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Monisha Kaltenborn is the most senior woman in Formula One as the Sauber chief executive, but she never planned it way.
Monisha Kaltenborn is the most senior woman in Formula One as the Sauber chief executive, but she never planned it way.
Monisha Kaltenborn, bottom centre, has established herself in the Formula One fraternity in her role as chief executive of Sauber.
BAZUKI MUHAMMAD
Monisha Kaltenborn, bottom centre, has established herself in the Formula One fraternity in her role as chief executive of Sauber.

Kaltenborn's rise to being the first lady of Formula One

Monisha Kaltenborn has established herself as the senior woman in Formula One with her role as chief executive of Sauber.

Born among the foothills of the Himalayas, it could be presumed Monisha Kaltenborn for ever had her head craned towards the clouds. Yet even she could hardly have envisaged a climb so steep it could see a young girl from one of India's oldest cities grow up to become the most senior woman in Formula One racing.

And yet that is exactly what has become of 40-year-old Kaltenborn, who is enjoying her second season as chief executive of Sauber, the Swiss-based F1 team.

The appointment last year saw her earn the sobriquet of "First Lady of Formula One' - a nickname that makes her blush and laugh in near-equal measure.

"You're not aware of it yourself, because you're not going out there to be the first woman, you're just going out to do your job and that's it," she said ahead of this weekend's inaugural Indian Grand Prix.

"It was never my intention to go this way and become the first woman. I know when I say 'It just happened' that people think it's such a typical thing a woman would say, but it really did just happen. Things just went that way and when you get the chance you take it."

Monisha Narang was born on May 10, 1971 in the city of Dehradun, a popular hill station in Northern India, and attended Welham Girls' High School.

At the age of eight, her family decided to emigrate to Vienna in north eastern Austria, where she was immediately enrolled in an Austrian school because her parents were keen for her to learn German.

"That was very tough because you are sitting in a classroom and you have no idea what is being spoken; the only thing you understand is figures in maths because they're the same," she said.

"But children learn languages very quickly and so it took about half a year and then I was into it. I was simply forced to speak the language, there was no other way."

After finishing her schooling in Austria, she graduated from the University of Vienna with a law degree before completing her Masters in International Business Law at London School of Economics.

Her first job took her to Stuttgart in Germany, where she met and later married Jens Kaltenborn. The wedding ceremony was held in the foothills of the Himalayas. Later they relocated from Germany to Liechtenstein, where she began working for the Fritz Kaiser Group.

"It was here that I met Peter," she said, in reference to Peter Sauber, the 68-year-old owner and team principal of his eponymous Formula One team.

"When I started work, I was told that as well as other typical financial advising services, legal services and asset management, one of the owners [of Fritz Kaiser Group] also owned part of this team, so it became one of my activities among all the other ones. When they split [in 2000], Peter asked me if I would like to join him."

Kaltenborn's career with Sauber saw her employed as head of the legal department and she remained there after the team was sold to BMW.

Following four seasons in F1, BMW pulled out of the sport and Peter Sauber, the Swiss millionaire, was forced to step in with his own money to save the team.

He appointed Kaltenborn as CEO in January 2010; in accepting the role, she became the sport's first female chief executive.

It has been reported that one former team principal assumed she was merely Sauber's interpreter, while Bernie Ecclestone, the sport's commercial rights holder, has in the past spoken chauvinistically of a women's role being in the kitchen "dressed in white like all the other domestic appliances".

Yet Kaltenborn has continued to overcome gender issues by becoming the first woman to appear at an official FIA press conference and also sit on the pit wall during a grand prix in place of the team principal.

Asked whether she has ever felt discriminated against in a world where men are men and women are grid girls, Kaltenborn replied: "Never".

"Right in the beginning, people were surprised because if talks came up of engines or contracts, they expected a man to appear," she said. "It took a while for people to get over the 'it's a woman; what's a woman doing here?', but I never felt at any stage discriminated against."

As for Ecclestone, Kaltenborn is not convinced by his anti-feminism stance and believes were he genuinely sexist, he would not employ so many females in such prominent posts, and she does not mean prominently positioned on the grid.

"Most of [the chauvinism] is just an image and to be honest I think it's OK," she said. "The grid girls are very nice to look at, I can very much appreciate these women and if they want to do that, then why not?

"It's part of our show and people like to see that, so what's wrong with it? I don't know if many men would look quite so nice stood there in such clothes ..."

She added: "Whenever I have dealt with Mr Ecclestone's organisation, I've always noticed that in every significant position he has always had women and, as a woman, I can say it shows how wise he is because he has kept his principle and kept women in the right positions."

Ecclestone is hoping this weekend's inaugural Indian Grand Prix proves another success in his ongoing quest to spread the F1 footprint worldwide. The Buddh International Circuit in Uttar Pradesh cost approximately US$400m (Dh1,469 billion) to construct and organisers say they have sold the vast majority of tickets for this weekend's three days of on-track action.

With Narain Karthikeyan driving for Hispania Racing Team, Vijay Mallya's Force India fighting for points and Karun Chandhok involved with Team Lotus in tomorrow's opening practice session, there is a real sense of a burgeoning motorsport scene in the country. Construction of a second circuit, in Mumbai, is already in the pipeline.

Kaltenborn acknowledges that, because of cricket, it is difficult for any sport to find a space in the public consciousness, but she still expects this weekend's grand prix to be largely successful.

"It might not have that big a group of followers as it has in other countries, but two or three or four per cent of the Indian population is by itself far more than other countries who attract 20 per cent," she said. "And it will kick on in years to come."

Returning to India for the first time in a professional capacity, Kaltenborn concedes her lack of Hindi is something that she senses.

While growing up in Dehradun, she had spoken a typical Hindustani dialect that involved mixing Hindu and English together, with more emphasis on English.

"I remember my grandmother would help me," she said of her childhood dalliance with the Indian vernacular.

"But now I actually have issues because my level of learning Hindi stopped more or less when we went to Vienna.

"I do sense that lack now and it takes me a while to understand - they speak so fast for me and I automatically bring in English words."

The mother of two - her son Nirek is nine and daughter Mandira is six - has recently witnessed her parents turn home-tutors similar to that of her own grandmother three decades ago. In the family home in Switzerland certain words such as "chai" [tea] and "godi" [lap] are commonplace .

"We've got to the point now at home where we only use Hindi for certain words," she said. "Even my German parents-in-law have started using the expressions."

gmeenaghan@thenational.ae


Follow The National Sport on @SprtNationalUAE & Gary Meenaghan on @GMeenaghan


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