and satisfied because I think that we have proved this weekend that we are a much-improved team. Our practice time clearly put us amongst the top 15, although the qualifying timing was disappointing. This resulted also because of a little bad luck, with the yellow flag and making a mistake in choosing the tyres. We have learned from these mistakes, which are normal, but it is very satisfying to get acknowledgement of the progress the team has made, because many people came to me and congratulated me on the early progress that we have achieved.

Q: Over the winter, you were present at many tests where the team’s times looked quite competitive. Has the development of the team met with your approval?
Absolutely. Otherwise, we would not have made such an improvement. It is my job to be with the team, to properly lead and direct the team and show that I am involved with them, which is very important for motivation and encouragement. As you can see around us the team is energised and excited, and therefore the people are making their best effort. We invested a lot of money in the right direction, for what I call quick wins of low hanging fruits. First we had to identify what would bring us quick results, and on that we did a very good job, we dedicated sufficient budget to these results. We were able to address those specific issues, so we saw immediate improvement in performance. We have some more aerodynamic improvements to do in Malaysia, which hopefully will further improve performance. Once we are well into the European season, there will be one major step of improvement also. So in the second half of the season we should be truly very competitive, and definitely make it into the top of Q2.

Q: You said that you didn’t expect your drivers to end up on the back row of the grid, and they didn’t - but beating a team that hadn’t tested since December and two rookies, who were unfamiliar with the track, cannot possibly satisfy your ambitions…
If you see the sector time of Giancarlo’s (Fisichella) qualifying lap, he did his personal best time ever in Sector 1 and 2, and in Sector 3 he lost out immediately because of Adrian’s (Sutil) spin and the yellow flag. If there had not been so many interruptions we clearly would have been in Q2. If we could have achieved this, I truly believe that we could have made it up to position 13 or 14. So this was a good start for the first race and we have achieved what we had hoped for.

Q: You’ve long been sponsor in Formula One, but have never had much influence on a team’s development. Now you have every opportunity to mould a team to your liking. What is the most difficult challenge?
There are two challenges. Number one is, as a leader of the team, I am ultimately responsible for the performance of the team. So this is a big level of responsibility that I have to take. You cannot just blame the drivers, engineers or anybody. At the end of the day, the leader has to take the responsibility. Let me give you an example. Yesterday I had a big decision - to change the gearbox. We are probably one of the few teams that do not have a seamless gearbox, so once we introduce the seamless one, we will be even more competitive. So the decision was to buy the seamless gearbox from another team or develop it ourselves. Both have their advantages and disadvantages. We have now decided to do it ourselves, which I hope was the right decision, and I have to accept the responsibility of that decision.

The second challenge is to find sponsors. It is easy to sit on the other side of the fence, but when you are sitting on this side of it, you have to convince a sponsor to sponsor the team. With the performance during the tests in the winter, we were able to demonstrate that we are certainly moving forward. Also the achievements here in Melbourne will further underline this. We have already got top quality sponsors on board, and all of them expect me to deliver all of the benefits to them, as they know I have been a sponsor before. But still all of this is fun and part of the business which I am enjoying as I love challenges.

Q: Your diverse, global business interests demand a lot of your time, but you are very much hands on at Force India too. Has there ever been a moment of doubt over your commitment to Formula One racing?
No. I knew it from the very beginning, as I have been involved in F1 for so many years. I was prepared for this, even before we bought the team.

Q: You do a lot to make Formula One popular in India, but how is Indians’ support for their ‘own’ team growing? What about in terms of sponsorship…
People in India are very excited, and F1 is certainly growing in popularity. Especially young people love the competitiveness and the glamour of F1. Force India already has a lot of fans and they add to it, but it is not only Force India. Formula One itself has a lot of momentum in India, and it will be very interesting to go back and see how many people have watched this race. This is not only good for us, but also for all other teams and their sponsors, as we have a rapidly growing following. Sponsorship of Formula One is expensive, and you have to write big cheques. So the challenge is to increase the team’s performance to raise the team’s exposure, so the sponsors realise the marketing value of this platform. We hope that even more Indian sponsors will follow the ones we already have.