x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Air Asia chief is working to make F1 adventure take flight

Stars and Cars Tony Fernandes built his business from the ground up, but he's now following a lifelong passion with his heart set on Formula One success as principal of Team Lotus.

Tony Fernandes has ambitious targets for Team Lotus. Sutton Images
Tony Fernandes has ambitious targets for Team Lotus. Sutton Images

Tony Fernandes epitomises the term entrepreneur. A former music executive, he bought budget airline Air Asia when it had just two planes.

Last month, he lodged the biggest order for planes in aviation history. The deal for 200 jets and engines equates to about US$30 billion (Dh110 billion) in total.

But while planes have given him fame and fortune, his love of transport manifests, first and foremost, with motoring. His sideline business is as the owner and team principal of Team Lotus in Formula One, the best of the new teams to have entered the sport in 2010.

For Fernandes, the love affair with motorsport stems from his father, who used to take his young son to Formula 3000 races in Malaysia and latterly to Formula One at Brands Hatch, UK, in the 1980s.

"My first motoring experience was Formula 3000 in Malaysia and I just loved it," he said. "It wasn't necessarily the noise, the smell or the sight of it. I just loved the competition, that was what got me hooked, and also the precision of it all."

Ironically, considering his more recent involvement with Lotus, his passion for F1 began while camped outside the John Player Special tent at Brands Hatch.

"I loved JPS and Williams; those were the two teams for me," he said. "For whatever reason, I was never really hooked by McLaren or Ferrari or any of the other teams, in fact.

"I loved the colours of Lotus but I also loved Frank Williams. He was an absolute hero of mine."

Fernandes has since got to know Williams well in the F1 paddock as rival team bosses. "The thing about meeting a hero is that you hope they don't disappoint and Frank hasn't," Fernandes added. "He's a lovely guy, passionate about motorsport and who's been great for F1 over the years."

Now with his own F1 team as well as other teams in the junior formulae, Fernandes's motorsport passion has spilt over into a very serious business.

And he has already set ambitious targets for his team. "You have to be in this to win or then what is the point?" he said. "I'm a proper dreamer, I really am, so I don't do 'no' and I don't do terms like 'this is impossible'. We want to win races, of that there is no question."

When away from the track and back at home in Malaysia, the businessman does not exactly embrace the luxury sports car market.

"My first car was a Peugeot 205 and my current car is a Peugeot 205," he explained. "Okay, it's got a bit nicer as it's a convertible and there are a few other bits but there's no point having a big, luxury sports car in Malaysia. For starters, there's nowhere to park it."

In the UK, where he also has a home, Fernandes has an infinitely more eye-catching way of getting from A to B: an Aston Martin Vanquish.

He talks about the Vanquish with great pride. "It's a lovely car," he admitted. "The only downfall is I don't get enough of an opportunity to drive it."

His business dealings around the globe mean that the majority of his time is spent on planes but, while on them, his mind is more regularly on his motoring passion.

The other recent motoring venture for Fernandes has been to buy British company Caterham, something he talks about with the excitement of the youngster that used to camp out at Brands Hatch for Grand Prix weekends.

Caterham was born out of Lotus. When Lotus decided to stop making the Seven in 1973, Caterham bought the rights to continue building it.

"I had a go in a Caterham and it scared the hell out of me," confessed Fernandes, who will probably introduce the Caterham name into F1 in the near future.

Of his F1 plans, which have been disrupted by a court battle over the use of the Lotus name, Fernandes said: "If I could have written the script, I would have started with Caterham, but I didn't know that. The philosophy of Caterham is exactly what we want - lightweight, less is more and affordability."