Exclusive interview with Caterham's Cyril Abiteboul 14 Dec 2012
Being a team principal is no easy task, even if, like Caterhams Cyril Abiteboul, youve been in and around Formula One racing for a long time. The Frenchman stepped into Tony Fernandes shoes as Caterham boss back in November and now faces the challenging task of moving the three-year-old team up the grid. We spoke to him about how hes settled into his new role and how he intends to move the Leafield squad forward
Q: Cyril, in politics there is a 100-day grace period for somebody new in office. Youve been Caterham team principal for over 100 days now. Have you settled in yet?
Cyril Abiteboul: I wish but going back to the first 100 days, it all depends when you start to count. Ill be full time with Caterham from January 2013 - until then Ill continue to split my time between my new role with the F1 team and my previous job at Renault Sport F1. This will allow me to tie up a number of outstanding projects for Renault and will make the move to Caterham as seamless as possible for everyone, including my successor at Renault. However, I do have to say that Ive been given a very warm welcome at Caterham and I already feel like Ive been part of the team for a long time. There are a number of reasons why I took up the challenge that Tony and Kamarudin (Meranun) gave me with Caterham and one of the strongest was the spirit within the team. We have a very talented, dedicated group of people, naturally excited by the racing project, but also by the road-car project we are involved in with Renault, as that brings real substance to our work.
Q:What qualities do you bring to the table?
CA: Before the three years I spent at Renault Sport F1, I was with the Renault F1 team. While I was there I lived through many different times, great highs and great lows, but that experience gave me the chance to learn a lot, working alongside a number of very strong characters. In addition to that specific experience within a team, my years at Renault Sport F1 have also provided me with an insight into how all of Renaults partner teams go racing, and what has helped put them on top of the podium so many times over recent years. But here it is important that we make a distinction. I am not team principal of Caterham because of my technical skills, I am here because I have the ability to get the best out of the technical people who are working for us, and to make sure we are run efficiently and are using our budget as best we can to push our way up the grid. My years with Renault and with other teams in F1 have given me a unique insight into the bigger picture of what it takes to win in F1 and that is what I bring to my new role. Finally, the experience I have of working within a large industrial group is also very useful for the processes, the structure and the governance that are integral to the running of a company like Renault. F1 teams have no reason to be run differently from any other companies in that respect and I bring my experience of that to Caterham.
Q: How will you go about the job? What was the first thing to get your attention?
CA: The first task I had was to understand what is and isnt working well in the team across all our functions. I have the benefit of having had distance from the detailed workings of the team, but also am well aware of what its strengths and weaknesses are, having been involved in the team since Renault became its engine supplier in 2011. So I was immediately in position to be able to accurately map out where the team needs attention and what we are already doing well. Its obvious that in 2012 we did not meet our own expectations, and we have a lot of work to do to reach the level of performance we need to be at to satisfy our partners and ourselves. Thats the main task now -to create both short- and long-term plans that divert funding into areas that give us tangible value, and to ensure we build on the good work done by Tony, Kamarudin and Riad (Asmat, Caterham Group CEO) in giving us the foundations to build on.
Q: You experienced a big moment with the team when in the very last race of the season you snatched P10 in the constructors championship from Marussia. What did that mean for you, not just in terms of prestige but also in financial terms?
CA: The end of the Brazil race meant two things to me: firstly it means we are on a better financial footing than if we had finished 11th. The benefits of that are obvious and it means we have not had to compromise our 2013 or future plans. The money is obviously important, but what finishing tenth also meant to me was that it showed our team what it felt like to be part of the show, and thats something that has been missing for most of the 2012 season. We started out with a good gap to the teams behind, and with work to do to catch the teams ahead. At the European GP in Valencia we were as close as weve ever been to truly racing one of the teams ahead, but since then we have been almost racing on our own. That means the boys in the garage and everyone back at the factory has been missing the adrenaline rush of real competition, missing the emotional highs of success. The power those emotions have to inspire is undeniable. Our whole team had that feeling for every lap of the Brazilian race, and it was very special to see what it meant to everyone when Vitaly (Petrov) brought his car home in 11th. This positive energy will be immensely useful for the work we have ahead of us over the winter
Q: Have you experienced any of the politics that come with your new position?
CA: I have had a little taste of that in the past, for instance in the creation of FOTA and the subsequent negotiation of the 2009 Concorde Agreement. So there has already been some politics, but if I didnt want to engage in that, as well as everything else my job involves, I would have stayed at home. The debates that take place across every aspect of F1 are yet another reason why our sport attracts so much attention, and, lets be honest, our own attention. We have influence on the socio-political environment of each race venue we attend and our sport employs tens of thousands of people. We are working at not only the highest level of international sport, we are also working at the top of corporate environments worldwide and that is challenging and hugely rewarding.
Q: Caterham have only named one driver so far for 2013: Charles Pic. He is one of the youngest drivers on the grid. What do you see in him?
CA: Charles is an extremely exciting prospect. In his first year in F1 he was quick immediately, running some good times and long distances in his first days in the car in testing. From there he developed quickly and his record against Timo (Glock) over the year was impressive. On circuits hed already raced at he was particularly strong and that tells us that in 2013 hell be quicker still, with a year under his belt and knowledge of every track now banked forever. We believe that Charles will continue to develop with us and the infrastructure we can give him will help him unlock more pace and develop his feedback better so we can continue to turn him into one of the superstars of the future. He made his first visit to the team on Wednesday last week and he immediately really impressed everyone with his understanding not only of the car, but also of its engineering. That shows that he not only understands how to race, but how to get the best out of his car.
Q: What kind of driver are you looking for as a team mate for a youngster with one season under his belt? Is the right driver still available?
CA: There are different options. One option is someone who he can learn from and who he can use as his benchmark for what we want from both our drivers. Another option, more radical, is to accept the fact that 2013 is a transition year that we use to continue building the team before a period of greater stability in 2014, when a lot of other things in the package will change. Both types of candidates are out there, and we are close to making a decision.
Q: The team has been in Formula One racing for three seasons, always finishing higher than the other teams that also joined the sport in 2010. But that wont do forever will it? What do you want to achieve in 2013?
CA: Absolutely, we cannot be satisfied with that title anymore. I would like to be able to say that we raced teams ahead of us and had some more of what we felt in Brazil. However, I think maybe we overstated what was achievable in 2012. For 2013 Id like to look back and say we continued to develop as a team, seized whatever opportunities came our way and surprised a few people, without compromising the preparation for 2014. For small teams like us 2014 is just as much a major risk -due to our size in particular as it is an interesting opportunity, due to the quality of the technical relationship with Renault. Anyway, we have the capacity to do that and we are determined to fight harder than ever to succeed, so I hope 2013 is a year we remember for the right reasons.
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