Interview - McLarens Pedro de la Rosa 09 Feb 2004
For the Formula One test driver this is the busiest time of the year. With less than a month to go to the first race of the season in Melbourne, it's a case of all hands on deck for all the test teams. At McLaren that means that all four drivers, David Coulthard, Kimi Raikkonen, Alex Wurz and Pedro de la Rosa are working flat-out, fine tuning the MP4-19 and working on reliability of, which will be even more important than usual this year, with the new one-engine-per-weekend rule.
"Yes, this is the busiest time of the year," confirms de la Rosa, "because at McLaren we use three cars for testing, so even though David and Kimi naturally want to do as many miles as possible to familiarise themselves with the new car, myself and Alex still have plenty of work to do."
With any new car, testing naturally has to cover every angle and the Spanish driver performs a highly varied workload. "As a test driver, I don't have any specific responsibility in terms of what I am working on. All the drivers share the different duties. In recent weeks I have carried out tyre testing for Michelin, as well as reliability work, doing long runs and chassis set-up work. It all depends on the programmes set up by the engineers on any particular day."
De la Rosa's work is invaluable to McLaren, but as he is not expected to race, he has to bear in mind that the MP4-19 ultimately has to be tailored to suit the needs of the two race drivers. "Luckily, all the drivers in this team have very similar driving styles and we work with similar set ups so it's not a big problem," he explains. "But obviously, sometimes we have different preferences on engine or traction control mapping, so yes, it does happen that I have to drive with Kimi's set-up to check things for him. We are asked to do some things that do not particularly suit my own style but of course it's for the benefit of the team and the overall development programme. However, normally in terms of set up we drive with a basic set up with very minor differences."
Test teams usually work a much longer day at the race track than their race counterparts, because track time is so limited over the grand prix weekend. However, de la Rosa relishes the challenge, while admitting that there can be a downside. "I think the hardest part of my job is not getting to see the red lights go out at the start of a grand prix while sitting on the grid," he confesses. "But it is important for a test driver to keep motivated even though you know you will not be racing, which on occasion can of course be tough."
When it comes to McLaren's chances this season, de la Rosa is in optimistic mood, based on the results of testing so far. "We have to take advantage of the fact the MP4-19 was ready early, in week 48 of last year in fact," he says. "We began testing in November, making us the first team to run its 2004 car. This is especially critical in a championship where reliability will be so important, because of the new one engine per driver per weekend rule. It is also important because of the fact the gap between first and second in a race is only 2 points. With 18 races this year, it will be very important to be a consistent podium finisher. Whoever does that most often will win the championship."
So how has MP4-19 been performing? "We have already seen the benefit of being ready early and by mid-January the car has already improved a lot," enthuses de la Rosa. "For example, in one day at Jerez, I completed the equivalent of two grands prix distances. I feel that at the moment we are progressing well but there are still some areas where we can improve."
Engines have always been a vital element of the overall package, but this year, with reliability a must-have ingredient, the Mercedes V10 will be even more in the spotlight than usual. "I have been very impressed with our new engine," reckons de la Rosa. "Because of the new rule, people may have thought there would be less power, but already at this point in the year, the new Mercedes engine matches last year in terms of power."
And the McLaren tester is equally happy with the chassis. "We have already made up for the loss of aerodynamic downforce which would have resulted from the change to the rules regarding some components such as the rear wing. I would add that the balance of the car is very good and when you have a well balanced car, aerodynamic downforce actually becomes a less important factor. We are quite confident in this area."
With tyres making perhaps the most obvious difference in performance, much of de la Rosa's work has been with Michelin, as the French company ploughs through a huge programme of evaluating different compounds and constructions. "I believe that in the dry Michelin will have an advantage over Bridgestone and I also feel that Michelin has improved its wet weather tyres."
And finally his thoughts on the 2004 championship? "It will be a close one again, absolutely," concludes the Spaniard. "I think McLaren, Williams and Renault are my favourites and I have a feeling that Ferrari will be a bit disappointing although still winning races. I reckon the title will go down to the last race again."
McLaren will be testing from Tuesday through Friday of this week at Barcelona.