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Interview with CEO of Sauber F1, Monisha Kaltenborn.

Aired April 6, 2012 - 05:30:00   ET



ANNA COREN, CNN INTERNATIONAL ANCHOR (voiceover): In the high-octane world of Formula One, men rule the track. And these are the men who reign supreme. But there is one woman making her presence felt in this male- dominated sport and changing the F1 landscape along the way.

Meet Monisha Kaltenborn.

MONISHA KALTENBORN, CEO SAUBER F1 TEAM: Hello and welcome to our facility of Sauber F1 Team.

COREN: At just 40 years of age, she is CEO of the Swiss-based Sauber F1 Team and Formula One's first female chief executive. The Indian-born Austrian national is no stranger to speed and has been associated with Formula One for over a decade.

KALTENBORN: Here, the gearbox and the rear suspension.

COREN: A lawyer by profession, she first handled Sauber's legal matters before becoming the company's number two in 2010. The trailblazer, though, has not stopped there. Continuing to break gender barriers, she became the first woman to attend a press conference for Formula One's governing body, known as the FIA.

Now, a regular face in the pit, she's also a keen supporter of women competing in motor sport and sits on an FIA commission supporting female drivers with former rally champion Michelle Mouton.

This week, "Talk Asia" catches up with the first lady of F1, who reveals how she climbed the ranks.


COREN: Monisha, welcome to "Talk Asia".

KALTENBORN: Thank you.

COREN: It's great to have you with us. It wasn't that long ago, I'm sure, that, if you had said to people, "There's going to be a woman in charge of an F1 Team". They would have laughed at you. You are the first female CEO of an F1 Team. Do you feel that you have shattered the glass ceiling?

KALTENBORN: I do feel that now. I must say, right at the beginning, when I took over the position, I didn't. Because maybe we just didn't have the time for that. The team went through a lot of turmoil at that time, because of the unexpected exit from BMW from Formula One. So, we just had to make sure at that time with the people who were around that the team survived and gets on back into business and develops the car, basically. Because it's the end of the year and we just had, I would say, four weeks to present the new car.

So, with all that, you don't really think about these things, that you're actually the first female CEO in Formula One. But now, with times passed and your back into your usual cycle and the usual difficulties you have, I do think about it more and I do get that question more. And you realize what has actually happened. But it was never really my target, as such, to be the first woman in this position.

COREN: And when you do think about it, how do you feel?

KALTENBORN: It feels - it feels good. And I'm a bit proud about that as well. But, again, this is not that much my doing. It just so happens because I've done a lot to be in the position I was before. Because I was in the team - I have been in the team since 1998. And, since 2001, in the management committee. But it was never really my target and I never really worked for getting into this position. I was just part of the management committee. So I do feel proud about it.

COREN: You have proved that F1 is not just a man's world, but surely, you have come across some obstacles along the way. What are the challenges facing a woman in this male-dominated industry?

KALTENBORN: I think the challenges are pretty much the same a man has. What's interesting where the woman aspect comes in is that it takes a while until I think people - not the teams, but the others, especially media - they don't ask a woman, often, questions relating to performance.

I just realized that recently. That the questions I get are normally very strategic questions about the company, the team, where Formula One is going - commercial questions a lot, but never how the race was. What I feel about the drivers. So that's changing now. So, it's interesting to see that's how people take a while to actually get used to asking these kind of questions to a woman.

COREN: I will take note.


COREN: You were born in India, 250 kilometers from New Delhi. You were there until the age of eight, when your parents relocated the family to Austria, of all places. What are your memories of growing up in India?

KALTENBORN: I have very nice memories. Of course, it's a age where you have nice memories. I was there until eight, so I have very vivid memories of my grandparents, the house where I grew up, the pets I had at home, and the fun I had with my friends. And I did go back very regularly, even as a child. And then, of course, when I studied until, actually, the last two years, when my job prevented me of going back to India regularly.

COREN: Why did your parents chose Austria?

KALTENBORN: Again, just one of the things which happens, because, at that time, we had a family business in India and my father was not all too enthusiastic about being in it. We had an uncle working in the Atomic Agency with its headquarters in Vienna. So, they felt they would just stop over there and see how it is and then maybe go ahead somewhere, and if they don't like it anywhere, they'll still come back.

So, there was no urge or pressure, really, to leave the country. The major incentive was that they felt that especially higher education was better abroad at that time than in India.

COREN: Do you consider yourself Austrian or Indian?

KALTENBORN: Both. And I don't feel lost between them. I feel part of both.

COREN: I read somewhere that you wanted to be an astronaut when you were a kid?

KALTENBORN: Yes, that's right.

COREN: That is true?

KALTENBORN: That's right. And I think now I have to make sure that I stay on the ground and so do our cars stay on the ground and not take off. But that was a dream, indeed. I fear it's too late now to start a second career with that.

COREN: Well, you studied law, but you never wanted to work in a law firm, so in 1998, you joined Fritz Kaiser Group, that would later become a co-owner of the Sauber F1 Team. In 2000, Kaiser sold off his shares in the F1 Team and Peter Sauber, who is the boss of Sauber F1, asked you to join him. Is that, then, when the fever, I guess, hit?

KALTENBORN: At that stage it started, actually. Because it's the first time where I could see what goes on behind the scenes. Until then, I just watched the races, pretty much and read a bit about it. So, it was a very, very superficial view I had on it - what most of the viewers just know, because that's all you get to see.

And then you realize how much of work is behind such a team. And how many people work there. And what all is done to develop and produce the two cars, which we fundamentally have. And what amount of precision is behind it.

COREN: I mean, what is it that you really love about the sport?

KALTENBORN: It's a fantastic sport. Every group in the whole chain has its importance. It's not only the aero side, which is very important, it's the design, it's the production - in all of these areas, you have to find smarter ways to be quicker, to be better. And everyone is challenged, right down to logistics. Because all can be done properly, but if you don't get your logistics right, your car's not there on the track. So, everybody's challenged in it and everybody's equally important.

COREN: Well, this year Bernie Ecclestone said that he wouldn't be surprised if his successor was a woman. Do you think this is possible? And could this be you?

KALTENBORN: I think it's very much possible. You know, why shouldn't a woman be able to do - have this position? It is very challenging with us teams already, I mean, we are difficult to handle sometimes, all of us. So, you have many other challenges coming up, like where will the sport go to? I don't think it's going to be me. I have my own challenges at Sauber and I'm quite happy with them.


COREN (voice over): Coming up, we go inside the Sauber factory with Monisha Kaltenborn.

KALTENBORN: Here, we make our cars and I'd like to show you around.



KALTENBORN: Hello, and welcome to our facility of Sauber F1 Team, here in Hinwil. We are located about 22 kilometers away from Zurich. So, there we make our cars and I'd like to show you around.

Right here we have our reception area with the 2009 car. And here you see some of the trophies, which the team has gained. You can see a lot of security checks.

These are the chassis and when they come back from the race here, they're set up on such stands and that's when they are put together. All checks are done. If maintenance of parts needs to be done, that's done all over here.

It was very important for us to be transparent in our work. And you can see this here in the whole structure that you have, up there, the design office. Basically, they can all look down when the work is going on.

So, here you see one of the chassis we have. We don't look at our cars as complete cars, so we don't say we make this many cars and they're all complete that way. We talk about chassis, because we can put things together every time. And that's why here you will just see a part of the chassis and whatever is needed we then can put together.

I don't think about driving this, because, for a simple reason - if you look into it, how narrow it is in here. I have my doubts I could get in or properly get out of it without any help. So, I don't want to get myself in that embarrassing situation. But, apart from that, no, it doesn't really fascinate me to fit in these cars, because they're not that comfortable if you compare road cars to that.

COREN: How have you changed things at Sauber since being at the helm?

KALTENBORN: Well, the biggest challenge I had when I took over the position was to keep the team together. Because end of 2009, when BMW decided to exit the sport and Peter Sauber bought 100 percent of the team back, it was a very critical stage, since we had to reduce on all areas, you can imagine. Because the moment you're no longer a manufacturing team, but a private team, you, of course, don't have that kind of funding available.

So we had to make sure we can keep the company going, secure funding - everyone knows our car, 2010, was fundamentally a white car. Not many partners we had, which was also not possible to get at that time. So you had to make sure you had your funding in place to run the year to be as successful as you can with the resources, and make sure your team stays with you and gets back into the cycle it is used to.

COREN: You've been working with Peter Sauber for over a decade. How would you describe your relationship?

KALTENBORN: I think it's a relationship where both of us have a lot of respect towards each other. Where it concerns him, it's, of course, very clear. I mean, he's been now with this company for more than 40 years - motor sport. And since 1994, performing Formula One. So, he's today, actually, with his team, the fourth oldest team on the grid.

So, I have a lot of respect for what he's achieved and especially in the surrounding he's achieved it. Switzerland is not very known for motorsport. And still to set up a team there without the infrastructure you would have, like, in England, is very demanding.

COREN: What do you think of Red Bull's dominance at the moment and how do you catch them?

KALTENBORN: It is the best car and combination with the driver they have, of course, is very hard to beat. So, all we can do is try to understand certain concepts which are coming in better and try to improve our performance over there and gain lap time. This has always been the case - that someone is there for a certain time, dominated for a couple of years, and then the next one comes. There's always a coming and going of teams.

COREN: Formula One has really expanded into Asia - Singapore, Korea, Shanghai, India. What is this doing to the sport? Is it changing the face of the sport?

KALTENBORN: I think it is a good thing, because Formula One is a global brand and, if you claim to be a global player, you have to also be present at the global level, which we are. It's important that, looking at the situation in Europe, that you do go out into other countries. We know we have a lot of fans over there. We know we have partners there, which can also benefit from staging such an event over there. So, it's the logical step to go out. We also want to commercially bring Formula One to the next step. And these are the markets where you need to be.

COREN: F1 is a very extravagant sport. It's a very expensive sport. In the current climate and with what is going on in Europe right now, do you think that the sport will have to change?

KALTENBORN: It is already changing. We have a team organization and the first time, I think, in the history and the manner it has been made - FOTA. And together with the other stakeholders, we are working for reducing the cost. FOTA itself, among the teams, has introduced a resource restriction agreement, which implies certain financial restrictions on the teams, also personnel restrictions, like on the track. So we're absolutely aware that we have to show to the world that we are, as well, doing something and bringing these tremendously high costs down.

COREN: And what's the future for Sauber, certainly in 2012?

KALTENBORN: Well, Sauber will certainly be there and we'll continue to fight our way up the ladder. I hope we can still take a significant step ahead this year as compared to 2010. So, our target's very clear. The way is up. And that's where we will be, hopefully.


COREN (voice over): Coming up, we find out about the pressure Formula One drivers face on the track.





COREN: You have two key drivers in your stable, Kamui Kobayashi from Japan and Sergio Perez from Mexico. Are you close with these drivers?

KALTENBORN: I'm close with them. And I talk a lot to them, which is important, because they are young drivers. One's a rookie this year. The other one's in his second year, so not really very much experienced. And it's important to talk to them to understand where they see the concerns. Where they think the car should be developed. What issues they have and how we can help them. And, of course, they're fantastic guys. They're fun to be with. They're very motivated, and that's the kind of spirit a team like ours needs.

COREN: Sergio Perez had that horrible crash in Monaco earlier this year. Tell me, what was it like to witness that and where were you when the crash happened?

KALTENBORN: I was in the garage at that time. And I remember when he started that lap, his first time was an excellent time and we were thinking, this is going to be a super lap he's going to do. And suddenly, we just lost the radio contact to him. And then, you see the cameras looking for where the driver is, and then you see the picture of the car. Just seeing those pictures is very terrifying.

And most challenging moment there is, to say to yourself, "Just stay here". Because that's the best place you can be and do anything for him if needed and not be right next to him. And that was a very difficult moment for me.

COREN: When these accidents happen, I mean, the risk is enormous. Potentially fatal?

KALTENBORN: The risk is probably not that big, because our cars are very safe and accidents like these show you how safe they are. I think 10 years ago, you could have had very different serious injuries. But you never know what all can go wrong, you know? And if something just goes wrong in a very bad, awkward way, these kind of things can happen.

COREN: We know it's extremely physically demanding to be a racecar driver. Give us an insight into what these guys have to go through.

KALTENBORN: The team has to make sure that they have the right weight. That is very important for our weight distribution as well in the car. And ideally, for that, they have to get along. We don't like them to be too tall. So we're lucky on that one with our two drivers.

What we provide them is physical training camps where they regularly go to. We have our own doctors there. They do many tests with them. They take them out - being in Switzerland - into the mountains for hiking, kind of fun activities as well, which they don't always consider to be fun.

Because the race itself is very challenging. You have races, especially in Malaysia or in Singapore, where the humidity is very high. And a driver can lose up to a couple of kilos during that race. So, you have to make sure that, physically, he's capable of coping these kind of situations.

COREN: Because it's not just the car that has to perform. These drivers are finely tuned athletes, aren't they?

KALTENBORN: Absolutely. Because there's so much the driver has to decide during the race. It's the driver who has to have the stamina to be in there. He has to remain concentrated. He has so many buttons he has to press. What he has to look at - to listen, because there's a lot of communication going on between the driver and his race engineer. So, if you physically are in a good condition, you can concentrate far better on the real challenges you have.

COREN: Should there be more female drivers in motorsport?

KALTENBORN: Absolutely. I think that it's high time there should even be one in Formula One, because there is none so far. And exactly for this kind of services -- encourage more women to get into sport, into motor sport area -- we've had this commission now created by Jean Todt, the president of the FIA, which is the "Women in Motorsport Commission" headed by Michele Mouton, the former rally driver.

And the purpose of the commission is to show young girls - young women - that there are women already in this field and encourage them to get in and, if help is needed, sometimes because they maybe don't know how to access certain areas - to provide them that help.


KALTENBORN: We're now here in the bridge -- on the bridge, rather, which connects the office building and the factory to the wind tunnel.

So, this is here the wind tunnel on top and, as you can hear, it is running. This is a 480-ton steel construction. Over there, you see then, the test section where actually the model is put into. And that's the area where you basically develop your car and your aim is to generate more down- force at the same time, reduce your drag.


COREN: What makes the best car? And tell us about the technology involved.

KALTENBORN: Today, so much depends on the aerodynamic development of the car and so the wind tunnel plays a significant role in the development. That's where you make the concept of the car and you lay down how it's going to look like. And I think Red Bull's been pursuing for so many years a concept, which, now, has turned out to be, since the last two or three years, the right one and the most successful one.

COREN: Well, F1, of course, is a glamorous sport and you are a glamorous woman with quite expensive taste in shoes. But I believe this has got you in trouble in the pit lane?

KALTENBORN: Well, it did, actually, once. I was in the garage at a very hot race and I thought I could wear - not very flashy shoes, just some pretty flat sandals. And the scrutineer came up to me and said, "Madam, your shoes are inappropriate for the pit lane". So, I was a bit shocked by that and I stepped back a little, then, because you don't want to risk, of course, a penalty for your team or something like that.

COREN: No more stilettos in the garage?

KALTENBORN: No, no, no. Certainly not.

COREN: When you are down there, do you get an adrenaline rush? Is there that amazing sense of excitement?

KALTENBORN: A lot of excitement, especially before the start. That's probably the only moment where I'm really tense, because you never know what's going to happen over there, especially what others do could hit you or your car. So, that's the most tense moment for me at a race. And then, of course, the next two hours which follow. Because all we can do in front there is react. There's nothing more we can really do. And you're very relieved when it's over and your two cars have come in.

COREN: In one piece.


COREN: You are only 40 years old. What's in store for Monisha Kaltenborn?

KALTENBORN: With Team Sauber I still have a lot of hopes and ambitions. So, I have my plans set where I want to be one day with the team. And definitely I'll do everything to be on the top, because we all want to be in the top in Formula One.

COREN: Well, we wish you the very best of luck.

KALTENBORN: Thank you. Thank you very much.

COREN: Thank you, Monisha.

KALTENBORN: Thank you, thank you.