First lady of Formula 1 takes control of the track

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Monisha Kaltenborn became Formula 1's first female team principal in October

She is in charge of both business and on-the-track performance of Sauber, sixth in last year's team championship

Trained as a lawyer, Kaltenborn came to Formula 1 by chance, after joining legal team of one of Sauber's shareholders

When the new Formula 1 season gets underway in March, for the first time there will be a woman running a team’s entire operations from track to boardroom.

The team is Sauber and the woman in charge is Monisha Kaltenborn, an Indian-born lawyer who has risen to the top in this male-dominated sport.

Kaltenborn, 41, has been CEO of Sauber – sixth in last year’s team championship – since 2010, but in October she also took over from Peter Sauber as team principal, putting her in charge of performance on the track as well as the business operation.

“As team principal you have a very exposed position at the track side,” said Kaltenborn. “It’s really about the racing.”

Kaltenborn has fought for recognition in a sport where another team boss – whom she is too polite to name – once mistook her for Peter Sauber’s interpreter.

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“It was an elderly gentleman who has a different kind of thinking,” she said. “He soon realized and was highly embarrassed.”

Others have been more subtle, but still betray a surprise to see a woman in her job.

“It’s the first moment when you are introduced with your title and you see a slight surprise,” said Kaltenborn.

“I hope that my record will encourage more women and girls to come into motorsport.”

Kaltenborn is a member and ambassador for the Women in Motorsport Commission set up by governing body, the FIA.

The commission promotes women drivers in the FIA’s karting and rally championships and has a network of national coordinators encouraging girls and women in their countries.

“There’s a project in schools which looks at all the roles in the team from financial and technical to marketing, and 30% of participants are girls,” she said. “For me it’s very important because we need to help women and young girls to be given the opportunity.”

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However, those hoping to see a woman Formula 1 driver reach a pole position anytime soon could be disappointed.

“I think it will take a while because it’s a tough world out there to reach Formula 1,” said Kaltenborn. “There are just 22 drivers out of hundreds of thousands worldwide.

“It’s important we start at the roots and groom the girls in the same way the boys are groomed.”

For some, Formula 1’s macho image and use of “grid girls” – glamorous women who hold markers giving teams’ grid position – undermines its efforts to be taken seriously by women.

Not for Kaltenborn, however. “I don’t have a problem with that image,” she said. “I think girls are prettier to look at than if you had men in those roles.

“There’s nothing wrong with the image because nobody is being discriminated against.”

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Kaltenborn was born Monisha Narang in Dehradun, India, and moved with her parents to Austria at the age of eight.

Although her first ambition was to be an astronaut, she trained as a lawyer and had only a passing interest in Formula 1.

“I grew up in Austria and when I was a child, there were famous Austrian drivers like Niki Lauda and Gerhard Berger and a race in Austria, so I had a basic knowledge of the sport,” she said.

She never imagined, however, that she would make a career out of it until she was approached to join the legal team of Fritz Kaiser Group in 1998. Kaiser was a shareholder in what was then the Red Bull Sauber Formula 1 team.

“When I joined the company in Lichtenstein I saw what happens behind the scenes and there’s so much more to it,” she said. “The first time I came to the factory and saw what it takes to make a Formula 1 car, it became a passion.”

When Kaiser sold off his shares in the team, Kaltenborn moved to Hinwil in Switzerland to run Sauber Group’s legal department.

So began her inexorable rise through the company, joining its board in 2001, becoming CEO in 2010 and finally team principal in 2012.

She is unusual in being a team principal with a legal, rather than a technical background, but insists it does not put her at a disadvantage.

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“With a legal background you learn to ask the right questions,” said Kaltenborn. “Most areas are so highly specialized that you hardly find a technical person who has detailed knowledge of all areas. People from different backgrounds enrich the sport.”

Kaltenborn is married with two children, aged 10 and seven, and has to cope with a lot of time away from her family during the racing season.

“I’m often away, which makes it very tough, but they take it well. I try to have a lot of contact with them when I’m away,” she said.

It was not until 2011, however, that she took her children to a Formula 1 race, and they now go to the Monaco Grand Prix once a year.

However, “there’s so much work and noise that it’s not a place for little kids,” she said.

Kaltenborn’s first full season in charge begins with the Australian Grand Prix on March 17.

There is a new car – the Sauber C32 Ferrari – and a new team of drivers, German Niko Hulkenberg, recently signed from Sahara Force India, and Mexican Esteban Gutierrez, previously Sauber’s reserve driver.

For Kaltenborn, it will be a first chance to take full control of the team she has made her own.