Non-motorsport fans will automatically associate the name John Booth with the assassin of President Abraham Lincoln in 1865. However, to all petrol heads, John is known as the Team Principal of Marussia F1 and an assassin of a different kind.
The 59-year-old from Rotherham, England, is a very convivial companion. If you know him and walk past the Marussia motorhome at any Grand Prix, chances are high he will wave you in for chat, as if it were a random junior formula event. Booth has made it to F1 via hard work and passion rather than through team politics. “Racing’s not the way it used to be. The business side of F1 takes up the majority of my time. But I still love it”, he admitted.
The sky is the limit
Before entering racing, John was a pilot. “I left school at 15 and started flying. I had ambitions to be a commercial pilot, but then I went to work in the family business in food retail. Until I got to see my first race car, of course”, he laughed. That was at the 1977 Kosset Six Hour race at Silverstone, where Formula Ford cars fascinated him immediately. “When I saw Jim Walsh, who was winning everything at that time, going four wide with some Irish drivers into Woodcote, I was hooked. I bought a Hawke DL19 and went racing. Mind you, we didn’t have a clue what we were doing.” Then-established driver John Village from Sheffield became sort of his mentor and soon Booth started winning regularly. However, for him “driving was serious – but fun. I never really thought further ahead than the next race.” In 1988, he quit racing and picked up running cars for Village in the UK.
Only two years later, he set up Manor Motorsport. The British outfit has won 19 championship titles in Formula Renault, Formula Three Euroseries, etc. since and become a major force in motorracing. Over the years, the former Southern Yorkshire butcher has also become a highly professional Team Principal and businessman, having taught the trade to the Likes of Kimi Raikkonen or Lewis Hamilton. “Kimi ran in karts for a long time, mainly because he couldn’t raise the money for another series until he met the Robertson’s”, Booth recalled, who ran the Finn in Formula Renault, dominating the 2000 British Championship. “Formula Renault used to be the perfect grounding for slicks and wings. Kimi, who was a complete natural, got used to the car after three or four tests and then drove it to its maximum all season. Actually, he seemed a bit bored by it, as there was no challenge for him.” While Booth was planning to move into F3 with the “Iceman”, the driver’s managers, Dave and Steve Robertson, approached the team boss to write a letter of reference for Peter Sauber, who had signalled offering Raikkonen an F1 test. “I was pretty sure he had never even heard of mine and wouldn’t care about my opinion. But I wrote the letter and the rest is history.”
My heart has always been with the British F3 Championship. I say that because the essence of the F3 regulations is almost identical to that of F1. There’s much more freedom in F3 and as a team or as an engineer you can contribute a tremendous amount to the outcome of the race.
With his star driver having flown the nest, a mere co-incidence brought him a new rough diamond – Lewis Hamilton. “My business partner David Matthews runs a hotel in St. Barts and McLaren part-owner Mansour Ojjeh went there on holiday. In short, Mansour arranged for us to visit Martin Whitmarsh at McLaren and when Lewis was ready for cars, Martin gave us a call.” Lewis stayed with the team for two seasons dominating the 2003 British Formula Renault and gaining vital experience in F3 a year later.
A leapfrog forward
Mid-2009 the outfit applied for a spot on the Formula 1 grid for the following season as Manor Grand Prix. However, the name was altered, when billionaire Richard Branson acquired shares and had it changed to Virgin Racing. At the time, Virgin boss Branson bragged, “this will be the lowest-budget team in Formula 1. Money’s not everything”. He was not entirely accurate on the budget matter, as there is always Caterham, but he was most certainly wrong on the money side: because in Formula 1 money is (nearly) everything.
When Branson somewhat lost interest, Russian sports car manufacturer Marussia took over the helm, but Booth remained in charge of operations. And despite his focus on F1, Manor continued to run a minor team, having pulled out of the F3 Euroseries, now in the new-for-2010 GP3 Series. “My heart has always been with the British F3 Championship. I say that because the essence of the F3 regulations is almost identical to that of F1. There’s much more freedom in F3 and as a team or as an engineer you can contribute a tremendous amount to the outcome of the race. But GP3 is nonetheless the standard, even if there’s not much you can do about it if you haven’t got yourself a top-line driver.” The Marussia Virgin GP3 team run by Pete Silwinski finished third in the 2011 championship, once 4th and twice 5th. This season, Dean Stoneman has already pocketed three race victories for the outfit.
2014 is the fifth season since the new teams joined and while Caterham has yet to score their first point, highly talented driver Jules Bianchi made Booth’s dream come true finishing in the points in Monaco this season. ”I think we’ve improved operationally, year in, year out. We look like a proper F1 team now and we operate like one. Retaining Jules (Bianchi) and Max (Chilton) is one extremely valuable ‘known-quantity’ at the start of a season that is full of unknowns. At the same time as making life far simpler from a design and development point of view, from a performance perspective we have two young, highly-motivated and extremely talented drivers who we know are capable of driving our team forward. Although the positions throughout the year were not that different compared to the year before, percentage wise we were much closer to the front”, Booth said. And figures prove him right. The technical changes from 2013 to 2014 were also an exciting opportunity for Marussia and although their drivers are still in the back six of the grid, the time gap has been reduced.
It is obvious that we are very satisfied with Jules and his work. Thus, it is only logical that we want to keep him in 2015, but if Ferrari needs him, it is very clear that he belongs to them.
While Marussia was off the pace of the established teams in Q1 by 2.03 seconds on average in 2012, the gap was reduced to 0.92 seconds in 2013, and is down to 0.34 seconds this season. But naturally, Bianchi’s ninth place finish in the Monegasque principality has been Booth’s F1 highlight so far. “We were overjoyed at the result. It was a fantastic reward for all the hard work and determination, over the past four and a bit seasons.” Thanks to these two points, Marussia still remain ahead of both Sauber and Caterham in the Constructors’ Championship to date and already have one finger in Bernie Ecclestone’s point money pie. However, true racer Booth is ready for more saying: “We’ve been busy improving our car over the summer break and have gained a little more on the Saubers. Reliability issues of other teams (Lotus) also play into our hands.”
25-year-old Frenchman Bianchi, who is the showcase of Ferrari’s driver academy, has impressed since debuting with the backmarkers. “It is obvious that we are very satisfied with Jules and his work. Thus, it is only logical that we want to keep him in 2015, but if Ferrari needs him, it is very clear that he belongs to them”, Booth wasn’t beating about the bush. After all the Banbury-based team “now belongs to the Ferrari family and our relationship is very good”.
While the Ferrari partnership is fruitful, earlier this year, the British-based team split with its Russian supercar-making owner. Marussia President Nikolai Fomenko had stopped production, released all road car engineers and started selling parts of the company. Instead of Marussia Motors, a new company called Marussia Communications Limited breached the gap. But Booth hinted he was not exactly sure what the future looked like for Marussia. “I cannot talk about investors’ guarantees for 2015 and beyond. These are confidential questions, but we have every reason to believe in ourselves and a positive future.”