Heard the one about the head of the Formula One Teams’ Association who was actually bothered with hearing what fans thought about the sport?
No, it’s not a joke, believe it or not.
Martin Whitmarsh, McLaren team principal and recently-appointed FOTA chairman, has said he intends to continue the organisation’s 2009 work to gather the opinions of fans, whether hardcore viewers who catch every race, practice and qualifying session or those who follow the sport more casually.
In a Q&A issued by the McLaren press office this week Whitmarsh followed up on some comments he made at the height of the F1 breakaway saga in June 2009.
After a vocal groundswell of support by F1 fans against the FIA status quo, and in favour of the teams opposing it, FOTA showed that it was alive to the power of social media and viral video.
In a video clip released then via McLaren sponsors Vodafone, Whitmarsh said: “A lot of changes that have occurred in Formula One over recent years haven’t really taken into account the wishes of fans and we haven’t brought those into the thought process. And hopefully in future we will see much more of that.”
This week he added: “The survey we conducted last year enabled us to learn some very useful and interesting things, we are now looking at canvassing an even broader range of opinion-holders in order to bring in a far more detailed series of responses.
“It’s an ongoing project, and we still have more work to do before releasing any findings.”
In the interview Whitmarsh also covered a wide range of other subjects, including saying that he was very pleased with the development work that had been carried out so far on the MP4-25, and tackling the question of equality between his two world championship-winning drivers (“I’m relatively relaxed”).
He also spoke about regulation changes, the future direction of FOTA and the fate of the common launch proposal, which would have seen all the teams unveiling their cars on the same day as a costcutting measure.
He said: “It was initially recognised that two or three of the teams would not have their cars available for the event, but it was agreed that they’d have old cars or show cars featuring the 2010 livery, which seemed to be an acceptable compromise.
“But as the event got closer, it became apparent that there would only be three teams in a position to display their new car. And it was felt that there would be disappointment if we couldn’t display a suitable number of 2010 cars.”
On whether the MP4-25 was a championship-winner, he said: “It’s still far too early to say. Will it win races? We certainly hope so. Am I proud of the effort we’ve currently invested in the car? Most definitely.”
• Read the thoughts of Chairman Whitmarsh in full here:
How is progress going with the 2010 car? What are your plans for testing?
MW: “Clearly, the absence of testing in January has eased the car-build schedule to a certain degree, but we’re still working as hard as ever at the McLaren Technology Centre. We’ll be launching the car at Vodafone’s UK headquarters in Newbury on January 29, and we’ll be running one MP4-25 at the first test at Valencia on February 1.
“Obviously, Pedro’s decision to sign with Sauber will have a slight impact on our test programme, but we’ll overcome it. We’re very happy that Pedro has got a race drive for 2010 – he’s been a great asset to our team and, above all, a very dear friend to all of us.
“As has become customary with most teams, the first tests will be about establishing a baseline of performance, allowing the engineers and mechanics to learn and understand the new car and the impact of the new regulations. And, as in previous years, we’ll introduce a series of upgrades at one of the later tests, and that will be the car we take to the opening race.”
What is the initial feedback from your data and simulation work about the performance of MP4-25?
MW: “During the development of MP4-25, we set ourselves some very high targets – and I’m enormously pleased with the way our designers and engineers have tackled the approach to the new car. The new regulations have obviously had an effect on the car’s appearance, with the much higher-capacity fuel tank looking more striking than before.
“But we’re pleased with a number of solutions we’ve been able to bring to the car, and I think we’re cautiously optimistic that, after the experience of last year and, in particular, the momentum we gathered in the second half of the season, we’ll have a competitive car for both Jenson and Lewis.
“Is it a championship contender? It’s still far too early to say. Will it win races? We certainly hope so. Am I proud of the effort we’ve currently invested in the car? Most definitely.”
You have the previous two world champions on board. How easy will it be to manage Lewis and Jenson, and ensure that both work for the benefit of the team?
MW: “I’m relatively relaxed about the driver partnership. Knowing Lewis as I do, and having got to know more of Jenson during the limited time I’ve spent with him during his busy visits to MTC, I feel relatively confident that our driver line-up this year will be a very stable and mutually productive one.
“But neither became world champion simply by driving at the limit on the racetrack; they’ve each been responsible for moulding and developing an organisation around them, and in exploiting the skills of their respective engineers to the best of their abilities. And it’s that sort of approach that we’ll be looking to encourage from both drivers in order to give us a performance advantage.
“We’ve also got an extremely experienced and capable race team, and we feel that will play absolutely to our drivers’ strengths.
“Equally, they know that Formula 1 in 2010 will be more competitive than ever before. Collaboration, understanding and the shared development of the car will be at the forefront of everybody’s mind. And given the testing limitations and the minimal track time at the weekend, it’s the only way to get ahead. Both Jenson and Lewis fully understand that.
“That’s why I’m so thrilled with our driver partnership – I really think it will play to the strengths of modern Formula 1. Of course, we wouldn’t be going racing if we couldn’t let our drivers ‘off the leash’, but our absolute priority is to develop a frontrunning car.”
The main regulation change this year is the banning of refuelling. What impact will this have on the racing? Will it be better, or will it result in more processional races?
MW: “Inevitably, when you make a change, there are pros and cons. Regarding the pros, it arguably makes qualifying purer because the fastest car/driver combination will be setting the fastest times, and the public can understand that. Secondly, in the race itself, overtaking was often being planned and implemented to occur as a consequence of strategy, and therefore happening in the pitlane and not the circuit.
“In the absence of that effect, drivers will have a greater incentive to overtake. There have been occasions in the past where a driver hasn’t had that incentive because he knows he will be running longer and can get past the car ahead strategically through the pitstops.
“Additionally, the fact that drivers will qualify on low-fuel, and then the next time they drive the car in anger into the first corner will be after a standing start with cold tyres and cold brakes and 160kg of fuel. That will be very challenging for them, not just in terms of getting round that first corner, but in terms of how they look after their tyres and how the balance of the car will alter as a consequence of that. And there will be drivers who are able to deal with those changes better than others.
“Those are all the positives. On the negative side, it’s possible that if all of the above is managed equally well by every driver, then we’ll have lost one of the strategic campaign interests that the more avid fans enjoyed in the sport. Hopefully the former points will outweigh the latter.”
You have been elected as chairman of FOTA – what will the organisation be doing this year to improve Formula 1 and make it better for the fans?
MW: “FOTA has put a lot of effort into reducing costs in Formula 1, and that will increase the likelihood of teams surviving and hopefully thriving. We’ve had a number of interesting initiatives, but there is no magic wand.
“FOTA will continue to develop ideas and changes, but we mustn’t tear the sport inside out overnight. We’re conscious of the need to cultivate the sport’s reputation while also enhancing the spectacle. FOTA needs to continue working with the FIA, CVC and FOM to achieve that, and that’s a continuous process.
“We have a range of ideas, so has Bernie, so we have to work together, rather than have FOTA say what it’s going to do. We want to continue doing our bit and to contribute in the best possible way to improve our sport.”
Are there any plans to do more fan research this year?
MW: “Yes. We’ve commissioned what is, in my view, the only broad-based fan survey that will take into account the opinions of those who aren’t hardcore Formula 1 fans. It’s those fans with a mild or passing interest in Formula 1 that we need to concentrate on, because we can convert them into more avid fans.
“The survey we conducted last year enabled us to learn some very useful and interesting things, we are now looking at canvassing an even broader range of opinion-holders in order to bring in a far more detailed series of responses. It’s an ongoing project, and we still have more work to do before releasing any findings.”
What happened to this year’s common launch proposal and what will happen to the idea for 2011?
MW: “We haven’t yet discussed it for 2011. It was initially recognised that two or three of the teams would not have their cars available for the event, but it was agreed that they’d have old cars or show cars featuring the 2010 livery, which seemed to be an acceptable compromise.
“But as the event got closer, it became apparent that there would only be three teams in a position to display their new car. And it was felt that there would be disappointment if we couldn’t display a suitable number of 2010 cars.
“For the season ahead, we have new regulations, and it would have been extremely tight for some of the smaller teams to have met the common launch deadlines. As a result, it became understandable that we had to pull away from it. We still think it’s a good idea; it’s now a question of whether we can co-ordinate the availability of sufficient new cars to make a joint launch an interesting spectacle for next year.”
What’s FOTA doing for the environment?
MW: “We want to find ways in which we can contribute. There’s already a commitment to push forward with the introduction of new technologies for 2013, and that’s going to take a lot of investment and isn’t something that’s easy to do overnight.
“For the future, Formula 1 needs to be about efficiency, so we have to ensure we develop regulations that encourage the development of technologies that aren’t just a benefit to the automotive sector, but to society in general. We want to be seen as making our contribution, just as every business has to.
“But it’s a balance at the moment: we have a lot of new teams entering the sport, and they’ll have a number of significant challenges ahead of them. If we start to load a number of new environmental challenges onto them, it will make their lives more difficult. But we’re confident we can make progress over the next few years.”
This Q&A is provided courtesy of McLaren.com