Exclusive Q&A with Lotuss Tony Fernandes 12 Oct 2011
Tony Fernandes - like Force Indias Vijay Mallya - is one of a new breed of multifaceted paddock personalities. Not only is Fernandes CEO of AirAsia, he sits on the board of directors for Malaysia Airlines, is chairman of English Premier League football club Queens Park Rangers, has bought sports car manufacturer Caterham and - last but not least - is the team owner/team principal of Lotus. A busy man indeed, but he has the best solution to his full schedule - delegation, and a bit more delegation. We caught up with the Malaysian entrepreneur to discuss the teams progress, the chances of Indian reserve driver Karun Chandhok racing in Delhi, and why the brand confusion with Renault could soon be at an end
Q: Tony, you are a very shrewd businessman and you know that success never happens overnight. But your second season in Formula One is almost over, did you hope it would be easier?
Tony Fernandes: Its definitely easier for us this year because we have a little more stability, quite a lot more experience, and we are where I thought we would be. Perhaps we are a little bit slower than I would like, but I expected us to be tenth and for us to finish the season solidifying our position is pretty satisfying. So, while this year has been easier, it has still had its challenges, and I expect that to be the case next year - and forever! (laughs)
Q: Where have your expectations collided with reality?
TF: The reality is that there is nothing I would have done differently at this stage of our teams development. Obviously we dont have KERS and that has definitely starved us of up to three-tenths, maybe even more at some tracks, and we have to always be conscious that it takes time to build for real success. Our budget limits us to around 50 percent of the allowable wind tunnel time, but with us now using the Williams wind tunnel, in addition to the one in Italy, we will be up to 100 percent by next year. The truth is it all takes time. Only halfway through this season were we able to finally have our full CFD cluster running at maximum capacity, and we are still hiring people for key positions across design to ensure we can maximize the use of all the technology at our disposal on future cars. We have had a few issues with attracting people to Norfolk, because it is out of the UKs motorsport catchment area, and that was not something we had planned for. But we are making amendments to the strategy to help deal with that, so I am confident we are in a good position to take the next step forward in the future.
Q: Lotus are once again the best of the three 2010 newcomers, but werent hopes a bit higher than that?
TF: Not at all. I have always been realistic about what we can achieve, and over what timescale. So as I said previously, we are where we thought we would be. We obviously had a proper design and build programme for this years car, compared to the six months we had in 2009/2010 to get the car out and put together the whole team. But the 2011 car was still put together by a team working with about half the people we have in place now. To have found the pace they did, moving so far away from the other two new teams, and close to cars with a combined budget and years in the sport far in excess of ours, is nothing short of brilliant. But next year we have to move on again and we have the people in place to do so. There is also a wider answer to that question, and thats about the value of experience. In all the interviews I do I talk about the importance of having the right people in the right places. Its not just about dollars and cents, its about attracting experience, blending it with youth and letting them do what they are good at. We now have that in place, and the value of that will be seen next year, and even more in 2013.
Q: You have stayed on as team principal. But you have so many other interests - AirAsia, Malaysia Airlines, Caterham and your latest acquisition Queens Park Rangers (QPR). How do you find the time?
TF: It looks complicated but it actually works very simply. Firstly it helps to own an airline, and now be involved in two. It also helps to have a BlackBerry that takes a huge amount of punishment from me, and a mobile that is never given a day off. But behind that are the people and the key word is delegation. If I was like some leaders, who want to micro-manage everything, then I would be spreading myself too thinly, but my role is to provide the overall strategic view and then let the guys get on with their jobs. If you take F1 as an example, my vision was that it always made sense for us to be not just a race team but a car manufacturer as well. The original idea was to do that with Group Lotus, but that obviously went spectacularly wrong, so we found a very elegant solution in Caterham and now were sorting out the issues with Group Lotus so we can all move on in a positive way. But the overall view was always to use the very obvious synergies between the road car company and the racing division to increase the capabilities of both, provide economies of scale, create opportunities for talent transfer and achieve success for both. Taking the wider view, we now have a range of businesses that create opportunities on a very wide scale. We are having some very interesting discussions with sponsors now about F1 and football. For some brands QPR provides an interesting platform and for others its F1. With our airlines we have AirAsia which is a perfect platform for many partners, who want to talk to billions of Asian people and increasing numbers of Europeans, and now we have Malaysia Airlines, which attracts premium partners who want the prestige of being associated with an airline of that calibre - and then there are the obvious synergies across all those businesses. If you think how we can provide access to people, routes, entertainment, high-tech things and manufacturing, then we are an extremely attractive proposition.
Q: It came as a surprise to many that you decided to stick with the same driver line-up for 2012. Why didnt you plump for some new blood?
TF: New blood is right at the heart of our plans on the driver side. If you look at what we are doing with drivers like Alexander Rossi who we are building a very exciting plan around, and Daim Hishamuddin in Singapore, who has huge potential to be a truly world class Asian superstar, we are investing heavily in youth. We have a driver development programme in a partnership with AirAsia and are supporting a range of talents across all ages, right up to Alexander, and giving them the access to GP2 and F1 that helps them see what they need to achieve to reach the top. But for me stability is the key. In football we have Neil Warnock at QPR and its important to give him the time and space he needs to work, not make snap changes based on day-to-day results. In F1 we need to keep the same stable platform - with the drivers and right across the team - but clearly if we dont take another step forward next year then we all need to ask ourselves some difficult questions. Am I the right team principal, is Mike (Gascoyne) the right chief technical officer? There is nothing to hide there, its just common sense. For now it is working well, but the results will speak for themselves and I am not afraid to make changes where they are needed to make sure we stay on target.
Q: We see at the moment that everyone who can is adding headcounts to their teams - how about at Lotus?
F: As I just said before, we have good people in place now, but there are still gaps that we are working on filling. We dont have an unlimited budget, so its important we prioritise, but there are a few parts of the business where strength in depth will give us a quicker car and thats what we are here to do. So yes, we will be adding people where it counts.
Q: You have an Indian reserve driver, Karun Chandhok, and there are mutterings that he could be in the car at the forthcoming Indian race. How likely is that scenario?
TF: Karun is a hugely talented, passionate guy who has been a shining star for us ever since he joined our team. His enthusiasm for the sport is infectious and his dedication to the cause is second to none. Hes also held in very high regard, not just in India where he is obviously a huge star, but also around the world, where people recognize him as not just another F1 driver, but one who knows how fans feel. He loves it all and hes been a brilliant ambassador for us since day one. With that in mind, emotionally, Id like to see him in the car, but practically theres no point in putting him in just for the sake of it. We have two extremely experienced race drivers and Ive got to do whats right for them and for the team, not for Karun or for the Indian fans. But ultimately its not my decision. Ive told the team its up to them. None of us wants to put him under even more pressure than hes already going to be under at his home race, and the truth is we have to focus on securing tenth place. When we ran him in Germany he did what we asked him to do. He did the best job he could in a car he had hardly run in, and despite what people think, it is impossible to just jump into the cockpit and be as quick as your team mate. You need time to dial the car in as you would like, time to get up to speed and time to have the confidence to attack. He showed in FP1 in Suzuka that when we ask him to do a job on a track he doesnt know he just gets on with it. He does exactly whats required, but thats without the pressure of a full race weekend. So in short, I dont know. My heart would love to see him race there. Emotionally it makes sense, but we have to come tenth and we have the right people to do that for us.
Q: There has been a tussle over who is the real Lotus, which has been settled recently. Will there be a Caterham team on the grid next season?
TF: Unfortunately I cant go into detail on that right now, but I do want to say that I am very proud of what we have achieved with Team Lotus since we brought it back into F1. I have always been very mindful of our role as custodian of the brand, and we always kept the door open to a solution to the issues we have had off track over the past few months and whatever happens we can be very proud that we brought Team Lotus back into the place it belongs. I honestly dont know what happens from here, but I do know that if somebody else owns the name in the future it will be the right people, using it for the right reasons, and if we have played a part in helping it find its natural home then I am happy. We have to be realistic about this situation. Is where we are now tenable? I dont think so. It doesnt help F1 and it doesnt help the fans. When Karuns in Moscow people ask him what its like driving with Vitaly Petrov, and I get congratulated for a GP2 win that unfortunately was not one of ours. Equally I am sure people go into the Lotus Renault GP motorhome looking for me and leave feeling more than a bit confused about what is going on, so that doesnt help anyone. Ultimately at the core of my businesses is a belief in simplifying the difficulties and this is an area that is not simple at the moment. I am proud that we took the risk, spent the money and had the guts to bring Team Lotus back. And I am hugely thankful to the 254 staff for the work they did in bringing the name back from the dead in the right style, but for the fans, the people involved in the teams, the manufacturers and the businesses, if we can find a compromise then we all win. F1 wins, Group Lotus wins, Renault wins, and we win, then why not? This will be decided by the higher authorities, and we put our faith in their decision to do the right thing for Formula One. Now we just want to do the right thing and stop the confusion. I think thats what everyone wants so lets see what happens.
Q: Having spoken about Lotus being the best of the newcomers, with one or two good results, there is still the possibility of beating former champions Williams to ninth place. Would that make your year?
TF: Frank Williams is a legend, and the fact I am even asked that question is hugely flattering as they have been world champions many times and set standards in F1 that teams still struggle to match. But beating Williams is not something I think about. We have not set ourselves a specific target of who we want to beat, or who we want to be better than. We have to be better than everyone one day and if that means beating Frank and Patrick (Head) then so be it. Im not sentimental about that and I know that Frank is the ultimate professional so there would be no hard feelings on that. On the flip side, if one day a Virgin beats us then I know it wont affect my relationship with Richard (Branson), but it will motivate us to do better.
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