Q & A with Martin Whitmarsh

As head of the Formula One Teams' Association group discussing sporting regulations, new McLaren boss Martin Whitmarsh presented what turned out to be the headline proposal from today's FOTA announcement in Switzerland - the suggestion that the Formula One points system be immediately changed to 12-9-7-5-4-3-2-1 for the top eight finishers

Q & A with Martin Whitmarsh

After the presentation autosport.com heard from Whitmarsh on the thought process behind FOTA's suggestions, and how the group will influence F1's future.

Q. Are the ex-Honda team going to be in Australia?

Martin Whitmarsh: I think they'll be making an announcement in due course. Today is about FOTA, and FOTA - as Nick has said - worked very, very hard for them to be there, and we really hope they're going to be there, which hopefully will be the case.

Q. How confident are you that the FIA will accept the new points proposals?

MW: I hope it's clear from the presentation we made. There is a lot of work that's been done. We have gone out and conducted a survey - and I think the survey's very important. There have been some very good surveys done, things like the F1 Racing survey is great. But the truth is that you're really talking to an audience that perhaps is already committed to Formula One.

We went to 17 countries with an average of 500 people, but the whole range of people, some who only expressed a very vague interest in Formula One. If you're going to grow, then you want to retain what you've got but you want to find that new audience too. There's been a lot of work done and it's been a considered proposal that all the teams have put forward. We obviously wouldn't have done so unless we think that it's a positive thing to do and we'll see from here how it goes forwards.

Q. Was the medals idea ever entertained as a serious proposition?

MW: Yes, I think lots of ideas (were) - I mean at one stage I know there were at least eight different proposals on the table. There's a balance considered by the teams. There was a view from the audience survey that they wanted a greater recognition of winning to encourage overtaking etc, and we felt that we had to take those comments on board. However, if you commit to a very large difference in the points allocated to each driver then you can of course bring about an earlier conclusion to the championship.

We've witnessed two seasons that had fairly exciting finales based on the existing points system, so I think before you change that you've got to be very considered. With all of the different proposals we simulated what would have occurred in the last few years before we put something forward. Something which enables a championship to be finished with three races to go is not a good thing.

But we then felt that having committed to an audience survey then we shouldn't ignore it, because I think we're proud of the work that's being done, funded by FOTA, but you have to take account of what you're told, and that's what we did.

Q. Has FOTA discussed the points system with the FIA yet?

MW: No, there has been a whole range of discussions with various people expressing an opinion, but I think what we tried to do is ensure that no-one was shooting from the hip. We tried to ensure that we were doing it based upon what we believe from the research is what the audience wants, and something which we had simulated against the championships that have just occurred to ensure that they wouldn't have detracted from those. Whatever you do, ultimately, is a compromise. But we think this represents a good, fresh and worthwhile compromise to look at.

Q. Luca di Montezemolo says that all 10 teams are now committed to 2012, but do you really think that will be the case in the current climate?

MW: As we pointed out, there's been unprecedented financial turmoil in the world and the automotive manufacturing industry has had its most severe time in modern history. But I think for a whole number of reasons, it's just fantastic that FOTA is here to achieve this, because as Luca has already pointed out, the savings that have already been agreed this year would not have been possible without FOTA.

The team formerly known as Honda, we would not be speculating about their future here today, because they would be dead were it not for FOTA. So there are a number of substantial and worthwhile achievements already, but it's clear that there is a lot of work to be done.

What was interesting in looking at all the data from the survey... we are good at looking at crisis, and issues and problems in Formula One, but when you look at what the fans say and realise that in terms of our TV audience, by comparison to other traditional sports, we are doing better. When you look at it, the audience is getting younger, more females are watching. We are growing in the right areas.

There's massive potential. Formula One has not, in the past, done the best job of managing itself. That's not trying to points fingers at anybody. Certainly the teams have never, in the history of Formula One, come together in the same spirit, same manner, and with the same level of professionalism that we now have within FOTA.

It's challenging because we are natural competitors, there's a lot of history that's gone on, and there's a lot of difference in outlook between for instance a Toyota - as one of the world's largest companies - and a Toro Rosso at the other end. To reconcile all those differences has been an enormous challenge, but I think to have everyone up on stage there, I hope that you can witness, feel and believe that there's been huge cooperation, there have been huge compromises made by a lot of the teams in the interests of this sport. By working together, looking at what the audience survey tells us, we can grow our sport.

Q. You've been brought together by the credit crunch, but what happens next time there's another incident like spygate?

MW: I think historically, be it over legalities of cars, all sorts of issues, the environment in Formula One has not been conducive to cooperation and understanding. I think it's clearly very different now. Can I tell you and predict that this harmony that's broken out is going to be enduring over the next decade? Of course I can't. But I think anyone who's been around Formula One for some time has never witnessed it before. I've been around Formula One for 20 years, and I've never seen it, felt it, touched it, been involved with it. I think it's extremely positive.

I think Formula One recognises we're in an extremely competitive environment. Even before the financial turmoil we needed to work together. We do believe that we can make it stronger and better in the future. Certainly if we work together we can really achieve some of those goals. That's something that, unfortunately, that's something that we've never been able to achieve before in Formula One.

Q. So do you think if what happened two years ago happened now, you'd survive?

MW: I think Formula One is more resilient today to all sorts of challenges and crisis in a way that it's never been. Certainly I can personally account for the last 20 years, and from observation I think for considerably longer than that.

Q. FOTA is obviously great news for the teams, but what does it mean for the fans?

MW: Hopefully you've witnessed some of that. Historically Formula One has been a collection of secret societies and we haven't been able to work together sufficiently to share information. It's quite interesting how interested fans are in the technology, in the tactics and in the strategy, and that's without us feeding it.

I think there were some examples that we tried to illustrate today, where you look at other sports and how they've enhanced the show by providing more information. Like any sport if you can feed that information, fans can become more deeply involved, and interested, and intoxicated by it. So I think it's great news.

Of course some fans like to see fights between the teams, and at the moment there are a few of those and maybe there will be fewer in the future. But ultimately you want sport out there on the track on a Saturday and Sunday afternoon, and you want us out there to be cooperating and releasing, making available, all of the radio transmissions while the cars are out. How many teams over the years have spent lots of money with encrypted radio systems to prevent that? That was a big, big initiative.

There are lots of little one-liners, and I think in a year's time we'll take them for granted. I think in a year's time we won't have perhaps recognised the significance of some of the proposals that have come from FOTA. But I do think that the sport and the ability for fans to become involved, to buy into it, to understand it, and to enjoy it, will be greater.

Q. Is Bernie Ecclestone receptive to these ideas for more data and more information for fans?

MW: I think anyone who's responsible for the commercial development of the sport has got to be ecstatic about the teams cooperating more fully with how we develop those things.

Q. The chairman said that it's important to have a good balance between revenues and costs, but you also want to have new teams, and that will split the revenues more - do you want to limit the number of teams?

MW: I think Formula One and any healthy sport needs to have an environment that sustains the teams that are in it, but also gives the opportunity for new teams to arrive. I think it would be very closed if F1 said 'we have 10 entries, we'll sustain those 10 teams and we do not want any others in'. I think that would be a very unhealthy atmosphere. We need to encourage (new teams). By making a sustainable future for the sport then it makes it easier for new teams to enter into it.

Q. Do you want to continue to split the commercial revenues between all the teams, or just the first ten like in the past?

MW: Well at the moment of course there are only ten teams, but I think that we have to ensure - if you're going to go for 10, 11, 12 teams - that there is an appropriate distribution. There's got to be a balance between recognising the contribution of teams over the history of this sport and ensuring that new teams can come in, have a sensible business model, and work.

Q. So you don't think there will be a repeat of past disputes?

MW: There will be many challenges ahead of us. I don't think we can say that there will never be dispute or argument in Formula One again. I think that would be a naive thing to assume. But I think we've got a much better environment in which we can manage those issues as and when they arrive. If you look at what the manufacturers and teams have done with those cost savings, those are helping the independent teams, unquestionably. That's been a massive, massive compromise. Ferrari, ourselves, BMW, Toyota have made huge compromises in the interests of the sport and I think that's fantastic for Formula One and fantastic for the fans.

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