Feature F1 Unlocked
LIGHTS TO FLAG: Esteban Gutierrez on Sauber, Haas, learning from Toto Wolff – and swapping racing for business
Esteban Gutierrez was highly rated in the junior categories and while he did make it to Formula 1, one points result from three seasons was an underwhelming return for the Mexican. Gutierrez, though, remains involved in Formula 1 with Mercedes – and the 32-year-old has diversified his interests away from the race track. We caught up with him for the latest instalment of our Lights to Flag feature…
Winning from the very beginning
Although he was born in Mexico, Gutierrez spent swathes of his childhood in the French city of Lyon, with his parents eager for him and his siblings to experience different cultures.
He “had some karting tracks where I could go and have some fun” and also took in the uphill climbing scene in the mountains close to the city. When the family returned to their native Mexico, Gutierrez saw his cousins racing karts professionally and persuaded his parents that he should join them.
At the age of 14 he entered the karting scene and just two years later moved into Formula BMW USA.
“The deal with my parents at that stage was that I was going to do one year in Formula BMW, fulfil my dream of being a racing driver, and then go back home, that’s it,” Gutierrez reflects. “Unfortunately for them I did pole position across the first six races, took podiums, and won my first race!”
Gutierrez moved to Formula BMW Europe for 2008, winning that year’s title, and that began a relationship with the German brand.
“I started to get some offers at that time,” he says. “In 2008 I signed my deal with BMW, with [team boss] Mario Theissen – he was the key person who opened the door at Sauber.”
Gutierrez tested for BMW in 2009 and after the manufacturer’s withdrawal was taken under the wing of Sauber. He tested their Formula 1 machinery, becoming their test/reserve driver, and won the inaugural GP3 Series title in 2010 prior to finishing third in the 2012 GP2 Series.
Stepping up with Sauber
The departure of compatriot Sergio Perez to McLaren created a vacancy at Sauber, and Gutierrez stepped up to Formula 1 alongside Nico Hulkenberg for 2013. He had the customary rookie setbacks but, having unexpectedly bagged the fastest race lap in Spain, claimed what appeared to be a breakthrough seventh in Japan.
“Having Nico as a team mate was very positive for me to challenge myself and to improve fast,” Gutierrez says now.
But off-track the then 21-year-old could recognise that there were deeper-rooted troubles.
“Unfortunately, Peter Sauber retired, and Monisha Kaltenborn took over as a team principal,” he Gutierrez. “And it made things… quite challenging to me, to be honest, in many ways.”
Gutierrez waves away suggestions that Kaltenborn was less supportive than her predecessor, explaining the issues stemmed “more on Monisha's ability to operate the team at a good level. I come from a business background and I also love getting involved in how an organisation works. And it was frustrating for me to see some of the aspects which were lacking in the team’s operation.
“That obviously was not my role at that time as a driver, I was obviously trying to focus on the driving. But when you're there and you're focusing on your job and you realise that on the operational side things are not up to the level, it did bring some frustration to me naturally.”
Gutierrez “was trying to focus” on his job in the cockpit “but my character not only relies on focusing on one single job – and I admit that it’s something I’m pretty conscious of myself but probably was not very conscious of back then because I was also growing.
“There was a big disconnection between what Monisha was doing and what the team needed as well, though I also recognised the financial pressures that the team was going through.”
A disaster of a year
Sauber were struggling off-track and 2014 completely tripped up a team that had previously been a midfield regular.
Formula 1’s new regulations featured widespread aerodynamic changes and the introduction of V6 turbocharged power units. Sauber’s C33 was a wayward machine and the situation was accentuated by power unit provider Ferrari supplying a lacklustre product.
“The first test was [at Jerez], but we did seven laps in the whole day,” he says. “You remember it was the test that if you did 10 laps, you were like, ‘wow, that's amazing,’ right? But in our case, we did very few laps. So Jerez was not really a reference. When I got to Bahrain, I remember going into Turn 1, pushing the brakes, and then you could feel the lag between the engine braking on the rear tyres and the fronts. Everything was not synchronised.
“And then you go into the corner and you go on power and you have the combustion engine coming in and then suddenly you had so much power coming from the electrical engine. So I said, ‘wow, this is going to be a big challenge.’ It was also up to us as a customer team to maximise performance with what we had in that moment.”
Sauber were backmarkers throughout the year but Gutierrez squandered their best chance in Monaco when he crashed while running eighth.
“Unfortunately I clipped the wall in the Rascasse,” he says. “Obviously, I was very frustrated because that was our opportunity and our chance to score the points in that first part of the season. Then there were other opportunities where we had a lot of technical issues and a lot of things that were going on.”
Sauber endured their worst season and failed to pick up a solitary point – and Gutierrez’s contract talks took a turn.
“I remember that well,” he says, smiling. “For me it was clear: obviously the team had other objectives, or Monisha had other objectives, which is on the financial side.”
There was speculation over who actually had a Sauber contract, with Gutierrez’s team mate Adrian Sutil claiming he had a 2015 race deal, then reserve Giedo van der Garde reckoning he had a contract too, all while Marcus Ericsson and Felipe Nasr – the eventual line-up – were waiting in the wings.
“Anyway, we got to Austin and Monisha calls me for a meeting and was telling me, ‘you know, okay, so well, you know, Esteban, I would like to discuss our contract for next year, I'm interested to continue working with you. We’ll do it. Let's do it.’
“And I looked at her and I said, ‘Monisha, how are you able to offer me a drive for next year? If you already have signed four drivers?’ She looks at me: ‘Esteban that is not true.’ And I'm like, ‘Well, I know that [you have]. So, you know, the conversation here is not going to go anywhere because I know what is going on.”’
Gutierrez quipped that “it was going to go into a direction that was not going to look nice, and when I saw that with Giedo [where a row over whether he had a race seat went to court in Australia, in 2015], I was like ‘okay, that makes sense.’”
Highs and lows with Haas
Gutierrez spent 2015 as Ferrari’s test and reserve driver, a move that was “somewhat of a relief because I could see what a constructor team is from the inside,” and it set up his move to new-for-2016 team Haas, alongside Romain Grosjean.
Grosjean and Gutierrez matched well in qualifying but come Sunday it was the Frenchman who scored the big results – all 29 of Haas’ points that season – while Gutierrez failed to break the top 10.
Somehow Gutierrez finished 11th – one spot outside of the points – on five separate occasions in 2016.
“Obviously Romain is a fast driver, and I was happy to match his pace on many occasions, and very often showed very good pace compared to him,” says Gutierrez.
“It was frustrating to be 11th many, many times. And there were a lot of times when I was on to score points and I had brake failures or technical failures and, you know, it just didn't work out. It just didn't come for a reason.
“And we were actually just doing everything that we could, and the work was being put there, and I was really committed, and I was really focused. And I really tried to put that frustration aside because I knew that it was all about persistency and just eventually it would come. But it didn't.
“I remember Brazil. Everything was perfect. I said, okay, now we have the chance. It's raining. I feel very good in the rain. You know, we have another opportunity, finally, and then a mechanical failure, again. And it’s where I did let my frustration out! I mean, naturally, when you hold your frustration for that long, it comes to a point where you have to let it out. And it is what it is, right?”
The Brazil frustration came following an event in which Haas confirmed Kevin Magnussen as Grosjean’s 2017 team-mate, ousting Gutierrez.
“The relationship didn't work with the team overall,” he says. “There were some inside dynamics that I didn't really feel comfortable with. Then, of course, the performance aspect of the argument that Guenther [Steiner] had at the end, which I was quite disappointed when I asked him, ‘okay, why didn't you consider keeping me as a driver?’ And his answer was ‘because you didn't score points.’
“And I'm like, okay, that's a disappointing answer because it's not a valid argument when I was so many times 11th and very close to the points, really consistent, consistently quicker as well on race pace, quick on quali and many times when I was about to score the points, [we had] mechanical failures.”
Hitting a career crossroads
After a second departure in three years Gutierrez concedes he was “not feeling good with myself at this point” and opted to take a year “where I just experimented with something different, to see what is out there. I wanted to try out different series to see if there is a place where I say, okay, it makes sense to invest my time on something on the long term or switch my profession and build a new vision.”
Gutierrez made a handful of starts in IndyCar and Formula E but was already shifting focus to a potential new career.
“I am as passionate in business as I am with racing,” he says. “I was always very interested in meeting the business people, key players on the business side, great entrepreneurs, business owners. I always tried to spend time with those people within this platform in Formula 1.
“Obviously you have the choice of going with the celebrity side there, famous people that come over and, you know, naturally that gives you a lot of exposure. If you spend time with them, you get a picture and then it's like a big deal. But for me, that was not my interest. My interest was always in the business.”
Gutierrez called Mercedes boss Toto Wolff at the end of 2017 and arranged a meeting at the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix.
Wolff was clear that Gutierrez would be significantly low in the hierarchy – with the Mexican joking that he was “willing to serve the coffee” just to be part of the team – but was offered a simulator test, after which he was quietly taken onboard.
“When I was part of the team, I took advantage to then look at the different areas of the team, get to know the different people, understand the operation of a world championship team,” says Gutierrez. “And that was my goal, to learn all of that. And it was an incredible experience.”
Gutierrez was nominally taken on as a development driver, then a reserve driver, and is now a brand and business ambassador for Mercedes. That has led to a few demonstration runs in Formula 1 machinery but off-track is a greater focus.
Gutierrez helped design a Mercedes cap for Formula 1’s Mexican Grand Prix and was surprised when he discovered a flaw in the process.
“When I started to interact with the license holders, I asked the question: who is going to be the one distributing it in Mexico,” he says. “They didn’t have a distributor. I said, ‘okay, send me the contract. I'll be your distributor.’ So in that process, within the team, I found that opportunity, a business opportunity, and the cap was quite a big success. And then I started to distribute all of the other products that the license holder had, and I became a distributor of them in Mexico and Latin America.”
Alongside owning the company that distributes Formula 1 merchandise through Latin America, Gutierrez now helps manage his family’s sustainable steel company, and is taking on more projects.
“We also do real estate, we invest in education in schools, and then with my personal ventures, we are now integrating all the businesses together to convert the family office into a private equity fund in order to keep investing and buying more businesses,” he says, pointing to his background in motorsport as a key asset.
“My experience as a racing driver has been crucial to have a perspective on many aspects of the business,” he explains. “I always looked into the operational side of the team as well. I was always quite interested in not only the technical aspect, but also on the commercial aspect, the legal aspect, marketing. So put all those things together and I learned a lot.
“I’ve also learned a lot from Toto, of combining business with racing and his involvement in the Formula 1 team, and he has been a great mentor for me on that aspect. At a high-performance organization, Mercedes, you can then take a lot of those values and attributes into other organizations. [In] my own businesses, I apply very similar things.”
The future and the past
Gutierrez still sees a future within Formula 1 “on the areas where I add most value in being involved,” though remains keen short-term to focus on his business projects.
This year marks a decade since he first fleetingly graced the Formula 1 grid but his time in the sport – and the ending of his competitive career – proved transformative.
“Of course I would have liked to achieve more,” he says, matter-of-factly. “I mean, that's my competitive aspect. I am not satisfied with what I achieved in Formula 1, but it came to a point where it took me a lot strength to say, ‘okay, this is what I could have achieved in Formula 1, I take that as an experience: I learned a lot of things. I got many lessons from that experience. What is my new vision?’
“When you are a racing driver you have a very clear vision: I would like to be a world champion in Formula 1. And every day you are working for that vision. But suddenly when you realise it's not the case anymore, you get lost.
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“You are like, ‘okay, what's my vision in life away from being a Formula 1 World champion?’ So I did target [something] pretty high. Maybe I did not reach that point, but I reached a very good level; I got to be one of the 20 drivers in the world and one of the six Mexicans.
“So I said, ‘okay, how can I take that [and] turn it into a positive aspect, with all the experience and the lessons I got, and convert them into a new vision and take advantage of that experience as well?’
“And it took me a couple of years to build that new vision.
“But then when I started executing it, it started to be very successful and it was probably against many people coming to me and saying: “why are you doing this? Like, what is your role and why are you not racing? Why are you not taking advantage of your experience as a racing driver?’
“And of course, at that moment I could not explain very clearly what was I planning, because I was in the process of building that vision. But then eventually where I stand today is the position that I've been planning and I know where I'm heading and it's a very successful path so far. Personally it works very well and I'm really excited when I'm enjoying it. And it's a very privileged position.”