Q&A with Tony Fernandes, Lotus Team Principal
Q: What are your hopes and aspirations for Lotus Racing?
A: Tomorrow, 13 March 2010, will be 6 months exactly since Lotus Racing got a slot in the F1. We’ve got 3 great drivers. I think the proudest thing is that even the Americans (USF1) didn’t get to the grid despite starting 3 months before us. It’s a great day for Malaysia that we can actually be on the grid and in a few hours the first practice will start.
For Kamarudin (Dato’ Sri Kamarudin Meranun, Deputy Team Principal) and me, the last 8 years have been non-stop excitement in building AirAsia. But Lotus Racing is something else; to be up there on Saturday qualifying with the likes of Ferrari, McLaren, Renault and Red Bull – teams that have been around for a long time. It’s fantastic to be able to have the Malaysian flag on the car and hopefully one day the Malaysian national anthem “Negaraku” will be played at the race. We hope all Malaysians are proud of this.
Q: What expectations do you have for your drivers?
A: I think the fact that we got 2 great drivers is a testament to the team itself. Heikki Kovalainen was in McLaren which has been world champion many times. For him to know that this year he will be at the back shows his belief in our ability to grow and hopefully he’ll get up there and compete with the front guys in the not too distant future. We have 2 great drivers but we obviously have to rely on a good machine as well. They sent me email yesterday and they are both very confident about getting the best out of the car.
Q: How do you think Michael Schumacher will perform?
A: It’s great for Schumacher to be back in F1. It also shows that our timing was perfect. It’s going to be great for Malaysia; the amount of branding that Malaysia got over the last 6 months has been fantastic for 1Malaysia. It really brings us together as well and it really fits in with the 1Malaysia concept. For us it’s good for Malaysia because there’s going to be a lot of interest in F1.
Q: What are your expectations in Bahrain?
A: An F1 car has a lot of moving parts in it and Bahrain is a hard race to start. It’s very hot, dry and there is sand; so it’s a baptism of fire for us. But hey you got to start somewhere so let’s hope that we finish the race. The great thing is that anything can happen.
For me personally if we can finish the race that will be great. Everything above that will be a bonus, whether we come last, second last or third last. But the important thing is we are on the grid. No Malaysians should be looking at where we come because no Asian country has done it with the exception of Japan and India, especially when you look at the size of our country. The key is to finish the race. Just like AirAsia, you start small and slowly build it.
Q: Tell us about your Cosworth engine.
A: We are happy with the engine. Again there was a lot of concern about the engine initially. It’s a new engine. All the teams that are using Cosworth are very happy with the engine. It has given good power and good reliability. We are using Cosworth because they offer us a good deal at the time and there were already other teams using it. And Lotus has always been linked with Cosworth. The famous Lotus cars were Cosworth-powered.
Q: How important is the Malaysian race for Lotus Racing.
A: The Malaysian race is very important to us. It’s our homecoming. We haven’t had the chance to bring the car home to Malaysia yet as we only have 2 chassis and no show car. The Malaysian race is the most important in the season for us. We want the whole of Malaysia to see the car and feel part of it.
Q: Petronas will be doing something in KLCC. Do you have any such plans?
A: We’ll be doing something in the Pavilion Kuala Lumpur when the cars are here end of this month. Since we do not have a show car, we’ll put one up on the other teams as you’re going to be seeing the real car. This is the car that we will be racing in Sepang. Other teams will bring show cars but ours is going to be the real car.
Q: Do you see Fairuz Fauzy a role model for young Malaysians?
A: I have known Fairuz for a long time but we obviously got to know him much better in the last 6 months. He’s a fantastic role model. He’s actually a role model for me – he’s so calm, very determined and I think he is a fantastic role model for all Malaysians. He’s been very professional, very positive, never let anything knock him down and I hope we can make his dream (to drive in the race) come true soon.
He is going to be the first driver to test the Lotus T127 in Bahrain, taking out the car for the first practice. He was also the first guy to drive the T127 in Jerez. The car was not fitted with power steering then but he drove 72 laps without power steering to get his super license. He did a fantastic job; he never complained. He is very positive and he did some good times. He kept the car on the track and he’s a fantastic guy; a fantastic asset to the team. The 3 of them – Jarno Trulli, Heikki Kovalainen and Fairuz – get on so well. They are really working and helping each other and having some fun.
Q: Can you confirm if Firuz will be driving during Friday practice in Malaysia?
A: Yes he is driving today in Bahrain and he will drive during Friday practice in Malaysia.
Q: How about sponsorships?
A: The good thing about sponsor source is that although they know you will be driving from the back, we are getting more publicity than even Ferrari. It’s probably what we’ve been good at – getting good PR and good mileage. We are getting a lot of response from sponsors, also because of the coverage we are getting. Also, Lotus is fantastic name. And I suppose the battle with Richard Branson will guarantee some coverage – yes, it is still on, there’s no going back.
Q: Why are you using Tune Group on the car instead of AirAsia brand?
A: AirAsia is already well established. And we already have a contract with AT&T Williams F1 Team. I don’t think AirAsia will be on a Lotus car anyway. AirAsia has reached a certain level but Tune Group is now up and coming. Tune Hotels.com is opening 15 hotels in London. Tune Money and Tune Talk are growing rapidly too.
Q: When will your merchandise be on sale?
A: We’ll start selling merchandise in Bahrain. It will be available in Malaysia in the next few weeks. We hope the Sepang circuit will be crowded with people who for the first time are going to wear something Malaysian and not an MU or Ferrari shirt.
Q: It’s all system go for the team but do you have any last-minute worries?
A: There are so many worries but we are just going to take it in our stride and enjoy the moment. There are so many things that can go wrong but let’s just enjoy the moment. A great day for Malaysia and who would have believed it! You’ve seen the problems with the other teams but we are there. Let’s motivate the youngsters that they can be world champions and be as good as the rest of the world. That’s what we are hoping. It’s great we are going to Bahrain and it’s going to be a great day.