Monisha Kaltenborn is almost a week into her post as the first female team principal in Formula One. With a total of four podium places so far, the Sauber F1 Team has enjoyed a very successful 2012 season. The forthcoming Indian Grand Prix takes the new boss to her native country. There’s plenty to talk about.
Your passport gives your full name as Monisha Kaltenborn Narang. Why do you so rarely use your double surname?
“I really like my Indian name. My Indian heritage and my parents’ family mean a great deal to me, which is why I never wanted to give up Narang. On the other hand, you have to admit that double-barrelled names aren’t very practical in day-to-day business operations. That’s why I only rarely use my full name.”
What does the Indian Grand Prix mean to you? “Well, I really have to distinguish between the professional and the private side. From the sports point of view, as far as the Sauber F1 Team is concerned the Indian GP is a race like any other, with the same meticulous preparations and the same aspiration to achieve the best possible result. From a personal point of view, it’s rather different. Obviously I’m particularly looking forward to this race in my home country. As I travel to all the grands prix as part of my job, I don’t have time for private trips to India. During my school and university days I would go there regularly. My husband Jens and I celebrated our marriage in India with a fabulous and very happy Hindu ritual. I feel very attached to India.”
Will you be seeing friends or family during the grand prix? “I won’t really have time for private visits during this year’s race, but I’ll be flying out at least a day early to spend some time looking around New Delhi and attending various media events. I’m also involved as an ambassador for the FIA’s Women in Motorsports Commission, as well as an event by the F1 in Schools initiative.”
Which memories do you associate with India? “Oh, undoubtedly my wonderful childhood. Since I was their only grandchild for a long time, my grandparents spoilt me rotten, and we had three delightful dogs. Up to the age of eight I attended Welham Girls’ High School in Dehradun, my birthplace and one of the oldest and most traditional cities in the north of this vast country. It was a very happy time with marvellous friendships. Then in 1979 my parents decided to emigrate to give me a better education.”
What made your parents decide on Austria? "Originally the plan was to find a new home in an English-speaking country. But Vienna was the first stop on our journey because an uncle of my father’s was working at the atomic agency there. We liked it and so we stayed. I was sent straight to an Austrian rather than an international school, so I learnt the language very quickly and became integrated. I also completed my law studies in Vienna and took on Austrian citizenship, which had many advantages. And of course I have a lot of ties with Austria. I’ve spent a considerable part of my life there, after all.”
To what extent are you still Indian today? “I don’t think you ever lose your roots, and anyway you can tell where I’m from just by looking at me. I also think I have a certain serenity and openness you might describe as Indian. That includes shrugging off negative experiences and focusing positively on the future – something that is very important in an environment as competitive as Formula One. As for my Hindi, it’s no longer as good as I’d like it to be. But I do try to talk Hindi with the children occasionally. Our son is ten years old, our daughter seven, and I’d like them to learn the language. But my parents are better teachers than me.”
How important do you think Formula One is for India? “Basically it’s difficult for any sport to find a place in India next to cricket. But I do think that the interest in Formula One has risen significantly since its debut last year. At least the media interest we are experiencing as a team would strongly indicate that. It seems right that India, as an upwardly mobile nation, a huge marketplace and a high-tech location, has found a place in the Formula One calendar with its excellently trained engineers. Both Formula One and the country can benefit from it.”
What chances do you hold out for the Sauber F1 Team at the Indian Grand Prix? “The track layout is very similar to that in Korea. There are slow and fast turns and quite a long straight. However, it will be warmer there and Pirelli is providing different tyres – soft and hard rather than the super-soft and soft ones we had in Korea. That will mean different race strategies. For the C31, the circuit in India is likely to be neither ideal terrain nor particularly problematic. I’m confident that we will manage another decent points haul there.”
You’re into your first week as Team Principal at trackside. What does this step mean for you? "I’m very happy at the confidence that Peter Sauber has placed in me. I grew into this role step by step, of course. I had been head of the company’s legal department since 2000, in 2001 I joined the Board of Management, in 2010 I became CEO, and since the end of 2011 I’ve held a third of the company’s stakeholding. Peter Sauber’s withdrawal from the day-to-day running of the business has been on the cards for a long time, so this latest step was well prepared. I’m acutely aware of what it means to carry the responsibility for this company, which has been around for over 40 years and involved in Formula One for almost 20 years.”
Is it more difficult as a woman to be accepted as Team Principal? “Professionally I’m sure gender plays no role. And as I’ve been around for such a long time, I don’t think I’ll be seen more in terms of a woman than a boss. People who are new to the scene might just do a double-take at first, but that will soon settle down.”
How do you manage to cope with the twin responsibility of work and family? “It usually works very well, though in some situations it can prove an organisational and emotional challenge. I believe it’s very important to involve the children. We stay in touch on race weekends by phone or skype – these days, fortunately, there are such options. At home my husband, my parents and a nanny manage to cushion my professional absences. I’ve got a strong support system, and the kids are really proud of what their mother does.”
How satisfied are you with the Sauber F1 Team’s achievements so far this season? “With four podium places and now 116 world championship points, we can certainly be proud of our achievements so far as a private team. Of course there have been races where things didn’t go to plan and we forfeited valuable points. Our car, the Sauber C31-Ferrari, is a great success and has proved competitive on virtually any kind of circuit. Some describe it as one of the best cars on the grid. Now it’s a matter of carrying the impetus forward into the remaining four races. Our ambitious goal remains to finish fifth in the Constructors’ World Championship. And I have the utmost confidence both in our team at Hinwil and in the crew at the track along with our two drivers, Kamui Kobayashi and Sergio Pérez.”
What are your personal highlights of the season so far? “To answer that I’m going to have to take off my sober, objective hat for a moment: it was just so emotional when Kamui finished third in Japan.”
Courtesy of the Sauber F1 Team