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Pit lane to football pitch: Fernandes' plans for sporting success

By From Richard Quest, CNN
updated 1:47 PM EDT, Tue March 13, 2012
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Team principal Tony Fernandes hopes CNN-sponsored Caterham can grow in 2012
  • The Malaysian wants to see Caterham fight for their first point in Formula One
  • Fernandes also owns English Premier League football team Queens Park Rangers
  • QPR are currently fighting to prevent relegation from England's top division

(CNN) -- Malaysian businessman Tony Fernandes is a big believer in steady progress.

Having made a huge success of budget airline AirAsia, the former music industry high-flyer plunged his earnings into the sporting world by first creating a Formula One team and then last year acquiring English Premier League club Queens Park Rangers.

Neither venture places him at the top end of the motorsport or football worlds, but the 47-year-old is hoping to get there in time.

The Caterham F1 project has evolved from scratch since 2010, when Fernandes bought rights to the prestigious Lotus name -- which he has had to relinquish after a lengthy court battle, resulting in this year's rebranding.

The team, sponsored by CNN, failed to earn a point in its first two seasons, finishing 10th of 12 entrants, but after moving to a new headquarters in Britain and investing in improved car technology, Fernandes is hopeful of better results this year.

We said it's going to take us two years, we want to be 10th then we want to be racing
Tony Fernandes

"We want to get into the midfield," he told CNN's Richard Quest ahead of Sunday's opening race in Australia. "We said it's going to take us two years, we want to be 10th then we want to be racing. And looking at the times right now, we're there or thereabouts.

"Maybe half a second, a second away from the midfield pack. I'm quietly optimistic that we're going in the right place."

In order to compete with F1's more established teams, Fernandes is trying to lift Caterham's international profile.

He recruited Vitaly Petrov during preseason -- Russia's only F1 driver -- and released experienced Italian Jarno Trulli, who had been with the team since its inception and is a veteran of 252 grands prix starts.

Fernandes said the decision to replace the 37-year-old Trulli with Petrov -- who will be the second driver behind Finland's Heikki Kovalainen -- was motivated by a combination of racing skill and commercial opportunity.

"I think he is as good a driver as Trulli, but he obviously brings a Russian commercial element," he said.

"It gives us the ability to exploit commercial opportunities in Russia. We've watched Petrov very closely. He brings in sponsorship. He's competent enough to be a second driver."

We've watched Petrov very closely, he brings in sponsorship, he's competent enough to be a second driver
Tony Fernandes

Fernandes said the opportunity to build and shape a team is what attracted him to Caterham, and also to QPR.

He purchased F1 supremo Bernie Ecclestone's majority stake in the London-based team in August 2011, and brought in Welsh manager Mark Hughes to replace Neil Warnock -- the man who led QPR into the top flight but was struggling to keep the team there.

Fernandes funded several big signings in the January transfer window in order to stem the run of bad results, but QPR dropped into the relegation zone after another defeat on Saturday -- and the team has not won since January 21.

"Look, this is not a one year project," he said. "I sat on that seat when I bought this club and we lost 4-0. My whole life has been about building the right structures, the right people and just like Caterham, step by step -- we're getting better and better.

"We may have some bumps along the way but this doesn't change our determination to make this something special."

Fernandes is confident that, given time, he can transform QPR into a successful team.

"This is a raw diamond that needs polishing. It's got a bit of love, it needs a lot more, but it's in a prime area of London."

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