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November 15, 2012 2:32 pm
Tony Fernandes sits in the back of a Paris taxi and delivers a frank assessment of his Caterham Formula One team. “We blew it this year,” he admits.
“We invested a lot of money and effort working on an exhaust system,” says the 48-year-old Malaysian, the main financial backer of the team together with Kamarudin Meranun, his long-term business partner. “And it took a long time to get it to work.”
The exhaust was not established in the car until July’s British Grand Prix, by which time the team had lost ground on its rivals. With just two races remaining this season, Caterham have yet to score a single point in the world championship, something that clearly irks the man who has invested a significant proportion of the £230m he made building Malaysia’s AirAsia into one of the world’s biggest low-cost carriers.
“We have got to be in the middle of the field in 2013,” he insists. “We would have been there this year if we had sorted out the exhaust problem sooner. Next year we have got to be consistently in the points.”
The backward step is all the more frustrating because Caterham had made a respectable start to their time in F1. Although they have finished 10th of the dozen teams on the grid in each of the past two seasons, that was ahead of Marussia and HRT, the other two outfits that came into the sport in 2010.
Yet moving up the grid will be far from easy. The Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile, the sport’s governing body, has in recent years sought to limit the amount of time that can be spent on track and wind-tunnel testing in an effort to cut the cost of competing and make the sport more competitive. Costs range from about £250m a year for leading teams to £50m for smaller ones.
Yet Mr Fernandes is not optimistic that a deal on spending can be reached in the near future. “Big teams are reluctant to bring down costs, which are still not sustainable in F1,” he says.
Indeed, he expects few favours from the strategy working group set up to agree new rules for the sport from 2013. The 18-strong body will be made up of representatives of the FIA and Formula One Management, the commercial arm run by Bernie Ecclestone. It will also include six teams: Ferrari, McLaren, Red Bull Racing, Mercedes and Williams, as well as the highest-placed team this year outside that quintet, which is likely to be Lotus.
Critics say a delegation that represents the wealthier top half of the grid will not be disposed to changing the sport radically. “Life is not egalitarian,” Fernandes says. “We will fight to earn our place at the table, but the teams have been chosen. So be it, we will live with that.”
The high cost of competing means that Caterham are likely to jettison either Heikki Kovalainen, their experienced Finnish driver, or Vitaly Petrov, the Russian who brings about £12m of sponsorship from a group of his country’s industrial companies. The team is thought to be looking to bring in either Giedo van der Garde, a Dutch test driver, or Frenchman Charles Pic from the Marussia team, both of whom will bring sponsors to the table.
Some might ask why the boss of a budget airline would want to stay in F1 with progress so fitful. To add to his troubles, Fernandes also owns Queens Park Rangers, the football team currently bottom of England’s Premier League.
Part of the answer to this is the reason why Fernandes is in Paris in early November, shuttling between interviews. He is here to promote a new joint venture with Renault, the French carmaker, to mass produce a range of Caterham sports cars. The aim is to boost production from the present 500 a year to several thousand annually in four years.
Caterham’s roster of cars includes the Caterham Seven, made possible after it bought the production rights for the original Lotus Seven built in 1957 by Colin Chapman, the pioneering British engineer. The Caterham sports cars will be entry-level models similar to the Lotus Elise road car.
Fernandes originally entered F1 two years ago after buying Lotus Racing, under licence from Group Lotus, only to become embroiled in a lengthy legal battle with the car manufacturer over the rights to the iconic name. He then decided to buy Caterham Cars and set about trying to revive that brand instead.
“People get into F1 for different reasons. For me it was always about making cars,” Fernandes says.
He continues: “We will make affordable sports cars with F1 technology that sell for much less than Ferrari and McLaren road cars. There are a lot of people who watch F1 and want to own a piece of it.” The cars are expected to sell from about £30,000-£70,000.
Fernandes is also clear which market is in his sights. “Asia,” he says. “We understand how to market to that population, which is made up of 3bn people. That is why Renault were attracted to us.”
Fernandes’s road car plans are why it is essential that he not only remains in F1, but why his team must improve on this year’s showing. After all, who wants to buy a road version of an F1 car that limps along at the back of the field?
As Graham Macdonald, chief executive of Caterham Cars, puts it: “F1 is key to generating worldwide exposure for the brand. Over the next few years we will need to improve results.”
With a sports car business, an airline and a struggling football team to think about, Fernandes this month stood down as team principal of Caterham F1. His replacement is Cyril Abiteboul, the racing team’s chief executive.
Fernandes and Meranun remain co-chairmen of parent Caterham Group, but the F1 business now has “the best possible team” to move it to the “next phase”, Fernandes says.
With, by his own reckoning, sales of Caterham road cars dependent on success on the track, Fernandes will be hoping his wish for a rapid improvement comes true.
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