This weekend it’s the turn of the sunny Circuit de Catalunya for Formula One’s Spanish Grand Prix. It’s not just the F1 Circus that’s rolling into the town of Montmeló: the GP2 and GP3 feeder series’ follow in their wake for much of the season, providing a glimpse of the top flight drivers and teams of tomorrow.
Our Track Talk interviewee this week is familiar with motorsport at multiple levels: starting out as a journalist, Mark Gallagher has worked as a media consultant and member of the management board at two of Formula One’s biggest teams. He’s now owner of GP3 competitors Status Grand Prix, among a list of other positions within sport. In our wide ranging interview, we cover career highs, publicity averse drivers and ask him to imagine himself as a computer generated car.
Nationwide Vehicle Contracts: You started out as a journalist and broadcaster back in 1983 – a year in which Nelson Piquet won his second championship before another Brazilian upstart by the name of Ayrton Senna had even made his F1 debut. The names on the starting grid have come and gone, but what has changed most dramatically since those days?
Mark Gallagher: There is no doubt in my mind that the single biggest change in Formula One has been the improvement in safety. When I started working in the sport fatal accidents were still occurring and it was an accepted part of Formula One for many people.
That all changed in 1994 when Roland Ratzenberger and Ayrton Senna, two drivers whom I knew, were killed in the San Marino Grand Prix. We changed the rules and we changed the safety culture so effectively that we have not suffered a single driver fatality since. It has shown what can be achieved when you put safety first.
NVC: How important has your career as a motorsport journalist been in shaping your commitments in marketing and management? And Vice Versa?
MG: Working in the media was a means to an end; it was a great way to meet people and ultimately make the transition into team management. It also enabled me to observe who was good at what they did and who wasn’t, so it was enormously educational. I also enjoyed writing and broadcasting, which I still do to this day, because I enjoy communicating with people about this fantastic sport.
NVC: As co-founder of Status Grand Prix, competitors at Le Mans and in the GP3 series, is the dream to progress the team to Formula One?
MG: Ha, that’s quite a question. I would love Status to progress to Formula One, and there is no reason why we could not achieve it if we attracted the right investors and had the opportunity to acquire an existing F1 team franchise. But it’s not an objective for the moment. Ask me again in a couple of years.
NVC: Your career in Motorsport has included time as head of marketing and as a member of the management board for Jordan F1. While not always championship contenders, they were a highly visible team, full of personality (and personalities) and with a distinct brand. How important is this to a team’s longevity? Do today’s mid-field F1 teams lack this edge?
MG: I don’t know what some of the current teams stand for, as they have no readily identifiable brand or proposition that would be a compelling attraction to sponsors, media or fans. At Jordan we worked hard to take some of our key attributes - such as the fact that Eddie Jordan was Irish - and turn them into brand values.
We were very visible, quite loud and noisy thanks to ‘EJ’s love of rock ‘n roll, and we used a sense of Irishness to be attractive; win or lose we always had an open house policy, we had some of the best parties and we were very welcoming and supportive of our sponsors, fans and media.
We were also competitive on track, from finishing 5th in the World Championship at our first attempt in 1991 to winning Grands Prix and challenging for the title in 1999. The combination of having a strong image, good relations with our audiences and being able to challenge the establishment was pretty powerful.
NVC: Who has been easiest to work with in a motorsport context? Who has been the most difficult?
MG: I have worked with a number of drivers who proved to be a very difficult because they either didn’t have the intellectual ability or commitment to understand what it is that makes a team successful. Drivers have a key role to play in providing leadership within the team and working with our customers, which includes the sponsors, fans and official partners.
My experience is that more often than not they want to drive and then do as little as possible out of the car. I had some disheartening experiences with drivers such as Jarno Trulli and Ralf Schumacher, who could be monosyllabic at the best of times, while on the other hand a driver like Heinz-Harald Frentzen or Pedro de la Rosa could really make a difference.
NVC: What is your favourite motorsport memory?
MG: Being hugged by my wife in the pit lane when my team won the 2009 A1GP World Cup of Motorsport championship at Brands Hatch. It wasn’t F1, but I’d worked so hard for four years, against some significant challenges, to build the team and give it to capability to win. In that moment we had achieved something to be proud of, and it became a source of personal and professional pride.
NVC: The 2014 F1 Season will see significant revisions made to the engine formula as well as at least two new circuits. If you could change one thing about any aspect of Formula One, what would it be?
MG: Accessibility for fans. I have always agreed with Bernie Ecclestone’s philosophy that Formula One should be positioned as the best, the pinnacle of world motor sport, but I don’t accept that we should be elitist to the point where real fans have so little access. I think this has had a bad affect on the sport, and on its players, because the fans have become disenfranchised in many cases.
Sponsors notice that too and it’s counter-productive. This is particularly an issue in new markets such as India, China, South Korea and so on, because the sport is often viewed as ‘out of reach’ and I think we should be doing everything we can to connect with the sporting public globally.
NVC: Considering your involvement in motorsport, do you get many opportunities to drive round a proper circuit? What do you usually drive on the track? And what do you drive for day to day use?
MG: I have driven, rather badly, around several Grand Prix tracks! We often say in F1 that nothing handles quite as well as a hire car, and sometimes that can be late on a Sunday evening after the fans go home. Driving a lap of the Montreal Grand Prix track in a Honda S2000 was fun, while Brands Hatch in my Mercedes CLS was good even if it was a lumbering automatic with four people on board. For day to day use I currently drive a Porsche Cayman S, my ‘mid life crisis’ car as I call it, and a BMW X3 thanks to a snow we seem to get in my village every winter.
NVC: Finally, and to commemorate your role as liaison between Formula One management and Pixar for the Cars franchise: if you were a computer animated car, what make and model would you be?
MG: Actually that’s a great question because, following on from the work I did with Pixar Animation, I have become a non-executive director of Team Franco which is a new children’s animated series which uses racing as a backdrop for fun and educational programmes. The cars all have personalities and more importantly, super powers. So I think I’d be one of those and have the ability to overheat the tyres of all my competitors so that I could win the race!
We would like to extend a huge thank you to Mark for taking time to answer our questions. Be sure to follow him on Twitter and to check out his website for more information (including information on how you can get him to talk about the business of winning at your event). Check back on future race weekends for more interviews and check out our interview archive for more insight.