Women making waves


AGPOP14_WomenInF1-page-0One was born into Formula One royalty; the other came from a world so far away from F1 that her mere presence in the sport is a remarkable story in itself. But Williams deputy team principal Claire Williams and Sauber team principal Monisha Kaltenborn have much in common despite their markedly different routes to the elite level of motor racing. For one, they’re women making their mark in what has traditionally been the most male of workplaces; for another, they both recognise that they have a responsibility to inspire the next generation of women to strive for the top.

As the daughter of Sir Frank Williams, who has run his eponymous F1 team since 1977, it seemed almost pre-ordained that Claire Williams would work for the family business at some point. Not so, says 37-year-old Williams, a politics graduate from Newcastle University in the UK whose first job in motorsport came when she worked for the press office at Silverstone after her graduation.

Despite her father bringing his ‘work’ home with him and some childhood experiences that most kids don’t have (“I have really happy memories of heading to the beach at Zandvoort with Nigel Mansell and him buying us ice-creams!”), Williams says her ascension to the role of deputy team principal wasn’t part of the plan when she joined the team’s communications department in the early 2000s.

“Dad never wanted me to work for Williams anyway, so it wasn’t a case of him wanting to bring me into the office, take me under his wing and show me the ropes and how to run a business – there was no way that was ever on the agenda,” she laughs over tea at the Williams factory in Grove, Oxfordshire.

“He was always far too busy for that kind of thing anyway. So it was very much a behind-the-scenes, watch from the perimeter and absorb it approach rather than actually having first-hand instruction.”

Williams clearly listened and paid attention, so much so that she was promoted to her current role in May last year. Her brief is diverse and far-reaching; she’s responsible for the marketing, communications, and – perhaps most importantly given the financial demands of the sport – commercial sides of the business, charged with the task of finding the necessary sponsorship money to keep the team on the grid. Watching her father survive through Williams’ financially-fraught early days, and then persevere after the 1986 road accident that left him in a wheelchair when Claire was nine years old, has taught her the values of persistence – and it’s not just her father’s trademark determination that has rubbed off.

“One of the greatest lessons I’ve ever learned from Dad is to remain calm,” she says.

“One of my biggest responsibilities now is to generate income to keep us racing, and that’s a big responsibility for an independent team. When I was growing up, over the winters there was that whole ‘are we going to get the budget together or are we not?’, living on a bit of a knife-edge. But Dad would always take it in his stride, and always believed that if you worked hard enough, you would get your just rewards. Perhaps that’s influenced me, as I’m naturally quite calm about it, and generally believe that if you work hard enough, you’ll get what you want.”

That same penchant for hard work – and a life so full of geographic twists and turns of fate that it sounds like a movie script – also applies two garages down the Albert Park pit lane at Sauber, where Kaltenborn has taken the most unlikely of journeys to the top.

Born in India, Kaltenborn moved to Austria when she was eight, and she eventually completed a law degree at the University of Vienna, following that with her Masters in international business law in London. From there, she worked in Germany, where she met and married her husband Jens, and then in Liechtenstein, where she worked for a legal firm where one of the owners was a co-owner of Sauber.

In 2000, team founder Peter Sauber hired her to run Sauber’s legal department, and after a decade in which Kaltenborn combined her job with becoming a mother to son Nirek and daughter Mandira, Sauber appointed her as the team’s CEO in 2010. Two years later, making good on a promise he made to not be running the team after his 70th birthday, Sauber handed over the reins to Kaltenborn, making her the first female team principal in the sport’s history.

The 42-year-old Kaltenborn, who admits to still getting a thrill from the roll-out of Sauber’s new car at the start of each season, concedes her gender was, at least initially, a talking point.

“In the beginning people were surprised, because if talks came up of engines or contracts, they expected a man to appear,” she says.

“Negotiations in Formula One are tough, so being a woman doesn’t really make any difference. It took a while for people to get over the ‘what’s a woman doing here?’, but I never felt discriminated against.

“My main challenge is finding the right strategy to guide the company through difficult times – striking the right balance between financial and technical needs – and maintaining a high level of competitiveness.”

Their paths to senior managerial positions in F1 could scarcely have been more contrasting, but Williams and Kaltenborn share the sentiment that their gender makes little difference despite working in a sport that has, until now, been a male-dominated domain. While stopping short of considering herself a trailblazer for other women with aspirations of working in F1 – “even saying that scares me!” – Williams says she and Kaltenborn show that it’s possible.

“Myself or Monisha … we always say it’s not about gender, it’s about ability – but the important thing is that if we are in these positions, we use the opportunity to encourage other girls into our sport,” she says.

“It’s a great environment we’re lucky enough to work in, and more women should be a part of that environment to experience the world of Formula One and how great it can be. So whatever we can do in our positions as female role models to encourage girls into our sport, then we absolutely should be doing that.”

With additional reporting by Eric Maitland


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