Vroom! Monisha zips past F1 glass ceiling

Oct. 11 (Reuters): Indian-born Monisha Kaltenborn Narang, 41, became Formula One's first female team principal today after taking the helm at Swiss team Sauber.

The Austrian citizen who lives in Switzerland and is married to a German had left hometown Dehradun for Vienna with her parents when she was eight, but says she still speaks some Hindi with her children and remembers loving Amul butter as a child.

Sauber said in a statement that Monisha, previously its CEO, would take over founder Peter Sauber's duties as principal. Monisha has become the second Indian-born principal in the 12-team sport after Force India's Vijay Mallya.

A Formula One principal is like a football manager, responsible for all key decisions such as strategy and the pecking order among the team's drivers (for example, who is allowed to overtake whom).

"We decided a long time ago that Monisha would take over from me but we left the timing open.... This is the right moment to pass on the baton," Peter Sauber, who turns 69 on Saturday, said.

Sauber, who made their Formula One debut in 1993, have had four podium finishes in 15 races so far this season and are now sixth overall.

Monisha joined Sauber in the year 2000 to run the legal department and took over as CEO in 2010. Sauber transferred a third of the company shares to her last year.

"I have set my sights high and am committed to taking the team forward... and leading it on to success," she said.

In an interview posted on the company website last year, Monisha had said she had "very good childhood memories of India, especially of how my grandparents used to spoil me".

She has "fond early memories" of Welham Girls' High School in Dehradun, where her family had a two-wheeler dealership. "I try to speak Hindi with my kids now and again. My son is nine, my daughter six, and I'd like them to learn the language," she said.

"We've got to the point now at home where we only use Hindi for certain words. For example, no one says 'tea' in our house ' that's 'chai'. And when the children were smaller and wanted to be picked up, they'd always shout out 'godi' (lap). My German parents-in-law even started using the expression."

A former schoolmate in Dehradun, Rashmi Pant, now a senior executive with a Delhi IT firm, said: "I have faint memories about her. She had the habit of going into uncharted areas even at an early age. I remember that in Class II, she wanted to learn difficult yoga postures. We are, however, not in touch now."

A retired sports journalist in Uttarakhand recalled having read an interview in a foreign daily where Monisha was asked if she felt a bit strange in a male-dominated world.

"She replied that she looked at it differently, glad to have a chance to wear shoes that very few women want to put on," he recalled.

Welham's official list of alumni does not have her name, though. "She was in the junior section.... and left early. She did not pass out from the school. So, we don't call her a Welhamian," vice-principal D.B. Datta said.

Asked why the family had left India in 1979, Monisha said in the interview on the Sauber website: "We didn't have any pressing reason... but back then there were a lot more options in terms of further education outside India, and my parents wanted to give me those opportunities."

Although the "obvious" thing would have been to settle in an English-speaking country, she said, the family ended up in Vienna, where "my father's uncle was working at the atomic agency... and we liked it there".

She later earned a law degree in Vienna and took Austrian citizenship. She made regular trips to India and was married there according to Hindu tradition.

Asked if she had any "typically Indian" trait, Monisha replied: "I have a certain calm and openness, which you might say are typically Indian. I can accept situations and deal with them as I find them."