Exclusive: Insight into working in F1 - Part 1
23 October 2013 – What is it really like to work in F1? Here, GPUpdate.net goes behind-the-scenes to find out with help from the Caterham F1 team. We start with Tom Webb, who is Head of Communications at the Leafield-based outfit. Want an exclusive interview with Charles Pic or Giedo van der Garde? Then call Tom...
Head of Communications.
What does your job involve exactly?
At one end of the spectrum I am an old school press officer. I write press releases, I help journalists fix up interviews and basically sort all the media activities for the drivers. At the other end of the spectrum I do marketing strategy, which is more long term planning. So, I am helping to try and create the Caterham brand - not just in F1, but in GP2 and with our parent company, the Caterham Group, which owns Caterham Cars and encompasses the technology businesses, which we also own.
Also, what I do that is not so traditional, but is obviously now an important part of the job, is social media. All of the work we do on Facebook, Twitter, Flickr, Pinterest, YouTube, Google+ and so on - everything we do in those kinds of environments.
What is your influence on the on-track performance of the team?
My job is the show. What they [the team] do is the go. I have no way of influencing that at all really. If I contribute a little, it is by making sure that our drivers can focus on their jobs when they need to. I’d like to think I have a good enough relationship with the drivers that I can shield them a bit and help manage the demands of the media, but the truth is, if you have reached F1, even in the position where we are at the moment, I think the drivers are very good at being able to compartmentalise everything.
How did you get involved in F1?
I was a frustrated actor as a young man. I went to drama school and then realised on the first day that I wasn’t actually very good at acting because everyone else was fantastic. So I left there and went to work for a small agency in the UK doing sports and entertainment PR. I was there for about ten years and in that time a motorsport client came onboard. There was nobody else in the agency that knew anything about motorsport and so I got given some work to do on that. It was actually to do with the British Touring Car Championship. I was doing sponsorship activation and then we started building up a bit more work in motorsport and I ended up running all of Beck's sponsorship with Jaguar Racing. That was my first footstep into the F1 paddock.
I then worked for another agency and worked with Emirates Airline, a sponsor with McLaren. The company I was working with was then taken over by another agency, who looked after and managed Juan Pablo Montoya and Allan McNish and a whole bunch of guys. I did some work with those drivers. Then I went to go and work with Red Bull - with the drinks company, not the race team, and part of my job was to promote their motorsport activity outside of sport. So the guys in the F1 team were doing all the stuff with motorsport journalists and my job was to try and get Mark [Webber] and Sebastian [Vettel] into GQ and stuff like that – non-sports magazines.
In December 2009 I then saw that this team had been created and I sent them an email and said if you need any help with any PR I would love to give you a hand. I got an email back immediately and then went and saw them the next day. I joined the team two weeks later as the Press Officer. A year and a bit later I was made Head of Communications - and here I am...
What makes Caterham different from the other teams?
The vision that Tony Fernandes [team founder and now Caterham Group chairman] gave us at the start - it is really that simple. Tony is a guy that says ‘yes’ and then works out how to make things happen.
We were one of three new teams that joined F1 in 2009. Our whole approach has been when the media want to do something we say ‘yes’ and then work out how to do it. A lot of the teams ahead of us, particularly back then, there approach was to say ‘no’ and then the journalist would have to try and squeeze them to get something good out of them. We came in with this attitude that if we weren’t going to get column inches for our track performance straight away, we wanted to get column inches by opening the doors to our garages in the races and to our factory, which was then up in Norfolk and is now in Leafield. That attitude has stayed the same.
In short, we try and make the ‘exclusive inclusive’. F1 is exclusive. To get into the circuit you need a ticket and to get into the F1 paddock you need a special pass and even with that it is still very limited. So it is an exclusive environment. But what we try to do is make it inclusive. So, Twitter, Facebook, all the stuff that we do, is to try and bring fans into the heart of what this team does. That is what makes us different.
What would be a good end to the 2013 F1 season for Caterham?
If we regain tenth position in the Constructors’ Championship we will have achieved what we set out to this year. That may not sound like the most ambitious goal the team has ever set, but with the rules having been static for as long as they have been and trying to fight a moving target - which is the teams ahead of us, that are better resourced, have larger numbers of people, more budget, all of the things that make this sport what it is, which is a very tough environment, our realistic goal this year has been to retain tenth place. We did that last year, with about 10 laps to go of the Brazilian Grand Prix, and we have got several races left to do that still.
There is no reason we can’t get back that position which we believe is rightfully ours. We are ahead of our nearest rival in performance terms, having turned the tables on them since the start of the season. They have been doing a fantastic job. They have been doing what they should be doing in F1, which is catching up with us and fighting with us. We have edged ahead them now and if we can get tenth place back on the last lap of the last race we have done what we needed to do.
What’s your relationship like with both drivers?
Very good, particularly with Giedo. He is a very positive guy and very little seems to get him down. If something goes wrong, his view is what is good about that. I really like working with him, partly because he is Dutch. I think the Dutch and English mentalities are very similar. But also he has been around motorsport a long time. He is not fazed or overawed by anything and he is a good guy.
Charles is much more reserved - he is much more French in a way. But he is also a guy that is very easy to work with. We have built up a level of trust quite quickly and he knows I am not going to ask him to do anything that is going to make him look silly. I get on with him really well too.
Have you got a good ‘pub story’ from your time with Caterham?
There is so much - something happens every single day. I’d love to wear a camera on my head and just let people see what I do. I think it would be fascinating. Honestly there have been some amazing moments in this team.
I would say probably the most emotional moment I have ever had in work was at the Malaysian GP though, back in 2010. It was only race three. A guy from the BBC came up to me and gave me a DVD of a feature they had made about our team and it was only about 5 minutes long. It was going to be broadcast before the start of the race. There were interviews with Tony, Heikki [Kovalainen], Jarno [Trulli] and Mike Gascoyne, who was then chief technical officer. At that point we had been working for about seven months straight to get the team built. I was employee number 33. I was there before we had an identity. We had launched the team. Both cars had finished the first race in Bahrain. We had done all our testing. We were just about the quickest of the three new teams and this guy from the BBC, a globally recognised media company, gave me this little DVD and I watched it and it summed up what we had achieved in seven months. I am not ashamed to say I cried quite a lot when I watched that. I was jet-lagged, tired, sweaty, hot, and had done an awful lot of work and watching something that I would have watched as a fan all my life, watching the BBC say these guys have done something amazing, made me cry. I didn’t let any of the mechanics see that because they would have killed me. But that for me summed up why this team is so special. We are a family and we look after each other. That is the thing that made me proudest.
What advice would you have for people who want to work in communications in F1?
I genuinely get maybe ten emails a day from people asking that. My advice is never, ever give-up - you will get there in the end, if you keep working at it. I didn’t get my break in F1 until I was 37. In practical terms, if you are young and a student and you want to do this, learn how to write. By all means get a degree in communication or whatever you want to do, but nothing beats actually working. Go and volunteer for motor racing teams, drivers, football clubs, whatever. Don’t be afraid of hard work. Be prepared to not get much sleep and be passionate about what you do. Love what you do and as I said, never, ever give-up because it will happen.