June 24, 2015 / 7:04 PM / 2 years ago

Whitmarsh fears F1 could 'crash and burn'

McLaren Group Limited CEO Martin Whitmarsh attends a joint news conference with Honda Motor Co's President and Chief Executive Officer Takanobu Ito (not in picture) in Tokyo May 16, 2013. REUTERS/Issei Kato

PORTSMOUTH, England (Reuters) - Former McLaren team principal Martin Whitmarsh says he is saddened by the current state of Formula One and fears it may “crash and burn” before eventually recovering.

“I love Formula One and I love McLaren. I was there 25 years. I am saddened by it,” Whitmarsh told Reuters at a media day for British America’s Cup yachting challenger Ben Ainslie Racing, of which he was appointed chief executive in March.

The Briton, who has said very little about the sport since his departure, said he still watched the races on television as a fan.

“I am staying away as much as I can, and try not to comment on it, but I‘m saddened by what’s happening in the sport,” added the 57-year-old, who was ousted by McLaren Group head Ron Dennis in January last year.

“I think it (the sport) will crash and burn before it gets turned around, in my view. It will do eventually but I‘m sad to see it go through the process it’s going through.”

McLaren, the second most successful team in the history of Formula One, have not won a race since 2012 and have scored only four points in eight grands prix this season -- the first of a new partnership with Honda.

At the same time, Formula One has suffered a wave of negativity with leading figures -- including commercial supremo Bernie Ecclestone and the bosses of former champions Red Bull -- talking it down.

More recent headlines this week have focused on the possible sale of the sport to RSE Ventures, who own the Miami Dolphins NFL team, and Qatar.

Whitmarsh, who said working with Ben Ainslie Racing (BAR) reminded him of his early days at McLaren when the team employed little more than 100 people, felt Formula One was still struggling to adapt to changing circumstances.

”If you look at the cycle...you had the sport as it was 30 years ago, then the tobacco era which was the big growth spurt and the automotive era when we had at one time seven of the nine largest automotive companies.

“Then that went away with the economic crisis and it’s diversified but in order to diversify it also has to recognize, which it’s struggling with, that it has to be doing it at a slightly different level,” said Whitmarsh, a former head of the now-defunct F1 teams’ association FOTA.

“And it’s also got to be a bit more equitable in terms of distribution. It is an ongoing argument and unfortunately at the moment it’s led itself into a very difficult place.”

The Briton was much more enthused by his new surroundings, even if there are many similarities between America’s Cup yachting and Formula One.

“It was a pretty short conversation. I said I’d like to do that. Not planned, not long-term passion, just something very lucky to get involved with,” he recalled of his response to Ainslie when Britain’s most decorated yachtsman approached him.

“He came to my home, we sat for about two hours and talked about it and actually I just said I don’t care about the money, I just want to do this. I told him there and then,” he said.

“I think this is a historic opportunity to do something that hasn’t been done in 164 years, to try and win this cup (for Britain).”

Whitmarsh said the technology, the racing and the challenge provided the same sort of thrill and enjoyment he had experienced in Formula One.

He sensed also that yachting was on the cusp of a breakthrough into a more mainstream television audience after a thrilling battle in 2013 for the ‘Auld Mug’ trophy between Oracle Team USA and Emirates Team New Zealand.

Oracle, with Ainslie on board from races six to 19, came from behind to defend the trophy 9-8 after winning the last eight races.

“America’s Cup is now changing the mould,” said Whitmarsh, whose team will be in action next month off Portsmouth Harbour in an America’s Cup World Series event.

“I think there are some other sports that are suffering at the moment and there’s a great opportunity for this sport to get in there and really develop itself as a fantastic product.”

Reporting by Alan Baldwin, editing by Toby Davis

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