JULY 1, 2011
FOTA Fans Forum - Team Principals
FOTA Fans Forum - Team Principals
The Formula One Teams Association (FOTA) hosted the latest F1 Fans Forum at McLaren's Woking base yesterday.
The forum was a chance for F1's fans to question a number of the sport's most influential figures - from team management, through the technical side to the drivers themselves, in the form of Lewis Hamilton and Kamui Kobayashi.
Starting today with the team principals, we bring you what was said. Log in again to hear from the technical men tomorrow (Saturday) and the drivers on Sunday.
Representing the team principals at the forum were FOTA chairman and McLaren boss Martin Whitmarsh, Mercedes' Ross Brawn, Marussia Virgin Racing sporting director Graeme Lowdon and Force India deputy team principal Bob Fernley.
Q: Do you think it's important for F1 to be seen as the technological peak of motorsport?
Whitmarsh: It's clear that F1 has to be the pinnacle of motorsport. The technology is the bit that differentiates it from the other branches of motorsport. We used to argue about active ride in technical working groups, as well as other technologies that I was very passionate about, but there's got to be a balance. We have to have the most advanced vehicles in motorsport; we have to balance and control performance - the circuits that we race on have to be safe - and the technologies that we develop have to be relevant. On too many occasions, and this is something that I've definitely been guilty of, we pursued things that we found passionately interesting and exciting. But they really weren't relevant. Every time the regulations became more restrictive, it was very disappointing news for engineers but my experience over 23 years is that there's always something new. We had double diffusers, we had F-ducts, we've had blown diffusers and as we prohibit some of these areas there will be something new and something fresh. There has to be because if we can't innovate in F1, it will be very disappointing for all of us.
Brawn: I agree with everything Martin says. F1 has to be the pinnacle of motorsport technically and commercially. The fascination of F1 for me is that combination of the drivers and the technology, and the fact that championships can be won by a good driver in a great car, sometimes a great driver in a good car, but never a great driver in a poor car. We've got to have that technology to add that ingredient to F1; we do need to be mindful of keeping the technology relevant. In the case of Mercedes Benz, KERS is having a direct spin-off on our roadcar side. The great thing about F1 is that it accelerates any developments. This sporting war that we have just accelerates every technology and we find and develop technologies in months that in the outside world might take years because we want to find that competitive edge. Look at the battery technologies that McLaren in fact worked with Mercedes to initiate. Those battery technologies are going down to the roadcars and that makes us much more relevant for the road car manufacturers to get involved. One of the exciting things in the future is the fact that the engine is going to come back into the equation. At the moment they've been sterilised in a way. They are all very similar, they've all been homologated and no-one really talks about the engines anymore. There is a lot of exciting technology coming through with the new engine in 2014 and I'm really excited that engines are coming back into the equation and they're not just a space filler between the chassis and the gearbox.
Q: Is a 1.6-litre V6 Turbo the right way for F1 to go in 2014?
Fernley: This is the right direction. It's very relevant for the motor manufacturers and, as was mentioned by both Ross and Martin, we have to look at being aligned with our partners in this and being able to get the benefit through to the public as a whole. It's very important that we do that. F1 is similar to the space race and military development; it's not entirely geared to achieving something to a budget. Performance is the key and we can do an awful lot to help the motor manufacturers and that's what we should be focusing on.
Q: As long as there's a cost cap, why can't the number of cylinders be left open?
Whitmarsh: It's an issue of risk-management. We're in the situation at the moment where there are three automotive manufacturers in F1, and one independent manufacturer. The automotive manufacturers have been very significant investors in F1 and we need to create an environment where the engine rules are sufficiently defined so that people can come into it knowing that if they do a sound job, they'll be competitive. I've certainly argued for diversity in the past, but the danger is that automotive manufacturers become inhibited about entering the sport if there's too great a variety. Typically, although the regulations are fixed, they evolve and if you had a range of engines it would become clear after a year that one particular solution was right and the manufacturer that had developed the alternative would have to re- invest all of that money. It's about reducing the risk so that we can have four or five automotive manufacturers in F1 at any one time. They're always going to come in and out as it suits them, but we've got to create an attractive environment for the companies involved in F1.
Brawn: One point that Martin touched on there is that we're not going to get manufacturers to come in with the V8 normally aspirated engine that we have now. No-one's interested. We've got to create fresh opportunities for new manufacturers to come in because who's going to come in and build a V8 18,000rpm engine? The new engine gives a fresh opportunity and it's a more relevant specification for manufacturers.
Q: F1 has always built itself around a concept of exclusivity. How do you think that needs to balance out with getting more fans involved?
Lowdon: it has to be a balance at the end of the day. F1 is the pinnacle of motorsport and it has to have an element of exclusivity. However, there are lots of different ways in which we can open the sport up to a lot more people with new media and different ways of communicating. I hope the teams are doing a lot of things to include the fans more. From our point of view, we're a new team and one of the things we've done is hire Stowe School over the British Grand Prix weekend for the next five years. We've created a fan area there and people can come and camp with the mechanics. People can interact and what we want to do is open it up to as many fans as possible. We did it last year as well and we had some fabulous feedback from fans.
I could have gone on for hours about resource restrictions. F1 does require an awful lot of money and to generate that revenue you have to have a commercial structure that includes high degrees of exclusivity. That's a fact, but there's still a lot that the teams can do to open themselves up.
Q: You guys have so much stuff you could show us, but you keep it hidden at races. Why is that?
Fernley: Part of the problem is that it's so expensive to take a stand at a grand prix. As much as we would like to show you more, it's prohibitively expensive to do so. Maybe we could look at a FOTA event where all the teams contribute to the cost at a race. We will do a great deal in India for the fans and teams based in the UK will no doubt do that at Silverstone next weekend.
Whitmarsh: It's clear that F1 hasn't done enough in recent years to reach out to fans, and that's one of the reasons why we're sat here at the Fans Forum today. We have introduced autograph signing sessions at every circuit and we are trying to reach out. We teams aren't in commercial control and there are restrictions to what we're allowed to do. Only yesterday we tried to take a car to Silverstone and they wanted to charge us £15,000 for having it there, just to park it there for public interest. There's a limit to what we can do, but we must do more.
Q: What's to stop all the team radio feeds being released to the general public?
Brawn: The driver-pits radio channel is completely open and it's up to the commercial rights holder to decide what gets broadcast. The teams all agreed to make that available for broadcast and at the circuit. There are a huge number of things that we need to improve on, both in terms of the spectacle at the track and watching a race at home. We're making some in-roads into the use of Internet technology. My wife now looks at all the split times when she's sat at home watching the race and that's something we didn't have a few years ago. In fact, she gives me a hard time if she spotted something I hadn't seen! We have to make in-roads into all of those areas.
One of the things that we have to overcome is that the exclusivity of F1 has bred a certain attitude among the drivers and among certain team members and we have to break that down. If you're in Nascar, you know as a driver that you're expected to devote time to the fans. It's seen as part of your job. We've got to open up in that respect in F1; we need to start drivers on that path so that we don't have to change them later on.
Whitmarsh: It wasn't that many years ago that McLaren and Ferrari were spending hundreds of thousands on digitally encrypted radios so that we couldn't listen to each other and the thought of releasing that was very foreign. It was a very early decision in FOTA and, in truth, we owned the rights to the radios. We gave it to the commercial rights holder and asked him to exploit it. It was quite a big shift from spending lots of money so that no-one else could hear you to actually offering it for free. We've got to work with the commercial rights holder to ensure we're making full and proper use of it all.
Lowdon: I wish more people could hear the radios. We're a team that's not at the front of the grid and yet we have a very, very strong fan base throughout the world. They all want to know what's going on in our race and I'd love it if you could hear what was going on in the radio. A high point for me was qualifying in Monaco this year. We didn't qualify anywhere near the front, but if you'd had the benefit of hearing Timo Glock during that session, when hustled our car around the track much quicker than it should have gone, you would have been thoroughly entertained by his comments. I wish everyone could hear it because it really adds to the fabric of the sport.
Q: With the BBC contract coming to an end next year, what can FOTA do to ensure F1 stays on free-to- air television?
Whitmarsh: All of the FOTA teams believe in free-to-air television. There will be parts of the market where there's some differentiated service offered, but if you think about the business model of F1 teams, which is all about attracting brands and giving them brand exposure, they require us to have a large audience. Historically, that meant being on free-to-air. Our current contracts require that F1 remain on free-to-air and the teams, through FOTA, are clearly going to safeguard their business interests and the interests of the fans in this regard. But it isn't as simple as "is it on BBC or ITV". Fans want a lot more information. We're in a very data-rich sport: we have a lot of telemetry data and strategic information, and lots of modelling and simulation that every team is doing. We're an ideal sport to feed the real fans additional information, as well as the traditional TV feed. We've got to try and unscramble that, and it isn't as simple as "we must stay free-to-air". The media is really multi-faceted and we've got to ensure that there's a mass free entry in which to see grands prix. But there are an awful lot of people who want extra information that you won't get through a free-to-air route. There's speculation surrounding Newscorp's interest in the sport and let's be clear: the teams are working together and this sport isn't going anywhere without the teams. If we stay together, we can control the direction of this sport and we're not trying to do that for any other reason than what's in the best interests of the sport.
Fernley: I endorse what Martin's saying, but we have to be pragmatic going forward. Perhaps the BBC won't be able to follow the unlocking of the data that Martin's talking about. I'm a little bit more open and sports are going down the pay-per-view route. Of course it's in our best interests to get the maximum amount of viewers, we've got to look at the quality of what we can do longer term.
Brawn: The other thing to highlight is that the income from television is only a proportion of our income. The majority of our income comes from our partners and our sponsors and without that we're not viable. The media model is a vital part of our income, but we also have our partners to consider and if we don't give them the exposure they need, which comes down to the number of people watching the race, then we'll be in trouble.
Lowdon: Our business model is very different to the established teams. As a team, we get a very small amount of TV revenue and I'd say 95% of our revenues come from commercial partnerships and sponsorships, all of which rely on mass appeal. If there were a change to that model it would significantly affect a team like ourselves because we get very little of the TV money. It comes from partners and sponsors because we get very little of the TV money. We like to think we have a fairly robust model, but it would certainly have to change if there was pay-per-view and so I wouldn't be in favour of it.
Q: In what countries would you really like to see an F1 race?
Whitmarsh: We're going to the USA, but we've really got to go to the USA this time. That's to say going there, having a race going home isn't good enough. That's what we've done in the States before and it didn't work. We're not really in America. America doesn't need us, but we need to conquer it. Maybe we need to have two races a year and a proper marketing programme. We've got to create the interest. Within Europe people understand F1 and we have a strong fanbase. Also in some parts of Asia and South America, but the worry is that we're not doing enough in other places and we must try hard in places like Korea and India, when we go there later this year. We can't just go there, have a race and come home. F1 hasn't had to sell itself in the past; the fans have come to us. But there's lots of competition in the entertainment business. We have to conquer America - that's a five-year programme. We've got to be on the east coast and the west coast. It's a big enough market and an important enough market to have two races and we should be over there. I have nothing against Texas and I hope it's a very successful race, but the natural hinterland for us is the east coast and the west coast. Long Beach and around New York: those are the places where we're going to create interest in F1.
Brawn: I agree totally with what Martin has been saying. That's the commercial and business side. All of us love to go to countries where the fans are enthusiastic and where you can really taste the passion. One of the countries that I remember being like that was Argentina. It was a fantastic race. The economic climate there isn't what's needed to have an F1 race now. Of the races that we go to now, there are several that we all look forward to because the fans are so enthusiastic. It makes a difference to us because we want to be at places where people are really enjoying the racing and you can really hear the roar of the crowd.
Lowdon: Martin made an extremely good case for the commercial side. But if we're looking at the emotional side, we do go to some places where the fans are a tad indifferent to say the least and we go to some places where they are knowledgeable, fanatical and it would be great to go to some more places like that. I sense it would be a street circuit because that gets everybody as close as possible to the action. I've never experienced racing in Argentina and it sounds like a cool place to go. If not, Newcastle would be good!
Fernley: Unfortunately, I'm old enough to remember racing in Long Beach and I think Martin is absolutely correct. The west coast and the east coast are the natural homes for F1 in America. The only major continent that we're not working on is Africa and I'd like to see us go back there.
Q: Would you as teams consider subsidising some of the classic races if they were struggling financially?
Whitmarsh: We've got to have a more flexible business model in F1. The model that's been pursued to date has been very successful at developing the sport, but if we lose some of the classic venues, then we risk the heritage of our sport. If you said to the teams, would you take a reduced fee to race at somewhere like Spa-Francorchamps, then I'm sure we all would. What we've got to make sure is that we say the same to the commercial rights holder because he's got much bigger pockets than any of us up here, or all of the teams put together. In fairness, I think he has been prepared to take a more flexible approach on occasion, but collectively we've got to decide where it's important to be and make sure that we find a commercial solution so that the historic circuits survive.
Q: We never get to see the world champion crowned at the end of the year. Would it be a good idea?
Brawn: There is an event, but it's an exclusive event and that's the problem with F1. It's difficult to do at the last race because we have a lot of technology in F1 and there's a period of settling down before the results are made final. We don't want a situation where we make a premature announcement about the world champion, only to find there's a widget that's not quite right. Creating a post-season motorsport event, part of which is the crowning of the world champion, would be a fantastic idea.
Lowdon: Technically, the issue is that F1's not our championship, it's the FIA's championship. There is an awards ceremony at the end of the year and they give out awards for all of the FIA championships. I hadn't realised how many there were until you go to that event! It's a full-on marathon and you have to bring your Kit-Kat with you! It would be great to get fans more involved in that.
Q: Should the top three in the championship go on a world tour at the end of the year?
Whitmarsh: We do things like that. We shut Woking from time to time - not as often as I'd like! - and we run a F1 car through the town to celebrate a world championship. Those events are within out control. The crowning of a world champion would be a fantastic event; at the moment it's intermingled with dust racing across the Sahara and various other things and I think you could make a great event out of it.
Q: How does F1's drive to be green balance with the increased use of tyres during the race?
Brawn: Martin launched a great initiative that looked at the carbon footprint of F1 and ways in which we could reduce it. There's been a strong drive to cut down on the amount of equipment that we take to each race and there's now a cap on the number of people we can have at the track. We've looked at all of the initiatives we can to reduce the size of our carbon footprint and it's fair to say the cars are only a tiny part of that impact. The important thing about racing cars is the message they can give out. With the new engine in 2014, it's not about the new engine being more efficient in itself, it's the message it gives that it's cool to have a really efficient engine. One that's going to race on a lot less fuel because we're setting dramatic targets for the amount of fuel we race on in the future. Thirty, 40, 50 percent less than we have now, but still with the same amount of power and excitement that we have now. We don't want to have fuel economy racing, but we want to set targets for the engineers. What I should do is ask Pirelli what they do with the old tyres. Some of it gets left on the track, as you know, and that's one of the features of this year. I'm sure they do something about recycling the tyres and they've done a lot to improve the racing too. All credit to them. We were all a bit anxious about the change, but they've done a really good job and opened up the racing enormously and made it more interesting.
Fernley: Maybe we should compartmentalise things. The job of F1 is to help develop the technologies, as with the V6 programme, so that we can benefit the whole economy through the manufacturers. Through the efforts of FOTA it would inexcusable to waste more than we need in terms of travel, but I think F1 - and maybe I'm a bit of a dinosaur - is a celebration of excess. We have the most powerful engines, we have the best show in motor racing, we have the best parties and the prettiest girls and we should not lose that. We are a show at the end of the day and the show must be maintained. But we can also do more than our fair share on the environmental side too.
Q: Is there any more the sport can do to help students get involved in F1?
Brawn: I think the sport does quite a lot. We all support various initiatives, starting with 'F1 in Schools', which is this competition for young children to build a little CO2-powered projectile. They learn to design that in school, so we try to sow the seeds of an engineering challenge and a team challenge at a young age. That's been very successful.
Then we move on to »Formula Student', which is an initiative that a lot of universities are involved in now. A team of students design and build a racing car and they then compete against each other. The big event is at Silverstone, coming up shortly, and I think we have 130 universities competing. I've spoken to students, who say they've gone to a particular university because it has the 'Formula Student' programme. It's a fantastic initiative because it involves engineering and they also have to present a commercial model concerning how they have raised the money. There's team building, there's driver management - it's a fantastic initiative that a lot of people support. Our chief engineer on the race team came up through that programme.
Every team in F1 takes students on. We have 10-15 graduates in our company. They're great because they're cheap and they're enthusiastic. It invigorates a lot of our staff to have these young people around, all champing at the bit to make an impression in life.
Fernley: In addition to everything that Ross has said from the point of view of F1 as a whole, Force India actually launched its own academy earlier this year. It's split into three parts: the first one was the driver launch, where Force India has gone around the whole of India looking for a new Lewis Hamilton. The second part will be the vocational side, where we're looking at bringing young engineers through to the F1 team, and the third part is the academic side. We will be sponsoring talented young engineers that don't have the funds to be able to go through. We're passionate about helping young people and bring them into the sport. Obviously ours is India-centric, but we're very active in it.