Former Force India F1 boss Fernley dies aged 70

Former Force India Formula 1 deputy team principal Robert Fernley has passed away at the age of 70.

Robert Fernley (GBR) Force India

A close associate of Vijay Mallya, Fernley held the role at the Silverstone team from its first season under the Force India name in 2008 until the summer of 2018, when Lawrence Stroll bought the assets of the company and relaunched it as Racing Point.

A native of Stockport, Fernley had an initial involvement with F1 via the Ensign team in the early 1980s, helping close friend Jim Crawford to the 1982 British championship title.

The pair then moved to CanAm series, where Crawford finished runner-up in 1983 and 1984 with a converted Ensign.

Fernley was also involved with IndyCar efforts in the 1980s, including running the Canadian Tire team with Jacques Villeneuve Sr, and the Mike Curb entry for Ed Pimm in the 1986 Indianapolis 500.

He then worked outside racing for many years, with one project involving introducing carbonfibre technology to the Chinese space programme, and another the Danish fishing industry. He was also involved in the hotel business.

It was his close friendship with Mallya that brought him back to international motorsport after the Indian businessman bought the former Spyker team in late 2007.

In essence, Fernley served as Mallya’s eyes and ears at the track and in the Silverstone factory. He was largely responsible for the team’s dealings with the FIA, the Formula 1 organisation and the media.

Force India finished a lowly 10th in the world championship in its first season with Ferrari power in 2008, before forging a new partnership with Mercedes the following year. Pole position for Giancarlo Fisichella at the 2009 Belgian GP was an early highlight, with the Italian finishing the race in second place.

Bernie Ecclestone (GBR) F1 Supremo talks with Robert Fernley (GBR) Force India F1 team principal

Bernie Ecclestone (GBR) F1 Supremo talks with Robert Fernley (GBR) Force India F1 team principal

Photo by: Sutton Images

Others to drive for the team over its decade of existence were Tonio Liuzzi, Adrian Sutil, Paul di Resta, Nico Hulkenberg, Sergio Perez and Esteban Ocon, while George Russell conducted his early F1 testing and FP1 running with the team.

Under Fernley and chief operating officer Otmar Szafnauer, the team made steady progress and outperformed rivals with bigger budgets, reaching fifth place in 2015 and then earning fourth in both 2016 and 2017.

However funding was getting tighter and tighter and with Mallya involved in legal problems in his home country the team reached a crisis point in the summer of 2018.

The team went into administration and during the summer break after the Hungarian GP when Stroll acquired the assets and relaunched it as Racing Point, Fernley’s involvement ended immediately.

In 2019 Fernley made an unexpected return to Indianapolis having been engaged by McLaren to oversee its 500 entry with Fernando Alonso. Unfortunately it was not a successful venture and the Spaniard failed to qualify.

Later Fernley had a spell as the head of the FIA’s single-seater commission, having replaced Stefano Domenicali in the role. He was succeeded by former F1 team boss Giancarlo Minardi in 2022.

Fernley was also involved in promoting young engineering talent through an association with the National Centre for Motorsport Engineering at the University of Bolton. In 2019 the establishment awarded him an honorary doctorate for services to engineering.

With the help of students, Fernley also ran a 1981 Ensign N180B in historic events. Three-time F1 race winner Johnny Herbert was among those to have driven it.

Speaking to Autosport after the news of Fernley’s death broke, current Alpine F1 team principal Szafnauer paid tribute to his former colleague.

Bob Fernley, Deputy Team Principal, Force India, in the team principals Press Conference

Bob Fernley, Deputy Team Principal, Force India, in the team principals Press Conference

Photo by: Alastair Staley / Motorsport Images

"I was saddened to hear the news from Vijay and my sincere condolences go out to his family,” said the American.

“When Vijay couldn't really be with the team that much because of his business and IPL interests and so on Bob always would tell us what Vijay would want in certain situations, which was very helpful.

“He allowed the rest of the organisation to focus on the job at hand of racing, getting the car better, hiring the people, and he would deal with all the politics. That was really his biggest role and his biggest contribution.

“He was still a relatively young man, and I'm shocked. Our racing community has lost a good guy.”

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