• Gerard Lopez Q&A

Renault's Genii in a bottle

Fraser Masefield
November 26, 2010

When Genii Capital chairman Gerard Lopez purchased a majority shareholding in the Renault Formula One team before the start of the 2010 season, it was a decision not purely based on making more money out of the team but on a long-standing passion for the sport and keeping Renault as predominantly a constructor team.

After a highly encouraging first season that saw them finish a solid fifth in the constructors' standings, ESPNF1 talked exclusively to the Luxembourg-based entrepreneur about his aspirations for the future.

Group Lotus has terminated its naming rights deal with Lotus Racing but there are now rumours that they are in talks with you about a sponsorship deal, possibly with the team being re-branded Lotus Renault. What is the truth behind this?
GL: The latest now is that the team is still called Renault F1 and I'm going to give you a very open and honest answer. There have been a couple of ongoing discussions for a while now in terms of who could be a so-called title sponsor for the team. As part of the discussions, at least two groups have shown interest in being title sponsors and more in being partners in the team with a minority shareholding and that was it. What happened with the whole Lotus Group discussion came from a completely different angle which was non-F1 related in the fact that we know the people at Proton quite well and the people at Lotus Group quite well and we have been looking at Lotus Group investment for the past 15 months or so. The funny thing about it is that we've been talking about Lotus Group for over a year about a Formula One unrelated business and the result of us talking to them and the result of them deciding to stop their collaboration with 1Malaysia Racing led to two things. First of all, people assuming that something was going on and secondly with us actually being in contact with them and evaluating whether it would make sense for us or not to put everything under one roof and do F1 but also do other things with Lotus and with Proton, so that's where the story comes from. Nothing is signed and nothing is done. There are a number of options we are looking at. For sure there have been discussions but they are much wider ranging than just the F1 discussions. There is a high chance of something happening between Lotus Group and Genii Capital and Proton but we're not there yet. There was another rumour going around that Renault was interested in taking their shareholding back but this is also untrue. The truth is that we approached Renault to make sure they were happy with the way everything was running and if they were considering any other kind of partnership. They came back and said essentially they were perfectly happy with the way things were.

You were also quoted as saying commercially things were going well and that you applied for an advance of commercial revenue due to cash flow issues. Is this true?
GL: No. With the advance, it was not at all the way it was made out. The team had the budget without a problem and people forget that. But at the last test in Barcelona the car was a staggering 2.1 or 2.2 seconds slower, not even in the front markers but in the second or third tier so we were nowhere. So much so that a lot of observers at the time stated that we were going to be fighting it out potentially even with the new teams and for sure Toro Rosso and Force India - whom I respect but are not linked to a big constructor. And we could have made money out of the team by cutting down to the size of a private team like Peter Sauber did - probably the right and only way for a private team. That's one way of doing it and a completely acceptable way of doing it. But for us that meant essentially accepting a car that would be slow in terms of performance while carrying a constructor's name. That's not why we are in it - same for Renault. We would rather be in Formula One and sell the team after one week than to accept not being competitive. So what we did, and this was done at board level with both shareholders accepting it, meaning Renault and Genii, was to essentially accept that we were going to do three things. Firstly to very aggressively develop the 2010 car, secondly to invest in the team rather than fire people which meant that we passed the 500 people mark and thirdly, almost in parallel, to develop the second car for 2011. Putting all those three together, you are far, far away from the budget of a private team. With the deal with Renault being one where they bring the engines and so on but are not responsible for the finances of the team you end up essentially with one budget, which is the one you signed up for, and you end up with a second budget which is one that is accepted by everybody which is increased investment. So that's what we did. The whole TV money issue was not a cash issue whatsoever. New sponsors had signed up and were coming in the month after and a proposal was made to us which we never accepted but was still sent out, by a third party. I got a call in the morning about the letter and was surprised it was ever an issue. There is always jealousy in the sport and I think a number of people maybe wanted the team to be somewhere else and, as I said, we could easily have made the decision to cut down to 170 or 180 people. In which case we would make money off the team and sponsors but not be running where we want to run.

How is the development phase for next season going?
GL: Given that we started quite early, I have very high hopes in terms of being able to move forward. One of the things we did was never to stop the development of the new car. We slowed the pace a little bit over the last few races but as you could see in Abu Dhabi our car was still plenty fast compared to the likes of Ferrari and McLaren and so on. Because we never stopped the development of the 2010 car we had two benefits. One was that the culture of the company was to be very aggressive in terms of development, regardless of where you're starting from. That's one thing we'd like to pursue, to keep on with the aggressive development even if you already have a very good car. The second benefit is one of processes that have been implemented in the factory to a large extent by the existing Renault team, which is that we are one of the most efficient teams in responding from the track to the factory and back to the track. So we have been very good at updating our cars and that's something we are going to be able to carry on to 2011. We have given a free reign to the team to come up with something innovative at least within our own framework of thought which is courageous. We'll hopefully see that on track.

How close are you to confirming Vitaly Petrov at the team next year and how do you sum up his season?
GL: It's not done yet. Robert has been confirmed for another two years, which was done in Monza. As far as Vitaly goes, as much as we have been happy during the course of the season, we obviously were a little bit disappointed with the results coming towards the end of the season. I think the Abu Dhabi drive did a lot to re-position him where we think he is and people tend to forget that he is an amazingly good rookie driver. The one criticism we had of him and still have, to some extent, is not his pure speed but his ability to put together a whole weekend in a very focused and concentrated way. If anything in Abu Dhabi, he showed that if he wants to, he can. There is no reason why Vitaly can't be a top five or six driver throughout his career but we haven't made a final decision. Abu Dhabi did a lot for us to re-consider his position and we'd like to be able to sign him up but he's been away so we have to sit down with him, look him in the eyes and see if he can do what he did in Abu Dhabi during the race throughout the season during practice, qualifying and the race. The decision will be made probably in the first two weeks of December. Eric Boullier will voice the recommendation from the team and it's certainly not a financial issue because there are a lot of drivers out there willing to pay a lot of money for a drive and a much higher amount than whatever sponsor Vitaly could or couldn't bring. Vitaly is of interest because he is from Russia and we do have business interests in Russia. So yes, we like the idea of helping to promote a Russian champion but our decision is really going to be based on racing credentials. At the end of the day, we're going to do what we did last year and make a decision based on a pool of experienced drivers and a pool of younger drivers and essentially pitch Vitaly against those drivers. Honestly speaking, from a pure driving perspective, he fares really well. I know a lot of drivers and some are very good friends, but I don't know of any rookie drivers or even seasoned drivers who could hold up Alonso for 40 laps when he's fighting for the world championship and to do so not by aggressively closing the door but just by being consistent and driving fast. I believe he has been the strongest rookie and unlike other rookies, he never tested a Formula One car. Someone like Nico Hulkenberg, who is a great driver, had something like 8000kms or 9000kms of tests and Lewis Hamilton something like 22,000kms of tests before he arrived in F1 and they all had classical karting, Formula Ford or Formula BMW development backgrounds. Vitaly kind of jump-started his career not that long ago, which is quite remarkable. It's just down to experience. If the racing team came back and said there are issues we can't solve, we wouldn't have Vitaly in the car. It's looking good but it's not going to be finalised until we sit down and get answers to the things we didn't like. If we're pleased with the answers, he'll be in the car next year.

The outstanding Robert Kubica provided the majority of the team's highlights © Sutton Images
You must be delighted to have one of the most in-demand drivers on the grid. Sum up what Robert Kubica has done for you this season
GL: It's give and take. I met Robert when he was a test driver at BMW and throughout his two years at the team. BMW at the time were a good team but I don't think they were made for each other. We have much more of an English / Mediterranean style at Renault F1 and I think it suits his character much better. There is not the normal pressure for him to deliver for the sponsors. He loves driving rally cars and gets a lot of support from us and Renault to do so. We understand who he is and he understands who we are and the result of that is that whenever we ask something from him be it on the track or off the track, he usually does so with a smile. We are happy to have him on board because of who he is as a driver and who he can be as a person. Also in his case I think he's grown up this year quite a bit but he's not grown up on his own because he has had a team that was told to listen to him so he was given the opportunity to become a different type of driver, not just a quick driver but somebody who can work outside of the car in an effective way and be listened to. We owe him a lot and he owes us something, which is to have trusted him to push the team and I think he's done a phenomenal job. We're quite happy to be able to base ourselves on him like that and I said even before the season that he is to me definitely a world champion to be, hopefully with us but if not with somebody else. He definitely has what it takes.

What do you think Pirelli will bring to the party?
GL: Right now, it's too early to say because we didn't test the final compound which is going to be available for the season. My understanding is that the tyres have quite a high level of degradation and I believe part of it is by design from a request to use tyres as part of the overall excitement of the race with tyres that wear off quite quickly and we know what that can lead to. We have had very exciting races this year as a result which threw races up in the air. Our team noted the fact that tyre wear is going to be quite important. I would probably say that we have one advantage over some other teams which is that this team had to change tyres three years ago from a completely different compound which was from Michelin to Bridgestone whereas other were already on Bridgestone. So in four years it's going to be the third type of tyre that this team will have experienced. So we have a little experience in dealing with that change. But there are also changes with aero and diffuser and so on which will challenge the downforce side of things, so that combined with a new tyre is a new equation for everybody. I honestly think we'll do okay and the overall performance of the tyres should be quite satisfying. But it's too early to know what we'll end up with.