Forget KERS, DRS blown diffusers and Pirelli tyres for a moment. One of the most popular topics that the great and the good of the Formula 1 paddock were taken to task on at last week's FOTA Fans Forum was breaking down the walls between the sport and the people that make it the global phenomenon it has become.
"You are the most important people in this room," Ron Dennis told the fans when he gave an introductory speech before the event, welcoming them to the McLaren Technology Centre. And in this modern era where there are so many things vying for the public's attention, F1 is waking up to the need to open up to its loyal followers.
Events like last week's Fan Forum are a good starting point. It gives the fans face-to-face contact with important figures in the sport - in total seven teams were represented by senior people last week. It also allows those on the outside to see a different side to the people they are used to watching only on their television screens.
The atmosphere in the MTC was surprisingly relaxed, and some of the jokes and banter that are regularly witnessed by the media were on show to the lucky 200+ audience in attendance.
Dennis joked - at least it sounded like a joke - that he wishes McLaren team principal Martin Whitmarsh wouldn't take his role as FOTA chairman quite so seriously, so he doesn't get distracted from his main job. But there is a very obvious determination in Whitmarsh to make the sport more fan-friendly, and he's not shy about being critical of the path the sport has gone down.
"It's clear that F1 hasn't done enough in recent years to reach out to fans," says Whitmarsh. "That's one of the reasons why we have these fan forums. We are trying to reach out - we have autograph sessions at every circuit now. And it wasn't that long ago that us and Ferrari were spending hundreds of thousands on digitally encrypted radios so that we couldn't listen to each other, yet now we give it to the commercial rights holder for free."
The term "commercial rights holder" (in other words, Bernie Ecclestone) cropped up a lot in answer to questions from fans on the exclusivity of the sport. And Whitmarsh was keen to point out that a lot of the things the teams take criticism for aren't actually in their control.
"We must do more, but there is a limit to what we can do," he adds. "We teams aren't in commercial control and there are restrictions to what we are allowed to do. We wanted to take a car to Silverstone [for the British Grand Prix] and we were told it would cost £15,000 just to park it there for public interest. We've got to work with the commercial rights holder to ensure we are making the best use of everything."
Whitmarsh and Brawn respond to the fans © LAT
Force India deputy team principal Bob Fearnley backs up Whitmarsh's concerns about the prohibitive costs of doing more for fans on grand prix weekends, when they are not actually in charge of what goes on inside the circuit grounds.
"Part of the problem is that it is so expensive to take a stand at a grand prix," says Fearnley, who is working on his team's plans to reach out to fans when the sport visits India for the first time later this year. "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 costs at a race."
Based on the teams' approach to the forum, where several of the key personnel stuck around afterwards, not only to sign autographs but to have far more informal chats with fans in small groups, there is more to this desire to open up than just saying the right things when they are put on the spot.
But while the teams start to take note of what is required in the modern day and age, for the scheme to be a success it is something that is going to have to filter down to the personalities people admire the most - the drivers.
The arrival of Lewis Hamilton and Kamui Kobayashi onto the stage at the MTC was greeted by enormous cheers. With the exception of Italy, the drivers are the ones the majority of people latch on to and support, and the change in the atmosphere last week was clear as the buzz in the room went up several notches.
Hamilton and Kobayashi were on good form - the 2008 world champion even made an ever-so-slight joke about some of his over-exuberant driving of late - and the Japanese star even stuck around afterwards as a long queue of autograph hopefuls formed up behind him while he admired some of the old McLarens on show in the factory.
On that note, Ross Brawn wants to see the drivers get a grasp on the level of responsibility they have regarding engaging with their supporters.
"One of the things that we have to overcome is that the exclusivity of F1 has bred a certain attitude among the drivers and certain team members and we have to break that down," says Brawn. "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 the 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."
But as much as fans would like it, the exclusivity can't go away entirely. By building up this special inner circle Ecclestone has created an incredibly desirable brand - one that sponsors are prepared to pay big bucks to become a part of.
Kobayashi and Hamilton attended the Forum © LAT
Virgin's sporting director Graeme Lowdon explains: "It has to be a balance. F1 is the pinnacle of motorsport and it has to have an element of exclusivity. 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 is more we can do to open up."
Events like last week's forum offer those in the sport to generate feedback instantly and witness the results first hand. There were several cases of those on stage asking for "a show of hands" on certain issues, and the results were not always as expected. One person to take a particular interest in the responses of the fans on the day was Renault technical director James Allison.
"The exclusivity of the paddock is a key part of the sport," he said after the event. "But one of the things we talked about was getting the right balance. Things like this are a good start, but there are things we can do to open it out on a grander scale.
"One of the most illuminating responses from the fans was the fact that a reasonable number of people did not like the artificiality of the new rules we have this year. But the vast majority said that this year's races had been enjoyable and a good spectacle. Now that was the response from what are probably hardcore, purist fans, and it's reassuring to know that we haven't alienated them with the rules that we dreamed up."
There is more to the exclusivity argument than simply letting people through the gates. As some of the questions put to the technical bosses in attendance proved at the forum, the knowledge of hardcore Formula 1 fans can be incredibly high - and that's something the teams are becoming increasingly aware of.
Red Bull Racing has been the king of secrecy over the last couple of years with its precious Adrian Newey creations. But even the team's head of race engineering Paul Monaghan is prepared to open up.
"Secrecy is part of the sport," he says. "A little bit of secrecy and competitiveness goes hand in hand, and I hope as a show it is entertaining. We need to keep that aspect, but there is more we can make available, and we've got to be prepared to open up."
On the subject of Red Bull's mind games - particularly on the grid before a grand prix, McLaren technical director Paddy Lowe raises the point that things aren't as secretive between the teams as the charade on TV sometimes suggests.
"Although in some ways it is amusing what those guys do [standing] behind their cars, the reality is we know exactly what's going on because we have photographs from other occasions," says Lowe. "I quite enjoy sending the odd photo to Paul after a race of the floor of his car!
Fans listen to Ron Dennis © LAT
"What's fantastic about the fanbase of F1 is that it is generally a very technical audience. That's what sets them apart from the football fan, let's say. They want to understand, and we want to keep feeding that. It's a great shame if we don't stand together on that."
Allison adds: "There is so much that all the teams do that is more or less the same. All of us could talk about the detail of the sport without betraying any particular secrets of our particular team because we'd just be revealing things that go on in the sport that we all do that are interesting."
The longer the third fan forum went on last week, the more it hit home that the sport needs to keep working hard to look after the people that care about the pinnacle of motor racing.
Whether the fans will ever get any further say in the sport is hard to say, but even if this increased level of interaction proves to be little more than a starting point, it is still a world away from how things were in the not too distant past. Hopefully, the more the key figures in the sport look into interacting with the fans, the more they will continue to ever-so-slightly open the doors a in the future.
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