Will Gray

Gray Matter: Sauber’s influential new leader

Will Gray

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This weekend's Indian Grand Prix will be a special one for new Sauber boss Monisha Kaltenborn — but where did the sport's first female team principal come from and how will she shape the future?

Team boss Peter Sauber has big boots to fill and Kaltenborn, who grew up in the foothills of the Himalayas in India's rural Uttarakhand province, has been chosen as the person he entrusts with taking up the task, taking over the reigns at his team for the last race in Korea.

Sauber's departure has been long planned but it was a surprise for it to come in mid-season, when on the track Sauber are chasing down Mercedes and off it the new Concorde Agreement negotiations are reaching a critical stage.

The trained lawyer, whose parents moved the entire family from Dehradun to Vienna when she was nine to give her a better education, worked for the UN and several legal firms before ending up at Fritz Kaiser Group, whose boss was co-owner of Sauber, in 1998. She was taken on to work on the team's legal side and when Kaiser sold his shares in 2001 she stayed on, joined the management board at the age of 30 and became CEO in 2010 after BMW left the team.

Her profile has been raised in the media in recent years but only now does she have full control of the team — and that brings with it some important changes for both Sauber and the sport as a whole.

For the team, Sauber's departure has not changed the structure at the factory — like Martin Whitmarsh when Ron Dennis stepped aside at McLaren, Kaltenborn already had lead of operational aspects — but it does change things at the racetrack. Although it may seem minor, given the team nature of the sport, the ultimate race strategy responsibility is now on her shoulders and the team may miss the immense experience that Peter Sauber offered on the pit wall.

But it is in the negotiating rooms where it will be most interesting to see how Kaltenborn's position develops.

The team bosses were once described as 'the Piranha Club' for their hard-nosed business nature but Kaltenborn is already well experienced within the group and now she has Sauber's vote she is well positioned to exert her influence.

Peter Sauber has always gone about his business in the paddock quietly, but he has always kept his team alive in tough times through timely sponsorship deals, a well-honed relationship with Ferrari and a determination to maintain the power of the independents in a sport that has changed beyond recognition since his team's arrival 19 years ago.

As an independent, Sauber needs to fight its cause from both sides — and it has to make sure it doesn't get crushed as the regulations and structure of the sport develop and change.

After almost dropping off the grid in 2010, Sauber now finds itself just 20 points behind the works Mercedes team in this year's championship battle. It's a strong showing for an independent and is both lucrative in prize money and also in demonstrating value for sponsors and potential future sponsors.

But it's a position that has been achieved thanks, in part, to the stable design rules. When the massive upheaval in F1 regulations comes in 2014, the smaller, less well funded independents will be at a disadvantage and teams like Sauber need to prepare now to ensure they are in a position to cope.

Part of that is to establish the ground rules, and Kaltenborn is a strong supporter of a budget cap. She may be in the minority, but she will push for it and even though it is unlikely to get accepted, if her view can steer thoughts to a more low-budget approach, she will have helped prepare for the potential bumps.

Her other keen target, however, goes beyond the future of Sauber to the future of the sport itself.

She has concerns that F1 is not embracing social media enough compared to rival sports and that a failure to use the medium to draw in and retain a younger audience could threaten the commitment of sponsors in the long-term.

She's right, and while leading teams may be more focused on the detail regulations, her arrival at the negotiating table could be extremely timely.

The departing team boss built his business on trust, and he leaves it in a good place. You can be sure he will have selected his successor carefully — but in such a crucial period, there is still plenty of work ahead and only time will tell whether can retain the level of influence and respect that Sauber has had all these years.

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