Lotus promise to bring the passion back to F1
The tycoon and team boss Tony Fernandes tells David Tremayne why motorsport needs old-style romance, not flamboyant playboys
Friday 18 September 2009
Tony Fernandes gets his message across subtly but succinctly. His new Lotus Formula One Team is all about the passion. And there is no place in it for Flavio Briatore.
Fernandes, the man who took Air Asia from two planes and 200,000 passengers eight years ago to 82 planes and 24 million travellers now, is too much of a gentleman to express it in so many words. But asked whether he would consider Briatore – the recently disgraced team principal of Renault F1 – for a similar role in Malaysia's new national outfit, it becomes crystal clear that people such as the controversial Italian would never figure in his plans.
"It's all about the right people, the right passion, the right energy," he says carefully. "I always look for hungry people, who really want to be with us." Not, by implication, those belatedly looking for redemption.
He has a simple motto: "Do it because you love it, or don't be involved." And an equally simple mantra: "Take underdeveloped marketing opportunities, monetise them, and bring back value to the community."
Eight years ago Fernandes, now 45, sat in the Spaniards Inn in Hampstead. After over a decade in the music industry he had decided the merger of Time Warner and AOL was not for him. "I sat there, contemplating life and what I would do with mine now, and Stelios [Haji-Ioannou] was on television talking about easyJet. I always liked planes. The next day I went up to Luton and I was amazed what a fantastic model Stelios had developed: Barcelona for eight quid, Paris for six! It was all orange, all young, excited people. I decided I was going to start my own airline."
So why Formula One? Why does a sane and respectable businessman want to come into the sport when its soiled underbelly is all too visible? "Because Formula One is a fantastic business. It is a great brand builder."
But it is not all commercial pragmatism. In his heart, Fernandes also wants to create a Malaysian national Formula One team. "Back when I was a kid I also told my dad I would one day own my own F1 team," he chuckles. "His favourite driver was Jim Clark and autosport was a big part of our family. At school in England I used to camp at Brands Hatch." The smile grows. "But I was always a Williams supporter."
Back to commercial imperatives. "Malaysia has put a lot of money into F1, and it has a fantastic hardware – the Sepang track; universities with engineering courses; composite manufacture. But it doesn't have the soft side – drivers, engineers, management. I want to take that and build it up in F1.
"Proton owns Lotus Cars and they are great brands. Proton needs love and care, and I want to do with it what I did with Air Asia.
"I don't envisage Malaysia winning the world rugby or football cups in my lifetime, but one day I can see us winning in F1," he says. "After some of the things we've had to deal with at Air Asia – terrorism, Sars, bird flu – F1 has to be easy."
Fernandes has spoken with Lotus founder Colin Chapman's widow Hazel and son Clive, and adds: "I remember buying a JPS Lotus model car once at Brands Hatch, but what I really remember were the John Player girls in their short black skirts. They were all blondes. And we are using the Cosworth engine. Lotus Cosworth – that's heritage right there. If I had my way, the cars would be green and yellow. I see one of our roles being to continue the racing heritage of Lotus. Clive asked me recently if, when we win a race, would I see it as Lotus's 78th or Lotus F1 Team's first? I told him very definitely as Lotus's 78th."
The team's new car is still on schedule to start testing in January, and, though drivers have yet to be confirmed, the mix will probably be one experienced old hand and a promising upcomer, the latter hopefully Malaysian.
"You know," Fernandes says, "I don't cry much. I didn't cry when I got the letter from the FIA saying that we had got the 13th entry, but that was as important a day to me as Air Asia's first flight. But I did cry the day I was at Sepang in 1999 for the first Malaysian Grand Prix, and for the first time I heard a Formula One car in my homeland. It was a very emotional experience.
"We don't expect to win soon," he acknowledges, "but if you take an honest approach, it will come. [Technical director] Mike Gascoyne is one of the best, and he knows what he's doing on the technical side. It's all about choosing the right people. I know we can compete up there eventually."
Fernandes talks an engaging mix of commercial savviness and motivational impetus, in a down-to-earth manner underpinned by his success with Air Asia. Eleanor Roosevelt, who believed that the future belongs to those who see the beauty of the dream, would have loved him.
Flying Lotus: The blooming and wilting of an iconic team
1. Stirling Moss earns Lotus's first Formula One victory, at Monaco in 1960, two years after their debut.
2. Founder Colin Chapman celebrates Jim Clark winning the drivers' and constructors' championships in 1963.
3. Graham Hill views the wreckage after Jim Clark is killed at Hockenheim in 1968. Hill, Damon's father, wins the title and dedicates it to Clark.
4. In 1972 Brazilian driver Emerson Fittipaldi becomes the then-youngest world champion, aged 25, two years after Lotus's Jochen Rindt is the first posthumous winner of the title.
5. Mario Andretti steers Lotus to their seventh and final world title in 1978, having become the first team to win 50 races in the process.
6. One of the most iconic figures in Formula One, Colin Chapman dies from a heart attack in 1982.
7. Ayrton Senna joins the team in 1985 and wins his second grand prix. He wins six races over the course of three years for Lotus.
8. Johnny Herbert drives for Lotus in their last year of competition in 1994. The last occasion two Lotuses finished in the points was in 1991. They are sold at the end of the season to Pacific, who last just a year.
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