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'King' Mallya still driven to make his team a force

Vijay Mallya's vision is for Force India, currently fifth in the constructors' standings, to enter the top four next year and fight for podium spots in 2017.
Vijay Mallya's vision is for Force India, currently fifth in the constructors' standings, to enter the top four next year and fight for podium spots in 2017.ST PHOTO: KUA CHEE SIONG

It is not too difficult to bring out the flamboyant and slightly whimsical side of Indian businessman Vijay Mallya.

Sometimes, all it takes is a simple question, such as: "Why did you decide to start your own Formula One team?"

A wry smile, and the 59-year-old replies: "My mum said the first word I uttered as a baby was 'car'."

No further explanation, as if his answer was perfectly normal and obvious.

Yet it goes a long way in explaining why, in a sport full of characters, he is thriving as the only remaining Asian owner, after Malaysian aviation mogul Tony Fernandes pulled Caterham Racing out of F1 last season over cost concerns.

BAD MOVE

I'm not the only Indian who is disappointed that the race is gone. It is in the best interests of F1 to have a presence in strong future markets like India.

VIJAY MALLYA on the dropping of the Indian Grand Prix last year over political issues

Stories abound of Mallya's extravagance. He once dished out US$1.8 million (S$2.52 million) to buy a handful of Mahatma Gandhi's belongings in an auction, and another US$240,000 for the sword of a former ruler of Mysore.

A native of Kolkata (then Calcutta), he took over the United Breweries Group at age 28 from his father, who died of a heart attack.

He went on a spending spree over the years, acquiring companies in the paint, engineering, aviation and liquor industries.

Today, the conglomerate boasts annual sales of over US$4 billion and is India's largest beer producer with a market share of around 48 per cent by volume, led by the iconic Kingfisher brand.

Mallya was a billionaire by 2007, the same year he shelled out €90 million (S$142.4 million) for the Spyker team, renaming it Force India.

"I didn't name it Kingfisher or Mallya - I did it to put India on the F1 map," he notes proudly.

In truth, it seemed like a vanity project at first. The VJM01 car - named after you-know-who - failed to pick up a single point in the team's 2008 debut season.

Rather than accept the status quo, he spoke out for smaller teams, demanding fairer access to engines, research and backroom staff.

It has taken time - ironic for such a high-octane sport - but last year, Force India clinched their first podium, third at the Bahrain Grand Prix. This season, they lie fifth in the constructors' championship.

Quite an achievement for a team with a reported budget of €130 million, far less than the €465-million kitty of ninth-placed McLaren.

A member of the Indian Parliament's Upper House, Mallya decides to show his feisty side when talking about his team's achievements.

"Numbers mean nothing, I have 382 employees - these are my results," he said, spreading his arms out. And in an apparent taunt at McLaren, he adds: "Other guys have 600 staff and are still behind us. My people have quality, talent and commitment."

Once known as "the king of good times" for hosting flashy parties on his yachts and homes across the globe, Mallya admits he no longer has the time to be at every F1 race.

He trusts his staff, led by respected technical director Andrew Green, to fulfil his vision of cracking the top four next season and challenging for podiums in 2017.

Two iPhones on his desk buzz incessantly during his 20-minute interview, organised by team sponsor NEC. Yet he never loses focus, even as staff also stand waiting at the entrance of his makeshift office in Force India's Marina Bay paddock.

Still, behind the diamond earring and a neatly-cropped ponytail, he has had to deal with some messy setbacks.

Kingfisher Airlines, which he launched in 2005, was grounded after years of financial woes, with debtors and unpaid staff currently lining up court cases.

Mallya, who has been married twice with three children, insists the saga will not take him away from sport, which he relishes for the "competitive element".

His company owns stakes in two Indian football teams, as well as Royal Challengers Bangalore, a cricket outfit in the popular Indian Premier League.

Nonetheless, as his mother once told him, cars remain his first love.

He reportedly owns a fleet of Ferraris, Lamborghinis and Bugattis. All in bright colours, of course.

However, the mention of the Indian GP - staged from 2011 to 2013 but not held since due to political issues - drains the smile from his face.

He said: "I'm not the only Indian who is disappointed that the race is gone. It is in the best interests of F1 to have a presence in strong future markets like India."

To ensure he is not the last Indian to leave a mark in the sport, Force India launched the "One in a Billion" talent search in 2011.

Three young Indians earned fully paid driver development training in Europe, with the aim of competing in F1 like one-time Lotus driver Karun Chandhok.

One of them, 17-year-old Jehan Daruvala, piques the interest of Mallya. He said: "The boy is a star in the making, but you can't just jump from a go-kart to an F1 car. As long as there are Indian talents like him around, I will do my best to make their dreams come true."

nsanjay@sph.com.sg

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 21, 2015, with the headline ''King' Mallya still driven to make his team a force'. Print Edition | Subscribe