Q&A with McLarens Martin Whitmarsh 07 Apr 2008
The Bahrain Grand Prix brought disappointment for McLaren, Heikki Kovalainens fifth place their only reward after Lewis Hamiltons poor start and his tangle with Fernando Alonsos Renault. Martin Whitmarsh, the teams Formula One CEO, discusses the race and McLarens plans for the three-week gap before Spain
Q: Lewis usually makes excellent race starts, but that wasnt the case in Bahrain. What happened?
Martin Whitmarsh: It was a procedural error - his engine was on the incorrect setting and that led to the anti-stall procedure kicking in, so he was swamped by everyone else as he tried to get away.
Q: He has admitted that he forgot to push the correct button
MW: Yes, but as a team Vodafone McLaren Mercedes doesnt habitually blame its drivers in public. Is the procedure clear? Is it simple enough? We have to look at all the details.
Q: People are accustomed to celebrating Lewiss successes, but this just didnt seem to be his weekend. His demeanour remains very upbeat, though.
MW: I think hes disappointed, but hes very strong-minded. He had a reasonable qualifying run, but a practice accident meant Friday wasnt his greatest day, and nor was Sunday. He wont lose confidence, though. He believes in himself and knows he can get the job done. Hell go away, rebuild and come back stronger in Spain.
Q: Lewis switched to a one-stop strategy after he ran into the back of Fernando Alonso on lap two. Have you determined the cause of the accident?
MW: Its an interesting situation for those of us on the pit wall, because you see an incident such as that and have to respond in terms of pulling him in, getting the car repaired, looking at fuel load options that might help him recover and so on. At the time we didnt actually know how it all unfolded, however. People come up immediately after the race and ask, "So, was he brake-tested?" and you cant answer. It is assumed that you are being evasive, but in truth you simply dont know. It was only when I went into the engineers room and started looking at the details that I realised Lewiss upper front wing had disappeared about two seconds before the accident, so he suddenly lost downforce. We havent analysed why that happened but we suspect the structure had been weakened by previous contact. To be fair to Lewis it could have broken of its own accord, but that has never happened before so contact is the most likely cause. Theres certainly no evidence that Fernando did anything wrong. The impact damaged other elements of Lewiss car apart from the wing - he just had to cope as best he could.
Q: Heikki drove very well again, but his afternoon wasnt entirely without problems.
MW: No. For a reasonable proportion of the race his car was wounded by a very bad flat spot, after he locked up on the opening lap. By the time he pitted his front right tyre was worn down to the canvas. For his second stint, with hindsight, we were maybe on the wrong type of tyre, but we went long and heavy just to try something different. It didnt benefit us, but there was no harm done either.
Heikki set the fastest lap, which added a positive sheen but also underlined that we didnt unleash the cars full potential throughout the race. Its a further illustration that you have to get every element of the weekend absolutely right.
Q: Heikki has been with you for three races and has scored a hat trick of strong points finishes. How do you assess progress so far?
MW: In all he has been with us for 11 weeks and hes just getting stronger and stronger. The feeling within the team is that we still havent seen the best of him. Lewis thinks as much, too, and thats good because he knows hell have to raise his game. Both Heikki and Lewis have learned a lot in the 20 Grands Prix theyve done. They are deeply ambitious - and I know teams always claim their drivers love each other - but everyone at Vodafone McLaren Mercedes can sense the mutual admiration that exists between them. They want to beat each other but they are open and fair, so there are lots of positives.
Q: There has been a tendency for people to view the world championship as a two-way fight between McLaren and Ferrari, but BMW Sauber are emerging as an ever more consistent force.
MW: You have to congratulate BMW Sauber. I know we underperformed a little bit, but their cars were very strong. Its clear that this is going to be a tight, exciting championship - and thats good for the Formula One audience. You have to go to each race with a strong car, you have to set it up and operate it properly and the drivers have to race it well. If you fall short in any of those areas, youre going to slip back into the pack.
Q: The series now heads to Europe after three flyaway races. Whats next on the schedule for McLaren?
MW: Weve got an aero test coming up in a few days and then were back on track next week in Barcelona, which will be our first proper test for five weeks. Its unusual for teams to make great progress during a period of no testing, but Im confident we are about to make a big step forward. That said, we recognise and respect the strong job Ferrari and BMW are doing and dont suppose theyll be standing still.
Q: Weve had three different winners from as many races. When do you think we might see an established pattern emerge?
MW: Im not sure we will - and I know there will be other winners during the campaign. Im convinced Heikki will reach the top step of the podium this year and the BMW drivers look strong, too - we just need to respond and make sure we beat them in Spain. We have slightly underperformed for two races, but both championships are still very close. Three teams and six drivers are all within a handful of points of each other - I dont think anybody is going to run away with either of the titles this year.