Monisha Kaltenborn made history when she succeeded Peter Sauber and became Formula 1’s first female Team Principal.
With an extensive background in international law, Kaltenborn’s involvement in motorsport began in the late 1990s when she was employed – via a minority owner of the Sauber team – to handle the Swiss team’s corporate and legal affairs. Within a few years, she was on the board of the team, and in 2010 she was appointed its CEO.
Kaltenborn has earned enormous respect in the paddock as a campaigner for a better deal for the smaller, privateer outfits, as well as through her work on the FIA’s Commission for Women and Motorsport, which works to support and encourage increased participation of women in more senior roles in Formula 1.
Our own Yassmin Abdel-Magied spoke exclusively to Monisha about these challenges and opportunities during last month’s Malaysian Grand Prix…
Monisha, being the first female in any role is something that attracts lots of attention. What are your thoughts on the divisive issues of targets and quotas?
Quotas are something artificial so I don’t like to support anything artificial. At the same time you have to ask how many women are right at the top in any sector? It’s equally bad, even worse maybe in others, such as banking.
From that perspective, it becomes about what can actually improve that, and that leads to looking at an artificial mechanism like a quota. It might work in a lot of sectors, but sport is a place where these things probably won’t.
It’s a very tricky question because normally when you talk about quotas people reduce it to an obligation. What they forget is the second part: you have to take a woman with the same qualifications as a man.
It is far more important that the women who are in the sport try to support and give the opportunities. The best way is if you have people out there who can inspire others.
As a team principal with a background in law, you come to the sport from a very non-technical field. Do you find the lack of technical expertise a challenge?
You have to have a basic understanding of things. That’s very important, otherwise people will tell you want they want to and you have no idea!
I think the studies I did and the profession I was working on before was a good basis to enter into any field. The one thing you definitely learn in law is to work your way around new issues and ask the right questions.
Does the sport exist in a bubble?
I don’t think it’s a bubble. I think we are one of the strongest sporting platforms. Look at the number of people who watch races and how we are represented on a global basis. We are too big a dimension to be living in a bubble.
What we need to do is be strong as a platform.
Take what we are doing in the technical space. We have the introduction of the hybrid engine; a sophisticated system with a very high level of efficiency. This is exactly what the consumer industry is talking about at the moment. So we take up challenges that are relevant to a very large community. It would be good if would leverage that and make that look positive. This is something that at the moment, is not really happening.
Why is it so difficult to communicate these positive messages about the sport?
We don’t have a joint communication around these things. I think every team has to do that on their own, so that everyone benefits.
What does Sauber do in this space?
We are going to launch a new initiative soon where we will try to disseminate information about all these important things that the sport does, like the hybrid system. It is also about more than just what the sport is doing, but also about what we do as a team. For example, we are completely carbon neutral, and have invested in things like the solar panel carport at our headquarters in Hinwil. Our staff quite like that – no snow falls on their cars now!
As a smaller team, are you feeling the pressure around the new regulatory changes?
A lot of pressure! It is not only the financial and personnel restrictions that we face, but also the time frame set to these changes. As a customer team on the power train side, information comes with a certain delay. This is natural because we are not developing the components, but it means the team has to wait and there are then many compromises. Particularly on the chassis side, the supplier will wait for as long as they can to define their points of reference so for us down the line, it is a very big challenge.
How has the team dealt with it?
First of all you have to accept it, but that doesn’t mean you have to just give up and wait. The team must still try to do the best and I think they have done so. They did a fantastic job over the winter, considering how quickly we proved our reliability at the first test in Jerez. Hats off to the team!
We extend our sincerest thanks to the Sauber F1 Team for their assistance in making this interview possible.