Sarah Merritt was one of the Badger GP team at the Birmingham NEC for #ASI16 last weekend, and she caught up with Graeme Lowdon for a chat about Fan Engagement, Twitter-power when times are tough, those beautiful Monaco points, and what the future holds…

Sarah Merritt: Thanks for sitting down with me Graeme, it’s really great to see you here at the show. In your position in the Manor F1 team (previously Marussia/Virgin) you’ve established yourself as a fans favourite over the years; in addition to your followers, if you’re not someone’s first favourite team, you’re often their “second favourite”, so to speak.

I think that’s because you’ve always recognised how important fan engagement is, you’ve always attended forums, and interacted with the fans. Can you tell me why you think fan engagement in F1 is so important and why that is something you’ve got involved in?

Graeme Lowdon: Well, it’s super important. The sport of Formula 1 has now grown into an enormous commercial sport and the only way that can happen is if you have fans. If there are no fans, there is no commercial base.

There could still be Formula 1, we could still race, but there wouldn’t be the commercial structure, so the fans are THE most important asset that the sport has. It’s as simple as that. We’ve said before – the fan base is enormous, it’s global, it’s highly educated and intelligent; the fans understand the sport incredibly well. Therefore I think it’s not just important to engage with the fans, but very rewarding to do it as well, because it helps grow the sport, both from an enjoyment point of view and a commercial point of view.”

It’s very nice that you’ve said that we’ve established ourselves as a ‘fan favourite’. That’s nice to hear as we always said right from the start that no team can say ‘we are the fans favourite’, because it’s not within a teams’ gift to say that, it’s within the fans gift to determine who they like and who they want to follow.

We always work really hard to engage as much as possible with people, and also, the DNA of Manor is racing, and for everybody involved at Manor over 30 years racing is the centre of everything. If you want to go and make money, there’s a thousand ways you can go and make money outside of motor racing, so we do this because of our passion for it, and that’s part of the thing that we share with the fans.

The fans have a passion for the sport as well, and I never ever see it as a ‘them and us’ thing. There’s a whole community of people who are passionate about racing. Everyone has a different viewpoint or are involved in a different way, some people are working inside the industry, some are outside, but everyone is important. The industry doesn’t exist without the fans and the fans don’t exist without the industry, so there has to be interaction, it’s as simple as that.

Anything that’s designed to prevent that is negative to the sport, and anything that’s designed to promote that is positive to the sport, and that’s I guess the simple way of looking at it.”

SM: I think that’s a really good way to have explained it, because whenever I’ve been waiting at the circuit gates, trying to get an autograph, you’ve always come out and spoken to me. I’ve always felt, like you’ve just said, that there may be a boundary, but it’s always felt very inclusive when you and your team walk out, which is something maybe we don’t always feel as fans – we do often feel like we are outside the gates!

GL: Well that’s a shame because, one thing is absolutely sure, people should always feel at home. I personally feel incredibly at home at a racetrack, whether I’m stood watching on the inside of Redgate at Donington Park on a wet weekend, or it’s sunny out having a picnic in the eternal sunshine that always exists at Croft, or whether in Monaco or wherever.

I think the ideal thing is that all lovers of motorsport should feel the same – you don’t have to be in a paddock, or anything like that – it’s about enjoyment. People can go and have a memorable day out in Monaco, or equally, you can go as a family to Cadwell Park or Mallory Park and have a memorable day. If you love motorsport, that’s the feeling that it gives you.

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SM: Following on from that, I think the fans were very much with you and the team on the journey that you’ve been on over the last year with both the financial struggles that you and John Booth navigated, then with Jules’ accident. Did that give you and the team additional strength that you got messages and tweets from people reaching out to you?

GL: Yes, it actually surprised me – the huge the support that Jules had, and the massive outpouring of emotion was very understandable. Everyone was affected by that.

But also, you mentioned the financial navigation that we’ve been through, and particularly at this time last year the company was in a very challenging position. Every day you’re trying to manage a particular situation, or find a solution, put together an investment proposition or whatever, but also you’d get a text from somebody giving their support, and it makes a massive difference.

It really opened my eyes actually. Sometimes you run along with everything so quickly that you don’t really appreciate when people support what you’re trying to do, and I completely did a reset and a recalibration myself because there were definitely times where it was incredibly difficult to see what the next step was going to be with the team. Then, you get a text or a comment on social media and you think “oh hang on, people really want to see us go forward” and it puts that spring back in your step.

With social media in particular, but also with friends and people who have got your number and send you texts, it’s like having a battery charger; this global battery charger that boosts you back up when things are down. It’s changed my view on the importance of that kind of thing, and it’s a good thing to give people some energy. I’ve tried to be a little bit more like that myself now, when I know people are having a tough time, or are up against some challenge, because I know it does make a difference. It gives you some perspective as well, and re-energises you.

There’s so much more technology now that allows this kind of thing to happen, and I think in the next 5-10 years, we are going to see sports like motor racing change an awful lot in the way fan engagement works. People will be much more involved.

SM: That’s great to hear that, because I think that something that fans would want too.

Something that was a real highlight for you and the team was in Monaco 2014 when you scored the teams first points. I was trying to imagine what that must have been like for you as the race unfolded, and you knew there was the chance that Jules was going to potentially get some points, we’ve all seen the manoeuvres he made…Can you describe to me how that felt, as you were sat on the pit wall?

GL: Yes, it was great. Monaco is an odd circuit, because when you sit on the pit wall there you don’t actually sit on the wall anymore. You sit upstairs in a pre-fabricated building in the pit lane, pretty much everyone does I think. Certainly that’s the way we’ve always configured our set-up areas. You actually have your back to the pit lane – it’s the same pit structure that we take to every race, but it’s just in a different position – so that was where we were positioned in the race.

Image: Marussia
Image: Marussia

To understand what it felt like, to some extent, you have to look back a couple of weeks.

We did the test in Barcelona and that went really well; we felt that we’d unlocked quite a bit of pace in the car, so we went to Monaco with really quite high hopes. We were in a battle with the teams around us, namely Caterham, and we felt we’d made a big step forward.

I remember the first part of that weekend. The primary emotion was more one of frustration. All of the sessions were a bit ‘bitty’ – there were lots of flags, and ‘this that and the other’, and we couldn’t quite repeat it. We couldn’t quite see it in the timesheets, the steps that we were making, but we kind of knew it was there. There was a gradual progression during the weekend, so it was a good position to be in, in that we had a lot of expectation that we could really try and get something from this.

Jules had a great start, but as it turned out through a bizarre twist a number of cars were out of position, Jules being one of them. We knew we had a penalty – it was a 5 second time penalty, but the regulations, the way they were worded then, it was very unclear as to how and when that should be taken. We erred on the side of caution and ended up taking that penalty kind of twice.

The race itself had all kinds of incidents and overtaking. We’ve been in racing long enough to know that until the flag falls and the car crosses the line anything can happen, so there was a degree of caution. But I distinctly do remember there was a huge cheer when Jules moved up to P8, and it was from the grandstands.

Yes, there was a race at the front, but as I said before the crowd are knowledgeable. They watch races all the way up and down the grid, and one of the advantages of being at a circuit live is that the restrictions of TV mean that typically its only the front few cars that are covered, but at a circuit you can see, for at least once a lap, other battles.

People were aware that there was something really quite special going on, so that was really when the excitement started to properly build, but as I say, we didn’t take anything for granted until we saw it. Again Monaco is quite unique because with the structures you have there, you can look out of the back of them and see the start/finish line, so you can go out and see your car finish, and it was at that point….it was really special.

Image: Marussia
Image: Marussia

 

Teams are always very tight knit. You form a very close bond with everyone and work very closely together – you travel the world and everyone had put in so much effort – and it’s often not recognised that when it comes to racing a car at the weekend, you race the car that you’ve got. If it’s a car capable of winning a grand prix, then you’ve got that added excitement, and also added pressure. In terms of the amount of effort that goes in, it’s the same. Every single pit garage, it doesn’t matter if you’re racing for the world championship or last place.

So the best thing for me was just seeing the reaction on everyone’s face in the garage, everyone was just so pleased. And also the reaction from the other teams. I remember Toto Wolff coming along and he was one of the first to congratulate us because he’s a racing guy, he knows how difficult it is, but truckies and mechanics of other teams were congratulating our lads too, it was great!

Then when Jules came bounding down the pit lane. He knew he was going to get a great reaction from everyone in the team because, at the end of the day, although Formula 1 is the greatest team sport in the world, you need a driver who can deliver it, and the moves that Jules did on Kamui Kobayashi…well, Kamui is a proper racer….it was great. It wasn’t just a case of cars pulling off or anything, there were proper overtaking manoeuvres and some great racing. Just brilliant, such a great feeling – you’d never think you’d celebrate an 8th place finish (Jules finished 8th on the road, but was demoted to 9th place once penalties were applied), but for us it was just a really great reward for all the effort that had gone in.

SM: We could feel that watching it on television too, and saw the other teams coming to congratulate you. I think Sky F1 came down to your garage, and one of the photo’s that I always remember is seeing Johnny Herbert in front of your garage…

GL: Yes, that picture. I remember it just like it was yesterday. Jules came down and we had a bit of a hug, and there’s that picture, and in the background you can see Johnny, and you know, Johnny Herbert – he’s one of the fastest guys ever to drive in a racing car!

He’s blinkin’ quick, and was a team mate of John Booth many, many years ago actually, and it’s a lovely picture because you can see he knows how important all this stuff is. Just that look on his face. It’s a great picture. Really, really nice.

Image: Marussia
Image: Marussia

 

SM: It’s great, and it’s a brilliant memory to have, isn’t it?

GL: Yes, a great team effort. The highs in racing are high, and the lows are desperately low, so when you get a high you enjoy it. Equally you know that within a picosecond you’ve got to start focussing on whatever the next race is, and get on with it.

SM: Hopefully you’ve had a chance to have some downtime and relax a bit over Christmas and recharge your batteries. Doing some drawing perhaps?

GL: You know what, I haven’t! I have got some plans. All the drawings that I did were done when we were travelling, so they were done on aircraft, on those funny little tables that you have on aeroplanes bouncing around, and the light’s not brilliant on planes…and your mind wanders off and what have you.

The reason that I’m quite fond of all of those drawings is I don’t think I’m a brilliant artist. As in, if you had a room full of artists, I’d be the worst one, but if you have a room full of motor racing blokes or ladies then I’m probably not that bad at sketching on aeroplanes.

They were all done in the confines of whatever trip we were going on, so each one reminds me of a trip – that one was Canadian Grand Prix, or that one was Singapore, and I remember what flight I was on, so they were quite good from that point of view.

At some stage I keep thinking, I wonder if I actually did this properly, sat down in daylight on something that wasn’t moving and had a good go at it, that would be quite nice. So maybe I’ll get some time to do that.

Since Abu Dhabi, I love skiing, so I’ve spent quite a bit of time in the Alps, and done a bit of skiing – I’ll probably do a bit more!

GL drawing in Williams Motorhome
One of Graeme’s drawings on display in the Williams Motorhome.

SM: Talking about your future, now you aren’t going to be with Manor anymore, I’m wondering if you’re able to share a bit with us about what you next project might be looking like, and what you are planning to do?

GL: I’m not sure yet. I’m looking at lots of different thinks at the minute, and it’s quite an interesting time actually. There’s a few really exciting opportunities going forward, and as soon as I’m in a position to talk about something, I will, but I’m not at the minute.

SM: Well, just know that we like having you around Graeme, and we don’t want you to disappear!

GL: That’s good to hear!

SM: Last question Graeme – with your years in F1, whether you are there in the future or not, I’m guessing you’ll still be looking at the results. If you had to take a punt, will it be Lewis again this year?

GL: You’d have to say that. Lewis is a World Champion, and a deserved world champion. He is the absolute complete package and he’s in a team that have got a fantastic car, a brilliant power unit, and everything else like that, so what is there not to back?

It all makes sense, but equally, Lewis is one of the most grounded guys ever – he never takes anything for granted. He’ll be fighting and preparing as hard as anybody for this world championship, and whether we think he’s the favourite or not, it won’t make any difference to him as he’ll want to be doing the best job he possibly can, I’m sure.

When Lewis is in that mind frame, he’s pretty difficult to beat, and it’s great for the British fans to have a really great racing driver.

Graeme was very generous with his time for Badger GP, and for that we thank him immensely. He also took the time to sign this Marussia car part for one of our future Badger GP Champion Member draws!

Want to be in with a chance of winning this? Become a Champion Member today! 

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