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In conversation - Bernie Ecclestone & Vijay Mallya 21 May 2010

Formula One Group CEO Bernie Ecclestone is interviewed with Force India CEO Dr Vijay Mallya. Formula One Group CEO Bernie Ecclestone. Force India CEO Dr Vijay Mallya.

Force India CEO Dr Vijay Mallya is the team principal of one of the grid’s most exciting prospects, while Formula One Group CEO Bernie Ecclestone is responsible for guiding the sport’s future, but both are like-minded entrepreneurs, fond of risk taking and sharing the odd anecdote. We listen in as Ecclestone and Mallya discuss the challenges of running a team, German drivers Adrian Sutil and Sebastian Vettel, and Formula One racing’s thrilling new port of call for 2011, India…

Q: Vijay, what advice did you get from Bernie when you told him that you were going to take over the ailing Spyker Formula One team?
Dr Vijay Mallya:
To be fair, I first brought up the subject of buying a team with Bernie when I started sponsoring Toyota in 2007. I asked him whether he thought I should buy a Formula One team, and he said no - leave your hands off. That was his first spontaneous advice to me. But I had a clear concept. I didn’t want to pour money into a team, but I wanted to create a competitive team with strong Indian ties. I told Bernie that it would be very positive for Formula One if India could become part of the sport with its own team, especially as Bernie had just done a deal to have an Indian Grand Prix by 2011. In hindsight I know that my decision was right. The interest in Formula One in India has skyrocketed and the track is well underway. I predict that the first Indian Grand Prix will be a sensational, mega event because Formula One has all the ingredients that appeal to the Indian youth. It’s a high-tech, competitive sport and with a certain touch of glamour. Just to give you an example, Force India’s website, together with that of Ferrari, is the most frequented website of all the teams. To achieve those results it was important to change the name Spyker to Force India - and that change we’ve achieved in record-breaking time.

Q: Why did you choose to name it Force India?
Because Formula One stands for force and power!

Q: Bernie, you’ve known Vijay for a long time. When did it dawn on you that he was the right man to successfully establish an Indian team?
I knew that he wanted it, and I also knew that when he puts his energy behind something in the end he will be successful. On the other hand he knew that if he wouldn’t do it then I would find somebody else… (laughs)
VM: Bernie knew that I wasn’t a freshman. I was a sponsor of the Benetton team back in 1995. I’ve worked together with Michael Schumacher and Flavio Briatore. I’ve watched Formula One develop. I’ve watched the changes and experienced it becoming even more exciting - and challenging. That in itself is a huge asset - if you know what you are dealing with before you get involved. One of the biggest stimuli for me sure was to see how Asia was becoming a huge stronghold of Formula One.
BE: Go East! That was one of my visions.

Q: Why is that so important for you?
Because nowhere in the world is economic growth greater than in that region.

Q: But then it’s surprising that you advised Vijay against getting involved…
At first I thought that Spyker would probably be the wrong team for his ambitions. To buy a team is one thing, but you also have to control it.

Q: Well, it obviously worked, even if it took some time to reach the road to success. Vijay, is that one of the reasons you haven’t been satisfied with your team until this season?
Well, 2008 did not count as there wasn’t any time to make changes. Basically we used the old Spyker chassis with a new name. At the beginning I thought to myself ‘oh my god, we are so way behind!’ But that year was an important learning phase to make the right decisions. I replaced the management and the key technicians and in 2009 we were much more competitive, at least on certain tracks like Spa and Monza. We made it to the podium and my guess is that we could even have won in Spa. This season we’ve made another huge leap forward. So everything is going in the right direction. We should now be able to get into the points at every race on our own strength.
BE: In Monaco in 2008 I cried with Vijay. That was the race when Adrian Sutil was looking like a certain fourth and then Kimi Raikkonen hit him from behind into the barriers. That almost tore my heart apart.

Q: Does it make you proud to be able to keep up with the likes of Mercedes GP and Ferrari - teams whose budgets are twice yours?
It’s more than twice! It only shows that money cannot buy success. The cost reductions in terms of less testing and the development restrictions agreed by the FIA and FOTA of course helped us, but in the end it is up to you to make the most out of your budget - and that is where we are very good.

Q: Bernie, is it easier for you to deal with people like Vijay - entrepreneurs who risk their own money - instead of corporate guys?
Yes, the decision making process is much easier - much faster.
VM: I am the boss, I can immediately say yes or no. Corporate guys are often not in the position to agree to anything, they first have to go back to their boss for a go-ahead. But you also mustn’t forget that guys like me are in Formula One for the fun of it. That is honestly true.

Q: What are your thoughts on your driver Adrian Sutil?
I should say that Adrian is the very best friend of Lewis Hamilton. They raced in Formula Three and were nearly at the same level of performance. Lewis started his Formula One career with McLaren, and Adrian with Spyker. That basically says it all. Adrian has got a lot of potential and is extremely quick, but Lewis could show his talents straight away in a McLaren, whereas Adrian was suffering at the back end of the field with Spyker. He did not really get the chance to show his qualities, as the Spyker was extremely difficult to drive. But now he can show his full capabilities.

Q: How popular is Sutil in India?
Indians adore big personalities, and they have a soft spot for stars. This is also the reason why we have our own huge ‘Bollywood’ film industry. Michael Schumacher is known all over the place, and Adrian is becoming more and more popular.

Q: How important will it be for you to have an Indian driver at some point in the future?
It is very important. I would love it. I’m not a fool and can see the enormous publicity potential which would come from it. The downside at the moment is that there is not one Indian pilot who has the potential to battle the best on the track.
BE: And this then would be extremely negative. In this case Vijay would have achieved the exact opposite of what he wanted to. To choose an Indian driver who just runs after all the others is no use to anybody. It would be counterproductive.

Q: If you could have your pick of the drivers, who would you sign?
That’s an easy pick! I’d immediately sign Sebastian Vettel and Fernando Alonso.
BE: A very good choice.
VM: Just because both of them are at their peak. I have my own experience of Vettel. For most races in 2008 we competed against ourselves, and maybe Toro Rosso. This was the reason why I had an eye on Vettel. And what did he do in Monza at a wet race? He won it! That was very impressive and I walked over to Toro Rosso to congratulate him. They celebrated together with me. I told myself on that very day that I would celebrate the victory of a race myself one day.
BE: Vettel is such a nice young guy. I said to him, right before his very first free practice in Istanbul in his BMW Sauber, that he had received his super licence just temporarily, so don’t screw up but justify our trust in you. The next thing I saw was his name on the very top of the timesheets. Then I thought to myself that this boy, only 18 years-old, is a sensation.

Q: What should we expect from the first Indian Grand Prix in 2011?
A lot of curry… (laughs)
VM: More spectators than you have ever seen for an event. Amazing fans who will bring their love and show their enthusiasm for Formula One.
BE: What I have encountered in India, when I’ve been there, is that even the poorest people don’t show any form of envy. They give from the bottom of their hearts.