Exclusive interview - Williams' Sam Michael 29 Apr 2005
Australian positive about latest FW27 developments
The Williams technical director talks candidly about the teams 2005 campaign to date, about the effect of the new tyre regulations, about the dynamics of the Webber-Heidfeld relationship and about overcoming the teams pre-season wind-tunnel problems
Q: Sam, tell us about your start to Williams' 2005 season?
Sam Michael: "When we came out with the new car it wasn't where we wanted it to be at the start of February. We went through a difficult time with our wind tunnels over the winter, six months ago we had to shut down our original tunnel to bring on our new one and while that went through there were a lot of teething and commissioning problems - we were basically running our wind tunnels at around 30 percent of what they should be capable of, and we were only running with one tunnel.
"That's changed in the last month or so and we're now coming on line with the old one and the new one's teething problems have been sorted. So what it basically means is that the design of the FW27 was done with around 30 percent of the wind tunnel time that it should have had, which obviously has a massive effect on the final product.
"What that means is that we've had to put a lot of effort into the development of the FW27 in the last six-to-eight weeks and that's been very good. The car development has been very strong since the start of February and we've got a lot of new parts on the car and it's going a lot faster as a result. We haven't had the results that we wanted - regular high points-scoring positions - we've qualified very well but because of incidents in the races things haven't been going our way. But at the end of the day you make your own luck in this business - and if you take the last race as an example, Imola, we caused ourselves a lot or problems just by having poor starts, and there's no point in thinking that its anything but that.
Q: You must have been cheered by Mark Webber's fourth place on the grid at Imola - does that reflect the car's intrinsic pace?
SM: "Yes, that's right - and Mark's qualifying all year has been fantastic, and Nick's had a couple of good ones as well. It's getting there and the main thing is that we're keeping our heads down and pushing. Everybody at the factory is very, very motivated - we've got almost 500 people here - Williams is a winning team, we've won plenty of races before and we're fully intent on getting back there. There's no-one in the factory whose not pushing towards that goal, which is great. At the start of February [when the problems with the car became apparent] everyone was down for a couple of days and then said right, this is what it's going to take - and they've got down and they're working hard at it."
Q: You mentioned starting performance - is that something that you're paying particular attention to?
SM: "Basically with starts, because it's all manually done by the driver, you've got to give them a lot of practice. You've also got to make sure that you don't have an engine that bogs down - that the revs you use to start with aren't too low - which just comes from testing lots of different rev patterns and finding out what we can get away with. It changes a lot with different grip levels on different track surfaces, so we've got to do quite a lot of testing."
Q: Why are some teams so good at starts - particularly Renault?
SM: "I don't think that's the case this year. I think that Renault have had very strong starts up until the end of last year, but now they're good and they maintain their position but they're not like they used to be. Before if you were sitting next to a Renault on the grid then you could be fairly certain you were going to lose a place, they would typically overtake one or two cars just on the start. But it looks like they've changed their car set-up now so that it doesn't give them the same advantage. They've still got a good start system, but they don't have the same advantage that they used to."
Q: And are you confident you've overcome the aerodynamic problems that you've faced over the last couple of seasons?
SM: "We headed in the wrong direction with the FW26 and its front end, and it really took us 12 months to recover from that. We've come out of that but it set us back, the department's been restructured and the people in there are extremely motivated as well, they're all pushing hard, they're the right people as well - the ideas that we have going through the tunnel are now regularly being picked up by other teams as well. It really takes time to nurture the sort of relationships that are involved there and the management structure. If you look at other teams you see the difference, our chief aerodynamicist Loic Bigois has only been in the job for just over four months whereas if you look at other teams with people like Rory Byrne, they've been in place for ten years or longer. It takes quite a bit to beat that - there's nothing like consistency and making sure that people have what they want."
Q: The technical regulations have obviously changed for this year. What effect has this had - specifically when it comes to tyre wear?
SM: "On our tyres we've not finished a race yet, over the first four Grands Prix, where our tyres were too worn for us to actually do another whole race on them. So we're dealing with a margin of over 50 percent, which means that we've finished the race with half the tread still left. I'm not sure if all teams are in that position but it's definitely the case for us. That's very conservative, but at the same time four races is not very many compared to the decades we were racing under the old regulations, so there's still not a huge database of information, especially about individual tracks. When we head off to Barcelona or other tracks where we've tested before I'm sure that we'll be able to get much closer to the limit. But on tracks that we don't test at - Montreal, Melbourne, Malaysia, Bahrain - we're going into the unknown really with a new regulation, which is why the tyre companies are bound to be more conservative."
Q: So the margin should come down dramatically over the season?
SM: "Definitely, the whole nature of Formula One is to go as close to the limits as possible, to use up as much of your margin as you can - it doesn't matter what it is. So, yeah, that will come down for sure."
Q: What are the team's ambitions now that we're moving into the middle section of the season?
SM: "We're still on a very rapid development path. We've got a lot of new parts for the Spanish Grand Prix coming up next week, we'll take those new parts to Barcelona and hopefully the car will be faster. Our ambition is still to win Grands Prix this year, and if that results in the Championship then fine, but the first thing to do is to try and win Grands Prix rather than talk about what might happen by the end of the season."
Q: How is the dynamic between Mark Webber and Nick Heidfeld developing -they were pushing each other pretty hard in Imola?
SM: "They're very good, I think that they've both got their skills, they're both very dedicated, they're both really into motivating the team around them, they're both very diligent when it comes to set-up work, pushing the engineers in the track and the factory. They've both been around the block, they're not new to Formula One, and they've worked in teams where it's a lot tougher financially and they don't have the same development resources that Williams has - so they appreciate it a little more. So far I've been quite happy with both drivers, it's a strong line-up, if we can just get another few tenths of a second out of the car then I've no doubt they'll perform well. In Malaysia, Nick came from tenth up to third place - and I think that if he'd started further up the grid then he might have ended up higher on the podium than that - and Mark's qualifying is exceptional - so driver-wise I'm happy."
Q: So they're hard-working drivers rather than attention-seekers?
SM: "Yes, definitely - they're not prima donnas, these two. At the end of the day we're not really bothered too much about a driver's character. It does help if they're able to motivate those around them - but the first thing is that they've got to be fast, that's the most important thing in any competitive situation."
Q: You want to be winning races this season - after the performance in Imola how far away do you think that is?
SM: "I think it's probably a bit premature to predict it for Barcelona, so I think that it's difficult to say - it could come at any time and we'll push as hard as we can to try and make sure that it does happen - but it's too difficult to say when."