In conversation with Ian Wheeler (part one)

Thursday in the British MotoGP paddock was a busy day for myself. Alongside my conversation with David Emmett, I also had a chat with Ian Wheeler (@IanWheeler) who is currently Marketing and Communications Manager with the Marc VDS Racing Team.

I have split the conversation over two parts. In this part, myself and Wheeler chat about the logistics of preparing for a race weekend, along with an introduction to where MotoGP currently stands in the social media landscape, a topic that we will also cover in part two.

F1B: Thank you for the interview Ian, just give us a little bit of your background, what you’ve done before, what has led you to where you are today.

IW: Like a lot of people in the paddock, I used to race and was pretty poor at it, I stopped before I seriously injured myself! I ended up going off and doing something completely different away from racing into a normal job. I went to work for a defence contractor and they put me in charge of their website which I knew nothing about. I decided that I’d learn how websites work by building one. I was away on a trip to Malaysia, the same weekend as the first British Superbike weekend. I went online to find out who won what and couldn’t find anything anywhere. I came back, started a British Superbike website, went to the races myself, did the interviews and it just took off because there was no other source of information. As a result, I ended up working for an online company Bike Net and then from there started working for Kawasaki in British Superbikes and also took over as editor of Motorcycle Racer Magazine. With Kawasaki I moved from British Superbike to World Superbike and onto MotoGP in 2003. I stayed with Kawasaki as their Marketing and Communications Manager until 2009 when they stopped. I had a couple of years with Dorna doing the pit lane commentary and then in 2010 came back on this side of the fence with Marc VDS when we came back into Moto2. And obviously being with Marc VDS now, the 2014 championship win and the move to MotoGP with Scott [Redding] in 2015 and now with the two riders in 2016.

F1B: Wow, so the British Superbike stuff I’m guessing that was when the internet started to become a thing?

IW: I was doing it around 1999 and 2000. Then in 2001, I was a press officer for the Kawasaki team, still a little bit involved in the website but not as much. They sold out to another company, gave it to them and they carried it on.

F1B: You moved from Kawasaki to Dorna, what was it that prompted the move from team to rights holder?

IW: At the end of 2008, there were issues with the economy in Japan and the exchange rate, so they decided to stop racing. When you’re developing a factory bike in MotoGP, it is a fairly big financial commitment, and they decided that they had higher priorities at the time commercially. So they stopped the MotoGP project, it was around about Christmas time in 2008, which meant that we were too late to find another position in 2009 with another team. I sat at home doing some freelance and then Michael Morel from Dorna called me saying that we’ve lost our pit lane reporter, do you fancy doing it. I wasn’t doing anything that was keeping me too busy at the time and it was an opportunity to come back to the paddock. I’ve never done it before, apart from once when they made me stand in at Rockingham with Fred Clarke. I thought it sounded like an interesting change, I did it and enjoyed it. Then in 2010, I got a phone call off my ex-boss at Kawasaki Michael Bartolini saying that we’re going racing again and can you come to Belgium. I continued with Dorna for the rest of 2010 but by then it was starting to get difficult.

F1B: What did you learn with Dorna that you were able to bring back to the team?

IW: It’s a good question. When I worked in this role with Kawasaki, your circle of influence is quite small by choice because you’re focussed on securing the exposure for the team, promoting the sponsors and partners for the team. So you’re focussed on a small part. When you’re doing it from the other side where you’re effectively now the journalist and you require things from other teams, then it opens up this circle of context. What I found was that I got a lot of help from the teams. A lot of people in pit lane are looking for the same story and the same information. I got a lot of help from the guys at Yamaha, the guys from Honda, who I only really knew in passing because it wasn’t where my focus was with Kawasaki. When I came back to the team [Marc VDS], it was helping these guys out rather than always looking for the angle. These guys have a tough job, they have to keep people updated, it’s better to help them with information that you normally wouldn’t think to give to them because it is of no advantage to you or the team.  It’s better to build the relationship with these people who do quite a difficult job and are under a lot of pressure. If something goes wrong in the race or in practice, it can be quite stressful. We can help a lot because we have access to the information faster than they do.

F1B: Thinking more about your Dorna role, but also your current role, what sort of preparation is involved for each weekend?

IW: They’re different, but also similar. With Dorna, the Monday before a race you start looking at what is happening across all three classes, looking at the news feeds to see if anything is happening that you need to be aware of, specifically with riders. It is learning about the characteristics of the track, is it going to be hard on tyres, is fuel consumption going to be an issue for the MotoGP bikes. How does the track suit the characteristics of each of the bikes, does the track suit the Honda or the Yamaha. It is also looking for stories that others may not have picked up on by using the contacts in the paddock rather than just looking at the news feeds. It is to make sure that when you arrive on the Thursday at the press conference, or sometimes interviewing specific riders, you were up to speed with everything that is going on rather than to walk into the paddock and be surprised at something. Over the course of the weekend, each evening you go through what’s gone on during the day, pick out the interesting stories for the following day. It is to try to stay ahead of the people who you are broadcasting to.

F1B: What about your job role now with Marc VDS, what preparation do you do?

IW: It is twofold really. On the one hand it is the media responsibilities for the riders, organising the media schedule for the riders in terms of access to journalists, access to TV, specific TV interview features. When the rider arrives on Wednesday, there should be a riders’ schedule explaining exactly what they need to do, what time, who it’s for, which country it is going out in.

F1B: Makes their life easier.

IW: No, it makes my life easier because then I don’t have to spend hours speaking to their answer phone! It’s just so they know exactly what they have to do, who they’re doing it for and for TV features, we’ll give them a little bit of background about what the journalist is looking for so they don’t go into the interview cold. On the other side, we also have responsibilities for the sponsors. For example, this race, Pro-Bolt is one of our sponsors here, they’re based here in the UK and have been a loyal sponsor since 2010. We’ve got some events with them, which we also use the riders for. We’ve got guests from Estrella Galicia who is our biggest sponsor, so it’s making sure we have a programme for them that includes the riders, pit box tours and also it is scheduling commercial meetings. It is easier to have commercial meetings at the race track as the sponsors are based in that country as well, rather than flying in for a meeting between races. A little bit of everything really.

F1B: Sounds pretty good. The whole area of sponsors leads me nicely onto our next subject: MotoGP’s future with regards social media. Where do you see MotoGP from a social media perspective going?

IW: The most important thing is the championship itself, the product if you like. What we’ve seen over the past few years from Dorna is some quite clever moves to strength the championship, to make it more attractive, to make it more unpredictable and interesting to the viewer. We’ve also see a massive step forward with the TV coverage. The quality is absolutely fantastic. When you compare us to Formula 1 in terms of TV coverage, I think Dorna exceeds what Formula 1 does. Okay, they [Dorna] have a little bit more freedom because we don’t have the rigid rules about the driver access. What they focus their non-race coverage on is exactly what people want, the personalities. Not just on the riders, but the people who you would want to see on the TV, Tito Rabat’s crew chief or Sam Lowes’ tyre guy who you see all the time. They build these interesting personalities because we have some really interesting characters, most of them have got their own story which MotoGP tell very well in different ways with the TV coverage but also their online video coverage. So, we have a strong championship, we have a strong TV presence. They’ve done a lot of the job for us in MotoGP rather than Moto2 or Moto3 of building these interesting personalities. Their social media policy has changed massively over the past two years; they’ve really taken on-board the fact that social media is one of the most powerful communication tools. They’ve brought in people to make the most of that. You look at their audience on social media, it is constantly growing. Even if you don’t understand social media, you can’t argue with the figures.

Even better for us is the past two years have seen a fundamental change in how they interact with the teams via social media. In the past it has very much been standalone. MotoGP and social media, it’s to promote the championship, it’s to promote MotoGP. The teams had been left to themselves, we don’t have that audience at all. Even the biggest team here does not have the audience that the championship has across Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. Now, they couldn’t help us anymore than they are. They really are making a massive difference, they share content, they are proactive with us, they give us advice “okay, if you do this, then we can share that, this is the benefit you get from it.” If there is something we don’t understand or something we want to know, their door is open, we go to speak to them and they always have something constructive to say or some way to help us out. It has allowed the teams to look at how they utilise social media. Our way has not changed, we focus very much on the personalities, we focus on our riders because that is where the interest is. We’re not a factory team, we have a responsibility to our sponsors, in terms of their image and also securing coverage for them. We’re not limited in the same way the factory teams are by the corporate style, we have a little bit more leeway on how we use social media. It allows us to have a much better relationship with not just the fans but also the journalists as well, we feed information out on social media specifically for the journalists as well as putting information out there for the fans. One example is a rider who crashes during a session, for us social media is the fastest way to communicate that the rider is okay or what has happened to the rider. The fans see it, they’re happy. The journalists see it, including the TV commentators. They have the Twitter feed open while they’re commentating as it’s a good source of information, they get the information and push it straight out on TV.

My thanks go to Ian Wheeler for spending the time with me on the above interview. In part two, we continue to look at MotoGP’s future, and Ian explains what is meant by a ‘social media’ workshop.

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