Exclusive Q&A with McLarens Martin Whitmarsh 27 Aug 2013
The 2013 season marks McLarens 50th anniversary year and was meant to be a great one for the legendary British team. They ended 2012 on a high, with arguably the fastest car on the grid, and were expected to build on that form. Instead they have yet to score a podium. Team principal Martin Whitmarsh discusses where it all went wrong, who is responsible, how he plans to put things right, and whether it might involve a certain Kimi Raikkonen
Q: Martin, how difficult is it to have to incorporate the word mistakes into the McLaren vocabulary?
Martin Whitmarsh: Ha, I think it has been in our vocabulary for a long time, as I think weve been honest to ourselves. Certainly in the last couple of years, when weve got something wrong we dont hide from it. We are our own harshest critics. This year we have made some big mistakes - that is very obvious, and difficult to rectify. I dont like it, but there is no point in hiding from it. Weve won 182 Grands Prix and I have been around for more than a hundred of them and, of course, it is much more enjoyable to go motor racing with the prospect of winning. We dont enjoy going racing without that prospect, so its now painful and difficult, but thats life. Its an unusual situation because in the last ten years weve always been there fighting for wins and even championships right to the end of the season. And you cant back off this year. We have to be disciplined and have to make sure to put a lot of effort into next year - and we are certainly doing that. We cant be content where we are experimenting - thats tough on the team - bur effectively during Friday the car is a test bed and is running in lots of different configurations and we are collecting the data. And hopefully we will make some progress - and hopefully apply that and make steps forward.
Q: You have said that you went a bit aggressive with this years car and that it didnt pay off. Where precisely is the car aggressive? In what areas?
MW: We went aggressive with the heights of the nose, the configuration of the front suspension, the configuration of the rear suspension, the bodywork and exhaust layout. In a word, we did too many things which were deviating from a car which was the fastest car nine or ten months ago
Q: Who talked you into all these changes?
MW: We are a team and ultimately I take the blame for it - thats my job. It is not my style to single out people publicly when things go wrong. I am happy to name names when we are successful and give them the opportunity to stand on the podium, but it is my job when things havent gone so well to take the responsibility.
Q: So lets look at it from another angle: questions have been raised over the future of some of your counterparts at other big teams when results havent come, yet theres been no call to release you from your duties. Are you still the best option?
MW: I dont know. I am not the one to judge. I have been with the team for 25 years. I dont spend too much time reflecting on that, but I am not worried - thats not on my mind. I want us to progress, so I kick people around during the week - I am a little bit frustrated - but we are a strong team and looking over the last 20 years we are pretty consistent. Yes, this is a bad year, but usually we come back strong - and that is what we will do next year.
Q: Lets recap: McLaren had the fastest car at the end of last season and you knew that 2013 would be a transition year, given the big changes coming in 2014. What logic was there behind the decision to make such radical changes when most likely they would be obsolete for 2014?
MW: The time the team was making the decisions was in a situation when we were falling a bit behind. The start of the 2012 season was good, but then in mid-season we were falling behind and it is about that time that you make these decisions - and then last years car became quicker and quicker. It was bad timing, it was misjudgement, and it was ambition. It is very clear in hindsight that weve got it wrong. Hindsight is a great thing to learn from, but it doesnt help right now. But lets also be fair: this car now is quicker than last years car. So what weve done is that we have made marginal steps forward - but effectively weve lost about six months of time. The other teams - as we should have done - have developed their 2012 car and got ahead, and we slowly have to catch them up. Weve done a little bit of that, but its clearly not enough.
Q: McLaren have an incredible history of recovering, so why is it so difficult to turn things around now? Are you stuck in no-mans land, as you know that at some point you have to switch your resources fully to the 2014 and stop meddling with a car that will never be a winner?
MW: The weakness of McLaren - and this is probably my fault - is that we have not switched (enough) resources to the next year. We fought and battled on for this season, as we are racers - that is our weakness. In the past often weve been a bit late - weve come out slow and then put a foot on the gas. Often weve been in a situation where weve made a mistake, then we rectified that mistake and jumped forward. But this year the problem that we have with this car is that we are behind in development. You then push hard to accelerate development, you lose correlation from the wind tunnel to the track, you lose your way and it becomes difficult to make the progress that you want.
Q: So whats your minimum goal for this season? To beat Force India in the standings? Anything else seems pretty unrealistic
MW: I hope we can do that. But Id also like to get a few podiums before the end of the season. That is the minimum.
Q: Have you ever considered getting Kimi Raikkonen back? He seems to be the best Kimi there has ever been right now
MW: Yes, we have. Kimi has always been great and I am a big fan of him. There is a lot of speculation out there at the moment, so lets see what happens.
Q: Are you one of the teams that he could consider? Have there been talks with him?
MW: I probably shouldnt be, but Im completely open - last year we had talks with him, but for various reasons it didnt happen. This year weve had no talks - yet.
Q: So it could be that somebody approaches somebody?
MW: Yes, could be. Obviously Kimi is determined to go somewhere else and I sense that he will not succeed in that goal, so lets see how he gets on there.
Q: Given that 2014 will likely be another difficult year for McLaren before you switch to Honda engines in 2015, wouldnt having two world champions on board get you more positive media mileage?
MW: Yes, it might do. Well see. We are not talking to Kimi at the moment, so lets see what happens in the drivers market.
Q: Jenson is a great ambassador for the team, particularly in times of doom. What about Checo? Has he found his feet and grown into his new role?
MW: Bear in mind that Checo is still very young - he is ten years younger (than Jenson). But I think one thing I have to say is that we havent given our drivers the car we should have done this year. But theyve been fantastic ambassadors and I think they deserve another go with us next year.
Q: So you do believe that you have two winners?
MW: If we give them a car that is good enough they both can win. We know that.
Q: There has always been a bit of a three-way split between the teams in terms of financial resources, between the big boys at the front, the midfield teams and then the backmarkers. Recently, however, it seems even the midfield teams are struggling. Why are calls to implement tighter resource restrictions or budget caps still falling on deaf ears? Do some teams have to win at any costs?
MW: Unfortunately Formula One responds better in crisis. Maybe we are waiting for the next real crisis to respond. When we had the crisis of Toyota, Honda and BMW pulling out we pulled together and made some sensible decisions and helped the teams to survive. That was a good period. We then became complacent because we hadnt had a team failing, HRT aside. But what is happening now is that all the teams are sliding rearwards. We have now secured our future with the partnership with Honda, so we are in good shape. Ourselves, Mercedes, Red Bull and Ferrari (are okay), but after that it is challenging. We know the challenges that Lotus have. We know the challenges that Sauber and Williams have. These are good teams, but they have a massive, massive challenge - they have the increased engine costs, theyve got increased trade costs, theyve got a real challenge in a competitive marketing environment - so its a worry. Frankly I dont think were doing enough. I openly said that to Bernie (Ecclestone). The problem is we go racing and we get transfixed by that, and until there is a catastrophe right behind us we dont put the energy behind it.
Q: Coming back to the racing, what has been the highlight - and the low point - of your season to date?
MW: The low point was Australia and looking at our car smashing into the ground and in really bad shape. The highlight - for some strange reasons - was Bahrain where at least our two guys were fighting each other and I got some adrenalin, because I felt we were racing - if only against each other. (laughs) I wouldnt say that there was any particular highpoint, but the highest is when your adrenalin flows - when you think that looks exciting, even if it might end in catastrophe. Drivers who are trying to take each other off in Bahrain - in a perverted way - was exciting for a moment.
Q: Finally, what is the outlook for the next couple of races?
MW: Finding a bit of progress - but there isnt going to be a sudden change that will catapult us to the front. Growing into at least a respectable level of competitiveness - which is not what we have enjoyed since the start of the year: that would do the trick...
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