Exclusive interview with McLarens Martin Whitmarsh 06 Oct 2009
Being team principal of McLaren is a very public job. At the start of the year Martin Whitmarsh slipped into that role so quietly and capably that the smooth operations of the Woking-based squad endured very little disruption.
But with his new job came new responsibilities and its only now, with the end to a tumultuous season in sight, that Whitmarsh has had time to appraise the ups and the downs of his first year
Q: Martin, is Heikki Kovalainen going, is Kimi Raikkonen coming? When will you decide?
Martin Whitmarsh: The answer is simple. We have not determined a driver line-up yet and we havent set a timetable for doing so. We now have clarity about Ferraris drivers and we know now that other drivers are available. We try and give Heikki every opportunity to do a good job, Heikki is a very committed driver and a lovely chap, and we would like him to get some good results over the rest of the season. We are focusing on that and are not announcing a driver line-up for the moment.
Q: Will your announcement come within this season or over the winter?
MW: We have not made a decision on timing. We will continue to review the situation and, once we know, we will announce it.
Q: You were reported as saying that McLaren wouldnt have any problems with Kimi Raikkonen coming back. What exactly does that mean?
MW: Kimi is a fantastic driver, and I like him and know him well. He was with the team for five years. He is quick, he is committed and I think he probably would be very committed to beating Ferrari in the future - knowing him. All these are attractive things with Kimi. He is not political. He is absolutely straightforward - what you see is what you get with Kimi. And on top of that everyone knows that he is a winning driver. I think he has been underestimated technically. He is a very good racing driver and I think he would fit well in this team, if we choose to go down that route.
Q: Youve emphasized that he is not political. Is that something McLaren looks for in its drivers?
MW: I think we are very fortunate at the moment as there is tremendous harmony in the team. Both our current drivers arent political. They are very open to one another and they genuinely like each other. Team mates dont necessarily like each other - that is not a prerequisite. They have to be honest and open and not political, that is part of the ingredients needed this year. We started in a very poor state with a slow car and then we had other controversies at the beginning of the year. I have to say I am personally proud of how the team pulled together during the year. I credit that to the genuine harmony among people who enjoy working together. And for the future, whatever driver line-up we have, you want to have that.
Q: You are almost coming to the end of your first year as team principal. What have you learnt and what have been the highs and lows for you?
MW: I think I have learnt that being team principal is more significant than Id expected. Ive been with this team for 20 years and have been fortunate enough to be in senior positions. When I was made team principal I thought that was more symbolic than significant. Ive been on the podium taking trophies for the team since 1993, but being up there in Hungary was a much bigger moment than I realized it was going to be. As for the low moments, I would say it was week 11, in Barcelona, when we realized that we were two and a half seconds off the pace, which was quite a shocking position to be in. So we had to go out and find a lot of time on teams who were still going forward. We had to improve at a much faster rate than them, which weve been able to do. Sure another low moment came with the controversy after the Australian Grand Prix. A proud moment was in Germany when we were second on the grid, and without the first corner puncture, Lewis (Hamilton) could have competed. And since Germany weve been competing with the chance of winning each of the races.
Q: Being team principal of McLaren is not an everyday job. Do people approach you differently than before?
MW: Within the team, no. Outside, inevitably, it has a higher profile. Being recognized as Lewiss boss makes you a more public figure. Probably I underestimated that, and some of the pressures. Ron (Dennis) had been associated with this team for 30 years, so a lot of people naturally assumed that I was a clone of Ron. And perhaps by now people have realized that this is not the case. Now we have a different style of doing things. Hopefully we still have the classic strength that McLaren has always had, but we also try to be better in some things that weve not been good at in the past.
Q: You started the season badly by McLaren standards and worked your way up the grid again. Is this just down to the improvement of the chassis?
MW: One secret to making good progress is to start poorly! To be frank our car was uncompetitive at the beginning of the year. It was rather underdeveloped as we were pushing until the end of last season to win the championship. And after winning the championship it felt like the right decision. But at week 11 it felt wrong. We hadnt been as adventurous in our interpretation of the rules like our competitors, such as with the double diffuser, so we had a lot of catching up to do. We have had to work hard as a team to get on the winning street again.
Q: Lewis has matured over the course of the season as a driver and as the team leader. How have you helped that process?
MW: Its true, Lewis has matured a lot this year. Ive known Lewis since he was a metre high and 11 years-old. Throughout his whole career until Formula One, or his first two years of F1 to be precise, he had a very unique experience, as he went to every race with the belief that he had equipment capable of winning that race. I think no driver in history has ever had that. To turn up this year, obviously without equipment capable of winning races, was quite a big shock to him as he had never experienced that. That and the controversy following Australia suddenly meant somebody who was on a roller-coaster only going up is suddenly going down. He has been idolized by fans, the media and the public and suddenly questions have been asked about him and he has been challenged by his uncompetitive situation. I think that the first half of this season was not pleasant for him - or any of us - but he came out of it a lot, lot stronger. When you are used to people saying nice things about you, and you suddenly read critical or attacking things, it is not easy. His great strength is his humanity, but in a way it is also a weakness as it gives him some vulnerability and some fragility. I think now he is a lot tougher, battle hardened if you like, and I think he will be stronger in the future.
Q: With only two races to go the focus must be on the 2010 car. How far along is that process?
MW: The car is very developed. Aerodynamically it is already superior to this car because we were able to work with the regulations as they are now being interpreted. So one can imagine that there is a relatively extreme double diffuser system on the car and it is quite a radical departure from this years car. Were spending all our development resources on that project and it looks exciting. We will have a very competitive car next year, because frankly if not, you cant win a championship as we did this year.
Q: There have been rumours of a rocky relationship between McLaren and Mercedes. Whats the reality?
MW: Weve been together for 15 years. We have had some great wins but also inevitably we have had some disappointments in that relationship. But on a working level there is a very strong relationship as we both are committed to winning. Out of all the manufacturers Mercedes are the most committed at the moment. Weve got a long-term contract with them so we will be working with them. Some of the speculation arises from Mercedes cooperation with some of the other teams, but weve encouraged that and allowed it. There have been many discussions about equity in McLaren and equity in Brawn and these discussions will go on. The fact that they are accruing this is encouraging to me because at least for the time being Mercedes have a strong commitment to Formula One.
Q: Lewiss place in the drivers championship is almost irrelevant, but McLaren have the chance to oust Ferrari from P3 in the constructors standings. Is that your prime aim?
MW: Absolutely. From a number of points behind, we are now only two points adrift of Ferrari. Weve got a tremendous respect for Ferrari and have a very constructive working relationship with them, which is probably a change from the majority of the last 30 years of that relationship. But of course we want to beat them. Not winning is disappointing, so if we can get ourselves to third - which is realistic - I would be very disappointed if we dont beat them in the constructors. It will be a good battle and I hope that weve got a little bit of an edge. You have to beat Kimi first and he can pull it out if he needs to pull it out.