Participants: Eric Boullier (Lotus), Paul Hembery (Pirelli), Jean-Michel Jalinier (Renault Sport F1), Martin Whitmarsh (McLaren), Toto Wolff (Mercedes).
Questions from the Floor
Q: (Kate Walker – Girl Racer)
Question for the three of you in the front row: going back to the issue of sponsorship, but away from the broadcasting and TV rights, to what extent has the financial crisis affected your ability to pull in sponsors? We've seen Burn come in, Glaxo Smith Kline, Blackberry but there have also been a few high profile losses. Toto, I'm particularly interested in your response because you've seen this through both Williams and Mercedes. Is there a difference at the front end of the grid to the back?
I think it's – as I said before – a tough environment. I'm in a totally different place than I was last year and it helps to kind of give me a good perspective as to how important it is for us all to push for the sport and not just go flat out in an opportunistic way for ourselves. So yes, the financial crisis and the economic environment has a big impact. If big corporations have to scale down their investment, marketing or sponsorship is probably the first thing that you're looking at, but I guess the sport is in good form and good health. It's cyclical, it's going to come back, maybe in a different way, in a different form, maybe different kind of partners and as you said, we have seen Coca Cola coming into the sport; Blackberry, obviously, with us, has been a very important milestone for the team so I don't feel so depressed for the sponsorship market but we have to be very careful and look at the situation and we can't, as I said before, we can't just look after ourselves, we have to look after all the teams and try to keep the sport healthy.
I think that for me it's a little bit more complex. The world economic situation doesn't help because every company still looks at their budget and obviously how it is spent. The funny thing about the situation is that F1 is attractive today to a lot of companies and we actually have on our shirts signs of a couple of new sponsors including Coca Cola and Microsoft and Unilever which are big companies and looking at new strategy, and I'm telling you, the global strategy of F1 – and I'm repeating myself – but it is the only global sport in the world. I think, in our case anyway, the most difficult challenge is to... we have a lot of discussions with sponsors and it's mostly the heritage from the last decade, where you have car manufacturers selling cars and obviously today we are selling F1 which is a bit different. It's all an educational process which you have to do and go through and go to the new companies which were interested in F1 and, as you say Toto, the sport is healthy in this way but it's definitely the challenge and we have to be cautious but it will take time to rebuild all the portfolio.
I think our view is that there is still a lot of companies which find F1 a very attractive sport to invest in but inevitably, if they're going through a tough time, then they're hesitant to come in at this moment. I think we all come across a lot of businesses that would like to come in, they would like to come in at perhaps a rate card that some of the top teams wouldn't support. I think we've got to be very conscious of that but as we said earlier, we've got to make sure we build the show, make sure we work hard at it. The world economy certainly hasn't made it any easier, there's no doubt about that. But I think there's some positive signs in the market at the moment, that people are seeing that F1 is stabilising, there have been some great World Championships over the last few years. I sense that perhaps we were the last into this recession, we will be the last out of it but I think teams are starting to see better interest in the commodity of F1 than perhaps we have in the last two or three years where people didn't have confidence because people need to have confidence, need to believe that they're going to be around and survive and be healthy before they invest in F1.
Q: (Matt Coch – pitpass.com)
To the team principals: we're talking about money almost exclusively here, isn't that a sign that F1's excesses have got a little bit excessive? You've got teams at the back spending a million dollars a week where teams at the front are spending four million dollars. Doesn't the whole underlying problem here stem back to the fact that F1 spends too much money?
Inevitably, if you say we're going to put two cars on the grid 19 times this year and look at the budget, then I think that by most people's... certainly by most people's domestic economics it seems very excessive indeed. But it's driven by the value of success in F1 because, as we've mentioned already, it's a world sport, it has this great coverage and none of the investors today in F1 are there for any altruistic motivation, they're there because it makes sense, they get a return on that investment and if they're not, they're not around for long. It's one of those situations. I think F1 has not been the best environment in which to try and control costs because we're naturally competitive people and you're always trying to find a way forward, find performance, find a way to spend more money. But I do think there is much more discussion about money in F1 than there needs to be; I don't know how much it interests the audience incidentally, perhaps we talk about it too much. But I think it's clear that if you look at the limitation on the number of engines, the limitations on the number of gearboxes, wind tunnel, cfd restrictions, testing restrictions; all of those things go against the natural inclination of the large teams in F1 – because they like doing all those things, they like to do them frequently. The fact that we have restricted ourselves quite successfully in those areas, is a demonstration that there is an understanding that the sport has been too excessive in the past and we've got to try and control it, but it's difficult, because you control one space and the sport is very creative and they will find somewhere else to spend the money. It's going to be constant process.
For me I think your question is a bit strange; do we spend too much? It depends on the level of expenditure, obviously, and it's a global sport, successful I think, so obviously success is driving costs. If there are a lot of followers and TV viewers and a lot of people watching across the world it is because they like this sport. I think the real question is how to make sure this sport can last and be sustainable for the long term, rather than do we spend too much or not enough.
If you look at the media value of some of our races, it's huge. I remember I read a figure about Mercedes winning in Shanghai last year and it had a media value of about 60 million for our brand, so the question is that you have to put that in relation: how much do we spend and how much value do we generate for our partners? I think that ratio is still healthy.
Q: (Dieter Rencken – The Citizen)
Question predominantly for Martin, only because you've been in F1 21 years or so so I think you've operated under virtually all the Concordes except the first one. If we have a look at the 2008/2009 season, there was no proper Concorde in place. All the parties had agreed to operate under the previous one, so in real terms there was proper procedure, governance, whatever. At the moment there is absolutely nothing, so Sunday's race is the first race for about thirty years running outside of a Concorde Agreement; is that sustainable at all?
Well, I think it's sustainable but it isn't desirable. I think now it's clear that the FIA and FOM are working hard together. I think people are operating largely as though the governance of Concorde is in place. Clearly there are some questions about how some rule changes have happened; is there correct governance? I think at the moment people are resisting the desire to get terribly pedantic so I think in the best interest in the sport, rather than arguing about the detail of a particularly rule change, it's better that we all concentrate on converging upon a Concorde which is clear governance, it gives a clear framework, it gives confidence to investors, it makes the teams know how they are going to operate. Is it sustainable for a few more months? Yes. Is it healthy and the right thing for years to come in the sport? No. But I think there are signs that people are working quite hard now to get to a new Concorde.
Transcript courtesy FIA