With tears welling up in her eyes, Sonia Irvine chokes up, draws back and sobs. It is a vulnerable moment, and totally unexpected.
Moments earlier, the five-foot-nine blonde appeared at the foyer of the Conrad Centennial Singapore Hotel at 6pm sharp. Irvine had come to meet us because her minder was stuck in a traffic jam. It is a smart call because, in keeping to her schedule, she is sending a powerful image to support her credentials.
The Irishwoman operates in a multi-billion-dollar industry and timing is everything. It can mean the difference between cutting lucrative deals and losing out on them. And Irvine was a picture of one ready to deal, as she sat down for a chat with The Peak for a glimpse into her world.
She is in a black power suit, a Victoria Beckham crepe sheath dress with just the right dose of decolette. For good measure, the 51-year-old is wearing stilettos and the package is both intimidating and stunning. It is an armour that Irvine uses to good effect, as she has been getting a piece of the US$4 billion (S$5.6 billion) Formula 1 action since 2003.
Since then, she has been running F1’s signature party show, Amber Lounge, at selected venues. Tickets don’t come cheap. VIP tables cost between $8,000 and $26,600, while individual passes range from $900 to $1,200 a pop. The show travelled to Monaco, Singapore, Mexico and Abu Dhabi this year, and previously also made stops in Texas, Melbourne and Montreal.
It has been a hit with F1 drivers, celebrities from U2 to Rod Stewart, and wealthy fans. The show’s success is measured by the millions it has raised for charities like Sergio Perez Children’s Foundation in Mexico City and Brain & Spine Foundation in Monaco.
The Amber Lounge idea was born after a race in Sao Paulo, Brazil, 15 years ago, when all night spots were packed and the drivers had no place to party. What led Irvine to F1 has been narrated countless times but she never tires of telling it, crediting her only sibling and younger brother, Eddie.
She says: “I am a trained therapist and, when Ferrari hired Eddie to race for it in 1996, he asked me to be his therapist. I ended up working for the whole team. When he left to join Jaguar (in 2000), I decided to do something else.”
Irvine remained in F1 and worked for a sponsorship agency that serviced all the teams along the paddock. But what stands out is that she is the first woman to gain a foothold in the business side of the sport, which traditionally thrives on an old-boys network.
How the mother of two girls became part of it was the subject of this interview at the recent Singapore Airlines Singapore Grand Prix in September. “I believe that in life, you are often given different opportunities, and it is up to you whether you accept and run with them. Or you think, ‘It is too hard, I am not going to do it.’
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“I was brought up with the notion that life does not owe you anything and you have to run out and grab it with both hands, and make the most of the opportunities you have. That’s what I do in Formula 1. Yes there might be things that may be difficult, but, as a woman, there are other things that make it easier.”
With budgets of teams like Ferrari and McLaren running up to US$300 million a year, and sponsors and host cities paying tens of millions to be part of F1, the wheeling and dealing in the sport is often cut-throat. Only those with steely nerves like Bernie Ecclestone, who has been heading F1 since the 1970s, survive.
Irvine has gone 12 years without a major obstacle in her way, and she says it takes guts to be part of it. “You need to be tough and I am tough in my work life. In my personal life, I am very soft and if you are a friend, I can be a friend for a very long time. But in business you have to be tough and make tough decisions. And I like to think that I am fair and work as hard as anybody in the office.”
The toughness has paid off and Irvine gushes over Eddie taking her into the F1 universe. At this point, the conversation takes a dramatic turn as her mind drifts to another place and time. The siblings and their parents, who live in the small town of Bangor, Northern Ireland, are a close-knit family.
When Ferrari came knocking on Eddie’s door and whisked her along as well, they were separated from their parents, and eventually settled down in Monaco. That’s where the major networking for F1 businesses takes place and either you are plugged into it, or you fade away as another face in the crowd.
But a-year-and-a-half ago, their mother’s Alzheimer’s condition took a turn for the worse. Their father could no longer cope with caring for her and, revealing to the media for the first time, Irvine said the family had to put her mum into a home.
“We were all doing different things and I flew back to Ireland after the Singapore Grand Prix in 2013 and Eddie did the same thing, because we had to take a family decision on the situation. Alzheimer’s is a really, really tough disease. One day, I’d like to do a charity drive for the disease, but I am too close to it right now.” She winces on the painful memory about her mother and sits back, sobbing. The armour Irvine has been wearing suddenly has holes.
In the hugely competitive F1 environment, any setbacks can be a big minus and Irvine concedes that there are downsides for a woman, but they are not insurmountable.
“It is a little difficult for a woman to network in certain ways. But, as I said, you’ve got to go about in a different way. I approach people more on a personal level. I find out more about a person and then move forward in that direction,” she says. “For example, if people are interested in buying tables at Amber Lounge, I find out about them first, rather then go in with the hard sell. When I choose production companies, I meet with the people I am going to be dealing with but don’t necessarily go with the biggest company.
“That’s how I work as a woman. I trust and respect the people I work with because, if something goes wrong, they will care enough to fix it.”
“It doesn’t matter if you are a man or a woman. The world does not owe you any favours.”
Since Irvine’s breakthrough entry into F1’s corporate corridors, two other women have found their way to the top. India-born Monisha Kaltenborn now heads the Sauber team and Claire Williams has taken over the running of the Williams team that her dad, Sir Frank, founded.
Irvine has one piece of advice for other women wanting to follow their trail, and not only in F1: “It doesn’t matter if you are a man or a woman. The world does not owe you any favours and, if you want something, you just got to go out and believe in yourself and what you are doing, and work hard.
“And remember the people who helped you on the way up.”