In an overnight move, Colin Kolles and a Swiss-Arabian consortium have taken over Caterham F1 from unlucky team boss and airline owner Tony Fernandes. Here’s the story behind all that.
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If you have a low-budget F1 team that doesn’t work, pick up the phone and ring Colin Kolles. The Romanian qualified dentist has built up a reputation as the sport’s foremost caretaker team principal or managing director. His return to the F1 paddock since his departure from HRT in 2012 doesn’t really come as a surprise, least to himself: “I will always be connected to Formula One for as long as it exists.” Based in Germany, at the start of the decade, Kolles established an F3 team called Kodewa together with his father Romulus.
I am not here for charity reasons. Only partners who pay will be on the car.
Only five years later, he was appointed as Managing Director of Jordan Grand Prix by its new owner, Russian investor Alex Shnaider. Following the team’s next takeovers by Spyker and then Force India, he remained as managing director. When Force India chairman Vijay Mallya decided to take over the role of team principal for 2009, Kolles returned to Kodewa competing in the Le Mans Series. He left the position in December 2011. When Eric Boullier was under fire as Lotus team boss, Kolles was already rubbing his hands. But Kimi Raikkonen’s outstanding displays saved the Frenchman’s neck and the tooth doctor had to return to set up his next coup. Most recently, he was engaged in planning the entry of a new Romanian team called Forza Rossa to the F1 grid for next year. The 46-year-old immediately rejected claims he could simply strip Caterham off its F1 license and use it for his own “Forza Rossa” project. “This is a Malaysian company, running under a Malaysian flag currently. It has nothing to do with the Romanian project. This company has the entry and you cannot transfer this. If that company no longer exists you lose the entry. The entry is related not to a name, but a company number.”
Although former Dutch F1 driver Christijan Albers is officially running the team, while Kolles is classified as an “advisor”, the Romanian is most likely the one pulling the strings. Especially, since he was Albers’ team boss in F1 at Midland and Spyker. The Dutchman was also behind the wheel for Kolles’ DTM team “Futurecom” and in Le Mans this year. Regardless of his methods, the bloodhound boss can put the spurs on any team member. Jobs will be lost after Caterham’s change of ownership Kolles has admitted. “In terms of performance, we have to look into this. And we are looking into this”, he announced at the official takeover press conference.
Only a few days later, Kolles has started cleaning out what he called a “complete mess. At present, the team has more staff than similar competitors. Sometimes you have to make unpopular decisions. But I prefer to have 200 safe jobs than 300 lost jobs,” he said. The new man at the Caterham helm was referring to the fact that the grid’s weakest team has even more employees than midfield chargers Force India, but have yet to score a point, while the Asian outfit has already pocketed 91 in the 2014 season. In 2012, the Caterham F1 team made a pre-tax profit of £4.8 million on revenue of £46.7 million, on the back of a sponsorship deal from General Electric worth £9 million a year. However, General Electric and Airbus – the latter came in on a barter-deal with now-departed aviation entrepreneur Tony Fernandes – are already off the car and more partners will follow. “I am not here for charity reasons. Only partners who pay will be on the car.
“It’s not a question of surviving or not surviving. The question is at what level? We have to put the team financially straight and restructure the whole company. Moreover, you have to put upgrades on the car and find the best performing driver/car package.” To move the team forward, Kolles urgently needs more funds, which might also affect the current driver line-up, number 1 Kamui Kobayashi in particular. However, Swede Marcus Ericsson’s drive isn’t safe either. Red Bull backed Carlos Sainz Jr., son of World Rally legend Carlos Sainz and managed by Red Bull Motorsport director Dr Helmut Marko, have already contacted Caterham. Sainz would already be the second “Bull” joining a Kolles-led team: In 2011, Daniel Ricciardo made his F1 debut driving for HRT.
The Caterham CT05 has not performed well in 2014 and looks likely to finish last in the constructor’s championship, which means the team will miss out on millions of pounds of prize money. “I have had meetings with the management and the drivers. The last driver I sacked out of Formula One was Christijan Albers and he’s my team principal today. This should give you a taste of how I deal with people.” Caterham was one of three new teams to join the Formula 1 grid in 2010, only two of which remain in the sport the third, HRT collapsed some time ago, notably, Kolles was involved in that project too. Caterham finished 10th in the championship for their first three seasons but finished 11th last year.
The last driver I sacked out of Formula One was Christijan Albers and he’s my team principal today. This should give you a taste of how I deal with people.
If they fail to finish in the top 10 again this season, it will cost them millions of pounds in prize money. The Oxfordshire-based team’s name Caterham will remain and the outfit will remain at Leafield “for the moment”. It is well known that Kolles himself disposes of motorsport premises in Germany.
The dark side
When the renowned Campos Team entered Formula One in 2011, the Spaniards couldn’t get their act together. Kolles saved the project capitalising on his good relations with German auto parts suppliers like Holzer, Performance, Kalex und FCE Solutions and professionalised the team. However, when Spanish investors Thesan Capital bought the team, they insisted on moving it to Valencia. Not only did the venue change mean two steps back in professionalism, but it also cost 120 Kolles employees their jobs and him a lot of money.
The key player in the deal was today’s Formula E director Alejandro Agag. Back then the son-in-law of Spain’s government leader Jose Maria Aznar was running the F1 support series GP2, The Opus Dei member also profited from other F1 deals, such as Telefonica’s sponsorship of Renault in the days of Fernando Alonso. For once, Kolles was passed the buck, as he usually finds himself in the passer’s spot. In July 2013, it emerged that Kolles had tried to blackmail Mercedes-Benz Motorsport boss Toto Wolff. Revealing that he was forced to sell his stakes in Williams F1, the Austrian had allegedly made negative remarks about then-Mercedes team boss Ross Brawn, sporting director Niki Lauda and Daimler chairman Dieter Zetsche. Kolles had taped the phone call and later threatened to release these details of their conversation unless Wolff paid a sum of money.
Wolff stated that he had settled the dispute with the intervention of Formula 1 supremo Bernie Ecclestone, while Mercedes has obtained a court order preventing the publication of the details of the conversation. Kolles refused to comment. In the run-up to the 2014 edition of the 24 hrs of Le Mans, he was in a legal dispute with designer Stephane Chosse, who worked on Kolles’ sports car foray as well as in F1 with HRT and was pursuing him for EUR 2 million in unpaid fees. The sportscar ran in Le Mans and the court meeting was postponed. Concerning Kolles’ Forza Rossa, supported by Romanian Ferrari exclusive distributor and former Minister of Health, Ion Bazac, has also raised some eyebrows in the paddocks. The FIA has accepted the new team’s entry application for the 2015 season based on the condition that Forza Rossa puts down a bank guarantee worth USD 20 million on the weekend of the Austrian GP.
However, that did not materialise and the FIA has not made any further comments on Forza Rossa since.