Successful COTA Forum in Austin proves the importance of fan engagement in F1

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AUSTIN, TX – Ahead of this weekend’s United States Grand Prix, fans who had made the journey to Austin were treated to a special forum with three top Formula 1 drivers as the importance of fan engagement to the sport was driven home.

Following the demise of the Formula One Teams’ Association (FOTA) earlier this year, the fans appeared to be the biggest losers as the successful FOTA Forums that brought them closer to the drivers and personalities in F1 were lost.

However, for this weekend’s grand prix at the Circuit of The Americas, former FOTA general secretary Oliver Weingarten and the Grand Prix Investors Fund came together to hold an event at Gibson Guitar Texas.

At a packed venue, Felipe Massa, Sergio Perez and Esteban Gutierrez faced questions from the fans, ranging from safety in F1 to their favorite circuits, and even what their favorite road car was. All three drivers were given a Gibson guitar by the venue, and took time to sign merchandise for the fans.

American driver Alexander Rossi also made an appearance at the event despite Marussia not racing in Austin, taking time to chat with fans and pose for pictures.

Perez and Gutierrez proved to be particularly popular at the forum, with a large contingency of Mexican fans making the trip over for the grand prix weekend. Unsurprisingly, questions about next year’s Mexican Grand Prix were met with great approval and chants of “Checo! Checo!” and “Guti! Guti!”.

The drivers also spoke of their love for the United States Grand Prix in Austin, which has already established itself as one of the best events on the calendar after just three years.

However, what was most evident about the event was how the fans embraced the opportunity to speak with their heroes and get to see them in a less formal setting. In the pressure of the F1 paddock, drivers can often have their personalities suppressed, yet the trio that appeared in Austin on Wednesday night were all immensely relaxed, sharing jokes with each other and the fans throughout the event.

Although Formula 1 may not focus on fan engagement as much as it perhaps should, events such as the COTA Forum are crucial to ensuring that the sport can bridge this gap more and give the fans something back.

NBC/NBCSN SCHEDULE FROM UNITED STATES GRAND PRIX

Sebastien Ogier in driver’s seat for sixth straight World Rally Championship title

Sebastien Ogier leads the way in the WRC title chase. Photo: Getty Images
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COFFS HARBOUR, Australia (AP) — Thierry Neuville finished the sixth stage of Rally Australia on Friday without a rear left tire, damaging his chances of catching five-time defending champion Sebastien Ogier for the World Rally Championship title.

The Belgian driver entered the rally just three points behind Ogier in the closest title fight in 15 years.

He held the upper hand on his French rival, building a near-10 second gap through the first five stages at Coffs Harbour before hitting a chicane and finishing the stage with only three tires on his Hyundai.

Neuville was fortunate the puncture occurred late enough in the day to finish all six forestry stages and avoid a retirement. But the mistake cost him 40 seconds and gave Ogier, who is 33 seconds ahead of him, a clear run at his sixth straight championship.

In his last start with Ford before a move to Citroen next year, Ogier struggled as the first to drive the dusty, slippery forest routes.

“I pushed like crazy, I was on the limit over the jump and everywhere, I can’t do (any) more,” Ogier said. “I was on the limit.”

With Ogier on sweeping duties the back markers flourished, and Mads Ostberg took the lead in his return to the series.

Ostberg was forced to miss the previous round in Spain to make way for rally winner and nine-time world champion Sebastien Loeb, who was making the last of his three guest appearances for Citroen.

Now back in the seat, Ostberg leads Jari-Matti Latvala by 6.8 seconds in the Australian rally, with sixth-stage winner Craig Breen in third.

Ogier was seventh, 38.2 seconds off the pace, but only needs to finish ahead of Neuville to claim the championship title. Neuville is in 10th place after six stages.

Roles will reverse on Saturday, with Ogier to start further back in the field and do his best on cleaner roads to make up the day-one deficit before Sunday’s final stages.

Andreas Mikkelsen, the 2016 Rally Australia champion, was an early dropout after rolling into a ditch in his Hyundai. Mikkelsen had only just avoided a tractor that had found its way onto the course.

Former winner Molly Taylor and co-driver Malcolm Read were also forced out of their event when their Subaru hit a hay bale at high speed on the morning’s second stage. Both reported soreness but suffered no serious injuries.

The 24-stage rally totals 319 kilometers (197 miles). Ten stages are scheduled Saturday with the final six on Sunday, most of them through forests on the New South Wales state’s north coast about 530 kilometers (325 miles) north of Sydney.