Source: IKSURFMAG Issue #53
Behind the Brand – F-ONE
Auther: Rou Chater – Iksurf Magazine
There aren’t many brands in the industry that can truly claim to have been there right at the very birth of our sport. Trailblazers at the time, these brands and their protagonists saw something in the future of our sport that others failed to recognize.
Raphael Salles was one such individual; he started kitesurfing in 1996 and is just as passionate about the sport today as he was when he started. He spent around 300 days on the water last year testing the products that make up the huge global brand that is F-ONE. They have enjoyed immense growth over the years; from making the world’s first production kiteboards back in 1997, to dominating the racing scene in the last six months. There is a momentum flowing from the offices in Montpellier that reaches around the world.
As ever in business though, it hasn’t always been plain sailing, excuse the pun. It was only a few years ago that they parted ways with long-term kite designer Sylvain Peretti. Sylvain had been designing kites with Raphael since 1998; he had been instrumental in developing the Delta Kite as a concept and bringing it to the kitesurfing population in the form of the first Bandit in 2007.
Equally sometimes the innovations and ideas aren’t always a success, the infamous Source kite for SUP’s being a case in point. However, the determination and steadfast will of Raphael to keep improving the equipment he uses has always won through and right now the brand is riding high.
In the old days, Raphael and his wife Sophie were F-ONE; they would build the boards, sell them, box them up and ship them. Often “borrowing” cardboard from the rubbish bins at the nearby Montpellier airport in order to get things packed up. It’s safe to say Raph isn’t afraid to get his hands dirty, from the beginning it was this hard work ethic that carried them forward.
F-ONE now though, is a very different beast to the brand of old, and indeed it is very different from the brand some three years ago. It’s becoming more than just Raphael Salles; it’s starting to take its own direction. In the past the design process was always led by Raph, he tested, designed, tested again and worked tirelessly to bring those products to market.
When Micka Fernandez joined the company to help Raphael with the testing nine years ago it was the first sign of Raphael starting to share the huge workload. Something that needed to happen, no amount of passion can compensate for the tireless nature of running a growing brand. As the sales of the Bandit skyrocketed the need for the company to increase in size became evident.
The workload is shared now, among a team of individuals that have the same passion and vision that Raphael and Sophie had all those years ago. The fruits of their labor are something to behold and it is a testament to the team involved. Raphael has managed to create a dream team of designers, engineers and passionate people who are hell bent on creating the best products in the industry.
A driving force within the new team is Robert Graham, the softly spoken kite designer who joined F-ONE just over three years ago. Robert had some big shoes to fill when he arrived, and he also had to get used to the tireless work ethic that Raphael and Micka put into the testing!
In his past life, Robert was a sailor and windsurfer who used to design and build his own sails, he went on to become a world-class paraglider. Hailing from his native Switzerland the mountains were a natural place for him to seek his thrills. He designed his first paraglider in 1984 and then founded Advance Paragliders in 1987. In 1988 he placed third at the European Championships, a testament to his abilities in the air.
Design is in Robert’s blood, and he has an analytical mind with a Areal understanding of aerodynamics too. Interestingly, he speaks disturbingly good English for a man from Switzerland, his parents were British though, which goes some way to explain his mastery of the language.
He went on to work as a designer for Gin Gliders in 2004 (not to be confused with Gin Kiteboarding, which is a different company altogether) before Raphael found himself in need of a new kite designer in 2012. Robert started work on the Bandit and the Trust right away, and when I first met him on a remote island in 2013 he was settling into the hectic testing regime and the mechanics of the F-ONE brand.
Who better to build what is regarded as the fastest kite on the planet right now, the Diablo?! The funny thing is that Raphael couldn’t have known when he hired Robert that the market was going to shift so dramatically in three years time. I’d like to think it was pure genius, but it was more likely a little bit of luck too.
The Diablo is the new foil kite from F-ONE, and unless you have been living under a rock, it is the hot ticket in town at the moment on the race scene. So hot in fact, that pro riders are queuing up around the block to get their hands on them. In the fickle world of racing, the latest, greatest and fastest bit of kit is always the one the riders want.
The Diablo is just that right now. By utilizing Robert’s skills in foil design, and his old employee Gin Gliders in Korea, F-ONE have been able to go from zero to hero. Building a race winning foil kite that was just a twinkle in Roberts’ eye only a year ago. With the help of Maxime Nocher and Romain Castel, they have created a masterpiece that performs not just on the race circuit, but also as a light wind freeride kite with insane hang time.
It’s not just about the design though, the kite needs to be well built and be able to stand up to the demands of the world’s top racers. Gin Gliders have been making some of the world’s leading paragliders for years. They had the know-how to help F-ONE create the foil kite they wanted. In typical F-ONE style, the kite uses some of the best and most exotic materials available.
The result is a foil kite that is not only fast, but it is also built to last; Maxime is still using the same kites he was given six months ago. He’s not had to trim the bridles or tune it in any way, it just works out of the bag every time. Six months might not seem like a long time, but when you ride for several hours every single day, hugely overpowered, clocking 40 knots on a foilboard, you quickly rack up more water time than your average kiter. It’s like doing your ‘average’ three years worth of riding in those six short months.
It’s not just the Diablo that is making the headlines though, the new hydrofoil and foil board program is an area that F-ONE are charging into all guns blazing. Raphael sees hydrofoils as a huge feature of our sport in the coming years. He and the team are working hard to ensure they are seen as a serious contender in this sector.
Charles Bertrand is another addition to the team, a Naval Architect by trade he joined F-ONE three years ago and brings a wealth of knowledge. He has been working with Raphael and the rest of the team on the hydrofoil program as well as on the board design too.
The F-ONE Hydrofoil is a magnificent piece of engineering; the team spent a long time perfecting the mast, which is a critical part. The method they use to build it is a closely guarded secret, but by using pre-pregnated carbon and Forged Carbon (Technology borrowed from the Space Program) they have built a masterpiece.
To overcome the issues of getting the wings aligned correctly each time it is assembled they created a system that plugs together allowing no errors or twists. It then uses a very simple, one bolt connection system, meaning the board can be assembled in seconds rather than minutes. It is the little things that count and the craftsmanship and design shine through in this offering.
The current model is the start of what will expand into a larger program of boards with an
aluminum/carbon hybrid set to hit the shops early next year. The new foil will use the same connection system as well as the Forged Carbon elements of the fuselage and wings. Rumor is that it will hit a price point that could well be a game changer.
Raphael and the team see the hydrofoil as the next big step in kitesurfing, opening up new areas that previously didn’t get enough wind to become kitesurfing destinations. Enabling riders all over the world to experience the feeling of flying above the water and sharing the stoke that the team all have for this new dimension in our sport.
Of course, the bread and butter of the brand is still the Bandit, the kite that took F-ONE right into the mainstream consciousness of the marketplace. The Bandit Dos was a huge success for the brand outselling their previous kites and becoming one of the best-selling models on the market that year. It’s been a huge deal ever since!
In recent years the Bandit has undergone tweaks rather than huge overhauls, the tried and tested profile, arc and three strut design fulfilling its role as an all-round kite exceedingly well. This year the team approached the testing process a little differently, working on three different sizes at the same time, this created three distinct characteristics within the range.
It is probably worth mentioning the design process for the Bandit, which is an on-going project the year round. Robert designs the prototypes and sends the CAD files to the factory in China on a Sunday night. The factory then builds the prototypes on a Monday and ships them to Montpellier to arrive on Friday. Five days after Robert drew up the prototypes on his computer, Raphael and Micka have them in their hands at Friday lunchtime.
They then drive to wherever is windy on the south coast of France, with the Mistral and Tramontane winds a regular feature in that part of the world they can always find the wind! Occasionally they might drive for 3 hours to get it, sometimes it’s on their doorstep. Raphael and Micka will then ride and test until it gets dark and they repeat the process on the Saturday and Sunday. During the afternoon on Sunday the feedback goes to Robert, and he then designs the new prototypes for the next week.
Micka and Raph then continue testing as the wind allows and feedback to Robert until the new kites arrive. This relentless process gets repeated every week throughout the year; they have specific test trips to Cape Verde in the winter to allow them to all get together and just talk about kite design and test non-stop. It’s not unheard of for Raphael and Micka to spend 8 hours a day on the water … Think about that for a moment, what was the longest kite session you’ve ever had?
The testing and design process is perhaps one of Raphael’s favorite parts of his role at F-ONE. He loves getting new kites, and it’s like Christmas every week when the prototypes arrive and he and Micka can head to the beach. Probably the only time Raphael rides a production kite is for the photoshoot and the distributor meeting he holds each year. As soon as the kite is finalized for the production year the process starts over and they get to work on the next year’s kites!
This year the smaller sizes of the Bandit are optimized for strong winds and wave riding. The medium sizes are great all-round kites with a large wind range, and the larger sizes are lighter with a deeper profile to generate more low-end power in light winds. Robert and Raphael also worked on the way the Bandit depowers. The bridle now works to pivot the kite around the leading edge when you sheet in and out rather than just dragging the trailing edge up and down.
This major change creates less drag, less flutter, better performance and increases stability especially when sheeted out. It is very noticeable on the water too; I have always felt the Bandit to be very stable, but the 2016 model is off the charts. This modification also helps to make the kite more user-friendly for beginners and intermediates getting to grips with the sport. At the same time, it still has the fast turning characteristics that Bandit fans all love.
Another core aspect of F-ONE’s success has been the selection of their pro team, over the years they have had some amazing riders, but more often than not those riders have remained part of the family. They have the Next Generation program which supports young riders, and they have invested in talent such as Robinson Hilario too. The young Dominican rider has placed top 5 on the Yl0NC tour this year and is proving the case that picking the right rider at the right moment can be very beneficial.
Most of the pro team is French, unsurprisingly, yet perhaps more interesting is that they all fit with the F-ONE ethos. Quiet, soft-spoken, but with a real passion for kitesurfing and a willingness to share that stoke on the beach. Arguably the epitome of the team is the impressive Mitu Monteiro, one of the world’s most popular kitesurfers.
Mitu was picked up years ago after Raphael visited Cape Verde, at first Raph left him some kites, and then each year he visited the spot he saw Mitu getting better and better. It didn’t take long for Raphael to sign him to the team; the rest is history. With a World Title under his belt, Mitu is one of the most talented strapless riders on the planet.
He’s graced the covers of magazines, won competitions and wowed spectators all over the globe, yet he is humble and modest to a fault. To see him ride like a man possessed on the water is a stark contrast to his understated behavior on dry land.
It’s fitting then that Mitu was given the first ever Pro Model board in the F-ONE line up. Of course, Mitu helped with the shape and the design, and he now rides his trusty 5’8″ no matter what the conditions throw at him.
The Mitu range is one of the best-selling kiteboards on the market, a further testament to the Cape Verdean’s popularity. It’s a great board too: easy to ride, encouraging riders to nail their first gybes and turns with ease. Nevertheless, when the conditions switch on it can handle everything you throw at it with aplomb!
A ‘Behind the Brand’ for F-ONE wouldn’t be complete without a nod to the growing SUP and Manera side to the business. Stand-up paddleboarding is something that Raphael and the team are truly into; it’s the perfect accompaniment to kiting in waves; SUP in the morning, kite all afternoon. I remember being told a few years ago that in the future, Raphael saw SUP and Manera making three equal pillars to the business. It would be fair to say they are well on their way to that goal!
Manera is headed up by Raphael’s son, Julien, some of the passion for excellence has rubbed off on him, and the products coming out of that side of the business are all top drawer. The team from Montpellier see themselves as the Porsche of the market place, creating high-end products that might not fit everyone’s budgets, but will certainly please anyone who cares enough to make the investment.
It’s been nearly 20 years since F-ONE’s inception, that anniversary will be coming around next year. When you ask Raphael if he always thought the brand would become as big as this, he answers with his usual modesty. Of course, he could not foresee the future of the brand all those years ago, but he did foresee the future of the sport.
He knew the sport was going to be big, and he knew that if he could bring the right products to the market at the right time then there was no reason F-ONE wouldn’t follow suit.
You can’t argue with that…
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