Tea Time With Tony Fernandes

The Lotus Racing team principal talks to us about the team’s great start, his love of racing, his rivalry with Richard Branson, and his desire to create homegrown heroes in South East Asia. Here are the transcripts of the interview.

You must be really chuffed with how things have started for the team…
I am, and I know there are going to be some down days so I’m preparing myself for that, but it’s been a good start. We couldn’t have asked for more. Not only did the car perform well, the drivers have been great, and the whole team looks good. Anyone who had any doubts that we would do injustice to Lotus has now gone. The final vindication is the Chapman family doing what they’ve done for us.

How did your love of motor racing start?
My father liked motor racing and we used to go to the Malaysian Formula 3. I wanted to be a driver but realized very quick that I was never going to be anything. I went to school in Surrey (UK) and was surrounded by motor racing. I used to drive by McLaren and camp out at Brands for three days, go to Le Mans etc. I loved the Lotus car, but I followed Williams to be honest. It’s ironic now that I own Lotus Racing and I sponsor Williams. That’s very special.

And you couldn’t hope for better role models in F1 than Frank and Patrick…
Frank epitomizes everything I believe in: He’s a fighter, a perfectionist, and has been a world champion many times. Patrick is probably one of the greatest engineers out there. They are great guys.

“ I’ve worked in the music business, so Mike Gascoyne didn’t scare me! Mike’s an artist , and I give him the environment and the space to be the best.”

What’s it like working with Mike Gascoyne?
I’d heard so many stories about Mike. He’s terrible to work with, he’s got a temper, etc… but I’ve worked in the music business for 15 years! So Mike Gascoyne did not scare me. And we have a fabulous relationship. I’m good at getting the best out of people, that’s my strength. Mike is an artist, lets be real. I give him the environment and the space to be the best. You only need to look at my club West Ham, where I think the new owners are really killing the manager. I’m never going to make the car faster, that’s Mike’s job, but I’m going to give him all the tools, the support and change some of his views too about how to manage people. As he’ll tell you, he’s enjoying Formula One so much now and he keeps saying it feels like his Tyrell days. He’s brilliant, and I’m glad everyone else had the issues with him, because now I’ve got him (laughs). Would you like to buy West Ham? I would, and we’ll have to see. I’ve got my hands full right now, but I think it’s a shame what’s happening there. It’s a great club and Gianfranco Zola is a great manager. Zola is like Gascoyne, and should be given the chance to do what he does.

You’ve worked for Virgin Records and followed Richard Branson into the airline business. It seems like a very friendly rivalry…
It is. I’m following in his footsteps. It’s ironic that we’re right behind each other wherever we go. He announces a team, then I announce a team; he starts an airline and I start an airline. He is the master – I’m proud that people say I’m the student. And the rivalry at the back of the grid has brought a bit of fun to the paddock. You’re going to hold him to that bet, aren’t you? Oh yes! I saw him this morning in the hotel, and he said: “Did you bring the tape measure?” Both Virgin and Air Asia have been to hell and back, and we’re fighters. Don’t underestimate either of us. This talkback from some of the bigger teams is only going to motivate us more.

And you’re branching out into the budget hotel business…
Yes, Tune Hotels is doing great and we’re about to open 15 locations in the UK. The president of the Maldives has called to say the Maldives is too expensive for the common man and he wants to give us six islands so we can put six Tune Hotels on there. It’s exciting when people recognize there’s a value in creating a product for everybody.

And you’re involved in basketball…
Yes, my aim there is to create South East Asian sport. That’s one of the reasons I went into Lotus Racing – we’ve got to create our own heroes. We can’t keep supporting Manchester United and Ferrari. There’s not enough local content. And I don’t think one country can do it, so we created the Asian Basketball League, which
comprises ten countries. I’ve already been asked to do a badminton league and I think a soccer league would be absolutely huge. Formula One has been coming to Malaysia for 11 years now and there’s always been a sense the country needs its own driver to support, in order to catch the F1 bug.

Having a Malaysian team is a big step forward, but how important is it to have a Malaysian driver?
I think it’s critical for the sport [to have drivers from these countries that have a growing interest]. That’s the first step, and the team’s commitment to having a local driver is important as well. We’re committed, but we’re not just going to shove someone in there for the sake of it. It’s got to be right, and this may take ten years. It’s all about development. I’m from the music business: You take a little girl from a factory and six years later she’s a mega star, she forgets where she came from and becomes a pain (laughs). That’s life, but I’m good at developing. It’s not just the drivers, it’s having more guys in the garage, in the factory, in marketing and in management who are from Malaysia. And when Malaysians see this, see their countrymen working in F1, it will change their perception of where they are in the world.

Photo / Editorial : Lotus Racing

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