Exclusive: The final chapter of the inside story of Caterham’s F1 collapse

Thomas Maher
Will Stevens racing for Caterham in the 2014 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix.

Finbarr O'Connell has recounted the story of Caterham's last weekend and struggles for survival.

In the second part of our exclusive interview with former Caterham boss Finbarr O’Connell, he explained how the team’s final race unfolded as he desperately sought to rescue the squad.

Last week, we brought you the story of how Finbarr O’Connell found himself thrust into the limelight at the 2014 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix after taking over as team boss on behalf of administrators Evelyn Partners (formerly Smith & Williamson).

As the Caterham team was in administration, O’Connell was doing his utmost to find a buyer to take over the financially troubled outfit and had managed to get enough finances together to take on the final race of the season.

Caterham jet off to Abu Dhabi for one final race

Having missed the United States and Brazilian Grands Prix, O’Connell intended to showcase the team in the best possible light as a going concern at Yas Marina in Abu Dhabi, and successfully managed to get the cars, team personnel, and two drivers to the circuit.

But even sourcing a second driver had proven to be a headache for O’Connell, given Marcus Ericsson’s departure from the squad. While Kamui Kobayashi was ready and eager to race, O’Connell first had to go off and find someone else for the second car.

“One stop gap I negotiated was that one of the other F1 teams was going to loan me a driver to drive the other car, if that was my best option, because I wanted to show the two cars …” he explained.

Pressed as to who that team or driver was, O’Connell wouldn’t say.

“It was not a financial arrangement with that other F1 team. It was a handshake,” he said.

“Because I knew the owner of one of the other teams, it suited him because that driver would get the experience and get the Super License points. Crazily, he’d have been competing against his own team but, having thought about that, they decided it was actually beneficial for them to have another driver out there, even if they were racing for a different team.”

In the end, Caterham managed to secure the services of rookie driver Will Stevens, the reserve driver from the similarly beleaguered Marussia team. Stevens had raced for Strakka in Formula Renault 3.5 that season, before landing the Marussia deal just a few weeks before getting the Caterham call.

Reports at the time claimed Stevens paid some £500,000 for that one race weekend in Abu Dhabi. Whether this is accurate or not, O’Connell also won’t say.

Will Stevens, pictured as a Caterham driver for the 2014 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix.

Will Stevens was employed by Caterham to race for the 2014 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix.

“When I got on the plane, I was already talking to Will,” O’Connell said.

“I was talking to several other options for that second seat. So his seat wasn’t confirmed until very close to the race.

In the end, Caterham raced with the combination of Kobayashi and Stevens. The Japanese driver impressed during his time in F1, but it wasn’t until after he left F1 that his skills came into sharp focus as he became one of the most impressive racers in the World Endurance Championship, while Stevens became an accomplished sportscar driver in his own right after spending a year with Manor in 2015. He is now a test and development driver with McLaren.

Finbarr O’Connell faces the world media in FIA press conference

O’Connell recounted his dealings with the two drivers over the weekend, saying he was suitably impressed after spending plenty of time with them over the few days at Yas Marina.

“I had quite a bit of contact with both of them,” he said.

“Kamui is just such a cool, cool customer. You think he could just float on air, he’s just so calm and cool and collected. I’m sure he has Yoga for breakfast when the rest are having yogurt …

“Will Stevens was an unknown quantity. But the thing which was lovely about both of them is there were no airs and graces at all. They were not prima donnas. They were guys who were doing what they loved, and they wanted to do the best they could. I was very, very impressed with them as people.”

Having managed to get a team together to go racing, after weeks of turmoil and drama off-track, O’Connell found his way to the pit wall to pull on the team boss’s headphones.

“When I sat at the pit wall, I thought ‘Oh my god, I can relax now for a bit’,” he said.

“I even had the excitement of watching the two Red Bull cars starting in the pit lane beside me.”

However, sitting there at the pit wall, he still couldn’t relax.

“I had my headphones on and those are in touch with the drivers and the pits and then I thought ‘Oh god, now I’m responsible for those two guys out there – one of whom has never driven a Grand Prix before!’

“This is a dangerous sport and I’m at the top as regards responsibility for them being out there and I couldn’t rest easy until the race was over.”

Adding to the pressure of starting the weekend was the fact that O’Connell was called up to attend the team bosses’ press conference.

Given that he would be sitting alongside seasoned veterans such as Mercedes’ Toto Wolff, Red Bull’s Christian Horner, and then-Ferrari boss Marco Mattiaci, one might have expected O’Connell to feel stressed by the thoughts of facing a ravenous media alongside such luminaries, but the Irishman said he wasn’t fazed by the situation.

“I had no notice at all. Somebody came into the pit, and just said ‘Oh, there’s a press conference going on and they’ve asked if you’ll go to it’,” he said.

“I checked that the tea cloth was covering the spare Renault engine … no expense was spared on security!!” he joked.

“I walked out of the pits and found myself sitting in the top row in that press conference.”

“But I would say that’s what we’re trained to do. To be an insolvency practitioner, you’ve got to be pretty calm and got to be able to work under pressure. It’s a simple thing in life – you’ve got to work out what you want and what the people you’re in front of want.

“Just trying to focus on what you want and to say relevant things to them. For me, it was fantastic. Because I was trying to sell the team. As soon as I realised what the situation was, I just thought ‘Well, my main thing here is just to get people conscious that this is an F1 team on the shelf, ready for sale – come and make a realistic offer for it’.”

Finbarr O'Connell, pictured in the press conference at the 2014 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix.

Finbarr O’Connell was squeezed into the press conference alongside F1’s biggest names at the 2014 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix.

It was at this time that O’Connell also had the chance to meet former team boss Eddie Jordan, another Irishman, who approached the Caterham boss to offer some advice.

“I was walking out in the paddock one day and somebody called my name,” O’Connell recounted.

“I thought ‘Who’s calling me in these surroundings’? It was Eddie. He was in flying form. He gave me some advice on who to trust and who not to… so that was a fun meeting!”

As might be expected of a team in such trouble, neither car managed to be particularly competitive that weekend. The pair were the two slowest qualifiers on Saturday. Stevens would go on to finish his debut race in 17th, while Kobayashi retired with 13 laps to go due to excessive vibrations through his car.

Finbarr O’Connell: Bernie Ecclestone barred me from the grid!

Recounting the Grand Prix experience itself, O’Connell said it was on Sunday morning he realised the scale of the sport and the seriousness with which his team took their racing.

“It was amazing. I take my hat off to the whole team,” he said.

“They were just consummate professionals. They arrived at the pits at the start of the few days, and it was just empty concrete. Each of them builds their little office and their little workstation, just as they’ve built it 15 times or whatever before. They just want to be part of this amazing event.

“I knew they’d find great jobs afterward if we failed to sell the team but, because they were all together, I really felt someone was losing out by not taking over that cohesion.

“They have this lovely tradition where the team principal, on the morning of the race, talks to the whole team in the pits… everyone with their headphones on. Every member of the team has got their headphones on and the biggest message I had for them was how grateful I was…

Caterham mechanics work in the garage at the 2014 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix.

Caterham mechanics work on one of the cars during the 2014 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix weekend.

“I said I didn’t want the drivers to be heroic or to put themselves in danger in any way. The objective here wasn’t to win. It was to show off the team. It was a functioning team ready to go and just be safe. Of course, it wasn’t that long after the devastating situation with Jules Bianchi’s crash so safety was foremost in my mind.

“So, when I was sitting at the pit wall and I heard that Kobayashi was getting vibrations, he wanted to go on and race. I was very glad that the team and the engineers said it was just much too dangerous and he must come in. It turned out the chassis had a hairline crack in it, which was worsening.”

O’Connell also recalled being amused by Bernie Ecclestone’s stance towards Caterham that weekend. While the former F1 boss was keen to see Caterham sold on, he was less enthusiastic about O’Connell’s presence – he strictly forbade O’Connell from heading to the grid ahead of the race on Sunday.

“Bernie didn’t want me out on the track,” he said.

“He wanted the car there, he wanted the car racing. But he didn’t want the TV camera saying ‘Who’s that on the grid standing beside the car? Oh, it’s the corporate undertaker,’ so I didn’t get out during the race… which is a real shame because insolvency practitioners don’t get out much at the best of times!”

“He was trying to control me as much as he could. It was his circus, his show, he was the Ringmaster. So he wanted the cars there, and them racing. He didn’t want me to crowdfund, because that was the begging bowl. He didn’t want anything cheap or insolvent to be out there about F1.

“He personally looked at the applications at every Grand Prix for everybody to get a pass into the paddock and he pulled some of my people.

He pulled one of my lawyers and I didn’t really know why. He used some quite colourful language when speaking to me on the phone and said lawyers should be sat behind a desk somewhere, and not at a Grand Prix.

“But I think, in reality, he gets into various disputes, he didn’t want lawyers out there who might serve some papers on him or something like that. So he controlled everything!

“I respected him for it. As I say he was the Ringmaster in this circus. In the end, [the lawyer] got the royal nod to come into the paddock.

“And because Bernie wanted Caterham racing that weekend, he helped out with organising tyres and fuel and I was eternally grateful to him for that.”

Finbarr O’Connell’s futile quest to find a buyer

Having successfully managed to pull off the race weekend, O’Connell’s real work had to get underway straight after the chequered flag. The job of trying to find a buyer was O’Connell’s main priority, which he explained to this writer in the paddock afterward.

At that time, O’Connell expressed confidence that a buyer would be found and there were interested parties. Caterham had Renault engines and he knew Renault wanted to get back in…

But, until a deal was finalised, O’Connell couldn’t relax. Following the weekend, his next task was to represent Caterham at a post-season meeting of the World Motor Sport Council in Geneva. This allowed him the opportunity to address other team bosses in person, away from the stresses of a race weekend.

“So it was interesting when I flew off to Geneva because there was a meeting of the FIA and all of the other team principals were there,” he said.

“So Bernie was at the head of the table and [then-FIA boss] Jean Todt was there. Marussia’s seat was empty. We were the troubled team still operating. It was also a great honour to sit at the same table as the great Niki Lauda.

“I said to them all that I wanted their help in finding someone to take the team over. After all, they know who’s in the market, and it would even be possible for one of them to take it over, because some teams have second race teams as well.”

However, O’Connell’s attempts to find a buyer were ultimately in vain, and he had to begin the sad task of breaking up the team.

The situation is in stark contrast to what is possible today, where an entry fee and ‘franchise model’ makes existing teams extremely valuable – there’s little doubt O’Connell’s task would be far easier in 2023 than it was in 2014, particularly with the Andretti team beating down the door to enter F1.

“So, after I came back from Geneva… I mean, as administrators, our legal job all comes down to money,” he explained.

“Even though you might get emotionally involved in the whole thing – we are officers of the court, we are accountable for the money. We’ve either got to sell or break it up and sell whatever we can.

“We had Haas come into F1 a bit later [in 2016] and it was just a shame that, at the time, there was nobody for whom buying Caterham was the best option.

“Maybe there was a bit of a smell around Caterham because of the Cojocaru situation and it might have all looked extremely dodgy.

“So I can’t remember exactly how long we kept it going but, until the last interested party dropped away, we kept it going. Some of those who worked with the team in Abu Dhabi started telling me they already had new jobs to go to because they had to move on. We only had a certain amount of time before that team just really broke up.

“The biggest thing was the intellectual property in the team – the designers, the engineers, and all the people in the pits. That’s what I always called ‘the other engine’ of the team. That’s what made it go and, once that was gone, there wasn’t really much to sell.

“I did reach out to some of the people at the top of the Irish wealth tables. I was thinking ‘Here I am with a load of emerald green cars, perfect for a mega-wealthy Irish business person to buy’. But no luck…”

Caterham’s Leafield home is stripped bare

With the team’s assets being stripped away and sold, O’Connell’s attentions returned to Leafield and selling the long-time F1 facility.

“We sold that to some people who were trying to get planning permission for residential, I don’t think they got it,” he said.

“I had been at Leafield even before Caterham because, when Tom Walkinshaw was there running Arrows, I was acting for some of the banks, … and now I was there again.”

With bailiffs having come in to remove some of the Caterham assets during the period of turmoil in the weeks leading up to Abu Dhabi, O’Connell said his team never managed to get everything back.

“We tracked some stuff down,” he said.

“Mr. Kolles and/or Engavest were still in possession of some pieces we wanted to get back. But we never did get them back because they were claiming money from the team and we were claiming things from them. So we didn’t get those back. We managed to track down pretty much everything, but we didn’t get everything back.”

With the team dissolved, O’Connell returned to his day job as the 2015 F1 season began. While Caterham had failed to survive, Marussia managed to find fresh investment and took to the track as Manor-Marussia – they were able to keep going for another two seasons.

Having briefly dabbled in the halcyon world of running a Formula 1 team, O’Connell said he would have loved the opportunity to get stuck into the role on a larger scale, had circumstances allowed him to continue. O’Connell regrets not having been able to showcase the team at a few more races.

“Absolutely. The whole financial aspects of it are amazing,” he explained when asked if he’d have enjoyed being an F1 team boss on a longer time scale.

“It’s exciting. It’s challenging. Insolvency practitioners want to succeed. One of our issues was the people who were the main sponsors were tied into Tony Fernandes. So when he went, they went.

“But if there had been people who had a very close association with the team otherwise, or with Renault, it might have actually suited somebody to sponsor us for another year to get the benefit out of the team and to prepare us for when somebody was able to buy it.

“I think a number of people could see the value in it. But it just wasn’t the right time for them in the end. I was really disappointed because there were a number of people who could have acquired it and done very well out of it.

“It would have made good business sense for them. They would have had to either do a partnership with Renault or have a couple of years with Renault before they went off and did their own thing.

“But it was disappointing. It was close. I feel it was close, and I think it was an opportunity missed.”

Read Next: Exclusive: The inside story of Caterham’s collapse in Formula 1 (Part 1)