Monisha Kaltenborn's face creases into a tolerant but slightly embarrassed smile at the notion that her new role as team principal of the Sauber Formula One outfit makes her “the most powerful woman in sport”.
“I am not that much into titles,” says the 41-year-old Indian-born, Austrian-raised former lawyer who joined the team in 1998. “I never even see it from the perspective that I am a woman. That's a fact for me. It's good if the world sees it that way, because it would be worse if they thought you weren't feminine.
But it's just part of what you get from me being a woman, though I also like to behave like a woman, whatever that means to people. Sometimes I can be difficult, as I am told by some people. Which is also part of being a woman.”
Nobody would ask any of the 11 male team principals in F1 if they were going to run their team like a man, but Kaltenborn rides the whole gender/power thing easily. “For me there is no power to it; I'm doing the same thing I was before, and I have enough challenges to sort out. It's not power which will help me. It's being smart and making the right decisions. I don't need power to solve my problems, I need other things.
“And these titles… if they would ask am I proud of being the first woman, I would say that to be proud you have to achieve a lot, and I am just starting now. Hopefully, in a long time to come I can achieve certain things and say that together with the team I am proud. By myself, I can do nothing.”
When it was announced in Korea last week that she would take over from the team's founder, Peter Sauber, who turned 69 this weekend, she revealed how she came to love the team and her role in 2009 when Sauber were forced by BMW's shock withdrawal to buy it back. “For myself that was where I realised, 'I do want to fight for this team'. That's where, without really knowing where this road was going to lead you, you just said this is about the existence of the team. It sounds very dramatic and it was. You fight for this cause, just to keep it alive. And that's when you get so passionate about it.”
The planned promotion followed closely on Kaltenborn's appointment by the FIA's president, Jean Todt, as one of the governing body's ambassadors for Women in Motorsport.
“It's a lot of responsibility,” she says enthusiastically. “I'm really passionate about my job and if I can give other people the courage to simply do what they believe in, I think that is a very nice feeling. I'm not telling them I'm great. It's not about me. It's about transferring this feeling to them, and that courage. No matter what you want to do, and maybe you want to be much higher, good for you. But go for it.”
Kaltenborn has already achieved a lot, but is one of those players who are too modest to push their own cause. She is a successful woman, already in a good position within her sport before the promotion, with credibility and a reputation for knowing what she's talking about.
“We always want to achieve more,” she adds. “I worked hard for whatever has been there. But it's never been any path which I have decided for myself and planned out. Sometimes it just happens, and you have to take a decision and know which direction you are going.”
Speed of decision-making, Sauber himself says, is one of her strengths. “I always have to be careful not to take [decisions] too quickly,” she confesses. “I've learned to listen more to people and sometimes not straight away to get too emotional. I have a very strong reaction, so it comes out, then I calm down again and look at it all and listen and then come to a decision. Everyone knows that a decision will be taken, and no time will be wasted.”
Motor racing, of course, has always had an image as one of the last bastions of global sexism. Kaltenborn doesn't agree with that because she is on the inside and knows better, but she is astute enough to appreciate that image's marketing potential.
“I think there's an aspect to the overall image which we all create and all support of F1, where you do see women like the grid girls or a lot of lovely young women fascinated by the personalities of the drivers, and we're all fine with that because we know what F1 is really about. That's what we portray to the outside world, which is perfectly fine.” She breaks into a laugh. “But I don't like the idea of men wearing those kind of things and standing out there. I wouldn't like that, believe me!
“But if that image which we are portraying sells well, why not? Because you know you are not treated that way. I was reading in a newspaper that banks were saying there are so many governors and not one is a woman. They all have to have these discussions. With us it's just happened so naturally. That makes us very progressive.”
Indeed so. Back in 1993 Sauber were the first F1 team to have a female team manager, Carmen Ziegler.
Kaltenborn has never directly experienced sexism or racism in racing, and says: “I don't see any of that. It's more about who are the stronger teams and the weaker teams, and there it doesn't matter if you are a man or a woman.”
She passionately believes that there will be another female F1 driver and is part of an FIA initiative to seek one, but acknowledges it will take time.
There is a poignancy to that, given her friendship with fellow FIA ambassador Maria de Villota, the Spanish driver who lost an eye when she crashed a Marussia F1 car into a transporter in July. “I think she is very, very strong,” Kaltenborn says of somebody she cares about through spiritual kinship rather than any sense of sisterhood. “You cannot imagine how much she has gone through, and she is still smiling. She wants to do something for motorsport, not driving but something for safety.
“She is so amazing, a lovely girl, and I was so, so upset. Not even 10 days before the accident we were together in Paris when we were elected as ambassadors and she was happy like a little kid - 'I'm going to be in the car'. It was cruel beyond belief what happened.
“As women in motorsport it's all about giving people the belief to be what they want to be, and I think she would be excellent at that. I admire her for all her courage.”
What Kaltenborn doesn't seem to appreciate is that there are young people who will, for different reasons, be equally inspired by her. -The Independent on Sunday