Last Tuesday I was lucky enough to be able to visit the Williams Conference Centre in Grove for the FOTA Fan Forum. I was a little unsure about what to expect as I’d applied without really knowing much about it, just on the off chance I might get a ticket.
For those of you who don’t know, FOTA (Formula One Teams Association) is there to ‘defend and promote the interests of its members’, who are all of the teams, excluding Ferrari and Red Bull who chose to leave at the end of last year.
After a stressful journey, I just about arrived in time; Grove is a lovely place to drive through though it struck me as odd that a Formula 1 team would have a base in the countryside.
Directly opposite the front doors to the Conference Centre is the life size Formula 1 car and pit crew topiary that won a gold medal at the Chelsea Flower Show earlier this year, which is spectacular up close, especially as I’d endured watching most of the Chelsea Flower Show on TV only to have missed the part where they actually showed the car! That kicked the evening off to a great start, little did I know it was about to get even better.
As you enter the Conference Centre, you are greeted by the 2011 Williams F1 car with Jacques Villeneuve’s 1997 car suspended above you, it’s hard to imagine a better sight to be greeted by as you walk through the front doors of a building.
Being British it didn’t take me long to find a queue, so I joined it completely unaware of what I was actually queueing for, I think I thought it was the line to get into the conference room.
As it turned out, I’d joined the queue to meet Pastor Maldonado, who surprised me in two ways; he was much shorter than I expected and he was much quieter than imagined; he even seemed a little nervous and awkward. Come to think of it, normally when we see him on TV he’s being interviewed by the media and is high on the adrenaline of racing, meeting fans on your own in is something entirely different. He was a nice chap though.
When I arrived at the conference room, it was already half full of Formula 1 fans eagerly tweeting away. What struck me as surreal was that most people in the room had probably had some kind of contact with at least one other person in the room via Twitter or a forum, yet they’d probably struggle to pick them out in a crowded room.
Lee McKenzie spoke a little to Pastor Maldonado before introducing Sir Frank Williams, who spoke about how proud he was of the team and briefly spoke about Pastor, describing him as a usual character who sometimes says the wrong thing, but he’s quick, which raised a few laughs around the room.
After Frank and Pastor left, Bob Fernley (Force India’s Deputy Team Principal), Ross Brawn (Mercedes Team Principal) and Martin Whitmarsh (McLaren Team Principal) then came to the stage to take questions from the floor.
It was clear that they all know each other well, respect each other and are open to a bit of banter. Especially when a question was asked about DRS, to which Martin Whitmarsh decided Ross Brawn would be best equipped to answer, of course in reference to their ‘Double-DRS’ system.
There was an hour of thoughtful and intelligent questions, much more than ‘Do you think you can challenge for the title this year?’, the answers allowed us to get a real insight into the workings of the teams and the sport and the direction they’d like to see the sport head in.
There were questions about whether DRS should be disenabled towards the end of the race, how each team would retain their current drivers or attract new ones and whether they thought the sport was doing enough to attract new drivers. Sadly I didn’t have the opportunity to ask my questions, perhaps a big flashing sign saying ‘Pick me’ would be wise for next year?
Following that, it was time to question the ‘F1 Legends’, Patrick Head (Head Technical Director at Williams for 27 years), Derek Warwick (Head of the BRDC) and John Watson (Former McLaren driver).
John Watson had the entire crowd captivated as he spoke about how the sport has to deal with death by just getting on with it because if a driver died on the circuit, they died doing what they loved. He said that drivers shouldn’t choose not to race because of a death, they should continue to race because they have to opportunity to wake up and do what they love doing.
Speaking about the death of Gilles Villeneuve, Watson said that drivers have to learn to compartmentalise their feelings and put their sadness to the back of their minds until Monday morning and just get on with the race weekend and if a driver can’t do that, they shouldn’t be in the sport.
You could really hear the sadness and emotion in his voice at times and I’m sure his stories and thoughts on how Motorsport should deal with death will stick with me forever.
I had a fantastic evening and it was a shame I didn’t get their a little earlier to look around their collection, which from what I’ve heard, sounds impressive.
My only criticism was that it wasn’t long enough; the well thought out questions and interesting answers were great and I could have listened to it all night. Perhaps an entire day would be better, I’d happily give up a Saturday or Sunday to listen to intelligent discussions about a sport that is a huge part of my life.
I’ll definitely do my best to attend the next UK FOTA Fan Forum and I recommend it to any fan of the sport, though maybe I’ll avoid the stress of the M6/M42 Junction and take the train next time.