Tony Fernandes Q&A: Caterham can join the midfield 29 Mar 2012
With nearly 120,000 fans in attendance, the Malaysian Grand Prix weekend was an unqualified success. Given the amount of Formula One publicity and attractions on offer in the nearby city of Kuala Lumpur, its no surprise the Sepang event is proving popular. And with a local team to support in Tony Fernandes newly-rebranded Caterham outfit, there was even more reason for cheers from the grandstands, despite the teams slow start to their third season of F1 competition. Fernandes, however, maintains theyll be making inroads on the midfield soon, as he explained exclusively to Formula1.com...
Q: Tony, your team is in its third season and the saying is third time lucky. If the Australian race was your dress rehearsal, how disappointed were you with the result on your opening night in Malaysia?
Tony Fernandes: That is a very good question, partly because it gets to the heart of what Formula One is all about, which is entertainment. We were there to put on the most incredible show on the planet. And one of the key elements of the sport is the drama, the tension and the spectacle, which keeps fans on the edge of their seats every time the cars are on track and sees hundreds of millions of people following every aspect of the sport between races however they can. And if you take what F1 has shown to the fans at the track - and on TV worldwide - then you have to say that F1 delivered again. As for us, you are right to say that Australia could be seen as our opening night, but we have a long-term plan to achieve our goals, and while this is year three, it is also still the early stages of our development. In year one, we just had to finish tenth - a pretty sensational achievement in its own right, having started from literally zero six months before the first race. In year two we had to reinforce our position in the top-ten teams and continue to build the foundations. In year three we have closed the gap further to the teams ahead, but there is still work to do to make us truly competitive with the established teams who have decades of experience behind them. So, for opening night in Malaysia 2012, we did show the sort of race pace we enjoyed in Australia, where both cars were posting similar lap times to teams who were regular points scorers in 2011. And if you take where the reigning champion Sebastian Vettel finished then we walked home from a very difficult race with our heads held high! For sure, we know how hard it is to bridge the gap to the midfield and we are fighting like tigers to do that - at our home race in Malaysia and at every race we compete in worldwide.
Q: For a team that isnt yet three years-old, youve been through some difficult times
TF: There have definitely been trying times, but we always knew this journey would not be easy. I have always believed that you learn from the challenges you face and you keep moving forwards. And the fact we are here in year three, with all the elements in place to ensure we have a bright future, shows that nothing we have faced so far has held us back. Perhaps we did not expect to have to dedicate so much energy to the legal issues we faced in our first two years, but they are all behind us. I have always firmly believed that nothing good comes easy. That has been true at AirAsia, where we faced immense challenges right from day one, and it is true for Caterham and QPR. But that is what drives me on and what makes the successes so much sweeter. Now we have Caterham firmly established as our parent brand and it is the platform we are using to build all our automotive and technology interests. We are in complete control of our own future and that puts a good deal of the struggles we faced in our first two years behind us.
Q: There was a plan to move the team headquarters to Malaysia. Is that still on the agenda? Malaysia has become a true home of motorsport
TF: On a personal level I am extremely proud to see how far Malaysian motorsport has come in such a short space of time. And you are right to say it is developing into a true home of motorsport, not just in F1 where the race at Sepang is firmly established as one of the highlights of the season, but in all categories of motorsport. AirAsia has also played an important role in helping not only Malaysian motorsport develop, but all forms of racing around South East Asia as well, and that is something that means a lot to me and everyone in AirAsia. Take Fahmi (motorcyclist Muhammad Zulfahmi Khairuddin) for example. He is a young Malaysian who will be a star of MotoGP for many years to come. We have played an integral role in helping him unlock his natural talent and he is a talisman for Malaysian motorsport fans.
At the other end of the scale is Riad Asmat, Caterham Groups CEO, who I first met when he was being woefully under-used by Proton. He is now at the head of a group of companies that covers F1, GP2, road cars, composites, technology and innovation and a whole range of other businesses, leading the company on a global scale and showing that Malaysian people are right at the forefront of the growth of the sport worldwide. I saw something similar in both Fahmi and Riad and now seeing them and all the people who dream of working in this world achieving their goals is very satisfying - and long may that continue. In terms of the development of the team, it has been widely reported that we have proposed a move to the facility in Leafield, UK, and that process is underway. In Malaysia we have had an operation in place since 2010, where we have based a number of the teams facilities and also have a running show car team who are busy all over Asia. This gives us a chance to blood new talent in the F1 environment away from the intense pressure of a race weekend and to allow mechanics and engineers from the ASEAN region to join the team, before stepping up to GP2 and F1. We will continue to expand this base in Malaysia, as the team grows, and we will always see Malaysia as the heartbeat of our team.
Q: Chief technical officer Mike Gascoyne is now involved in Caterham as a whole, not just the Formula One team. A technical director in F1 has to be a visionary and it helps if he has charisma too. Are you well positioned in this respect now?
TF: We are very well positioned indeed. Mike has worked with the whole team we have brought in to help us establish ourselves as a serious force and to give us a platform to develop for many years to come. His skill set is now being applied to the wider range of businesses we have in the Caterham Group and he will help lead us through the next phase of our development. One of the key appointments we have made is Mark Smith, who joined us as technical director last year. Mark is now attending every race and is integrally involved in the race weekends, as well as managing the design office back at the factory. So we have achieved one of the key elements of any business, which is to keep attracting new talent and giving new challenges to each individual to ensure they can inspire the next generation of people around them.
Q: Jarno Trulli left and Caterham has a new driver in Vitaly Petrov. What made up your minds that this was the right way to go?
TF: Jarno played an incredibly important role in the first two years of our team. He and Heikki (Kovalainen) both gave us the experience and the push we needed from day one to ensure we finished tenth in our first two seasons, and to set the standards we needed to mirror the teams they had both been with before joining us. In 2011 Jarno finished in positions that helped us seal that all-important tenth place in the championship, but he would be the first to say he was probably coming to the end of his time in F1. He had a long and very successful career, and we are very thankful we were able to work with him for our first two years. But we wanted to bring in some new talent, and Vitaly has proven to be an incredibly good acquisition for the team. He is quick, he is talented and he has settled in immediately. A few people said to me that he was quite quiet, but the opposite has proven to be true. He is hungry, he is very eager to keep proving he has the talent to mix it at the top and he has a great sense of humour. He has brought new energy to his side of the garage and we are all delighted he is with us. Funnily enough, his hometown is close to the border with Finland, so against the historical background of that part of the world, he is forming a good partnership with Heikki and that can only be good for the team.
Q: You have to divide your sporting ambitions between your F1 team and your football club. Who has the upper hand right now?
TF: Physically neither! (laughs) It obviously helps to work for an airline and I can use that to help balance my schedule, so I can attend both football matches and races pretty much equally. Mentally I dedicate as much time as I can to F1, GP2, our driver development programme and QPR (Queens Park Rangers). What allows me to do that is the people we have in place at both Caterham and QPR, and also mobile phones. I was in Tokyo last week when QPR beat Liverpool and I think the whole of Japan heard me cheer when I received the texts telling me we had come back from 2-0 down to win 3-2. A load of people at the club were sending me updates by text and on Twitter. With modern communications, and good people, I can keep up to date with everything that goes on in my sporting world.
Q: Caterham is still a member of the teams association. Can you explain your reasoning for still being involved? To the outsider, it might appear there is an element of mistrust, even among the remaining members
TF: I am not sure that it is true to say everybody mistrusts each other. On the sporting side, teams will always challenge interpretations of the rules when it looks like another team may have found an advantage, and that is part of the sport. At a wider level FOTA still represents eight teams, from all levels of the grid, and we play an active role in that group in everything it does. Whatever issues we may have at an individual level are put to one side within the framework of FOTA and that is just good business practice. What I do want to see is the sport reducing costs. The teams should be profitable and there should be more business-minded people throughout the paddock making sure this sport focuses its energies in the right areas. We need petrol heads to run the engineering side of F1, but we also need more marketers, people who understand that this is a show, people who can put themselves in the mind set of the fans and push forward decisions about the way the sport benefits the fans, not the engineers and the teams. We also need to have a clear set of regulations, with no discrepancy on what is and is not allowed. The rules need to be laid out in black and white so we can stop the discussions about technical regulations that do nothing to improve the show.
Q: You are a successful businessman and not necessarily a petrol head, so your first aim must be success. What would you deem a success by mid-season this year?
TF: The goal for mid-season is the same as it is for the whole year ahead. We know what is achievable, and breaking into the midfield is a huge challenge, so the reasonable target is tenth again. The stretch target - what we want to push everyone to achieve - is to be fighting in the midfield pack and when you look back to the pace we showed in Australia that is not beyond the realms of possibility. Looking at the data comparisons between where we were last year and where we have started 2012, it is evident that we have improved. Only a couple of teams have found time and we are one of them. Now we need to keep working as hard as we can to improve our qualifying performance, make sure we are bulletproof reliability wise, and never give up. By mid-season we will also be making some major announcements about the Caterham Group. Each of the arms of the group - Caterham Cars, Caterham Composites, Caterham Technology & Innovation - have projects under development that will see the light of day for the first time in the next three to four months. This is an exciting time for everyone involved in the Caterham Group. The journey so far has been incredible and it will only keep getting better.
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