F1 boss keen to make it happen

RACING AHEAD: Graeme Lowdon, Marussia F1 team chief executive officer

During qualifying for last year’s German Grand Prix, at the Nurburgring circuit

First published in Leader

IT’S A cliche for the boss of a Formula One team, but Graeme Lowdon seems to live his life in a permanent race against time.

Meeting a deadline to be the first new team to secure a certain engine supplier and consequently receive a large cost discount went down to the nail-biting last few minutes, but he made it.

Then there was a last-minute flight to Monaco to persuade Sir Richard Branson that he should sponsor his team while rivals circled.

He made it then, too.

Even driving North from the Marussia F1 factory in Banbury for a speaking appointment with the Entrepreneurs’ Forum only to find the M1 shut left a few nerves jangling back in Newcastle, but again Graeme didn’t disappoint. He made it.

Taking it to the wire is an oft-used phrase in F1, but few do it with such calm confidence.

Under Graeme’s leadership, while things might be tight, they do happen.

He is a master of not only spotting and seizing an opportunity but also galvanising others to join him on the journey.

His latest venture – taking Manor Motorsport, a relatively junior British team and transforming it into a Formula One team within seven months – cannot be underestimated.

Raising sponsorship, building a team, designing and creating a car capable of lining up on the F1 grid and still being there five years later is an achievement unparalleled in modern sport.

Last weekend, at the 83rd attempt, the team notched up its first ever championship points, when Jules Bianchi finished ninth at the Monaco Grand Prix. With the top ten teams sharing prize money, those points could be worth £30m by the end of the season.

“We were effectively a start-up and the great thing about start-ups is it costs nothing to believe in success. You can be really bold, do some great things and really achieve things because you have nothing to lose,” says Graeme.

The team – born as Manor, evolved into Virgin Racing then reborn in 2012 as Marussia F1 – joining the pinnacle of motorsport in 2010 was made possible because of a change in the rules to limit expenditure. For the first time in years, it gave smaller teams the chance to enter Formula One.

This kind of dislocation in the market was music to the ears of Graeme who had already tasted success with his main business Nomad Digital, which revolutionised internet connections on trains by providing wireless broadband via its Wi-Max technology.

From a life spent around cars – first his dad’s car collection, then being mechanic for a friend in Formula Ford, to working for a company that sponsored a US Indy car team and launching supercar club Vitesse – trying to enter Formula One was a no brainer.

“I would never have forgiven myself if we didn’t have a go,” he says.

EVEN though Manor was the most successful British racing team outside F1, its achievements were done on a shoestring so it was up to Graeme to find the funding for its entry into F1. “It involved having conversations with everyone in the family who was old enough to talk,” he recalls.

“If it had gone wrong we would have lost everything.

“All entrepreneurs will have been on that journey; you reach a stage where you don’t know what’s going to come next. What attracts people to do it is the kick you get out of solving the challenges.”

Graeme was at Le Mans in June 2009 when word came through that the FIA, F1’s governing body, had confirmed their entry.

“We had a few beers that night. But then reality hit: we had to be on the grid in Bahrain in seven months but we had no factory, no car and no designers,” he admits.

A seed funder they were relying on let them down, but by the following month an alternative had been found. Still the team was seeking that big name. “To raise the level of sponsorship we needed in a tiny space of time we had to be able to walk into board rooms around the world and for people to take notice. We needed Virgin.”

IT was while in Gateshead at the Entrepreneurs’ Forum annual entrepreneurial awards in 2009 – when Graeme was awarded the accolade of Entrepreneur of the Year – that his mind wandered to Monaco where the new Brawn team, already backed by Virgin, was expected to clock up another win.

Graeme recalls: “It was the start of the Grand Prix weekend; the whole pit lane was trying to pinch Virgin as sponsors, and I was in Gateshead. It was one of those moments where I thought ‘I’ve got to get on to this’.”

He knew senior people at Virgin since the train operating part of the business was one of Nomad’s biggest customers. Within a few hours he was on a plane to Nice then on Philip Green’s yacht in Monaco harbour. Sir Richard phoned into the negotiations, but said he needed time to think about it.

After a few nail-biting hours, the call came through. Graeme recalls: “It was a very senior guy at Virgin. He said they really liked what we were doing but it wasn’t going to work. Then he said he was pulling my leg – Richard had said yes.” From that point on, Graeme says, pulling it all together has been “a thrill”. Graeme admits he is still learning and the sophistication and complexity of F1 fascinates him. “We call them cars but these things are unbelievable,” he says.

  • For information on the Entrepreneurs’ Forum, visit www.entrepreneursforum.net

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