With the launch of VUHL at this month’s Geneva Motor Show, Sergio Perez joining McLaren’s F1 team and the chatter about Mastretta’s MXT following its review by Top Gear, we thought it was time to look more closely at Mexico’s fledgling car industry.
So, who better to ask about the future than Daniel Mastretta, the man behind Mastretta Cars.
SD: Daniel, it’s now eight weeks since you introduced the MXT-R to us at Birmingham’s Autosport International Show. Can you tell us how plans are progressing to bring the car to market, and the importance of Europe even though the Americas are right on your doorstep?
European markets, and in particular Britain, are key to the development of our commercial strategy. We want Mastretta cars to be widely available, irrespective of where you are. For this reason, we have established a certification process to put the car through EC SSTA (European Community Small Series Type Approval). We hope to have this completed by the end of the year, including the incorporation of the direct injection, turbocharged Ford Ecoboost powertrain.
Drivers in Europe have the most knowledge of and passion for lightweight sports cars of anywhere, so we understand the importance of meeting customer demands here. We’ve been selling the MXT in Mexico for over a year now but it’s the way that we are perceived in Europe that will create interest and sales worldwide.
SD: So when will we have the opportunity to drive the car and judge it for ourselves?
Well first, I have to stress that for the moment, our effort here in Mexico, and that of our team in the UK is all about type approval. The MXT-R that you saw in Birmingham will be tested by Autocar soon and we look forward to their evaluation, however, it’s important to stress that whilst gaining media attention is important, delivering the right product is more so.
SD: Talking of media attention, it’s fair to say that comments made on the BBC’s Top Gear several years ago enraged your fellow countrymen. How was Richard Hammond’s recent road test of the MXT received at home, and has Mexico now forgiven him?
Sincerely, I was surprised at the depth of response to the Top Gear comments. It didn’t hurt Mastretta but the reaction in Mexico was enormous. We’re a proud nation and the press and social networks here magnified the affair enormously.
Until then, Top Gear wasn´t much known to average Mexicans, so most people didn’t understand the comments as being a part of the culture of humour on the show; they just felt offended. I remember the following two weeks as being some of the craziest of my life; the same for my brother Carlos. People told us to answer to the “criticism towards the car” and were upset when we didn’t, but we could see that the car wasn’t being attacked, it was just three guys making a joke that wasn’t very funny.
SD: So did Richard Hammond’s recent road test make amends?
Absolutely: Two years ago when Top Gear first referenced the MXT, the comments were superficial, based only on an image so it was important for us that they came to Mexico, and drove the car in its natural environment. The roads selected for the test are amongst the most beautiful and demanding of anywhere but It was clear by Richard´s response that he felt that the MXT is a true driver’s car.
SD: But there were still a few negative comments..
The yellow car they drove was actually our test car and not a production version, so the quality issues he raised have already been corrected.
SD: And how was the episode received in Mexico?
Well this time it was much more focused. The three key TV networks (Televisa, TV Azteca and Milenio TV) all reported the news of the test, together with the programme’s feedback. Of course, there were also reflections of “remember when….!” but in the main, the reaction from both the networks and the press has been: “Top Gear came, tested, saw that they were wrong and said sorry!” Importantly, BBC Entertainment Latin America has now broadcast the episode as well; this has a much wider audience than the HD channel, allowing people to truly judge for themselves.
I think from a national perspective, both Hammond and the producers did a good job by setting about an objective test whilst turning the joke on themselves. They showed goodwill towards Mexico and as Jeremy Clarkson said after the feature, “matter settled”.
SD: Until earlier this week, Mastretta was seen as Mexico’s sole auto brand. Now, all of a sudden, we’ve been teased with images by VUHL of their project which they hope to launch at this year’s Goodwood Festival of Speed. What can you tell us about VUHL and how do you think the “05”will impact on yours?
Well I know the Echeverria brothers well; I taught them both design at University and Guillermo actually worked for Mastretta during the first phase of the MXT’s development. The “05” is an important project as it will reaffirm Mexico’s ability to produce exciting and technically advanced sports cars.
So I have to tell you, we are pleased to see another high performance car being designed, developed and produced in Mexico. Will it have an impact on the MXT? Well “yes”, but in a positive way. It confirms that we as a nation have both the passion and expertise to successfully undertake complex design and engineering projects, but will it challenge us for sales? I don’t think so. Both brothers are hugely talented and the character that they will give the 05 will be unique, but VUHL are addressing a different market so the likely outcome is that we will both be good for each other.
SD: These are difficult times for the auto industry as a whole. How is the Mexican government responding to the challenges you face and in particular, in assisting low-volume manufacturers (such as Mastretta and VUHL) to establish own-brand products?
We are very lucky here. The government is aligned to our vision of creating value through the quality of design and engineering, rather than what we see in some other similar markets where growth is achieved by exploiting low wages and low production costs.
There’s also a bigger picture here as what is happening at Mastretta is also being carried-through to the auto-industry as a whole in Mexico. Not only are we seeing a tremendous increase in sales volumes but the attention given to quality and value is now reflecting back into strong revenue growth for many local OEM teams.
Of course, not everything is perfect. Government officials have readily acknowledged that young and innovative businesses still suffer from a lack of funding opportunities. Mastretta and VUHL are both fortunate as we have received backing from not only state initiatives but also from private investors and I’m pleased to say that our experiences are now being used to find funding for new projects by the next generation of entrepreneurs.
SD: OK, so whilst the automotive sector in Mexico appears to be joining the BRIC nations in being able to look forward to growth in both domestic and export sales, one of the key issues that surely needs to be addressed is future compliance (meeting new, tougher environmental and safety standards in all aspects of design and production). This is going to require significant and continued investment in technology and infrastructure. How are you planning to evolve Mastretta and the MXT to meet these changing markets?
You are addressing a key issue for the future, particularly for low volume manufacturers like us. It is a real challenge, both financially and in terms of human resource, to develop and produce a certified automobile, but we recognise that it offers the customer a safer, professional product, more suited to wider-market demands.
From the outset, we knew that this would only be possible by developing a unique and effective vehicle platform with the flexibility to incorporate the best available components from both OEMs and specialist suppliers. Add to this the need for constant testing and improvement and it’s clear that a sustainable investment programme has to be firmly in place. Thanks to the support from our government, and private equity investors, and indeed now from the return on domestic sales, we are well positioned to address the changes that developing markets present.
So to answer your question, our first priority was always to get the chassis absolutely right. Now that we’ve done this, we have an excellent sports car platform from which to evolve generations of product that can be refined to the conditions of the day.
SD: Moving-on to a subject that I know is close to your heart – motorsport! As a nation, Mexico has a strong and proud heritage in a wide range of disciplines. Looking from the outside, it now appears that momentum is gathering pace which could well see it join the likes of Brazil, UK, Italy, Germany and Finland as a source of global talent. You already have two drivers in F1, a Production World Rally Champion (Benito Guerra Jr), and racers continuing the long and successful association with Indy car in the USA. With the growing recognition of events such as Rally Guanajuato Mexico, NASCAR Mexico and the proposed return of Formula One, do you hope to see the Mastretta name join the likes of Lotus, Morgan, Radical, Caterham and Ginetta in becoming recognised as a genuine participant on the international stage? If so, do you think that sometime soon, we might see a Mastretta in Telmex colours on a GT grid in Europe?
We have had requests to develop the MXR (Mastretta’s prototype race car) from FIA Mexico, OCESA (NASCAR Mexico organizer), Autos y Mas and the Carrera Panamericana revival committee, so the potential is certainly there. We already have an FIA approved roll cage, aero package and lightened interior but as you know, running a motorsport programme is incredibly expensive, and as I said earlier, our focus has to be on type approval.
The key issue is therefore sponsorship and patronage. We know that sponsors will look closely at any racing activities that we propose but the opportunities for Mastretta to race in areas that appeal to sponsors are very limited. NASCAR Mexico is very successful with 30 car oval grids, sponsorship from Telmex (and a few others) and races broadcast live on TV, but those of us who love our motorsport deeply miss a real road-racing series. GT and sports car racing would definitely be the way to go but bringing value to domestic sponsors from an overseas programme would be difficult.
This is why we are introducing the MXT-R to Europe; the car might be built for the road but it was designed for the track. It’s a race car that you can drive to work during the week and then to the autodrome at the weekend.
SD: Finally, I have a more personal question for you; what are your and Carlos’ aspirations for Mastretta?
We want people to love our car and to love driving our car. Where a car is designed or built shouldn’t really be an issue, the issues should be “how does it perform and how well is it built”. Still, perhaps it might be nice to think that in years to come, people will say that the MXT isn’t just a great sports car, it’s a great Mexican sports car.
Disclosure: in the interests of transparency, Steve Hindle, Brand Manager for Mastretta Cars in Europe is also a writer and contributor on SkiddMark.