x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Mechanic-turned-F1 mogul who brought it home to Yas

Eugene Harnan charts the rise of an aeroplane mechanic to the man behind the wheel of Abu Dhabi's Formula One story, from its humble beginnings to today's international spectacle.

"I love a challenge," says Richard Cregan, the chief executive of Abu Dhabi Motorsports Management.

As a man who openly admits to relishing pressure, Dublin-born Richard Cregan is in his element today.

He will watch as thousands of fans descend on the Yas Marina Circuit for the Middle East's largest sporting event - the Formula One.

"I love a challenge," he said. "What I love most of all is putting together a team of people who are going to achieve a project."

Two years ago, Mr Cregan moved to Abu Dhabi to take on the role of chief executive of Abu Dhabi Motorsports Management (ADMM). He orchestrated the emirate's inaugural race last year and said he still gets a buzz when he sees everything coming together.

"We see people walking with buggies and kids," he said, "people hopping on and off buses and walking up to the hotel plaza. That's the magic of it. It is like the island comes alive for the Formula One.

"It gives the idea of what the vision is. If people come out [now], you can imagine what it will be like in five years' time. To be able to contribute a little bit in the building of a nation is great."

The 50-year-old father of three ascribes most of his success to hard work, his wife of 24 years, Patricia, whom he calls the "backbone" of his career, and a few lucky breaks.

The journey began when he left school at 16 and started an apprenticeship as an aircraft mechanic with Ireland's Aer Lingus. It was there that he got to know about things mechanical, and his passion for cars began to grow.

On weekends he would follow rally events around the country, and after a couple of years he got behind the wheel himself as driver, and then co-driver. It was official: he was a motorsport fanatic.

It's easy to see that motorsport is in the Cregan family blood. His youngest son, Robert, is already a professional racer and has been behind the wheel since he was just 12.

"I remember going to a rally in Wicklow and that's where I got the bug," Mr Cregan said. "That's where I started as a driver, and then co-driver because I couldn't afford to be a driver. It went from there. It became more than a hobby, it was a huge passion for me."

When he read an article in Motoring News magazine about Toyota competing in and winning the Ivory Coast rally in 1983, he decided he wanted in on the act.

The driver went on the hunt for a contact number of someone, anyone, at Toyota. His luck was in. He got straight through to Henry Liddon, Toyota's team manager. "I said, 'I know you take on a lot of freelance people for events and I want to be part of what you are doing'."

He was so determined that he told his potential employer that he would work for free, and only wanted to be fed and have a roof over his head. He was taken as a freelancer, and then given a full-time contract after a year.

Once inside the inner workings of Toyota he excelled, and for 23 years moved up through the ranks, turning his hand to almost any task. When he joined there were only 25 full-timers in the motorsport division. "By the time I left there were 900 people for the F1 only."

Cregan the rally driver had a successful time with Toyota's rally division. They won seven titles between driver and constructor championships. He then tried his hand at the Le Mans 24-hour race in 1998 and 1999. In the 1999 event, Toyota led the race until the 23rd hour, when their chances were ruined by a flat tyre.

In 2002, when Toyota revealed it would make the leap into the world of Formula One, Cregan was picked asteam principal, the one who would manage the F1 outfit.

After six years in the job, his thirst for a challenge again saw him make a move, this time to the UAE.

Again, the luck of the Irish shone through. It was during a chat with Bernie Ecclestone, the chief executive of Formula One, that the subject of the Abu Dhabi event came up, and Mr Ecclestone told him he would be the perfect man for the job. He had already completed a distance learning diploma in business studies, applied finances and advanced management, and felt he had learnt enough to take on the job of chief executive. "I constantly wanted to improve and I kept choosing things I hadn't done before and setting targets and challenges for myself."

Managing Yas Marina Circuit when it was still desert was one of those challenges. Putting his experience and skills to the test, he managed to pull it off - Abu Dhabi instantly became a hit with Formula One fans across the globe.

"The great thing this year is we have all the time to work on the details," said Mr Cregan the executive. "Last year as the weekend progressed, things got better."

He puts a lot of the success to his team: "We've been building on the experience of the former events, but the longer a team works together, the better they understand each others' strengths and weaknesses."

Today, he will have started his day as he has started the past three; with a 6.30am briefing on the previous day's events. The main topic for discussion is how to make the event better for the fans. "I move around with the team, trouble-shooting. You are as good as your team, and you need to support them."

Regardless of what happens on the track today, Mr Cregan is ever the professional, and already thinking about next year's event. "We are now looking at what we have and ways of improving 2011," he said. "We will measure the customer feedback and go from there."

 

eharnan@thenational.ae