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Yonhap (Korean News Agency)
Tony Fernandes hoping for success with F1 racing, football teams
By Yoo Jee-ho
YEONGAM, South Korea, Oct. 14 (Yonhap) -- Tony Fernandes, a successful Malaysian entrepreneur, has made a career out of making something out of nothing. Notably, the 48-year-old has turned AirAsia, a struggling, government-linked airline, into Asia's largest budget carrier.
Fernandes hopes to pull off the same trick with his fledgling Formula One (F1) racing team, Caterham.
Fernandes is visiting Yeongam, 400 kilometers south of Seoul, and the site of the F1 Korean Grand Prix. In an interview with Yonhap News Agency, the Kuala Lumpur-native spoke of his desire to once again apply his magic touch to Caterham, for which he serves as the team principal.
The team entered F1 as Lotus Racing in 2010 and was renamed Caterham for this season after Fernandes acquired the British car manufacturer Caterham Cars and applied for the name change.
Tony Fernandes, head of AirAsia and team principal for F1 team Caterham, speaks during an interview with Yonhap News Agency on Oct. 14, 2012, in Yeongam, South Korea. (Yonhap)
"My expertise is to take brands and make them into bigger things," he said. "Caterham is a fantastic brand, unknown in the world. I can hopefully make it into something."
Fernandes said his goal is to build "affordable luxury" vehicles for the middle class.
"If you look in Asia, there's either budget or five-star or six-star, and there's very little in the middle class," he said. "(My goal is) to take Caterham and do what we did with AirAsia for affordable luxury. The F1 team will be very useful in providing us with the branding for our products."
Caterham's drivers, Heikki Kovalainen and Vitaly Petrov, have yet to earn points from races this season. Fernandes said Caterham "took a big risk" in installing blown diffusers on its machines this season. The move hasn't paid immediate dividends, but Fernandes said he believes it was the "right strategy."
"I feel very good that we're moving in the right direction," Fernandes said. "It can get off up to a second in performance. We've only got 10 percent of that so far. It's definitely worth doing, but it's hard to do."
Fernandes is a familiar name among South Korean fans of English football. His Queens Park Rangers (QPR) in the English Premier League acquired Park Ji-sung, a popular South Korean midfielder, from Manchester United. Park was named team captain, becoming the first Asian to serve in that role for a Premier League side.
Fernandes, who became the team's chairman and the majority shareholder last year, said he takes the same approach with the football team that he does with other business ventures.
"QPR is a very small club hopefully I can make it into something bigger," he said of the team that is playing in the top division Premier League for the first time in 15 years. "QPR will help me with what I am doing. In Korea, no one knew AirAsia. But because of football, everyone knows AirAsia."
Fernandes said he had often been asked why he didn't buy into bigger clubs, such as Manchester United or Liverpool. He said he didn't want to "buy someone else's success."
"I want to build QPR from nothing to something special," he said. "It's much harder. I could fail. But it's a much better prize if you succeed because it's something we did."
QPR has stumbled out of the gate this season, however, having managed only two draws and five losses. The team has given up 16 goals and netted only six so far.
Fernandes said the team should turn things around before all is said and done.
"It's a long season so let's not panic," he said. "The team is good. We've just got to get our players fit."
Park, as the team captain, has borne the brunt of criticism. His owner defended him as "a top class player and a fantastic guy," and said as an Asian himself, he was "proud" of having an Asian captain on his club.
"It's a new experience for him in that he's never played so much (on Manchester United)," Fernandes said. "He also has to adjust to new players. I am not the sort of person that's going to write people off after six or seven games."
Fernandes, who is also president of the ASEAN Basketball League for teams in Southeast Asia and runs a hotel chain, said everything he'd dreamed about has come true. He said he already has his plate full for the next two decades, but that doesn't mean he will slow down anytime soon.
"You live your life once," Fernandes said with a smile. "If you want to live a cautious and boring life, then it's no fun."
firstname.lastname@example.org Yonhap News
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