Q&A with McLaren's Jonathan Neale 26 Aug 2009
McLaren may not be in the championship hunt, but their recent return to race-winning form means they could now have a major influence on its outcome. In a Vodafone McLaren Mercedes 'Phone-In' session, the teams managing director, Jonathan Neale, talked about their remarkable comeback, their prospects for Spa, Heikki Kovalainens Valencia showing and the lessons learned from Lewis Hamiltons last-minute pit call in Spain
Q: Although the 2009 regulations brought in new rules designed to increase the cars ability to overtake, there seems to be a realisation that any improvement is marginal at best. Is this something that F1 remains committed to working on, and if so, what further ideas might be proposed?
Jonathan Neale: Yes, of course, its really important that Formula One remains a show and has great drama in it. And overtaking, of course, remains a key part of that. As you know, we saw probably the largest aerodynamic regulation change in 20 years, designed in part by the overtaking working group and part by the FIA, to slow the cars down. There have been different tyre regulations, of course, which have caused plenty of drama this year, with the super softs, the softs and the medium tyres, but I think what none of us expected to see at that time was that the grid would be so close.
People talk quite fondly and with dewy eyes about motor racing in the 1970s, and sometimes even earlier, and they forget that in those days the difference between first and second could be up to a second, and some of the grid never qualified. So when you have cars that are that far apart, cars coming through from the back and mistakes being made, it produced a lot of overtaking. This year front to back of the grid, at some races, if you look at the race pace, theres only about a second and a half. When youve got that level of closeness between the cars it is more difficult and more challenging. But yes, it does remain something to which we are committed to.
I wouldnt say there are races without overtaking; its very circuit dependent of course. The circuit where weve just come from, in Valencia, is pretty tricky. The circuit grip is changing over the whole weekend and there are very few run-off areas and if you try an ambitious move then all hell can break loose. But we shouldnt get downhearted about it and I think Spa is a really good example of where a great circuit can see some great races. Over the course of this week I was watching the rerun of last years race, reminding myself of that gigantic battle between Kimi (Raikkonen) and Lewis (Hamilton) in the rain. At one point Kimi was off the road looking for grip for about half a mile and it was fantastic drama. The short answer is the regulation change created some new frontrunners. Of course we underperformed at the start of the season, so that produced some changes and some drama. But I think theres much more we can do with circuits, and I still think theres more we can do with the regulations.
Q: What updates will be on the car this weekend and will both drivers be using the shorter wheelbase chassis? In addition, what action have you taken to ensure that the 2010 car will be competitive from the very beginning rather than through updates?
JN: In terms of the package for this weekend I would say its evolution rather than revolution. Spa requires a different downforce level to the circuits we have been running recently, so we do have new wings for the car, available of course to both drivers. But that is more of a rebalancing of the car for the circuit, rather than an outright performance gain in itself. I think most of the teams will be doing something similar. For the wheelbase, we have the shorter wheelbase available to both drivers, or both engineering teams, and when I spoke to (chief engineer) Pat Fry last night, he was going through the analysis, and I would say its one of the options that we have for this weekend, depending on how the circuit is on Friday morning we can go either way. We are not committed to either one direction or the other on either car at the moment, but it is available for both.
In terms of your second question about the 2010 car, this is again a question that weve been covering ourselves. How do we not end up in the situation in 2010 as we did in 2009? I would say that Im enormously proud of the work that Pat and (design and development director) Neil (Oatley) and (engineering director ) and Paddy (Lowe) have done with the car. To go from 2.5 seconds off the pace in Week 11 in Barcelona, to where we were able to lock-out the front row in Valencia, that is a testament to a huge amount of hard work, but its also evidence of what I said at the beginning of the season, which is that we hadnt done anything fundamentally wrong with the car but we just hadnt done enough.
When you end up with a car that youve taken a completely wrong turn with, and youve screwed up the stiffness or youve done something really unstable with the car, it is notoriously difficult to get that back. We had just underdeveloped the aerodynamic package and then in the cut and thrust of what happened between Week 11 and getting to the first European race, we turned the organisation upside down and knew we had to fight back and overhaul teams that were pushing forward. Im delighted we were able to do that and very proud with what the teams done. But we went down some paths that were blind alleys and although they were performance gains in their own right, it was clear by the Spanish Grand Prix that there were emerging trends on the cars - two in particular. The very aggressive shadow diffuser was one of them and the other was the front-end concept of the car, with broadly out washing front-wing endplates. I think in the melee that was going on to pull ourselves back, we were slower than we might have been had we stepped back and looked at it - hindsights a wonderful thing. Thats how we got to where we are now.
In terms of 2010, then the regulations are different. Theyre evolutionary rather than revolutionary. And the fundamental aerodynamics of the package next year are the same. The big changes will be in the weight of the car, because well have to carry the fuel that we need for the whole race. Were going to go back round the loop on vehicle dynamics because the front tyre will be changing and therefore the weight distribution and the forces will have to be managed separately. But the essence of the aerodynamic form will be based upon proven technology that were doing at the moment, so its an extension of the stable platform that we have. If we were still scrabbling around at the back of the grid at the moment, with a car that was uncompetitive, whilst were going through the release of the car for next year, which will happen over the next month, Id be much more concerned than I am now.
We are not complacent by any means, but we have to recognise that our car has KERS on it, which is probably worth three tenths, and we have a very good engine package. If I compare where other teams chassis are then its clear at the moment that, whilst we have a competitive package, I do not have the benchmark chassis and aerodynamic performance, and therefore we will not be sitting back resting on our laurels. We will be working to recover that with this years car and going into next year. Its a stretch for us.
Q: Heikki did great in qualifying in Valencia, but seemed to struggle in the race. Did he do enough to secure his drive for next year?
JN: I think Heikki had a really good weekend. There was lots of talk after Hungary in the media and here about how we were going to support Heikki with his race pace. Hes always qualified really aggressively, particularly if you look in Q2, and he is a very quick driver. So weve been asking ourselves the question, have we been doing enough to help him protect the tyres and therefore maintain the pace that he has and is there anything we can do to support him with both the cars tuning and in the simulator, with his driving style. We spent a lot of time with him pre-Valencia taking that apart systematically and I personally was very pleased with his drive on the weekend. In P1/P2 he was pushing, his qualifying lap nearly eclipsed Lewis, who is no slouch of course. If it hadnt been for that shake and wobble just coming into the last turn then its clear to us he would have been on pole. So qualifying was very good. Stints one and two were good and then through no fault of Heikkis, we put used prime tyres on to his third stint, rather than new tyres, and they were slower to warm up. Thats physics, not Heikki. From the weekend, is there a difference between Heikkis race pace and Lewiss at that event? Yes. Is it very much? No. And I think Heikki can now take that with some confidence and build on it going into Spa. Well done Heikki.
Q: Has the performance of Luca Badoer damaged the reputation of other testers and what can be done about the situation where they are getting so little mileage?
JN: Luca Badoer is a very experienced driver. I dont agree that he has damaged the reputation of other drivers. I think that it was an extraordinary challenge to come to a street circuit, with low grip, concrete barriers down the side, and keep the car in one piece all weekend. Im quite sure that Ferrari will be looking at his pace and wondering what they will do next, but Im not concerned there is a wider implication as to how good the other third drivers are. The team managers will continue to meet around the sporting regulation working group and just look at the balance of what were doing for young drivers. Of course we want to encourage the development of drivers coming into Formula One, but we also dont want to fail to support our test drivers. Pedro (de la Rosa) would like more time in the car. Some of us have simulators, which are a way of keeping the pace up, but there is nothing like the full force of being match fit. I think that the sporting regulation group has got to take a look at how we support the third drivers.
Q: Its been predicted that Monza and Spa may not suit the MP4-24 quite so well. What are your aims and how much benefit will KERS be?
JN: The car that we have now, that weve started to develop from Germany, is very different from the car that we had in preceding races. And its true to say that circuit characteristics at the slowest average speed, which tend to be Monaco, Hungary and Valencia, were always likely to suit a car with those inherent performance characteristics. The real answer is that we dont know whats going to happen at Spa. If it were based on the first few race then we really struggled in the high-speed turns over the first five or so races. The driver reported that the car was unstable, particularly at the rear, and that they didnt know where the car was, and for a driver thats pretty horrific. If you cant lean on the car and know that the rear end is really underneath you, then youre not going to be able to find 90 percent of the grip level . The fact is that the car is more stable, much more planted at the rear end now. And the aggressive shadow diffuser that I mentioned earlier, which weve put that on the car and continue to develop, does lock the car down and make it more stable. On a relative basis, I expect us to perform much better compared to what we would have done otherwise on a track like Spa. But then there are other teams. If I look at Red Bull, and the likely climate - rain showers are currently at 50 percent probability, but we expect changeable conditions - I think they should be very strong. And if Brawn have got over whatever was going on to affect their ability to heat up and keep heat in their tyres then they will be strong. If not then the Red Bulls will push them further back. As for us, our desire is to be up there, but Id be kidding you and us if I thought we were confident.
Q: What steps have the team taken to avoid a repeat of the pit-stop problems in Valencia?
JN: A lot. It was a very aggressive strategy call that one and we got it too late. Not by much, and you saw the result of that. In the end that was not material to Rubens (Barrichello) jumping us. That was always going to happen, but certainly we would have been able to put Lewis closer to Rubens if we had, either executed the stop properly or had been able to go the extra lap. It was marginal. Since then, of course, its important we dont dwell on the past and we look forwards, but I have been through all of the data, Ive replayed that particular piece of video footage of that stop I dont know how many times, probably 100 or so. Looking at every movement of who did what and who said what. So we have forensically taken it apart, looked at what we need to do. I have to say that, in defence of the garage, that the garages were blameless in this case. There was some unfair criticism of the guys who actually manage the tyres and work the cars, the crew did an excellent job but our decision making was slow and we compromised the pit stop. So what we need to do for this weekend is learn from that, look at our decision making, and everybody on the pit wall who has been through the after event analysis and debrief will be sharper next week.