I registered for the event quite randomly after seeing promotion on the web and I was thrilled to receive an email a few days later confirming my attendance. It clearly was an event in demand!
After a thoroughly miserable drive up in the classic British summer weather (heavy rain), I arrived early at the gates to the Grove facility. After parking, a small group of ‘early adopters’ and I waited patiently until a delivery van had disappeared (welcome to the secret world of F1!) before we entered the Conference Centre. You’re greeted by a display of F1 cars in the foyer and you instantly get a feeling of the prestigious history associated with the Williams team…even their most recent trophy from Pastor Maldonado’s win in Spain 2012 was on open display!
We were all privalaged to be allowed to tour the museum of Williams cars, set in a fantastic low-light setting that gave off a real atmosphere. Then it was up the stairs into an area that explained about the more technical aspects of F1, from wind tunnel importance to the design of the tubs. Next to this was an engaging room featuring ex-Williams driver’s helmets and a huge variety of Constructor winning trophies from down the years. It was in this room we were offered refreshments and I must say a huge thanks for the fantastic effort put on by the staff at Williams as it made for a fantastic, memorable experience.Lee McKenzie, the BBC F1 reporter/presenter, hosted the guests and it was a real pleasure to see Sir Frank Williams take to the stage and say a few words. The applause surrounding this moment really gave you a sense of how respected this truly remarkable man is, by both industry insiders and fans alike.
Current Williams driver Pastor Maldonado was then introduced after signing hundreds of autographs in the Champions Gallery earlier, answering questions on his recent crash in Valencia with Lewis Hamilton, the impact he has experienced in Venezuela after becoming the country’s biggest sporting icon, and his amazing win at the 2012 Spanish GP.
As Pastor rushed off for more PR engagements, Ross Brawn (AMG Mercedes), Martin Whitmarsh (Vodafone McLaren Mercedes) and Bob Fernley (Force India) took to the stage and immediately took questions from the fans.
(L to R) Lee McKenzie, Bob Fernley, Martin Whitmarsh and Ross Brawn on stage
The focus for many of the questions were on tyres and DRS. MW stated that the current tyres used in F1 are “massively exciting for fans”, due to the amazing change in grip levels that can suddenly occur. I certainly agree with this…it’s made F1 very exciting. Interestingly, when Ross Brawn was quizzed about DRS, he suggested that it is by no means a perfected system, saying that “the fans need to tell us if DRS is working”. This underlines the spirit of the FOTA Forum to be honest…F1 clearly wants to get fans (old and new) more involved in the future of the sport which will benefit everyone in the long run.
There were two other questions that really took my interest. The first asked why there is such a tight gap between the majority of cars during qualifying, which MW felt was mainly down to a lack of significant rule changes this season, which has allowed more teams to refine the development of their cars and close the gap to the bigger teams. The second question I enjoyed was to do with new technology and the fact that with sportscars allowing more freedom for new ideas (the DeltaWing seen at Le Mans this year springs to mind), is F1 still the pinnacle of motor racing? MW felt that F1 has to remain at the top in the tech stakes and that the sportscar model isn’t necessarily a good one, relying too much on a handful of manufacturers (Audi and Toyota) which could affect its own future, certainly in the LMP1 class.
After well over an hour of questioning, the three men left the stage and went straight into media interviews. It was time for the ‘legends’ to make their appearance…former F1 drivers Derek Warwick and John Watson, together with former Williams heavy weight Patrick Head.
The whole Q&A was extremely engaging, with them discussing everything from their experience with turbo cars, current F1 drivers, the pressure put on them by the media and their thoughts on driver stewards.
I was lucky enough to be picked by Lee to ask a particularly emotive question which I really had just thought of moments earlier after DW had answered a question on safety. I asked Derek what it was like physiologically getting into the Lotus F1 car at Jerez in 1990 after his team mate Martin Donnelly had a serious, career-ending crash in the same design of car that same weekend. Derek unfortunately had witnessed a lot of tragedy during his career and it was touching to hear him explain how it was. As a racing driver of that era, it came down to two things…you have to create an emotional detachment and, at the end of the day, it’s your job, so you carry on. These sentiments were echoed by John Watson, with both also discussing the fatal Gilles Villeneuve accident back in 1982. I will always be grateful to the panel for addressing this difficult question and I know that the audience were very engaged. I just underlines the fact that the drivers of F1 cars are driven by passion more than anything else and they know the risks.
As the three legends left the stage, Lee closed the Forum and everyone left the hall gradually (via the shop in my case!), bringing to a close what had been a fantastic event. I will hold it long in my memory. Thanks FOTA!