Lotus team-principal Eric Boullier has had a tough year. While his cars have been doing the business on track, the Frenchman has had to fight fires on several fronts behind the scenes — from the loss of star driver Kimi Raikkonen along with key technical staff, to delays in closing a key investment deal.
Abhishek Takle sat down with Boullier over the Indian Grand Prix weekend for a wide-ranging chat about the team’s driver line-up, financial stability, the new Strategy Group and his relationship with the departing Kimi Raikkonen.
ABHISHEK TAKLE: Thanks for taking the time out to talk to me today. I want to get this one out of the way first. Your drivers for 2014, when can we expect an announcement? Has the decision already been made on that?
ERIC BOULLIER: Not really. You can pick up the drivers just on your emotions like a fan but you cannot do this when you’re in my position or in the team’s position. So after these two years with Kimi, we built a nice story. We have the ambition to be a top team. As you know there are different elements. We also have this partner — Quantum Motorsports — who is coming on board. So it was, I think, better to sit down, take the time to think what we need to do and build over a meatier, let’s say, plan, trying to pick up the right drivers but also thinking about what we need as a driver for next year, for 2015, for 2016 and maybe beyond as well. So that obviously is the ideal plan. But we need to close the investment to allow this. If we cannot, then we have to think about a different scenario where we pick a driver who is maybe or not the favourite one, but still a good one.
AT: Right. You mean in that case if the deal doesn’t close it would have to be probably a pay driver, a talented one, but a pay driver nonetheless.
AT: In Japan you mentioned that Nico was your prime candidate to replace Kimi and Romain’s contract is also a formality now given his performances.
EB: Romain. The problem is that everybody is expecting us to make a big announcement but Romain is already signed, he has a contract there already. So I don’t know what people are expecting because he has a contract in place for next year.
AT: The talks with Nico, are they dependent on the Quantum deal closing?
EB: That’s what I said before. If we have the investment money in place and the long term plan in place, maybe we go for Nico because we want to build the next generation of drivers.
AT: But he has said that you need to give him some sort of a clarification by the end of this month which is next week?
EB: Yes, you’re right. Because he doesn’t want to wait until the end of the season after his bad experience with Williams, which I understand. So end of the month? (looks at watch) I still have a few days. (laughs)
AT: So you’re confident you will be able to give him an answer by the end of the month?
AT: But what’s taking the Quantum deal such a long time to close?
EB: That’s not to be public.
AT: Because there’s been some scepticism about that deal, how do you respond to that?
EB: Yes. Anyway, there is always scepticism for anything that you do in Formula One. It’s a very complex deal, it’s a very high-hand level deal, if you want, which involves many, many different parties and this is why it takes a lot of time. But the strategy behind it is clear. It’s true that in the end there are some deadlines that we cannot miss. So I don’t have the 100 percent guarantee that the deal will go through because we have to respect some deadlines. But we know enough today that… this is something we can trust and it’s just that there are some deadlines and we don’t want to miss them because that could jeopardise a little bit the deal.
AT: And what deadlines are these, could you elaborate?
EB: It’s my problem, my deadlines.
AT: I also wanted to talk to you about the financial issues. A lot has been written about the financial issues at Lotus but how serious were the financial issues? You signed your deal with the Dubai property firm and now you’re in talks with quantum to close that deal. Without that funding, how difficult would it have made next year in terms of the budget?
EB: No, you mixed two different things. First of all, we think the budget for one year, where we want to be. The problem today is the revenue, to get at the level we are, even if we have the lowest budget let’s say of the top five teams. Together, this level, to be competitive, we still don’t get enough revenue from the business model of Formula One. That means the owners have to cover or bridge. So it doesn’t change anything for this year or next year, or the year after. So it is like this – either we increase our revenues if we can, or our owners decide where they want to draw the line. Today they know that the budget we are asking is the minimum we can do to be competitive, we cannot do with less. So there are no other issues on this front. You understand what I mean? So whatever the sponsors we sign or not, it doesn’t change anything for the budget next year or the year after. It’s something which we decide.
AT: So it’s got nothing to do with the sponsorship, your budget?
EB: Nothing, nothing.
AT: But what does it say for the state of the sport where you have… you’re a team which is competing for race wins, you have Sauber which also had financial issues…
EB: Everybody has financial issues.
AT: Yes, seven of the eleven teams have financial issues, but that’s what I’m saying, what does that say about the state of Formula One today?
EB: It just says that some people, at the CVC level maybe… we understand their position. They want to cash in, they need to keep the value of Formula One very high for the upcoming IPO but at the same time they need the teams to run the show. So, there is maybe a better balance. But it’s too late to discuss this. We all have signed a commercial agreement so I think the key now is to make sure we can put the costs down to keep a very high quality show and sport like we have today and at least we will save, let’s say, a majority of the teams.
AT: But again, keeping the costs down, you have the RRA, the teams are policing it and the teams can’t agree on anything. So what is the solution to keep the costs down?
EB: I don’t know yet. Today there is more and more talk in the paddock, more and more discussion about the fact that F1 needs to cut costs. So this is maybe one of the very few positions we all agree with. So I think we don’t know how to do it. So there is still some room to open the books, to put the proper reinforcement in place but we are going to come with a solution.
AT: Some team principals have also said that the best way would be to get a third party like the FIA to regulate the costs. Is that something you are in favour of?
EB: No. I would be in favour of a proper reinforcement from the FIA because you need to have obviously a police in the system. But I think it’s better if the teams can sit down with FOM and the FIA and have a three party, if you want, discussion with a clear proposal, and then put in place a proper reinforcement. And then, yes, that is the solution for me.
AT: Moving on to the Strategy Group. You’re a part of the Strategy Group, there was a meeting on Monday. Do you think that’s a democratic body because you have six teams, six FOM votes, six FIA votes, so what about the smaller mid-field and back end teams?
EB: This is very democratic and I will explain to you why. In an ideal world, if you seat everybody down at the same table, you will never get anything, okay? Nothing. And as Bernie has said many times, you need a little bit of dictatorship in this world, if not you will never go one way, because everybody is so selfish that he is trying to drag the discussion into his favour, or let’s say it’s everyone for himself. So if you have twenty parties on the table, you will go nowhere. So this is why there was a smaller group to try to discuss, it’s not discussing about the way F1 should be, but it’s just talking about different positions. Don’t forget the Strategy Group is reporting to the F1 Commission where everybody is sitting. So which means everybody has a voice on what is going on. It’s just that instead of bringing a hundred topics to the table, we clean this and we bring the most important to the F1 Commission. But every topic will go through the F1 Commission so everybody will have a word to say.
AT: But there were some fears that the bigger teams might use the Strategy Group to bring in customer cars. Is that a concern you share. Are you in favour of customer cars?
EB: I don’t think the teams are in favour of customer cars except maybe Red Bull.
AT: And Ferrari probably as well?
AT: No? No customer cars?
EB: The reason why customer cars is (being talked about) – you have to think, if you are the owner or responsible for the sport as a business, you have to think about what will happen in five years. If we lose teams, what will happen in five years. So I think it’s one of the ideas to protect the sport against the turbulence, let’s say, we are going through. As you know, most of the teams aren’t getting enough revenue, or let’s say it’s costing too much. At the same time, I think there is some other way to protect F1 and maybe make sure there is a guarantee of six-seven teams which are capable of building maybe a third car and running three cars. That for me will be the solution, to allow, maybe one day, teams to run three cars to make sure we have enough cars on the grid, if the grid is shrinking.
AT: Moving on to lighter subjects now – Romain. He’s has had an incredible turnaround from a year ago. You’ve been part of that process. How has he gone about that? You’ve seen it from behind the scenes. How has he worked to put those issues behind him?
EB: This is the strength of an athlete, if you want, to be able to build his mental strength. It’s just you know I did my job to put protection around him to make sure he can recover, build up and obviously bounce back. But the job he did himself. He went through a very difficult time last year, end of the year, and beginning of this year and just now he could finally get rid of the, let’s say, wrong parts and just build up and you can see now every session he’s clearly getting stronger and stronger.
AT: But like you said, for your part you put in the support mechanism for him to be able to do that. So as a team manager how do you go about it because you don’t want to be too hard on him but at the same time you want to support him and how do you go about that?
EB: I don’t know. It’s a balance. You have to be strong and soft. We have a French saying – you have an iron hand in a silk glove.
AT: And Kimi. He’s leaving the team. You brought him back to Formula One, you gave him an environment that he could thrive in, he has thrived in, is it a bit of a disappointment for you, do you feel a little let down by his decision to leave?
EB: Yes, a little bit. Because obviously we were expecting to keep building the nice story that we had built. But then you have to see the position he is in. We had a nice story, build up, nice everything. But at least you can see the value of this team as well. Having Romain now stepping up, it means the team is good, the guys in Enstone are delivering a good car and building a performing car. That’s the most important thing. So that means we have helped Kimi to be back. Kimi has helped us to grow up, if you want. But we have a good team and we have good people so the future should be bright for this place.
AT: I think Kimi did a 60-second clip where your name was mentioned and he had to say the next word that came to his mind. Eric Boullier and he said friend, so is that relationship still as strong as it was?
EB: It’s more about respect. I think Kimi is respecting the team a lot here and obviously we do respect the driver he is.
Image courtesy Octane Photographic