25 September 2009
He came into Formula One racing through sponsorship and, like Force India's Vijay Mallya, Air Asia boss Tony Fernandes realized the beauty of the sport. Now he plans to revive one of Britain's most iconic F1 names: Lotus. After winning a slot in the 2010 FIA Formula One World Championship, the Malaysian entrepreneur is throwing himself into the project with the aim of bringing together English racing heritage and Malaysian racing passion. And Fernandes is convinced that the cocktail will work...
Q: Tony, what do the names Colin Chapman and Jim Clark mean for you?
Tony Fernandes: Well, a wonderful heritage. I grew up listening to those names, I grew up watching Jim Clark on the track in all the cars that Colin Chapman put together. It evokes a lot of heritage and pride.
Q: A Malaysian company trying to revive a British racing legend. How did that happen?
TF: I got involved with Formula One through the Williams team and my sponsorship with them with Air Asia. I saw a tremendous amount of assets Malaysia had built up in F1 over the last five years and then I found Proton and Lotus - which to me seems to be a marriage made in heaven. To others this might sound odd and difficult, but when you see the brand being rolled out you will see that the heritage will be very much protected. I had a fantastic meeting with Clive and Hazel Chapman on the Goodwood Sunday and we got a car from them, in fact - Ayrton Senna's car that took the last race win by Lotus. So we feel very obliged to build on that heritage - and hopefully with the management of Lotus's road car division one day they should again be in the same vein as Ferrari with Ferrari cars and the Ferrari Formula One team. That sounds like lots of work to do, but at least there is a plan and a vision behind it - and there is a dream.
Q: What is it that you want to achieve?
TF: There are two aspects to what we are trying to do. First of all we want to show that Lotus and Proton can be world class - to revitalize Lotus and show that they can compete with the top marques in the world, and to show Proton that their cars are great technology and great engineering, made in Malaysia. From my side it's providing the software. In all the years Malaysia has been involved in Formula One there were only a handful of engineers coming out of the country, and not many Malaysian drivers or management. I want to help develop that and show that Malaysia has more to offer than construction of tall buildings. I envisage bringing our people to Formula One standard - to have more innovation, greater thinking and to show our kids that they can compete with the rest of he world. Now if you go to the Malaysian Grand Prix I see my people wearing Ferrari shirts - one day I want to see them wearing something Malaysian.
Q: Promoting two car companies - Lotus and Proton - via Formula One racing seems to be a costly exercise given that we've seen some of the global players withdrawing recently...
TF: Yes, it is a costly thing - but good things cost. I started my airline with two planes and built it up to 82 planes - and now it's a wonderful brand. My saying is that you pay for what you get: Formula One reaches enormous audiences, motivating enormous masses of people. There are not many sporting events that can create that, so the bottom line is that you pay for what you get. If you are successful the rewards will be 50 times more then the investment. The question is if we will be successful - that's on everybody's mind. I started my airline with $250,000 and everyone said 'he's nuts and mad'. So I got used to these kind of notions. I think we will have a good run and in years to come we will slowly build ourselves up.
Q: But when was it that you really got hooked on the idea of having an F1 team?
TF: Well, the guys who put in the first application - from a Formula Three racing team called Litespeed - approached me just before Silverstone and since then it's been a very fast development.
Q: You've said that you will run the team for the first few months but then hand it over to an experienced team principal. Do you have somebody in mind?
TF: No, not yet. I said that I will establish the framework, the brand, make sure that we deliver what we said that we would deliver, but in the long run it has to be managed by a fulltime professional - my job is to run Air Asia. I am not here for the glamorous part. I want to show that my country can do it and that my people can do it. We have that gap between now and Bahrain that I will oversee, and I am very proud of what we have already achieved in four months. Give us another four months and eventually we will find someone fit to take over from me.
Q: You have teamed up with Mike Gascoyne - a very familiar face in Formula One racing. How is that working?
TF: Litespeed had teamed up with Mike and we struck up a very quick relationship in Silverstone. I like his style, I like his honesty. He has worked phenomenally hard, he is very passionate - and I think he's very good at mixing with Malaysians. I think we found a good guy.
Q: Budget is a key issue in bringing a car to the grid. What will the Lotus budget be?
TF: We are estimating that to get the car on the grid will cost us between £20-30 million, which will be equity financed by the shareholders, and we estimate the running costs of the team to be around £55 million - that will be the bottom end of the budgets. But I keep telling people that it's not about money but all about having the right people and being smart - as Vijay has shown. This budget will come through sponsorship and obviously there are a lot of Malaysian sponsors now who want to get involved. We will raise that money.
Q: Drivers are always a key element to a successful team. Do you already have an idea of where to look?
TF: We are starting to do that now. There is no point thinking about drivers when you don't have a slot on the grid. But now that we have a plan, that we have an engine, that we start hiring people we can think about drivers. Ideal would be an experienced driver and a rookie, but there is no name that I can drop this very moment.
Q: So coming to the crucial questions: how far away is the car and what is in the factory at the moment?
TF: The car is going through wind tunnel tests and we are scaling up rapidly. We should have a physical car ready in late December, the engine will be Cosworth, and we will be ready for testing in January - like everybody else. I took a big gamble because we started to build the car before we had the slot. Had we not been given the slot I would have ended up with some very nice pictures - very expensive, computer graphic pictures. But life is a gamble. You have certain shots in life - either you grab them or you try to be risk averse and wait forever. I decided to take the chance, and the risk paid off. Maybe the risk paid off because people like Bernie or Max (Mosley) saw our passion - and maybe saw something different. Maybe they fell for the idea that you have to have teams outside of Europe.