Badger GP chats with Jon Noble

One of the true gentlemen of Formula One – he doesn’t race, run a team or design cars, but he does like good coffee and a chat. He knows a thing two about the sport too.

We took the opportunity to have a natter with Jon Noble of Motorsport.com fame to get his views on the upcoming season, state of F1 and fan engagement.

1Jon Noble on Formula 1 in 2016

With testing yet to get underway, there aren’t many answers to questions around the 2016 season, but for someone like Jon – in the epicentre of the motorsport media world – he has a great sense of what to expect.

He shared his thoughts on the key pre-season talking points.

F1’s new team, HAAS they got a good chance?

If you look at the media coverage of the new HAAS F1 team, there’s a bandwagon that’s packed to the rafters, a bandwagon saying the team is going to a huge success. Jon’s onboard with it, here’s why:

“I think they’ll be alright. Car wise there shouldn’t be any reason not to have a solid package – Ferrari input, Ferrari developments, Ferrari engine. So the package they’ve got should be competitive enough to battle in the midfield.

Early on will be tough as they learn to operate on a grand prix weekend. The level of detail that the teams are facing now, like analysis, preparation, simulation, calculation of data, and getting everything bang on, is going to be their biggest challenge. That could take them half the season.

It won’t be a HRT scenario. They’ll be quick

When you look at Williams and the jump they’ve had to make, and with the continuous pitstop problems they’re still facing now, for a team that’s been around for years and always been there, they’re still battling.

This is where Haas, operationally, may have a few, what we call, “finger troubles”. But in the end I think it won’t be a HRT scenario. They’ll be quick. Maybe plagued by some trouble early on, but rapidly they’ll get there.

So will HAAS do better than McLaren?

“I think McLaren will make a big step, just because I think they’ve understood and the message has got through. I think the biggest battle they faced was McLaren getting Honda to understand where the weakness was, certainly the weakness in the package with the turbo, and agreeing that this was a problem, which they finally did around Monza time.

Honda accepted it, are changing it, and it should – on paper – deliver steps in performance. If it finds them even one second, the jump that gives them should help tremendously. I’d be surprised if either of those two teams, Haas and McLaren, are stuck at the back next year.”

So who’s at the back then?

Manor? – a year ago were in a position where they might not have made the grid and didn’t race in Australia – then lasted the whole season, gained new owners, gained Mercedes power – are they still going to be at the back?

“I think you’ll probably have a mixture of Manor, Sauber, could even be Renault and Red Bull early on shuffling down the order because everyone has come so late in terms of developments. The Mercedes teams will be alright thanks to consistency. So maybe Manor, Sauber and potentially Haas pegged at the back, Red Bull shuffled down to the midfield for a little bit and then come back up.”

And Mercedes to win it all again?

“I hope not. Hopefully Ferrari have made that step. I think Vettel needs to battle, and I don’t think we need four races of Nico Rosberg winning them all and Lewis Hamilton finishing second in all of them. People will lose interest and switch off. So hopefully Ferrari will make that step.”

Who’s your Champion for 2016?

“For F1’s sake it would be fantastic if Sebastian Vettel could do it. It would be something fresh. The uplift F1 had in Malaysia last year just gave us a glimmer. It’s such a good story; seeing this resurgence in Ferrari.

More than just winning it, just for the championship to go to the final round with Vettel or Kimi vs Lewis and/or Nico, and having two teams properly at it again, head-to-head. We haven’t had a two-way title battle in a while, and it’s got the potential to be quite intense as well.

We saw it last year with the Mercedes complaint about Haas, there was the fuel complaint at the start of the year, some about brakes and suspension issues as well in the background. It’s got the potential to be quite an entertaining fight.”

2On F1’s lack of character

As a fan of the soap opera, as much as the racing, modern day F1 is somewhat lacking in characters, so I put this to Jon:

Part of the problem is the way the world has changed. If we think back twenty years ago, if we had Vettel, Alonso, Hamilton and Rosberg in a world that had no social media and no internet, the only route in or out of that paddock was a magazine on a Thursday, or a TV programme for an hour and a half on a Sunday, the way they would behave in interviews and interact in the media would be very, very different.

I don’t think it’s Formula One’s fault. It’s just the way the world is now.

Nowadays, they can’t do anything without it being reported, or spun around, or dissected, or looked at. They get criticised. Look at Lewis with that car prang in Monaco before the Brazilian Grand Prix – go back 40 years, and if James Hunt had pranged a car in Monaco and then turned up in Brazil a day late, people would have said “What a hero, what a lad, this is such a laugh!”. Fast forward to Lewis Hamilton’s incident and it’s all “What was he doing? He’s lost the plot! Who was he with? Here’s the photos!”.

I don’t think it’s Formula One’s fault. It’s just the way the world is now. If you look at Lewis over the winter, watching the interviews he did with Jonathan Ross, James Corden and Jimmy Kimmel, that’s the Lewis Hamilton I’d love to see at race weekends. He was honest and joking. So the characters are there, but the environment they’re in with the job being engineering meetings for five hours a day, plus sponsors and media commitments, it’s no one’s fault. We’ve got the characters, but it’s not a platform to get the access.

Vettel’s not interested in the stuff outside of a grand prix weekend. He keeps himself to himself and is very private.”

3Making F1 better

As a sport, it’s been said time and time again that it’s in trouble. Ratings down, teams in trouble, crazy rules, boring races, etc, etc. As someone who lives and breathes all motorsport, I was sure Jon would have some ideas of his own.

Elimination qualifying sprint race – WTF?

“I remember one idea, and discussing this with Will Buxton over dinner in Bahrain two years ago. Reversed grids is just too fake – F1 still has to be the pinnacle of motorsport and the best guy must win – and reversing the starting positions on a Sunday is too contrite. But what you could do is play with the order on Saturday for qualifying.

Our idea was to have a 21 or 22 lap race on a Saturday, which starts in reverse championship order, and at the end of every lap the car in last place is black flagged, and takes up last place on the grid for Sunday. In theory, for example, Nico Rosberg and Lewis Hamilton would start last, and then every lap they’re going to have to move up one position.”

They do it in karting. Do that on a Saturday to generate some random grid positions. 22 laps is enough for the championship leader to get near enough to the front, and come Sunday, he should win the race anyway. That was my random suggestion!”

What about the lack of overtaking?

“Talking to Pat Symonds about reverse grids, that in that scenario cars would naturally evolve in a way that would force overtaking to happen. Suddenly the more dominant teams realise that those with the power to push through changes, so the set of rules in place encourages overtaking and cars have to come through the field, naturally solves the overtaking problem.”

Interviews and conferences

Fans are divided on the podium interviews and likewise the post-race press conferences. I for one get tired of the generic Q&A in the latter than find the former cringe worthy. I asked Jon for his thoughts and how he’d fix this.

Press conferences: “Their original purpose was for local media, so you’ve got people coming in with no experience in F1 and needing a focus, like who won the race. You needed a snapshot of what happened. In theory then there should be extra sessions with teams for regular media – and some teams do it – but I don’t know really what the solution is.”

Podium interviews: “Terrible idea. I much prefer the MotoGP format when the rider is grabbed immediately in parc ferme prior to any cool down, prior to speaking to their teams. It’s pure, raw emotion. There’s no chance of being neutered by their team. It’s a much fresher way.

The podium interviews are great for fans, but what happens is these things occur due to one reason and get shunted through. There’s no reason they can’t do a parc ferme interview for the sake of TV, then the podium interview for the fans. We’re stuck in this either-or situation – this works well for the media, and this works better for the fans.”

4Fan engagement for the win

I always like to ask my poor interviewees for a final thought – a chance for them to say something that questions may not have given opportunity for.

Jon’s final thought was spot on in my book and great news for fans of F1.

“I’d just like fans to know that teams and the media do listen to them now. There’s not a feeling of preaching, of saying “we’re the media and we say what’s correct” and that teams don’t care.

There is a lot of looking at what the fans are and aren’t interested in, listening to what their vibe is and what they’re up to. The possibilities are there now for fans to be much closer to the sport than they were before.

The fact that Fernando was laughing at #PlacesAlonsoWouldRatherBe an hour after it was all going on just shows where things are at now. There’s an ability for fans to have their say.

The thing I like is that there’s some fans on Twitter, some more than others, that are active and their passion is magnificent. Especially some of the McLaren fans – sticking through with this team when they could’ve headed off and supported another one. But they are there and sticking with them.”

Thank you Jon Noble. And so there we have it – our thanks go to Jon for taking some time out to meet with Badger GP. If you have any questions of your own for Jon, it’s worth popping him a tweet @NobleF1, copy me in for fun too – @rightpalava.

For those of you wondering; black filter coffee for Jon, flat white for me. We met at one of my favourite London coffee houses, TAP Coffee – pop by next time you’re in the area.