- Eric Boullier Interview
'We are so lucky to have a team of really devoted people'Claire Furnell January 22, 2010
No matter who is in charge, teams cannot change overnight - Renault, however, has no choice. The team has undergone a massive shake-up after being embroiled in the biggest scandal F1 has ever known - it now has a new investor in the shape of Genii Capital and a new boss in young Frenchman Eric Boullier. But can one man change this long-established team overnight? Boullier has to hope he can.
On the surface 60-year-old Italian Flavio Briatore and 36-year-old Frenchman Boullier may seem as different as chalk and cheese, but they have one important thing in common - they are both driver managers.
Boullier trained in aeronautics in Paris before joining leading motorsport team DAMS (Driot-Arnoux Motorsport), a team formed by former F1 driver Rene Arnoux and Jean-Paul Droit. He rose through the ranks to general manager and it was during negotiations with a driver management company, Gravity, that he formed a new important link to prominent businessman Gerard Lopez. Boullier soon took over as Gravity CEO.
Boullier will not be drawn to comment on the dealings of his predecessor, Briatore. He repeatedly turns down a chance to give his opinion on the sordid matter, and makes it clear he doesn't want to talk about the past. Now, it seems, it is time to look to the future. The fact remains, however, that Briatore took one of the drivers he represented, Nelson Piquet Jnr, and signed him to the team he ran, and in so doing, put himself in the ultimate position of control - a position that was ultimately abused in the Crashgate saga.
Boullier has been widely quoted as saying the only way to safeguard against a similar conflict of interests is to wind up Gravity Driver Management. But he claims his comments have been misunderstood - it is not the structure that must change just his primary focus.
"Gravity will continue - this is a completely separate issue," he said. "I am in a position now that I have to represent a team, a team which represents the interests of a world-wide manufacturer. My choice must be for Renault. If tomorrow a Gravity driver is in a better position than anyone else on earth - he will get the drive."
It just so happens that the most sought-after seat left on the grid is under Boullier's control and Gravity represent Chinese driver Ho-Ping Tung who could quite easily fill the seat. The rumour mill has been churning out almost daily news of another driver linked to the place but Boullier is not going to take the easy option.
"I am not just talking to five drivers, but actually to everyone who does not have an F1 contract. I have been speaking with Nick Heidfeld, and also with Takuma Sato, Christian Klien, and Romain Grosjean among others."
One of the 'others' is the talented young Russian driver Vitally Petrov who finished runner-up to Nico Hulkenberg in the GP2 Series last year. Hulkenberg walked quickly into a seat at Williams; but Petrov has been dubbed a 'pay driver' because extensive backing from Russian big business means his actual talent has been mostly overlooked.
"I am looking for talent first and foremost, but then after that I do need to consider the sponsorship opportunities. People say we are only looking at Petrov because he is bringing a lot of money, but he is not the richest driver we are talking to.
"Obviously it would be wrong of me to ignore his nationality - he could potentially open up a new sponsorship market for us in the future. Russia is not an easy market and today F1 is not as popular there as it is in some other countries. It would be interesting to combine talent and future prospects, but he is not top of my list. "
Despite the impending start of the test season, Boullier is in no rush to confirm a second driver, preferring to rely on Robert Kubica to carry out the initial tests on the new car.
Taking on the top job at Renault means that Boullier has inherited a dispirited team that has been rocked to its core. Many have billed him as the new broom that will sweep clean the team, but can this young Frenchman really be the one saviour of this ailing squad?
"I don't think I am arrogant enough to say yes I will fix it all, it will have to be a team effort. Motor racing is based on teams, not just a single ego. It is very important that the team is rebuilt and it finds all the trust and confidence in itself."
"When I looked at the team I could feel it had lost its soul, its leader, its knowledge, but luckily not its passion. We have a group of people here that are devoted to their jobs, to their passion for racing. They are also devoted to Renault.
"I have no real expectations for the first race, but I have very high expectations about the way we will be able to develop this car. Obviously this will lead to a stronger car in 2011. The objective for this year to fight for podiums and by 2011 we have to be in the position to be one of the top teams."
For now Boullier is looking forward to the season ahead as a hands-on team leader. But he has a huge battle ahead of him if he is to steer Renault out of the doldrums and towards a brighter future.
Claire Furnell is the senior editor of ESPNF1