Exclusive interview with Force India's Vijay Mallya 05 Mar 2009
As he talks about his Force India Formula One team, Vijay Mallya's eyes are sparkling again. Indeed, after a troubled 2008 season and a management shake-up over the winter, the whole team seems renergised. And while the recent launch of the new VJM02 lacked the pomp and ceremony of that of its predecessor, there's clearly a feeling that the car - and the team's new partnership with McLaren-Mercedes - could well put them on the road to success...
Q: Vijay, when you launched Force India you said that you planned to give the team sound funding and all the necessary ingredients to succeed, but that you would then hold them accountable in terms of performance. Force India did not perform as expected in 2008 so you instigated a major reshuffle late last year. Was that what you meant by 'holding the team accountable'?
Vijay Mallya: Absolutely. All the changes in the management - particularly on the technical side - were because of a failure to deliver performance. The other management changes were made in order to ensure compatibility with the McLaren-Mercedes relationship. It was also to ensure proper systems and procedures within the team and the day-to-day operations. We have Simon Roberts now as COO (Chief Operating Officer) and one can see the changes already in the way we function. We are more focused, more accountable of course, and generally team morale and spirit is very high because they see a car that has a lot of promise. Even if the weather and the fuel problems that we had were quite unfortunate and Giancarlo (Fisichella) wasn't able to do as many laps as he would have liked to, his final words were that the car is very promising. To hear this from a driver is very encouraging. From now on there will be accountability. Yes, I have given the team everything they wanted, so now I look for performance.
Q: Removing a major part of the team management was no ad-hoc decision. When did you start thinking about restructuring?
VM: Midway through last year. In the first half of the '08 season I was very encouraged. We were making progress and I was hoping that we could continue with this progress. But suddenly this progress stopped and we found ourselves going backwards and nobody could explain to me why. So I had to do what I did.
Q: You will play a bigger part within the team this year as chairman and team principal. How differently do you plan to run the team compared to 2008?
VM: First of all we have a very fine COO in Simon Roberts. He comes from the background of McLaren, which is a very disciplined team that has excellent systems and procedures. So Simon has already brought that level of discipline into our team and he is assisted by my deputy team principal Robert Fernley. I became the team principal because people need to know that in addition to being the owner and the chairman, I am also the team principal - so there is no ambiguity that if I say something that has to be done then it better be done.
Q: You appointed Fernley as your backup. Can you tell us a little bit more about his background in racing?
VM: Bob has been associated with me for over 30 years. He owned his own racing teams in the Indy series in the US, so he comes with a wealth of experience, he has an appreciation of the owner's perspective that money can't be wasted, and he has the performance objective in his mind where we need to perform. He is the perfect deputy for me as he keeps a good eye on things for me and on my behalf.
Q: Technically Force India has aligned itself in a completely different direction. From the Ferrari contract to a partnership with McLaren-Mercedes. What exactly does the deal include?
VM: We have a technological partnership agreement with McLaren Applied Technologies Ltd, not McLaren Racing Ltd. We not only get the gearbox, the hydraulics and the engine, but also some consultancy advice on basically the whole industrial activity of Force India F1.
Q: What benefits do you see for Force India - and for your new partner McLaren-Mercedes?
VM: First of all I think (Force India's design director) Mark Smith and (technical director) James Key are the two guys who designed that car. And they have been given a free hand to use their imagination and to use the technical facilities. In a way, Mike Gascoyne was a very imposing person. Mike Gascoyne practiced a formula that was 'his way or the highway' and these talented people were not given an opportunity. That is one good thing that has happened. Mark and James take the ownership of the car, they want to see the car perform, and on the other side have the complete drivetrain package from McLaren-Mercedes - and clearly, it's a world championship drive train. And we have the McLaren-Mercedes KERS system, although we will not run it in the first two or three races. That is a big advantage as it proves to be very competitive.
Q: At the moment we're in a difficult global economic climate. The answer to this has been cost cutting. Have the cuts been far reaching enough for private teams?
VM: I think that both Mr Ecclestone and Max Mosley realize that unless Formula One is financially viable, private teams will not survive. And in my view, without private teams there is no Formula One, because it cannot be a manufacturers' championship. Certainly the cost-cutting measures that have already been put into place have been partially realized in 2009, but will be more fully realized in 2010. The cheaper drivetrain, the limitations on testing and aerodynamic development are all beneficial in cutting down the costs - particularly for independent teams. Otherwise, money power would have determined performance, which is not a good thing for the sport.
Q: The latest proposal came from Max Mosley, who has suggested that each team should work with the same amount of money. Do you think that would work?
VM: I support him fully. He should ensure that it is made to work!
Q: On March 5, the Formula One teams meet in Geneva to reveal their ideas for the future. Can you disclose any of the key topics?
VM: I think it's just a summary of all that we have been doing in the last couple of months. We looked at the technical issues, cost cutting, and we are making suggestions for the reformatting of the race weekend to make it more exciting, maybe using Friday to compensate for the in-season test ban. I don't think that something dramatically new will emerge in Geneva. It's just a consolidation of many initiatives that have been taken over the last few months.
Q: You now have over a year as team owner under your belt. Has the experience made you any wiser?
VM: Oh, very much wiser, trust me. That is reflected in the performance of the team and in my aspirations and objectives for going forward.