Exclusive Q&A with Caterhams Cyril Abiteboul 01 Mar 2013
Since taking over the role of Caterham team principal from the teams founder Tony Fernandes last November, Cyril Abiteboul has overseen an overhaul of the squads driver line-up and the birth of a new car - the Renault-powered CT03. As the end of pre-season testing nears, the Frenchman spoke exclusively to Formula1.com about the rationale behind hiring two relatively inexperienced drivers and how he plans to take Caterham forward
Q: Cyril, after three years with an experienced driver line-up Caterham is opting for the complete opposite in 2013 - why the U-turn?
Cyril Abiteboul: I think 'U-turn' would be an exaggerated way to describe our line-up for 2013. Yes, Charles (Pic) has one year of F1 on his CV, but that was a solid debut season and he comes to us with experience of every track we will race on, and proven talent in practice, qualifying and the races. Giedo (van der Garde) is also no rookie - this might be his first full season in F1 but he has many years of formula racing and two championship titles behind him. In addition, we made sure he would be ready for a race seat this season by helping him develop in numerous Friday practice sessions last year, building on the natural talent hes demonstrated since he first started racing.
Q: Can you explain what you expect from your two freshmen this year?
CA: Both drivers have joined us at an exciting time for the team, with our base at Leafield now moving towards operating at full strength, a number of blue-chip partners supporting us and with our roadcar project with Renault taking us into the realms of manufacturer teams. We know both Giedo and Charles can operate at the level we need them to on and off the track. We also want them to continue their development process and that they bring the energy and enthusiasm of youth and give 100 percent in everything they do for us, in the car, with fans or for our partners. We have realistic expectations of what the team can achieve this year, so we are asking them to help us do that: achieve the goals weve set and do it with the style we expect from them.
Q: Charles is still very young, but Giedo is relatively old for a rookie. What persuaded the team to sign him?
CA: Giedo has his F1 chance after several years of knocking on the door, and I think he fully deserves it. Throughout his career he has raced alongside, against, and sometimes beaten, many of the drivers who will be on the grid with him in Melbourne. He has also been with us since last year in the role of reserve driver, and when you look at the amount of information that needs to be exchanged between the drivers and the team to obtain the maximum from the package, this knowledge of each other will greatly help, both in the final stage of the winter preparations and in the first races of the season.
Q: What went against your former drivers, Heikki Kovalainen and Vitaly Petrov?
CA: Id rather not look back and talk about either Vitaly or Heikki. I know theres a lot of support for both drivers out there, and in the paddock, but we have two new race drivers, two exciting talents, and while Heikki, Vitaly and Jarno (Trulli) are all very important parts of our history - who we remain good friends with - we need to look forwards.
Q: Do you consider 2013 as a transition year in which your drivers gain experience and are then at a good level in 2014 when the new regulations come in?
CA: 2013 is a transition year. Every team has talked about how theyll be racing in 2013 with one eye on next season, and were exactly the same. Whilst I am not sure that this can apply to the drivers given their importance in the end result, it would not be fair to expect more from them than we expect from the rest of the team. Equally, we should not expect less and they are part of our long-term plans as we want to help them reach their full potential with us, and it would be good that it happens to all of us as soon as possible.
Q: You are still relatively new in your role as team principal. How are things going so far?
CA: One word: busy! Im enjoying it, some areas a little more than I thought I would, some a little less, but the main thing is that I have the support of the team on the one side and of our shareholders on the other side. Throughout my career Ive had very good access to a lot of teams in F1 and one thing I do know is that we have a spirit and foundations that rival anyone else on the grid. We are all determined to succeed, but were realistic about how hard it will be to one day be fighting at the sharp end of the grid. I am convinced that by doing the right things, we can get there and Im relishing the chance to help take the team to that position.
Q: You said that you want to create a team culture of realism - can you explain that?
CA: Yes - in an environment galvanised by the media, F1 history is full of teams and individuals who have come, made great statements of their intent, and done so before delivering on any of the promises made. Out of respect for the individuals, teams and organizations who have been in the sport for many years - and also out of respect for our staff, for the sponsors who support us and for the media who write about us - I believe we have a duty to take a pragmatic approach to what is reasonably achievable and what isnt. But this needs be balanced against a culture of competitiveness and performance, without which we will never progress against such serious and established competitors. The operating window is quite tight, but this is what team management is about.
Q: Is dreaming about scoring points outside this new realism?
CA: Not at all. You have to dream - it just depends on what year your dreams are set in!
Q: What would you say are the biggest assets of the team?
CA: We have a number of tangible and intangible assets that put us in a very good position for the future - the support of our shareholders, Leafield, our staff, our commercial relationships, the Renault roadcar project - and without those we could not operate, or dream of growing. But the most important asset is our spirit. Our mechanics know theyre working on a car that isnt yet fighting for points, but they work as hard, if not harder, than their counterparts right up and down the grid. The same goes for the people in our technical Office, our drivers, our IT guys, everyone. We have a collective spirit that pushes us on every day and that is invaluable, but to keep the spirit we must make sure to feed it. And this is where the other assets are valuable: its a virtuous circle that needs to be perpetuated.
Q: Youve previously expressed the opinion that the criteria of what constitutes a Formula One constructor should be eased. What would be your ideal scenario?
CA: Our team is set up to comply with the constructor definition and we have every intention of remaining one. Now, looking at any competitive industry, you see collaborations and synergies between competitors because they provide benefits for the common cause. Looking at our sport, I am not sure that the show is worse because we are using a gearbox from Red Bull Technologies or an engine from Renault that is also used by other teams. Actually, most of the teams share the same suppliers already as we are operating in a highly specialised environment. What would be good is to allow the teams to enjoy a bit more of what some suppliers enjoy right now, and be able to share the development costs and manufacturing costs associated with parts that do not make a direct contribution to the show and do not contribute to performance. There are straightforward ways to police that in the Concorde Agreement, and the other interesting point of this is that it can be easily adjusted in time according to the economic situation of the sport and of the teams. Finally, it is a measure where everyone would be able to see some benefit - from the smaller teams who can reduce their operating spend, to the bigger teams who can see business opportunities.
Q: There have been issues with your new car, the CT03, particularly regarding the exhaust with some saying that it contravenes the regulations. Is that dispute now settled?
CA: It will all be settled when we get to Melbourne. The truth is testing is just what it says - testing. What we take to Melbourne will be what we will use for the first four races and we are working on-track and off-track to make sure we wont have any issues when we get to Australia.
Q: What would be a good year for you?
CA: It may not sound very exciting, but the main target for this year is to make sure we now fully understand and control our development and manufacturing processes. Accurately predicting and measuring the level of performance we expect on track will mean that we have grown and become a reliable technical group. Obviously, an expression of that should be a clear trend of a reduction of the gap to the midfield over the course of the season, but I am keen to get this done with style and within reason, with one eye always on the longer-term plans.
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