Julian Baldwin of Avon Tyres Has His Say
Julian Baldwin's job title is actually the Director of Marketing and Motorsports of the Cooper Tire & Rubber Company. Graham Goodwin sat down with him at Rockingham on August 12, and we present their conversation as a straightforward Question & Answer.

So how long a commitment has Avon got to (specifically) GT racing?
There’s no end date to it, it’s not a one, two or three year commitment, it’s ongoing. Remember we’ve been in GTs and sportscars for a long time in the past. It’s just another part of our programme.

Was there a conscious choice and a marketing reason to come back to GT racing coupled with your other programmes, particularly Formula Three?
It’s true to say that we are relatively new to GT racing but as for sportscars we’ve been in continually. The deal for British GT came up for tender and we were one of the tyre companies that was approached.

At the time it suited what we wanted to do, not just from a motorsport point of view, but we were looking for something to promote the Avon brand in the UK at that time, so it suited from a marketing point of view.

You are clearly using the branding of the British GT Championship in your wider marketing activity. Is that part of the ongoing strategy, particularly beyond the motorsport media?
Very much so. In the motorsport community you are preaching to the converted. No, of the advertising and media we have done, we have specifically not done advertising and promotion via the motorsport press. What we’re doing is via the motoring (right) rather than motorsport press, and then via national and regional newspapers - and radio and some TV as well.

Is there a figure that can be put on that activity?
I can’t give you a specific figure but if you included what we are doing to financially support the Championship itself, and then added all that we’re doing with the media, advertising and the PR work, the stuff we are doing to get radio and TV alongside, then you’re into well over six figures a year in total. You’re talking a lot of money.

And the aim is to maintain that effort into future years?
Yes. In year one of a programme like this you find out what works and what doesn’t. Year two you really focus on what you think is working and in year three you really build on that work and consolidate.

And have you been impressed with the value for money you are getting from British GTs?
Outside of the motorsport industry, yes. Inside the motorsport industry, I’m not happy at all, but the main target is not within the motorsport industry.

What I think the issue is, is that the British motorsport industry is not in a particularly healthy state. Championships like this need people, commercial sponsors, to come and support them. To take my motorsport hat off and put my commercial sponsor hat on for a moment, outside the motorsport industry yes it’s done the job - whether it's with dealer hospitality, media or whatever, but the motorsport industry has to realise in the UK that if it wants commercial sponsors to come in and stay, it’s no good just taking the money and saying thank you very much, or not even saying thank you! They have a responsibility to that sponsor and that Championship to give something back.

How we’ve tried to set this up and the promotion we’ve done is that there are several strands. Obviously we are doing it to promote the Avon brand, but by in doing that we can promote the Championship and individual events. So we’re working alongside not just SRO but also the individual event organisers.

We also help the teams and their sponsors and the drivers and the way we set it up to do that is we are doing a lot of work pre-event in the local area, with regional TV, radio and newspapers, plus competitions through our dealers and through local press. So what we are trying to do is to build up interest pre-race and a big part of doing that is to realise that regional press love a team that is based locally. If it’s done right you can benefit the Championship, you can benefit the event organiser because you’ll get more people through the gate, you can benefit the teams and the drivers because they are getting exposure. So that’s what we’re trying to do and that works quite well. Some teams are working with us far better than others but that’s just the way it is.

Within the motorsport community people seem to expect to have money, but that there’s no other wider responsibility beyond running their car. On one level that’s fine: they are all very focused and I understand that. I think as a generalisation, and this is not just talking British GT, if people in the motorsport industry really want funding to come in and stay coming in, flowing from commercial sponsors (who let’s face it can spend their money in loads of places), they have got to take a responsibility beyond just running the car, the team, the driver and be responsible for investment in the Championship. If you come down to the motorsport industry, I’ve been disappointed that some people haven’t chosen to see the wider responsibility they have of helping the Championship.

Some of the teams and some of the drivers have taken a very responsible role, others haven’t.

How do you see your relationship with SRO?
It’s working well. You have got a partnership between ourselves, SRO, the circuit owners and the teams. There are several groups that have got to work together but there are certain elements don’t always see that they have got a responsibility to be on their own rung. We’ve all got our own jobs to do but we’ve also got a responsibility that cuts across the whole lot and that’s what I don’t see happening.

Is the criticism here about making cars or people available?
It’s partly that but it’s also about the way in which they talk about issues or problems, or perceived problems, and we’re not going to get commercial sponsors to get into British motorsport and stay with that sort of stuff going out.

They would say: “Why am I going to stay here where there’s bickering going on, there’s a negative vibe around the Championship, people aren’t sorting things out behind closed doors, they’re sorting it out in public. I’ll go somewhere else where there’s a more positive outlook.” That is an issue I think.

Is part of the objective to get people back through the gates to watch motorsport?
One of the things we’re trying to do, and we’ve done it quite successfully at some events, this race (Rockingham) was always going to be difficult, you have Grand Prix Masters making its UK debut just down the road (Silverstone) and the Touring Cars are racing this weekend too, but yes part of the idea with the regional promotions is to try and get people through the gate. That’s why we haven’t targeted motorsport media, their readers will either come or they won’t. That’s why we’re hitting the regional media. Oulton Park was incredible and part of that was down to MSV, who did a great job, but part of it was down to stuff that we did as well. Let's not forget that there are a lot of things to choose from for people wanting to do something with their leisure time.

With GT2 looking poorly supported this season and GT3 looking to be stepping up for 2007 what is the appeal for Avon, is it the cars, the drivers, the variety?
It’s the variety and the sort of cars that are involved from a road tyre branding point of view. It’s as simple as that, whether it’s what we’re using in our ads or via PR or whether we’re bringing (corporate) customers here. They are cars that people get excited about.

At this point then do you see this as being a good value deal for Avon over say, two, three or four years?
You can’t really tell after just one year. The only way you’ll judge this is 'Is our market share going up?' and you aren’t going to tell that over such a short period because there are too many other things happening.

The only way you’ll tell it over this short a space of time is through the dealers and they are very positive, certainly the ones that have come along have been fired up and their local promotions have worked well.

So what is the Unique Selling Point for Avon?
We very much target what is termed in the tyre industry Ultra High Performance, not in terms of just the supercar market - but perhaps ‘spirited driving’ is a good expression to cover it.

There has been comment up and down the pitlane about the racing product itself. The competitors have been very positive about the Avon personnel but many of them also say that there is a way to go with the product. Is that fair comment?
I think in terms of the motorsport press I would encompass a little bit of my comment that people need to be a bit more responsible. The press can say what they like. What we want is context and balance and I have to say that the reporting, and I include you guys in this, the balance and context has not been there and I’m quite disappointed by that.

But for instance one team in the pitlane this weekend has expressed to me that they are frustrated that the cars are fundamentally slower than last season. That means there are other sportscar series in the UK, the Porsche Carrera Cup for instance, that are now quicker than British GT Championship cars and that situation cannot be right?
Everybody down there would like to go faster than they are going. We haven’t targeted going as fast as we could because what you have down there is a huge variety of cars and we’re trying to have some form of equality if you like, as much as you can between vastly differing chassis and engines - so in any contract formula the name of the game is not to go as fast as you can. We’re coming at it from a different angle but in motor racing everyone wants to go as fast as they can all the time, that’s the nature of it of course.

It begs the question then that if going as fast as you can is not the name of the game – what is the name of the game?
The name of the game is coming up with something which does a job to provide good racing for drivers but also for spectators. It’s a very, very tricky job to satisfy people that they are going as fast as they can, but without dissatisfying people who are going to be disadvantaged.

But some teams would claim that if you want the variety then they will need to run a compound that gives them an edge in order to offset other fundamental disadvantages of their package against other cars over a race distance. Is that fair for them to expect you to help make the difference?
If someone chooses to race, say, a traditional front engined configuration of car versus a rear engined and mid engined car, is it our job to make those equal really? Or to iron out all the inherent differences? You cannot make a tyre supplier responsible for completely equalising those completely different configurations and it is unreasonable to expect it.

But the issue is surely that there is a product that suits some of the cars better than others - that perhaps actually sometimes it can work in the opposite direction and hand an advantage to one team or car over another? In FIA GT3 for instance we have seen different compounds of tyre being used as part of an equalisation process. Is it really so unfair to expect the Championship supplier to react to a situation where some cars cannot use the rubber supplied as well as others?

I think we have reacted at a level where we think it’s reasonable. Any team manager down there that isn’t beating the teams he’s competing against by what he considers is a huge margin is going to want to do so, quite rightly because that’s their job. If I was down there I’d be pressuring us to give me an advantage, because that is what they are paid to do.

Now some of the controversy, and indeed some of your feelings about the way the issues have been reported, surround the different tyres provided for the GT2 Ferrari at Snetterton. I know Team LNT tested back to back with new and old on Friday and have found that the new rubber doesn’t work well with their car. How fundamentally different are those two tyres?
Not a lot different. LNT quite rightly said that 'Ferrari said they were at a disadvantage so we did something that suited their car (the Ferrari 430)'. Because that car is pretty unique for a GT car in the way that it uses its tyres, it was really quite hard (for us). So we did something for them. LNT then said we want a level playing field, we’ve given them one but the car is fundamentally different. How far do you go? And I know exactly what would happen if we made it a completely level playing field, any team manager down there would say “That’s not fair, I want this gap!”

Did you feel it was the right way to deal with it at Snetterton?
With hindsight we reacted to pressure. I think we had to try and give the team what they felt they needed, but it’s the sort of thing that in this area you are never going to make everyone happy.

So what would Avon do differently moving forward both in marketing and engineering terms next year, and what would you require from the various parties involved to help you to do it?
When it was announced that we had got the deal there was a huge amount of negative press. The way that deal was done, and I know because I was involved in responding to it, was to ask the tyre companies, this deal is on offer, tell us what you are going to do, and it is more than tyre supply. So we put together a package which was a significant investment and commitment to build the Championship, which is what we’re trying to do. We’ve actually delivered on our part of that this year in terms of the activation we’ve done, the media work we’ve done and everything we’ve tried to do. I don’t believe the Championship has delivered what I would have hoped they would have in terms of helping us to do that and I don’t just mean people giving us cars to put on dealer and shop forecourts, I mean in the responsibility in the wider sense - and I think you could make that same comment about a number of series in the UK. People need to wake up and realise that people don’t have to put money into motorsport.

The negative press we got there though, I don’t understand why because it was a fair and open business tender. We went into it in good faith, did it. We put together a package which obviously worked better. We put a lot more money into the championship this year than has been put in in many recent years. We’re trying hard to build the Championship.

When it was announced and we got the negative press we haven’t really had people say, forget the tyre bit, “Actually Avon are trying bloody hard to build this Championship” - which is good for the teams, the drivers and the Championship. So when all the plans came out in terms of what we were doing, we got what I would say is virtually zero credit in the motorsport media for that piece of it. That’s the kind of thing that disappoints me.

What I’d do differently is to find a way of saying to people “Before you print stuff three-quarters of the way through the season, as we are now, and we’ve had a lot of stuff printed about tyres, why has nobody come over and talked to us?”

There’s been a huge amount of discussion about tyres and the major motorsport publications we’ve now talked to, but at our own instigation. How can we be this far through the Championship with so much discussion of tyre issues and nobody’s come to talk to us about it?

But surely it does take two? We for instance have had minimal contact from Avon.
You’re right, it does take two but we weren’t the people writing things about the product. We’ve got people in the paddock: it’s kind of disappointing that I don’t think we’ve been given a fair crack and we certainly haven’t been given fair credit for what we have been doing around the Championship.

OK, fair comment on the work being done on marketing and PR, the visibility of the Championship is certainly better. But is there anything on the product front that you are looking to do differently for 2007?
The build up to this year was really difficult. For instance the LNT car didn’t appear until – well, we found out about it at the Autosport Show, basically. It used different sizes from anything else, it takes three months to get moulds. We turned ourselves upside down and we got them out in advance and that meant testing. A lot of these guys don’t come out and test. It took us a lot of time to sort things out. We’ve been learning and developing. Certainly these things are easier from a compound point of view than for other applications we have in the UK, so yes we’ve been learning and developing as we’re going along. That can be difficult when you’re racing and unfortunately you can’t develop with the whole grid at every race - so inevitably you learn a bit here, change a bit there and then you get the Snetterton situation where you think ‘Oh Bugger’ that didn’t work out because you can’t move everything at the same rate, you are going to get situations like this.

So that’s going to improve next year, now I think we know more about where we’ve been we’ll try and level it out.

Do you deal with the teams individually or would you prefer to deal with an Association of teams?
I don’t think it would help with any tyre issues. It might help the overall championship by pulling together the guys who want to help build this Championship, let's have a common voice, let's try and be sensible about how we do it. I don’t believe it is the answer to every problem, because let's face it they are all going to be fighting their own corner, quite rightly as I said earlier, pressuring us to the best job we can for them.

Is there engagement with all the teams outside the race weekends?
Yes, we’ve got one guy who’s headed up the whole effort, Mike Lynch. He’s co-ordinating the efforts of the other Avon engineers and he’s been working incredibly hard both with our people and the teams.

 

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