On any given weekend -- and he races more than 20 times a year -- Tavares can be found in machinery as diverse as a tiny Peugeot 104 (in the Monte Carlo historic rally), a thunderous 1969 Lola T70 and even testing a Ligier LMP3 at Spa-Francorchamps. ("You quickly discover that the limit is the driver, not the car," he notes dryly.)
Tavares caught the racing bug as a teenager flipping through car magazines. He volunteered to be a flag steward at the newly built Estoril track near Lisbon. "That was the moment that I caught this disease," he says.
"I soon understood that racing was expensive, and therefore I had two choices: I could become a professional racing driver, or I could earn enough money to pay for my racing," Tavares says. "I discovered I was not talented enough, so I chose to be an engineer."
After graduating from the prestigious Ecole Centrale Paris in France, Tavares started at Renault in 1981 as a test engineer. He caught the eye of Renault CEO Louis Schweitzer, who in 1998 gave him responsibility to develop a key model, the Megane 2. In 2009, Carlos Ghosn, who held dual CEO roles at Renault and Nissan, chose him to lead the Japanese automaker's North American operations. He moved to Nashville, where, he says, he "couldn't miss" NASCAR racing.
But Tavares fell out with Ghosn, just a few years his senior, after a 2013 interview in which he expressed his desire to run a major automaker, and he left Renault.
He was tapped to lead PSA in 2014, as the company was facing a serious financial crisis that was eased after the French government and the Chinese conglomerate Dongfeng each took 14 percent stakes. Imposing a relentless focus on cost cutting and performance, Tavares has led PSA to impressively high automotive operating margins (6 percent in 2016) for a company that is concentrated in the fiercely competitive European auto market.
As he's developed as a manager, Tavares says, he has incorporated some key lessons from the track.
"Despite the fact that there is only one driver, racing is a team performance, and that's the same thing in the company," he says. "Being the boss means that you need everybody to support you to get the job done.
"The second one is self-control. In racing, you can lose your temper, and that won't lead to a good performance. In the company, it's the same: The more critical the situation is, the more calm you need to be," he notes. "It doesn't help to add frustration and emotion to the emotions that already exist.
"And, of course, rigor," he concludes. "In big companies, operational excellence is key, and if you don't execute your plans properly, you are out of the race, as much as in the automotive business as in racing."
Though he is involved in testing prototypes, Tavares says he does his best to take a hands-off approach to product development at PSA.
"I try -- and this is not always possible because I am so passionate about it -- not to be directive because we are not making cars for myself; we are making cars for consumers," he says. "My job as CEO is not to give engineers direction. My job is to ensure that each person can unleash his full potential inside the company, in an organization that supports that.
"Of course," he adds, "if we are testing prototypes, and I see something that is beyond the limits, I'll tell them, "Guys, this car will not go into production with this kind of problem, so fix it.'"
Though Tavares is as proficient as any top executive in business argot, he believes his decades spent at the racetrack and wrenching on his own cars let him talk to his employees from a position of a fellow enthusiast.
"It gives me the ability to have a good dialogue with many people in the company," he says. "If people realize they can connect with their CEO about cars, they can say, "At the helm of this company is a guy who likes cars, who understands what we are doing.'"