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Formula 1 Fans / FOTA Forum

July 2, 2010

A shot of the audience and panel at the Fans' / FOTA Forum. © http://www.jamesallenonf1.com

This afternoon, I made a quick trip into central London for the Fans’ / FOTA Forum at the BAFTA Hall in Piccadilly. Attended by approximately 130 people, the forum gave ninety minutes in total to six subjects:

  • The Fan Experience
  • The Overtaking Problem
  • Cost Control vs Technological Innovation
  • F1 and the Environment
  • The New Teams
  • Emphasis on Driver Skill
Attending the session were Martin Whitmarsh (McLaren team boss), Tony Fernandes, (Lotus team boss), Jock Clear (Nico Rosberg’s chief engineer at Mercedes), Luca Colajanni (Ferrari Motorsport Press officer) and Paul di Resta (Force India reserve driver) and the forum was chaired by one of the leading Formula 1 journalist’s, James Allen. Also in attendance were a healthy section of the Formula 1 media, including current BBC commentator Jonathan Legard and the brilliantly tanned Ted Kravitz.
A group with myself and two other chaps had a quick chat with “Legend Legard” before the session itself began and as much as he performance on the BBC is often criticised by television viewers, he is clearly very enthusiastic about the sport has quite a sum of knowledge.During the session itself, I managed to get in a comment about the negative effect applied by penalties changing a result after the event has finished as well as a question about evaluating new teams so far and the responses were:

Regarding Fan experience, how detrimental to the sport are post-race penalties that change the results?
Jock Clear: Very frustrating, from coal face, my everyday work is short-sighted, looking at what it does on next lap. It is frustrating form my point and I don’t know full situation [when the race ends].…and later on…

How does the panel evaluate the new teams?
Tony Fernandes: We are pleased. We got there late, building in 5 months. Every race we have improved and we deserve to be there, we are closing gap. It has made a little bit of excitement, a few dreams come true. FOTA tries very hard to help new teams, but we don’t have the resources – we may one day, but it’s important that teams have time to build.

The panel spoke briefly about the amount of information available to the fans, what they may be able to make available in the future, but also of the information that the teams cannot share due to specific binding agreements with FOM (Formula One Management). Admittedly most of this talk about various iPhone apps (etc) and other fanciful machinery that frankly went over my head; my concentration tends to be on the race and the race alone. Clear makes quite a relevant point about the TV commentator’s not necessarily having all the information they require for the best possible broadcast.
Quick forays into developing mediums also made themselves apparent with Tony Fernandes making nods towards broadcasting team radios as they do with IndyCar and NASCAR; however Martin Whitmarsh revealed that his team were “advised” to tone down their tweets as they were too explicit for instant broadcast.

There was also a brief talk about the cost of a Grand Prix for fans to attend (something I can attest to after I bought my Silverstone ticket!!); however this, like many other things, sits in the hands of one Mr B Ecclestone, so this will remain unchanged for some time. It would have been interesting to get the panel’s views on how they think race’s look on TV when the grandstands are empty, but then again I try not to be a question hog. Martin Whitmarsh made his feelings known about the fans experience with “…it’s clear that we need to be more engaged with fans. We need to consider the show and ensure there is value for fans…”
The McLaren boss also made a point about twenty Grand Prix being too many and that the organisers need to make races work rather than just throwing them on the calendar and hoping people show up.

The following section regarded the overtaking problem, whereby Jock Clear spoke of the issues regarding mechanical grip versus aerodynamic grip, as well as a brief nod to the lack of testing and it was interesting note that the panel seemed interested in the idea of slowly reintroducing testing – if only to train younger drivers. With the introduction of Pirelli next year, Tony Fernandes hopes that there will be a greater difference between the tyres next years to aid passing and in-race strategy. As for the adjustable rear wing, it needs more in depth discussion to work out how to deploy it.
Regarding drivers’ approach to overtaking, Paul di Resta was moved to state that “…the drivers are equally keen to overtake, but we don’t want mindless slipstreaming…” Interestingly, according to Jock Clear, many of the overtakes of yesteryear were often down to mistakes by drivers in front under pressure, but nowadays drivers are so highly trained, they simply don’t make the same errors that they used to and is another element that hurts passing in the sport.

After a short break, Whitmarsh was keen to point out that most money spent doesn’t necessarily mean success and that there also needs to be a mentality of sustainability within the sport. Innovation is the key, but at what cost – one only needs to check with Honda an Toyota to know that money doesn’t always buy success.
The testing ban is in danger of shoring up the driver pool according to Paul di Resta and Jock Clear – as drivers get less seat time, they may find themselves less ready for the top level.
On a side note, the forum is 35 minutes old before Luca Colajanni gifts the audience with its first “for sure” – a new record for the sport I believe. Meanwhile, Colajanni talks of making sure technology makes it to their road cars (such as better fuel efficiency, safety, etc…), while still pushing the thought of a third car; however rather than third Ferrari, the extra chassis would be for a newer squad – which I believe constitutes customer cars…

As the forum moves on to the subject of the environment, it ties in with Colajanni’s point about making more efficient technologies applicable to road cars. The Formula 1 cars themselves produce next to nothing in terms of carbon footprint; however seeing as how cars in general are one of the biggest polluters, then transferred technology could very well be a benefit.
Realistically, FOTA’s press release about reducing F1’s carbon footprint means nothing if they way the sport is operated and attended doesn’t change, but according to Tony Fernandes, the sport needs to use “…its brains to make F1 greener…” and that it is the sports moral obligation to do so. Mercedes engineer Jock Clear added “…if a tiny percentage of the 2013 engine innovations flow into road cars, then the benefit for planet earth will be enormous…”

Another break follows, at which point the topic of new teams arises. When Whitmarsh is asked whether a two-tier championship for the “B-teams” is a possibility, he answer is a sharp “no”, although he was quick to point out that “…HRT and Virgin need to build infrastructure if they are to survive…” Fernandes is also keen to point out that no one is quickly straight away and that the new teams need time to build and to grow.

One of the few issues I had with the organisation of the event was that the section regarding the emphasis on driver skill was left to last. Unfortunately, Paul di Resta – the only driver on the panel – had to leave half way through this section to run for a flight as he will driving at the DTM race at the Norisring this weekend. More could have been made of this had this part been moved to an earlier block.
While he was there, di Resta was asked about the challenge of the circuits and if the modern tracks have been made easier by tarmac run off. In his opinion, there are “…a few arguments for harsher penalties for [drivers] making mistakes, but its about getting a good balance of not putting the driver in danger…” The Force India reserve continued: “…the rules need clarifying with regards what constitutes a dangerous move on track after the incidents in Montreal.”
To finish the session Jock Clear was adamant to point out that regardless of the amount of technology in the cars, the drivers still need the extremely talented to get the most out of a car and the skill of the driver is and will continue to be more important than the technology.

This signalled the end of the ninety minute forum and was followed by a video of Martin Brundle driving around the redesigned Silverstone track in a two-seater and then a brief talk from the architect of the new section about finding a middle ground for both MotoGP and Formula 1 at the circuit.

As the event wrapped up, I had quick chats with Tony Fernandes (lovely and very funny) and the architect that worked on Silverstone (unfortunately, his name escapes me) who gave a very brief, but detailed idea of the many considerations and difficulties in getting the circuit right. In the lobby, I had a conversation with Luca Colajanni for about ten minutes, who was absolutely fantastic. He spoke for a few moments about the differences and similarities between Kimi Raikkonen and Fernando Alonso (quite fascinating) and when asked his thoughts on Michael Schumacher driving for Mercedes, Colajanni seemed genuinely upset that “family member” had gone to another team. Regardless of what people think of the team, the familial attitude at Ferrari is quite a wonderful aspect that is rarely seen anywhere else in the sport.

There was some criticism of this event as to what possible outcome there could be – or more accurately, how little would be taken on board by FOTA themselves. I do believe this to be somewhat naive or unfair even, as this forum felt more like the group were testing the waters. More than anything though, it was just fun and an opportunity not only to pick at the minds of some of the people inside the sport, but to also engage with other fans – something that happens all too rarely in Formula 1 and it will be very interesting to see if FOTA choose to follow this up at a later time.
Next Friday (July 9th) at Silverstone, F1 journalist Joe Saward will be hosting “An Audience with Joe”, where he will have a brief talk about the season so far, before taking questions from fans. The setting will be far more informal than the Fans’ FOTA Forum, but then again “An Audience with Joe” suits that model perfectly – for more information, you can check it out here.

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