Motorsport correspondent Nicola Kenton spoke to UoB Alumnus Jack Nicholls about his experiences at university and life as a commentatorWritten by Nicola Kenton on 27th April 2015
Tom Webb – Caterham F1 interview
On the eve of the British Grand Prix, James Froom talked to Caterham F1’s head of communication in an extremely revealing interview about life in the sport...
On the eve of the British Grand Prix, James Froom talked to Caterham F1’s head of communication Tom Webb in an extremely revealing interview about life in the sport...
How did you start in F1?
I began working for a sports marketing agency many years ago when I was taken on literally as an office boy. We landed our first motor sport account with a company who, at the time, was running telemetry systems for Williams called Bull Telemetry. Then over the years I’ve done work for various sponsors and companies associated with F1, until the point in 2009 when I applied for a job with what was then Lotus Racing. I was lucky enough to get the job with these guys as employee 33 and now I run the comms department for what has become the Caterham F1 team.
What does your job as head of communication entail?
Well there’s kind of three main areas of responsibility, divided up into on track, off track and corporate messaging. So on track I’m responsible for all the media relations that the team has to undertake at all the races and tests that we go to. So that means telling the media what we’re going to be doing before the race, sending out the preview and press releases so people know what to expect from our team at each of the Grand Prixs.
F1 has between 260- 300 accredited media at every single race, who ask from the normal to the absolutely ridiculous. So you get questioned about what’s happened in a session, right up to 'can we drive a car through the streets of Moscow?' Then off track I have two colleges who work with me on our digital and content activities. Digital is all our social media and Internet platforms like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube etc.
I also look after all the corporate messaging. We’re part of Caterham Group, which is all owned by Tony Fernandes. This includes Caterham Cars, Caterham Technology-and-Innovation and Caterham Composites. We have people who look after the day-to-day implementation of each section but my role is to oversee that with our chief exec and right up to our chairman.
Is the unpredictability, seen by the front-runners, reflected towards the back of the grid?
The honest answer is no. There are three teams that joined F1 at the same time, starting at the Bahrain GP in 2010. So that’s us, Virgin (now Marussia), and Hispania (now HRT). So what you see at the back of the pack is some unpredictability between Marussia and HRT, because those two are similarly matched in pace. They don’t have KERS and they have, I believe, similar sorts of budgets and workforce; so they’re in their own sort of battle and we’re now about two seconds ahead of them. So for really the last season and a half, from maybe the start of 2011 we’ve kind of been racing on our own. We were far enough ahead of the two other new teams so we were able to not really worry about them and we weren’t quite close enough to the teams ahead to be able to really race them.
So the unpredictability that you see at the front really wasn’t really matched in the positions that we were racing in, until the last race at Valencia. We’ve got some new upgrades we’re bringing to the next race at Silverstone and we’re hoping to be able to join the midfield pack, which is now separated by something like a second.
So as the tyres get the blame or the credit for this unpredictability, what’s your view on the Pirelli tyres?
I think what Pirelli are doing is incredibly brave and absolutely fantastic for the show. I say brave because Pirelli have deliberately designed a tyre that degrades at a rate that means the drivers have to manage them. Pirelli therefore run the risk that a driver can finish the race in second place, climb out and say 'I would have won this race if I had better tyres.' So they are putting their corporate image on the line by adding to the spectacle.
But I think that’s the important point, F1 is entertainment. Our job on a Sunday afternoon is to give the fans something that keeps them on the edge of their seats. The fans now have a choice of a million different types of entertainment; they’ve got a whole load of things that can distract them away from F1 and if we don’t do things to the sport to be able to keep the fans glued to the screens then we’re not doing our jobs right. I think there’s been quite a bit of criticism by some drivers about how they just want to be able to drive the car flat out and that their job now is slightly hampered by the fact they have to keep managing the tyres.
But the truth is it’s the same for everybody so if you can’t manage your tyres then you’re not as good as the guys around you! The inevitable thing about F1 is the best driver in the quickest car will pretty much always rise to the top. What the tyres have done particularly this year is that they’ve managed to level the playing field. If I were a fan I would probably think this is the best season of F1 that I’ve ever seen!
“I think what Pirelli are doing is incredibly brave and absolutely fantastic for the show
This is the first year you’ve run a car with KERS. What’s your personal view on KERS and DRS and do they create fake racing?
I think again both of those things, everybody - well nearly everybody - has them. With KERS it kind of cancels itself out because everybody’s got it and they can all deploy it at the same time. DRS, whilst it may be artificial, it has definitely improved the spectacle and has made a mockery of the idea that there are circuits that you can’t overtake on. The mixture of tyres, KERS and DRS has increased overtaking - not to the same daft extent that you see in Indy Car, but there’s enough that it means the spectacle is there.
I think more importantly, what KERS really is doing is the sport paying its due to the future of automotive technology. I think it also introduces more strategy and tactical impetus on the engineers and drivers to be able to use these things effectively. The drivers also say they love it; they say that when they hit the KERS they get a boost that really does shove them back in the cockpit. We and most other teams now have a button on the steering wheel called “push to overtake” that deploys KERS and DRS together, giving us all a chance to overtake at races where before it was pretty much impossible. Places like Hungary you simply couldn’t overtake and the races were processional and boring. What KERS has done is mix things up a bit.
There is much controversy at the moment about future cost control, what’s Caterham’s take on the subject?
Cost control is an incredibly important subject and something I think from our perspective we’re looking up at teams that have a budget sort of five or six times what ours is, so it’s something that particularly important to us. We run 20 races, 20 times a year and the expense that the team incur flying maybe 75 people to each race and running the cars is enormous. Ultimately it’s a model that can’t survive. The sponsorship market now has a vast amount of other avenues it can go down, from music to movies.
So the current model that F1 works to, for 100’s of millions of dollars being spent every year to entertain people, I think is unsustainable. What it will require is some bravery from some of the teams at the front to be able to agree to cost cutting knowing that it may impact their ability to win races short term. For us, cost cutting will enable us to leap up the grid and that's another reason why we’d welcome it.
Has the closeness of the field affected the development rate of Caterham’s cars?
It has, definitely, and there are a couple of things that govern that; one is budget and two is workforce. In 2010 our entire team consisted of about 135-140 people and when we got to the British Grand Prix we stopped development on our 2010 car. For the 2011 season we were up to about 220 people and we were bringing upgrades to a number of races. But for this year we’ve brought upgrades to every single race, we’ve brought updates whether big or small and will continue to do that at every race. That’s partly because we have the budget to do that and also because we have the people in the wind tunnel, back in the design office at the factory and the capacity now to be able to bring upgrades.
We started this season 1.6 seconds off Toro Rosso’s quickest time in qualifying at Australia and we out qualified them at the last race in Valencia on another street circuit; okay the conditions were slightly different, but we couldn’t have bridged a 1.6 second gap unless we had an intense update and improvement schedule. We are also bringing a number of pretty significant upgrades to Silverstone that we think could at least help us keep on par with the teams that will be developing ahead of us - if not hopefully make some gains on them relatively.
“You get questioned about what’s happened in a session, right up to 'can we drive a car through the streets of Moscow?'
What are Caterham’s realistic aims for the rest of the season?
We said at the start of the year we wanted a point and we think that’s a reasonable goal. We also said we wanted to join the midfield. Valencia showed that in qualifying we have, in race pace maybe we’re still a couple of tenths off being able to do that, but in fastest lap terms we were up there. What we need is more downforce on the car, this helps you manage the tyres better and that's why you see drivers like Fernando Alonso being able to put in quickest laps right at the end of the race because he’s got the ability to manage his tyres better. We’re not quite in that league yet.
Our fans out there are hungry for us to succeed, we’ve got a lot of messages from people asking, 'Why haven’t we scored points yet, this is our third season?' The thing is you have to remember is Red Bull bought a team in Jaguar Racing that had been around in previous guises as Stewart - a Grand Prix winning team- and it still took Red Bull six years to be able to win a race. They were starting in a position that we are almost at now with a budget that is rumored to be a couple of hundred million pounds a year. To achieve success in F1 is an enormous ask. We made some big gains from our first years and even last year but making the smaller gains is a much harder task.
As Caterham also have a team in the GP2 feeder series, who do you think will be next to break into F1?
Guido Van Der Guarde I think is possibly the closest to getting himself into F1 out of the current GP2 crop, maybe Esteban Gutierrez as well. There are definitely some people talking about him for a seat if certain people move seats within F1. I’ve also worked with Luiz Razia and Davide Valsecch who are one and two in the championship at the moment. They were our drivers last year.
I think Luiz in particular made some great strides in the 2011 season, he matured a lot and changed his approach to a race weekend. He drove for us in first practice at Brazil last year and impressed the whole team with his technical feedback and with his ability to get the job done under huge pressure. But outside GP2 we have a kid called Alexander Rossi, a young American driver, who finished third in his rookie season in World Series last year. He’s quick, got very good technical feedback and he fits the mold of a 21st century F1 driver. He holds himself well, he’s intelligent and he knows what to say at the right time. He’s also the only American with a FIA Super License making him the only American that can take part in any F1 weekend. He drove for us in first practice this year in Barcelona and was on pace. The engineers said his feedback in debrief was extremely good and with one race guaranteed for the USA this year and two a real possibility for next year there’ll be quite a push for him to be racing.
“If I were a fan I would probably think this is the best season of F1 that I’ve ever seen!
Have you got one tip or piece of advice for anyone looking to work in F1?
Formula One is the pinnacle of motorsport, but I think it is the pinnacle of sport generally. If you work in the Premier League, yeah you get hundreds of millions of viewers, but we get hundreds of millions of viewers too. We compete this year 20 times and work all year round. If you want to get into it from a media sense, so what I do, then my best advice is work hard at university. To be honest I don’t think it matters what degree you get. If you get a good degree and a solid result too, it proves you can learn and deduce things on your own and make your own opinions. But the key bit is to get yourself into sports marketing in any capacity. There are hundreds of sponsors from TV broadcasters to media agencies all of whom touch F1 in some way. There is enormous competition for a very small number of spaces in F1 but the people that are dedicated and keep bashing the door, keep trying, will be successful in the end.
But also, say you wanted to become a mechanic, start with a lower F1 team, learn how motor racing works and work your way through the junior, national and then international ranks. If you build yourself enough experience people will start taking notice and paying attention to you. It's the same for other members of the team. For example, we have a guy that used to work for NASA. But really take your time and take a long-term view. Hard work, tenacity and dedicate yourself to a long-term plan and you will get there!
Best travel destination on the calendar and why?
There are several answers to that and its difficult to put one specific one down. Singapore is amazing, because it’s an amazing city and racing at night there is - even if you work for a team - spectacular.
From a purely travel point of view Montreal is the race that everybody looks forward to. It’s a wicked city - the whole city embraces F1 and loves the fact the Grand Prix is there. It has amazing bars, great restaurants and some of the hottest girls in the world.
Brazil is wicked, because it’s Brazil and it's dangerous and cool.
I suppose…well Silverstone as a racetrack is brilliant and is obviously the home of the British Grand Prix and it means a lot to everybody. However, its not in a city and is kind of in the middle of nowhere. So when the racing’s done and you’ve finished your work it’s not the coolest place. But to be honest pretty much everywhere that we go we’re privileged to go to and I don’t think there’s anywhere that anybody really says, 'I wish we weren’t going there.' I think if you work with mechanics they’re very good at finding bars no matter where we are, so everywhere has something to do.
Best memory of your time in the sport?
One is Malaysia 2010, when I think it was our second or third race of the season. As a Malaysian team it was a pretty intense week for us and the BBC did this little montage about our team that they broadcast before the start of the race. They’d interviewed Tony Fernandez, Mike Gascoyne and our drivers Jarno (Trulli) and Heikki (Kovalainen). They showed me it before it went out on air and it was one of the best pieces of TV I had ever seen. Those of us who’d been in the team since the early days had worked pretty much non-stop - I don’t think I’d had a day off in four months and on average we worked 19 hours a day to get this team from nothing up to the point where we were a fully-fledged F1 team.
Not only the fact that the BBC, one of the world’s most famous brands in its own right had made this little film about us, but also it kind of captured everything about the spirit of our team. I hate to admit it but I shed some tears when they showed me that because it encapsulated everything that was cool about our team: what we had done, the work we had put in and where we wanted to go.
But then I think the best is yet to come. When we score our first point there won’t be a dry eye in our garage. We’re a family that looks after each other so pretty much every day there’s a good feeling in our garage and every moment is pretty good, but the best is yet to come.