14 March 2010
KUALA LUMPUR- When Malaysian aviation tycoon Datuk Seri Tony Fernandes came from nowhere to launch budget carrier AirAsia with just two planes in 2001, the industry heavyweights laughed at him.
A decade later and AirAsia is the region’s fourth-biggest carrier with 25 million passengers a year, but Fernandes is once more the target of sniggers — this time for his high-stakes foray into Formula One.
“The similarities with Formula One are amazing,” said Fernandes as his Lotus Racing prepared for the season-opening Bahrain Grand Prix, the scene of the historic marque’s return to the sport after a 16-year absence.
“In AirAsia we were starting a brand new thing that no one had ever done before, a low-cost carrier.
“We were up against some very established people. So the same way that Ferrari is laughing at us, Malaysian Airlines laughed at us and Singapore Airlines laughed at us.
“It’s good when people laugh at you because they don’t take you seriously,” he added, shrugging off Ferrari’s jibes about the four rookie teams hitting the grid this year.
It’s easy to see how industry figures could have underestimated Fernandes, an engaging character with few pretentions, who works from an ordinary desk on the edge of a vast open-plan office at AirAsia’s terminal outside Kuala Lumpur.
Above him are hung dozens of baseball caps which have become his trademark since he bounced onto the region’s business scene after an apprenticeship with Richard Branson’s Virgin empire.
Fernandes has built AirAsia into a formidable business with 92 planes which has thrived despite oil spikes and intense competition and which he says could be the region’s biggest carrier by passenger load by 2013-14.
In the tradition of budget airlines, including industry pioneer Freddie Laker who took on British aviation in the 1970s, AirAsia has had to battle governments and regulators for routes and facilities.
From its cavernous terminal outside Kuala Lumpur, which despite recent extensions is again exceeding capacity, it now reaches some 60 destinations, and another eight long-haul routes with sister carrier AirAsia X.
Fernandes’ F1 journey has only just begun, but he said Lotus had “already accomplished more than anyone could have dreamt” by constructing a car from scratch just five months after winning its franchise in September.
For the inaugural season, he will be happy if the cars — decked out in the marque’s classic green and yellow — finish every race. But before long he will have his eye on the winner’s trophy.
“I don’t go into something to come second,” he said.
“The honeymoon period ends very soon. You build a car, you get the glory for going there, after that people want results.
“But we rely on the fact that we’ve done it in the airline business, and that I think we can do it again.”
“When I first heard a Formula One engine in Malaysia it was very emotional for me, I actually cried because you never dreamt of hearing a Formula One engine in your own country,” he said.
Apart from success on the track and recouping the investment, the underlying goal for Lotus Racing is to create a spot on the international sporting stage for Malaysia, where the team is funded in a public-private partnership.
“When Formula One comes to Malaysia, everyone’s wearing a Ferrari shirt. If we really want to change the psyche of this country, we’ve got to create our own winners,” Fernandes said.
He still retains a boyish excitement over his success in the high-profile worlds of aviation and elite sports, saying that finding himself the owner of a Formula One team was “bizarre”.
“It still hasn’t hit me. It’s like AirAsia, we started it with two planes and then suddenly one night you come back and you see 40 aircraft, and packed terminals and you think — wow, you contributed to this.”