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Cyril Abiteboul , Managing Director Renault Sport F1/Aeronautical Engineer

Interview, 15 March 2016

Serving as Managing Director, Paris native Cyril Abiteboul is the man heading up Renaults comeback into the world of Formula 1. At only 38 years of age the pressure is mounting on his shoulders but Abiteboul is no stranger neither to Formula 1 or being the guy everybody counts on to get it right.

With the opener of the 2016 Formula 1 season just around the corner, one of the classic institutions in motor sports, Renault, is set to make its comeback in the constructors series of the most prestigious racing circus on the planet. Cyril Abiteboul is the man hand picked to revive the auto giant’s reputation as a contender in the toughest, fastest and most glamorous branch in the world of racing.

Holding a degree in Aeronautical Engineering from the prestigious Grenoble INP, Abiteboul got his start in Formula 1 as early as 2001 when he joined Renault and quickly rose through the ranks. By 2007 he was the Executive Director for Renault Sport F1.

In 2012 Abiteboul left to join British team Caterham where he was appointed Team Principal, succeeding airline tycoon and team owner Tony Fernandes at the helm. He then spent two years with the outfit before returning to Renault in 2014 as Managing Director.

Formula 1 has always captivated its audience with the allure of fast cars, charismatic drivers, a glamorous lifestyle, fierce competition and speed. However, in recent years critics have voiced concerns that the sport has been stripped of their flamboyant personalities and that technology has taken a step too far, leaving it more up to engineers and computers to win races rather than actual drivers.

As hardcore fans of motor sports and somewhat on the same page as most critics today, we caught up with Cyril Abiteboul to talk about the revival of Renault, a sport screaming for charismatic drivers and the necessity to build a complete team of top notch professionals in order to achieve in todays world of Formula 1.

With Renault coming back into the F1 circus and with everything being under construction, what is the goal for the season?

– Obviously it’s not going to be an easy season because we decided to come back into F1 at a very late stage, and you cannot really expect us to be fighting for the championship so soon. The final decision to acquire the team was made on the 18th of December last year and everything went really fast from then on. This first season will count of course, maybe not in terms of podium places and wins but in terms of putting the ambition, the right people and the structure of the team in place. It’s important to build a solid platform from which the team can move forward. We need to invest in the organization, new equipment and more importantly, the brand. Because at the end of the day a Formula 1 team is a brand, and we need to create a story and the right content so that we can engage with the fans, because we believe that more can be done in that respect. These are the sort of things we have on the roadmap for the coming year to be honest.

In many ways Renault already has a broad fan base and a strong brand, what prompted you to make the decision to bringing them back to Formula 1?

– It was mainly a decision driven by a marketing strategy. I am a racer myself, so everyone will expect me to want to go racing but my voice didn’t really count. What counted in the end was the voice of the CEO for Renault and Nissan, Carlos Ghosn, and he is not someone who will make a decision based on emotion. Renault is looking to venture into new markets such as China, Russia and India and that can be achieved by positioning ourselves as a competitor to brands like Mercedes, Ferrari and McLaren. This gives us a fantastic opportunity from a marketing perspective. Secondly, Renault was previously viewed as an engine supplier to many big teams but by only doing that you do not control the car, the drivers and ultimately the brand. The necessity to control the whole package is increasing every year so that was also behind the decision to come back as a full team.

F1 is arguably the most competitive division in sports today, where every mistake goes punished and where the tuning of motors and aerodynamics is where the races are won and lost. How much pressure do you face as a managing director to have the team perform every two weeks?

– It’s a lot of pressure but it all comes down to the organization in the end. To be calm, organized and super efficient is key. You also need to understand that it can only be possible with the right organization, the right people and the right structure. This is a team sport and in my organization there are roughly around 1000 people involved. Sure you have the drivers and the guys working the pit, but to manufacture the car you see every Sunday there is a very big machinery and a lot of people involved. You have to be the best in every aspect when it comes to managing a company like this, that is a big pressure but also a relief because the pressure is not only on me but also on the organization as a whole.

At the unveiling of the first Renault F1 car in six years

Out of all the kids who start out racing Go-karts at the age of 7 there is a very small percentage that finally make it to Formula 1. Is it the same with every member of the team, that only the very best are hand picked to be part of the structure that forms a Formula 1 team?

– Sure, but in life you also have to be at the right place at the right time. I think there are quite a few drivers out there that never made it into F1 even though they were skilled enough for it. It requires, among other things, a huge financial support to compete in F1 and not everybody can come up with that kind of money. I think the main thing for any member of the team is that you have to be extremely passionate about the sport to fit in the environment. It’s really a lifestyle to be in this circus. You travel to different parts of the world and you are away from home maybe 100 to 150 days a year so it’s a big choice for yourself but also for your family. Of course training, talent, skill and education will matter but at the end of the day you need to have a huge passion for the sport and be willing to sacrifice a lot.

"Something as simple as reading a book is a luxury I can’t afford because there is always something I should be doing"

How did you go about picking the drivers for Renault’s comeback and what were the attributes, both technical and psychological, that you were looking for?

– A mix really, some of the drivers were already under contract with the team that we acquired but we decided to go for Danish driver Kevin Magnussen, which is something I am super happy about. Especially this season, what we need more than anything is a leader. You need a charismatic guy who can show the rest of the world what this team is about; and with Kevin I think we have the perfect candidate for that position. Also Jolyon Palmer, who is a new driver in F1 this year and Esteban Ocon, who won in GP3 before joining us – all of those three drivers come from winning in previous categories in which they have competed. That shows that they are serious and also that we as a team are serious about going into this season with passion and a winning mentality.

You worked with Swedish driver Marcus Ericsson at Caterham who was racing under pretty tough conditions technically, how do you assess him as a driver?

– I liked working with him and the people around him a lot. He was a straightforward person and a bit easy going, but when he stepped into the car he knew what he was doing very well and you didn’t have to tell him anything twice. It was a mix of calm and self-confidence without being arrogant. He also accepted that the car and the equipment at Caterham was not the best but he never complained about that. That’s one of the difficulties with the drivers that they sometimes get cars that are below average, but the bigger teams often see their potential anyway. Marcus deserves to be in Formula 1 and I am happy that he was able to switch teams to Sauber and I think this will be a make it or break it kind of year for him.

Abiteboul with French basketball star Tony Parker

"I think we need to get better at explaining what F1 represents and what it’s all about because it’s much more than just two cars racing against each other on a Sunday afternoon"

For someone who has been involved in the F1 world for years, if you jump outside of your current role for a second - how would you assess the state of the sport as it is today?

– Well I would say that Formula 1 faces quite a lot of challenges today. Maybe going from point A to point B as quickly as possible doesn’t really interest people anymore. We are talking about autonomous cars that basically drive themselves today and of course this is a challenge. Also the economic model and the format of Formula 1 needs to evolve, you know sitting in front of your TV for two hours watching cars going around the track may be an intellectual game that doesn’t necessarily fit the younger generation who demand there be action at all times. These are all big challenges for us. What gives me hope is that I continue to see a lot of value in it; the fan base is not growing as it should but neither is it diminishing. Secondly I believe it is what everyone wants to hear about, the mix between man and machine and also what it takes to manage a Formula 1-team, covering all angles to make sure everything is in place and working as it should. I think it’s a perfect example of what modern businesses are exposed to. I think we need to get better at explaining what F1 represents and what it’s all about because it’s much more than just two cars racing against each other on a Sunday afternoon.

Could it also come down to the lack of a real personality among the drivers today, that the old days of larger-than-life characters are fading away from the world of F1?

– Correct, you are of course absolutely right. The age of the drivers today are getting lower and lower and I think we need more proper “men” - and I’m not saying the drivers today are not proper men - but you see drivers fan bases growing with the number of years they have spent in the sport and as they grow older. We also have to look at regulations; the cars need to be difficult to drive. Only the experienced drivers should be able to cope with the power, down force, the grip and so on. Today, young drivers are able to compete and I think that might be sending the wrong message to the fans and the public.

What was it that fascinated you about motor sports in your younger days?

– I grew up in the late 80’s, early 90’s and was exposed to the glory days of Formula 1 so I came up watching Alain Prost, Ayrton Senna and those guys. It was actually a coincidence that I started working in F1 but once you’re in it it’s hard to let go because of the competitive nature and the politics of the sport. You become a bit addicted to it because of the challenges it brings and because it is so fascinating to be a part of.

With the stress that surely comes with your job, what do you do to relax in your spare time?

– Every time I get some time off I make sure I get away from civilization and try to connect with nature. I love sailing or windsurfing and being close to the ocean or to be in the mountains snowboarding or skiing. Other than that, as soon as I’m connected to a mobile phone or a laptop it’s completely impossible to disconnect because my work never really stops. Unfortunately the moments where I can switch off are few and far between. Something as simple as reading a book is a luxury I can’t afford because there is always something I should be doing; and this is my biggest regret when it comes to my line of work. It’s practically impossible to immerse myself with culture and stuff like that.

Testing of the new Renault F1 car in Barcelona in March 2016

So, from one thing to another, what is the goal for Renault over the course of a five-year period?

– To be successful on the track, something I think is absolutely achievable. The goal is also to create a great story around the brand of Renault and to find new ambassadors, as well as contributing to the sport of Formula 1 and making it as great as we all know it can be.