The Pursuits Interview: Monisha Kaltenborn

The door to Sauber Formula One’s rapid prototyping studio is locked and not even Monisha Kaltenborn can get in. You might think the boss of the Swiss F1 outfit has “access all areas” but the security system at the complex – in a village half an hour’s drive from Zurich – stubbornly refuses entry. Inside, a bank of laser machines is making parts for a new generation of race cars – 200mph machines that will ultimately compete for the richest prize in motorsport.

When the door is finally opened, Kaltenborn – the first woman team principal in F1 – ushers me in to see first-hand part of Sauber’s prototyping work. Three lasers are humming away, recreating a design input by a development engineer. Each new part is built up layer by layer and can take a day to complete. More sci-fi than oily workshop, the studio is eerily quiet compared with F1’s usual assault on the senses. “These components are either used in a wind tunnel for aerodynamic tests, or in a mock-up of a car to see how they fit together for real,” Kaltenborn explains. “We make thousands of them every year – it’s very expensive but cheaper than outsourcing each new design to a manufacturing company.”

Once new components from the rapid prototyping studio have been tested and approved, they can be remade in more expensive carbon fibre. These are then fitted to a scaled-down model of an F1 car and trialled in the Sauber wind tunnel. “Apart from the engine, wheel hubs and the internal parts of the gearbox, the whole car is made of carbon fibre because it is light and strong,” says Kaltenborn.

Kaltenborn, 41, was born in India but moved to Austria with her family when she was eight. Her father wanted to live in an English-speaking country but fell in love with Vienna and stayed. “Back then I was very interested in science and wanted to be an astronaut. Unfortunately, America and Russia were driving the space race and Austria wasn’t very close to either,” she says.

Kaltenborn trained as a lawyer at Vienna university and, after working for an asset management company, joined the Swiss race team in 2001 as head of legal affairs. In 2010 she became chief executive officer and, in a surprise move last October, was also named Sauber team principal. The mother of two is the first woman in F1 to hold such a job, joining an elite group of men who lead teams from the pit lane. Lining up against her for the 2013 season, which starts this weekend with the Australian Grand Prix, are some of the most successful names in motorsport – F1 legends such as Sir Frank Williams, Ross Brawn (Mercedes) and Christian Horner (Red Bull).

Kaltenborn at the 2011 German Grand Prix in Hockenheim

“I am already feeling a lot more responsibility,” says Kaltenborn. “There is great pressure because I am the one who is ultimately answerable for how Sauber performs. We are a relatively small team and everybody plays a part but, in the end, it will come down to me as principal. What makes it easier is that I have always had one of the greatest names in Formula One to look up to.”

Kaltenborn is referring to Peter Sauber, who established his race team in 1991. Unlike most F1 outfits, which are based in the UK, the former car salesman elected to set up headquarters at Hinwil, near Zurich. More than 300 people work for Sauber, with Kaltenborn, who now owns a share in the company, at the helm.

Today the factory is sandwiched between a recycling plant and a supermarket. Polished corridors lead from one vast room full of computers to another and the whole building is as clean and efficient as a Swiss private hospital. Kaltenborn shows me around but it’s 40 minutes before I spot a tool of any description. The only sound is Peter Sauber’s grandson, happily playing with toys in a nearby office.

“We have 20 nationalities working for us and everybody has to speak English to make it work,” says Kaltenborn. “Compared to Mercedes or Red Bull we are small, so one of our hardest jobs is encouraging new staff to come and work for us here, rather than with teams in England. I tell them Switzerland has one of the highest standards of living in the world – I can be on the ski slopes with my family in a couple of hours. But whatever I say, the best way to tempt people is by performing well on the track.”

Sauber has yet to win a Grand Prix, apart from a single victory during a four-year association with BMW that ended suddenly in 2009. Last season, the team stood on the podium four times and was making good progress. However, the two Sauber C32 cars will be piloted by new drivers in 2013, rookie Esteban Gutiérrez and former Force India star, Nico Hülkenberg, following the decision to drop Kamui Kobayashi and the departure of Sergio Pérez for McLaren. “We have to accept that drivers will always move on. We don’t have the budgets of the bigger teams and that has always been a problem.”

Empty champagne bottles at the workshop are mementos of podium placings

The podium silverware from Sauber’s time in F1 is displayed in the main reception area but Kaltenborn wants to show me the team’s enormous workshop. This is where cars are assembled and dismantled over and over again in preparation for the next race. The atrium is about 100m long, with shelves of tools all neatly stacked away from view. At one end is a glass cabinet lined with more than 20 empty champagne bottles. “Each bottle represents a podium place. When the drivers are given champagne, the tradition is that every mechanic has to take a sip because they helped build the car.”

Kaltenborn missed just one race last season but she will be trackside for every Grand Prix in 2013. She says the hardest part is being away from her husband, Jens, and their two young children.

“I am very passionate about the team when I’m at the racetrack, although I don’t always show it. As a woman, I am not emotionally attached to the cars, which I think allows me to see the race from a much wider perspective. When we do win our first Grand Prix I shall probably go very quiet and reflect. Then I will explode with happiness like everybody else.”

The 2013 Formula One season opens with the Australian Grand Prix in Melbourne on March 17

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