Force to be reckoned with

Billionaire Vijay Mallya has injected some much-needed cash and passion into his new Force India team in a determined effort to achieve success in F1
By Rob Widdows

Vijay Mallya is very much the modern Indian man. An entrepreneur, a politician and a standard bearer for a fast-emerging economy. He owns a football club, of course, and he’s the MP for Karnataka in Southern India. He is, it goes without saying, enormously wealthy. Diamond studs in both ears, sparkling rings on three fingers, a well-cut suit and expensive shoes. To show your wealth has been very much part of the Indian culture, since before the Raj in fact. But is any, or all, of this enough to take the old Jordan/Midland/Spyker team towards the front of the Grand Prix grid?

He doesn’t know the answer and neither does anyone else. But he most certainly means business and his track record rather suggests a bet on the affirmative.

We spoke in Monaco, where Vijay merged with ease into the surrounding opulence. But this is no rags to riches saga. Vijay’s father bought United Breweries in 1947, soon after India’s independence from the British, his son inheriting the beginnings of a fortune. He is now chairman of the company and, having bought the Whyte & Mackay whisky label in a deal worth £595 million, he controls the third-biggest alcoholic beverage business in the world. Not to mention two airlines in India and a portfolio of other industrial and service industries.

“He was a very hard taskmaster, my father,” says Vijay in the educated tones of a privileged and well-schooled man, “and I learnt a lot from him, about business and about taking risks. My father was still buying breweries when the government was trying to push through prohibition, but I believe there is no reward without risk. I did not buy the Spyker team without first having a strategy and a business plan in place. I finally did the deal at four o’clock in the morning on the Friday of the Chinese Grand Prix – it was complex as Spyker is a public company and there was consideration for the shareholders. This is not another toy, another rich man’s indulgence, this is a business deal that will put India firmly on the motor racing map at the highest level.”

An enthusiast since childhood, Mallya was always fascinated by speed. He started out racing specials, hybrid machines constructed from components taken from Fiats and Austin Ambassadors, the only two cars available in India in those days. Import restrictions prevented amateur racers getting their hands on anything more sophisticated and there were no permanent circuits on which to race.

“This was back in 1971 and we just made the best of it,” he says. “We souped up the engines as best we could and raced on makeshift tracks and on disused airfields. There were only old Fiats and Austins so we used the best bits from each until the import bans were lifted. I bought my first single-seater special, called a Cobra, from an Englishman in Calcutta – the engine was from a Fiat Millecento and it had a fibreglass body. Then when you could buy imported cars, I got hold of a second-hand Porsche 911 and later I went to England and bought two Formula One Ensigns from Mo Nunn – MN08 and 180B – and we won what was known as the Indian Grand Prix twice, in 1978 and ’79.” Both cars are part of Mallya’s large collection, which as well as classic road cars includes F1 machines, the Dennis Poore Alfa 8C35 and the Sunbeam V12 ‘Tiger’.

“I remember racing on an old airfield at Chennai. There were bamboo grandstands and 75,000 people turned up to watch – bloody incredible! So I guess the passion, the spirit, had always been there for racing in India but it had never been unleashed until the early 1980s. This was well before the Madras Motor Sports Trust built a permanent circuit and held the Madras Grand Prix for Formula 3 cars. You have to realise that very few people could afford to go racing, the import duties on cars were prohibitive, and so racing took off very slowly. India was nowhere near the booming economy that she is today – motor racing was just too expensive. But there has been a huge liberalisation of the economy, duties have come right down, and young people are buying sports cars and racing cars right, left and centre. Can you imagine, Lamborghini is now established in India – I mean, I am driving through the Bombay traffic in my Merc at 20kph and there are young people in their Ferraris, Porsches and Lamborghinis stuck in this traffic. Crazy, incredible.”

Mallya is not new to Grand Prix racing. He was a sponsor at Benetton in 1995, with his Kingfisher beer brand, and more recently at Toyota, so he knows a thing or two about pouring his cash into what is considered by many to be a notoriously bottomless pit.

“Yes, I am seeing Formula 1 from both sides, as a sponsor and now as a team owner,” he says, peering over the top of his red designer spectacles. “At Benetton I learnt a lot from Flavio Briatore, watched how he ran his business, and I am using a lot of that knowledge in Force India. I’ve made it clear that while there isn’t money to throw around, there will be the money for investing in the right people and in the very best equipment and technology. Already we’re running two wind tunnels, one of them at AeroLab in Italy and the other at Brackley, both running 24/7 with half-scale models, and this is something the team has not had in the past.

“Look,” he continues, “I have people in my businesses who know how I operate, know what I expect, and it will be the same with Force India. It will be the same approach as with Kingfisher, the beer and the airline, in that I will spend time getting it right, making it work and making it a desirable product for sponsors.

“I have already had Indian businessmen wanting to take a share. They know what this will do for India, the potential of putting these cars in front of hundreds of millions of eyeballs in a country which is developing very fast and which has a huge middle class earning, and wanting to spend, good money. We established Kingfisher as an international brand with our sponsorship at Toyota, using F1 as a platform for launching promotional programmes for the business within India. At that time I was not even considering buying my own team. Even a year ago it just wasn’t on my radar.”

Mallya has called his team Force India Formula One, something of a mouthful for commentators, but all part of his strategy to build awareness of his booming business empire on the subcontinent. But the team will remain in England and rely on proven skills.

“Look, there’s not going to be Indianisation at the cost of professionalism,” he says firmly. “I want the best professionals and that’s precisely why I am conducting such extensive driver testing at the moment. Before, you paid to drive a Spyker; now you will not pay to drive at Force India. You’re either good or you’re no good, that’s it. I will retain [Adrian] Sutil because I believe in him and that he has the talent. The other seat is not for sale, we’ll put the best driver we can in there and we are testing Ralf Schumacher, Giancarlo Fisichella, Vitantonio Liuzzi, Franck Montagny and Christian Klien.That’s the proper way to go about getting the best we can.”

Word is that Klien has impressed and that the Austrian goes into the Christmas break as the favourite to race alongside his compatriot next season.

“We’ve already squeezed half a second out of the car by having these drivers test for us, simply because they’ve driven other cars and they’ve brought some improvements from their experience of quicker cars. Of course it won’t be Fernando Alonso driving,” he laughs [not now, anyway! - Ed], “ I need to learn to walk before I run – and I’ve learnt that in business as well. We will do things properly, there will be a robust budget, the team has cash in the bank, and I have given Mike Gascoyne [the technical director] a pretty free hand, all the resources he needs. And then of course I will leverage my connections with Airbus – I am one of their biggest customers with the new airline – and they will help us with CFD development. They know a bit about aerodynamics, and then there’s their super-computing power.

“So yes,” – he leans towards me, a glint in the eyes – “we are going in the right direction. I have told them that at the Indian Grand Prix in Delhi in 2010 we need to be on the podium, period. Go figure it out.”

The cynics will say that here we have yet another billionaire who will parade around the paddock, lose a lot of money and head off home again. Vijay Mallya emphatically denies this and is aware of the risks.

“Richard Branson is supposed to have said the best way to become a millionaire,” he says quietly, “ is first you become a billionaire, then you start an airline, then you will wind up as a millionaire. Well, my experience is different. I started an airline – and as of today its stock market valuation is £1.6 billion – so I have made a billion in the process, not lost a billion. Look, people will say that as soon as there is a shortfall in the budget then I will simply write a cheque. That is most certainly not the case. I am not in the business of losing money. I intend to do it properly and to make a profit, .”

The new team’s director of business affairs is veteran deal-maker Ian Phillips, a man who has seen it all, done it all and got the team jackets from Jordan, Midland and Spyker to prove it. Now he’s in the front line for yet another boss and his first impressions are positive.

“The real difference this time is passion, his total and utter passion for motor racing, for his country and I don’t think he understands the word failure,” he says. “ I think he will be very good for the team, he will motivate the team and that’s important. He’s a dynamic character, a man who wants to be involved, and a man who wants to win. He has brought some much-needed investment to the team already and that means our engineers will be motivated, they will have better equipment, more to work with. For the last few years we just haven’t had that kind of investment. We have a solid core of very good people and they will respond to a man with so much passion. There’s a buzz around the team again, and we haven’t had that since Eddie [Jordan] left. We’ve had what you might call invisible bosses recently but this guy has his finger on the pulse, he’s going to make us motor. It’s too soon to make a judgement but I like what I see so far. This man is serious about going motor racing and we will rattle a few cages. We’re not going to challenge Ferrari but Vijay will restore our pride and our will to succeed.”

One of Mallya’s dreams is to find an Indian Lewis Hamilton, to pluck a superstar from the vast population of his homeland. “It’s going to take time,” he says, “but it would be a bonus, not a necessity, for the success of the team. But I tell you, if we cannot find a world-class driver out of 1.2 billion people then something is wrong. We will set about this task sooner rather than later. I told the president of our Olympic Association that out of all these people we can surely find some athletes to bring home some gold medals,” he laughs loudly.

What is certain is that Force India will bring huge attention upon a rapidly emerging nation, and TV viewing figures for F1 in India are expected to explode, a marketing opportunity that has not escaped the attention of Mr Mallya. “It is already a reality. We will have more than a hundred million eyeballs following our car,” he says. “It is the most compelling cocktail for us, for our fans and for our sponsors, that chance to make an emotional connection with so many people, not just in India but all over the world.

“And the prospect of a Grand Prix in Delhi in 2010, well that’s just a bonanza and I am helping all I can to make that happen. I wear three hats for this project, as chairman of the FIA ASN in India, as a motor racing enthusiast and now as a team owner. I will be working hard to help produce a world-class circuit there. You wouldn’t recognise the infrastructure around Delhi from even 10 years ago: we’ve cleaned up the pollution, we are ahead of European rules on carbon emission and the city now has some excellent hotels.”

Force India Formula One could be just the beginning of some fresh, new energy from canny entrepreneurs arriving from the emerging nations, keen to benefit from the worldwide reach of modern Grand Prix racing. It might be the first Indian team, but it surely won’t be the last, and there is much talk of interest from China and from Russia.

Yes, there will be lavish parties aboard Mr Mallya’s yacht, the Indian Empress, and arrangements have already been made with the Monte Carlo harbour master for the summer of 2008. Yes, there will be flashing jewels and colourful action as this new member of the club finds his way around the paddock. But there’s also a steely determination to make this work. The old Jordan team is more optimistic than has been the case for many a season.