Monisha Kaltenborn talks to GP Week about her first full year as Sauber team principal, how her team has turned its form around in recent races and the challenges Formula One faces in India
First, I want to get this question out of the way, a question of common interest to the both of us - India. What are the issues there? I've spoken to you about this before as well but what seem to be the main problems and why is the future of the grand prix is in question?
Generally, it's the responsibility of the commercial rights holder to determine the calendar and to choose the races and when they come so we have not really been informed that much about the reasons. We understand that there are some differences between the promoter and the commercial rights holder so we were told that for that reason the race is not going to be on the calendar.
But there are well reported issues around the taxes for example. Drivers have to pay a withholding tax on their salaries; do teams also have to pay an entertainment tax when they go and race there?
The teams are also subject to taxation, yes.
Apart from the customs duties?
Yes. And we did have a difficult time getting in there and I don't think that's the major reason but definitely also a factor that we don't understand is why it is made so difficult for the sport. The platform is excellent, we know that there is a fan base there, for companies it's important, so we're not saying we should have privileges, but why should it be made so difficult?
So you're not asking for anything from the authorities but they could make the sport feel more welcome?
Yes. And it is a sport. To start with it is a sport. And just because maybe we have glamorous guests or we get the kind of attention it should not deviate from the fact that it is foremost a sport.
As you mentioned just now it's an important market and in fact in the run up to the first grand prix there was a lot of talk about how it's an important market - rising incomes, an emerging middle class. But are we at a point where the difficulties the authorities throw up - the trade-off between it being an important market and sponsors tapping that demographic - the trade-off is less favourable because of the difficulties that the authorities throw up?
I don't think that it's actually just about the authorities. It is certainly one aspect that, of course, has an influence on how the sport is perceived. And if, from the beginning, it is perceived as something where there are issues, and the taxation coming in because it is something luxurious, this does not help establish it. This also makes companies cautious of using the platform, because you might transmit the wrong message over there. So that's not been beneficial for establishing it. And then of course if you don't feel welcome as a sport, I can very well imagine that the commercial rights holder will say when there are other races which want to come in then we'd rather go for them.
Moving on from the India topic - Sauber has been in the news a lot this season, unfortunately not for all the right reasons. There were financial difficulties reported earlier on in the year. How distracting has it been? Because there was speculation that you might not reach the end of the season …
It's not been helpful at all. I think it shows two sides which are not good about Formula One. One is that, generally, if you just talk about finances and the situation teams are in, it shows that the situation is not healthy and something should be done because it's not only Sauber - it might have this year been more about Sauber - now other teams are coming into the focus and that's not what the reporting should focus on. Because we are about a competition, we are about athletes: it's 11 teams fighting against each other and actually that should be the focus of reporting and not these financial issues. There were times when one was just talking about the finances and nothing else, which is bad for the product because the product is a very, very good product and it is together with the Olympic Games - as we especially saw now when we were in Russia - and the football World Cup, one of the three strongest sport platforms. So that's what we should avoid.
As for us, it's also not been good for us. On the other hand, we have been through many ups and downs. The company was founded in 1970 and we are still there. We are today the fourth oldest brand after very big names like Ferrari, McLaren and Williams, and we still plan to be there. We have, I think, shown how we can go through difficult times. So it did hurt a bit to see that people took such a negative position in spite of our track record, but I guess it's more sensational to write that. But then drivers, inexperienced drivers, one was a rookie, one a half-rookie and I think it was one of our best seasons. We've had other situations as well where we had a very experienced driver and a rookie and they were not so good. So we as a team have had a lot of experience, and we will do the best with whatever driver line-up we have.
Are you still trying to hold onto Nico, though?
I will not comment on that.
Can you convince him to stay on after this season?
Every driver has to decide that for himself and he can see what kind of a car we have. I think we are among the few teams which is showing how we are still going up through better understanding of the car, which is very important also for your future development. So it's for him to make his opinion of it.
Moving on to a lighter subject now - since Monza you've had an upturn in form. In Monza you said it was a surprise, but have you figured out why you've had that upturn in form and are you expecting that to continue through to the end of the season?
I don't think Monza was a surprise in the sense that we thought we were going to be really bad there and suddenly we were good. We can see since the Hungarian Grand Prix or even, for that matter, the Nurburgring, that there is the upwards trend coming in now. It didn't always reflect in results for various reasons, but we knew that we were slowly getting to where we want to be. Then with the points coming in slowly we also saw it confirmed by the results on track. Then we had Monza, then Singapore where Esteban qualified so well. So I think it's more than a trend now - it is really the direction we are going. I'm sure we will have a setback or so, but the direction is clear because it's based on a solid understanding we have of the car. So I hope it continues that way.