This season, the Lotus name will make an historic return to Formula 1. Unsurprisingly, the efforts of the Malaysian-backed team have attracted huge interest as it bids to not only emerge as best of the new outfits, but also take on some established names.
At the center of the push behind Lotus is team principal Tony Fernandes – the flamboyant entrepreneur who juggles his time between his AirAsia business, the music industry and now F1. Here, he discusses how progress is going, his vision for the future of the sport and why only a night race at Silverstone will prove to him that F1 has become truly global.
Q. How are preparations going for 2010?
Tony Fernandes: We are looking good actually. It is a mad rush because we only got our entry in September, but Mike [Gascoyne] is very confident with the car. The boys are working in Cologne and Bologna, and I have been focusing more on the operation, marketing and PR side – getting that all up and running. So we are looking quietly confident, but the first step is to be on the grid.
Q. How are you juggling your time between your other businesses and the Lotus F1 team?
TF: My job is AirAsia, and my job is to put together a team management [for Lotus]. I have been overworked because I have been getting that together, but the senior management team is almost in place now. It is now just a question of focusing on the marketing and PR side of things – the technical side is done. I am very rarely involved in that, which I think is correct in many ways.
One of the things we have given Gascoyne is the fun to be back in F1. I have been asked by people that Gascoyne had had great years and bad years, and what is my view? Well, I come from the artistic world and you can have a phenomenal artist like The Beatles, but put them in a terrible environment and they just would not be able to perform. But if you give them the freedom and spirit to perform what they are, they will be great at it.
My gift, if I have one, is my ability to manage talent, and Mike is a talent, an artist, and I will give him the freedom to do it. We believe that we will do alright.
Q. Is the funding getting there?
TF: We are committed to funding whether we have a major sponsor or not. Part of the thing [with the entry] was, show us the money! So we have the money in the bank, and it is there. Obviously I would like to keep some, but we are committed and it will not be an issue.
Q. You've made your choice on drivers. What was the thinking behind that decision?
TF: I've always said I would like an experienced driver, but only because we are virgins. So, it is nice to have someone with experience leading the way. A good driver for me is not someone who is fastest around the track, but someone who brings a lot of experience and can help develop the car and help us develop the team – educate us on what makes a good team.
I think personality is also very important – you need a person who is accessible, who wants to work, and who wants to be part of the team. Not a loner, not someone who isn't going to communicate. That is not something that will sit with me. My only requirement is being humble, being a team player and having experience – that is my perfect match.
Q. You've been in F1 as a sponsor, and teams obviously love having sponsors on board. Going in as a team principal, are you expecting a different reception from your rivals in the so-called piranha club?
TF: Yes! Boy, have I discovered that already! I think it is an old-fashioned approach to be honest. You are competitors, you are competitive and you compete. I am in the same piranha club in the airline business, because every airline would like to see the end of me in my playground. But with AirAsia, if you look at it, many airlines have also said we transformed aviation and helped their businesses.
I think teams compete, but there are many ways that they compete stupidly – trying to kill each other doesn't benefit anyone. In many ways, it also shows a lack of professionalism in the sport, and sponsors are aware of that as well.
I've been on that side, so I know the bad things and the good things – I know what can be improved as well. We would give sponsors a very unique business proposition.
Q. Will Lotus bring that fresh attitude into F1?
TF: I think so. I don't know whether it is the right approach, but I think we will. Just like when I started the airline business, I brought a whole new way of doing it – principally because I never knew anything else.
I didn't come in thinking this is how it should be done. I think in F1, I don't come with any baggage. I haven't worked for Jordan for 18 years, or worked at Mercedes-Benz. I just watched F1 and was a sponsor, so I don't have a lot of history. I think we will do things differently. I am not saying they are the right things.
I ask Mike very simple questions and he can't answer me sometimes! I'll give you a classic example. If you are flying on a plane, a pilot will say: 'It is 36,000 feet and the temperature outside is -38 degrees.' I went to my captain and said, 'Why do you say that?' It is not like you are going to walk out on the plane and say, 'Oh it's going to be a bit cold, let's put a jacket on.' He replied that they had always done it like that.
So, we now make our announcements more relevant. If we are passing a volcano, tell the passengers that we are passing a volcano. It's more interesting.
Mike also has an advantage because he is starting from a clean sheet of paper. If I bought Lufthansa, to change it would be scary just thinking about it because they have been there for such a long time. So, if I had bought Brawn or whoever, then it would be very hard to change it overnight. But Mike has a chance to start with a fresh sheet of paper, and all the mistakes he did in other places, he now has someone without experience to say, 'Hey why don't you do it this way?' Whether you have the right person who is willing to change is very important as well, and I think Mike is that way inclined.
Q. The AirAsia deal is continuing with Williams. Is there any plan to stop that?
TF: No. We have a contract and we are honoring it. Beyond that, I think it has to be for Lotus to prove itself to AirAsia that is has value. It is hard for me because I am conflicted, and I don't want a shareholder to say to me that I moved the sponsorship for myself. I want Lotus to go and prove it.
AirAsia has also reached a point where we have achieved a lot of what we wanted to do as a brand, so we will have to see. But F1 fits us nicely because where we are going to fly AirAsia goes, and we always said that a low-cost carrier doesn't have to be low quality. Anyone who has flown with us is blown away because they are used to the European style operations. So, I would hope there would be a relationship going forward.
Q. Can you sense a new era coming for F1 with all these new teams arriving with fresh ideas, and the establishment like Max Mosley, Ron Dennis and Flavio Briatore having left?
TF: I don't know it well enough, but with new people come new ideas and new thoughts; maybe the ultra competitiveness will go and perhaps there will be a sense of real camaraderie, not a 'Hey, I love you' and the knife goes in behind your back as you leave. So, we will see.
You can never get away from the competitive angle, and I am sure I will do the same. We all want to win; otherwise we would not be in this sport. But, I think there is more to be gained by working together, and I think FOTA is a good thing. But FOTA also has to not cramp creativity.
You can't have a Marxist F1, where everyone agrees to everything and goes and does it. You have got to have some individualism. So, I think it needs to be a balance between the two.
One thing I hope people pick up on is that F1 should not be about those who have and those who haven't. That is where I think the Marxist approach is good and, where for example, the NFL, in perhaps the most capitalist country, works.
You want a healthy grid of 13 teams, and the money is very skewed toward five or six teams. If a team pulls out, the remaining money goes to all the teams that are there – the column three teams gets nothing. That needs to be a little bit redressed because I think it is good to have 13 strong members.
All I heard about over the past few months was who is not going to turn up on the grid. That is not a good sign. It is much better to say there are 13 other people who want to join. The questions like: Will Lotus be there? I think that is just unhealthy. So a redistribution of wealth is needed, without me sounding too much like Karl Marx.
Q. You're in this for the long term aren't you?
TF: Without a doubt! We know we are not going to be in the front straight away, so let's not kid ourselves. AirAsia started with two planes, and no one gave us a hope in hell to be there in three months' times. And, eight years on, we have 86 planes. You go in there with a long-term plan or don't bother going in, and you go in with a sustainable plan.
That is why you have got to go in there with a plan that does not rely on a sticker on your car. If you do that, there is always that risk that you will not be there. That is why so many teams have gone out – so the model has to change. And there are many ways of making money without just having a sticker on the car.
Q. Where do you get your enthusiasm from?
TF: Yeah! I think that is what Bernie and Max said – they said my enthusiasm is infectious. I have always been a positive person, and it is much better. Believe me; I've been trained hard in the airline business to be negative – SARS, bird flu, the tsunami, national carriers, etc.! But I am a musician as well, and when things are bad you play the blues!
Q. What's your vision for the future?
TF: My vision is obviously to perform, but to bring F1 to Asia. Kids in Norfolk can get up in the morning; go to school and cycle past an F1 team. In Cologne you can do that. They can dream about being engineers or drivers. It is a very distant dream in Malaysia, because I don't think anyone there can conceive of working for Williams or Ferrari. So I want to make the dream a reality and monetize that dream – to bring value to my country and the surrounding areas.
Lotus was a tired brand, but it shouldn't be – it should be up there with Porsche and Maserati and all these brands. Hopefully, we can contribute to that. It has great technology. I think F1 has not been good at commercializing the technology and audience it has, and we will try and do it in our part of the world.
And, if we can turn that around, then one day there will be a night race at Silverstone because there are a billion people in Asia wanting to watch F1 in the afternoon. That is when you start talking about a true global audience.
Why do we have night races? Because we are serving a European audience. It is not global. If there are a billion people in Asia watching it, Bernie may not say that he wants a night race over there anymore. F1 has to really be global, and in our small way we will try and make it happen.