MONTREAL — Formula One team doctors will treat more serious injuries, to be sure. But at that moment, the Sauber medic had no more important patient.
Monisha Kaltenborn obediently pressed the small bag of ice onto the middle finger of the right hand she rested in her lap — “It’s nothing,” she said — and kept it there for the 15 minutes we sat Friday noon in the Sauber paddock for a talk.
In just a quarter-hour in Kaltenborn’s company, discussing the specifics and abstracts of her life, it was clear to see how Formula One racing could have no better gender trailblazer and role model.
Kaltenborn, 41, is team principal for Sauber, the first woman in F-1 history to be fully in charge of a global outfit competing in the world’s most elite brand of racing.
This weekend’s 44th Canadian Grand Prix is Kaltenborn’s 12th race at the helm of Sauber, the Swiss-based team that employs roughly 300 at its factory in Hinwil and has brought about 65 here to service drivers Esteban Gutièrrez and Nico Hülkenberg and the great many things that go into running a Grand Prix.
Down the paddock, with a richer team, you would find Claire Williams, the deputy principal of the team founded by her father, Sir Frank Williams.
The two women are hugely influential in what forever has been an old boys’ network, a racing league whose decision-makers have, since its beginning more than six decades ago, been men.
Today, Kaltenborn and Williams are highly respected voices, both demonstrating superb and authoritative ability to call virtually every shot in a fantastically expensive sport.
It is Kaltenborn who is called the First Lady of Formula One, a native of Dehradun, India whose family emigrated to Vienna when she was a child.
To trace her professional path in a few words is a disservice to her work ethic and drive. But quickly: Kaltenborn graduated from the University of Vienna with a law degree, earned her Masters in International Business Law at the London School of Economics then worked various jobs of increasing demands before arriving at Sauber a dozen years ago as head of the team’s legal and corporate affairs.
Kaltenborn was appointed Sauber’s chief executive officer in 2010, then last October was named by retiring team founder Peter Sauber to succeed him as team principal, assuming a one-third ownership stake as she did.
Sitting in the Montreal paddock, she considered her learning curve, a sharply arced line on a graph in a sport that is governed, for better or worse, by mathematics.
“When I got into racing, it was something which I really had no idea about,” she said. “But the background I have with my law studies simply allows you to work your way through any new area, which you do effectively in every case that you get.
“Every case is from a different part of life. The legal question might be the same but the subject is usually a very different one. You learn how to approach a new area by asking the right questions to get a good overview. That helped me a lot here.”
As engineers pored over data in a trailer behind her and staff and guests settled into lunch nearby, Kaltenborn spoke in a way of constantly needing to see the entire forest while never losing sight of each tree.
She talked of paying attention to the finest details, of charting timelines in the development of a new car, of digesting executive summaries given her by the specialists who have replaced the “overall generalists” with a supreme expertise in every vital area.
“Things are developing so fast in Formula One that you really have to be on top of it with a good overview,” Kaltenborn said.
“You have to not only fortify yourself with knowledge, but you have to trust the people under you. They’re the specialists and you have to rely on them. And you need to delegate because that’s how they feel the trust and it’s also the responsibility they have.”
It is the ultimate responsibility that perhaps most focuses her, aware that at day’s end, the success of the team and the happiness of its people are on her desk.
Hers is a life of blending human and business relations with the planet’s most brilliant technologies in a bid to succeed in a sport whose target moves nearly as quickly as its cars.
It seems hardly surprising that Kaltenborn says she cherished the thought, as a girl, of being an astronaut.
“I do regret (not being one) sometimes,” she said, laughing. “I see how much easier it is now to get into such programs than it was when I was that age.
“I think somewhere it has a little in common with what I’m doing now. You are very much at that cutting edge, you’re doing something which not many people do and you’re always experiencing something new.
“In a way it’s similar,” she added with a smile, “but our aim is to stay on the ground and not take off.”
Kaltenborn never set out to be a trailblazer, but she fully understands that her place in Formula One casts her in that role. And she’s fine with it, even if she’s not flying it like a flag on her factory’s roof.
“I just took up the opportunities I was given,” she said. “But when you are in that position — and maybe you realize it at a later stage, not straight away because you don’t see it from that perspective — then you develop a certain kind of responsibility toward the people who might perceive you as that trailblazer.
“Especially the young generation. You think now you should make the most of this and be good at trying to help where you can. That’s the responsibility you should have, toward the next ones coming up.
“Some people will tell me a story that there might be a girl in their family who wants to become an engineer. This is exactly what we need to achieve,” Kaltenborn said. “We cannot go out and change the world. We have to with our work, and maybe the media presence we have, simply encourage young people to do more.
“There are enough girls out there who are smart enough to do all this but they need to be given the opportunity and the trust. That’s the biggest thing we can achieve. It’s not something that will happen tomorrow. This is more of a society issue and how people think. And that will probably take decades to change.”
Kaltenborn’s all-consuming work makes it doubly challenging to manage a young family, her husband, Jens, and two young children at home in Switzerland.
“It’s tough,” she said. “First, you need to organize yourself very well. When you have small kids, and I guess it will never change with children, you can prepare as much as you want but it always happens differently. Still, you have to react to it.
“We have domestic help. My mother comes over also every time I’m not there. The kids play a very cooperative part in it, I must say. They have to, but you still have incidents.”
Kaltenborn will bring her children to one race per season, “because it’s important for them to see what I do.
“I’m that often away and I don’t want them ever to feel they’re excluded. For little children, it’s especially important that they have a closeness to their mother.”
Then she smiles.
“The mother plays a different role than the father.”
This is just Kaltenborn’s second trip to Montreal, having been here last season for the 2012 race. She calls it “an excellent city, people are so friendly, the town is so much full of life.”
And it as here in 2008 that Sauber scored its only Formula One victory, one while partnered with BMW; indeed, it was a one-two finish for Robert Kubica and Nick Heidfeld.
“We made some (souvenirs) for the people in the factory,” Kaltenborn said of how the team celebrated the milestone. “At the end of the day it’s teamwork, even if you just have a part of the employees at the race.
“It’s the development, the performance development, which is created at our factory. They’re as much a part of our success as our guys out here. We celebrated. We had a huge reception when the race team landed. It was really a nice feeling.”
Her duties in the paddock pressing, Kaltenborn politely took her leave, offering a hand whose knuckles were red from their 15 minutes under ice.
“It’s a bit cold …” she said in apology.
And then she slipped into the engineers’ trailer, the day’s second session of practice 90 minutes and a few thousand details away.
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