Perfect Partners - Exclusive Q&A with Force India's Simon Roberts 29 Sep 2009
When Force India signed their technical partnership with McLaren-Mercedes last November, Simon Roberts, formerly McLaren's racing operations director, was part of the package, becoming the team's new chief operating officer.
Ten months on and Force India are enjoying a breakthrough year, with points, a pole position and even a podium. Roberts reveals what has changed at the Silverstone squad and how they plan to build on the foundations of 2009 next season...
Q: You joined Force India for this season as part of the team's new technical partnership with McLaren Mercedes. What difference has the partnership - and having you on board - made to the team?
Simon Roberts: The McLaren-Mercedes partnership has allowed Force India to concentrate on more performance enhancing areas of the car such as chassis and aero development without having to worry about engines and gearboxes. It basically takes away any excuses and also the worry of reliability for gearbox or engine problems. We're very pleased with the partnership - it's clearly working very well and paying dividends now in the second part of the season.
Q: How different did you find the cultures of McLaren and Force India? Did you adjust to your new surroundings easily, or have you 'McLaren-ised' certain aspects of the operation?
SR: The two teams have a different culture as they are of course a different size. However, I think it's very important to adapt to work within the team you are in so I've taken a light touch approach rather than try to make wide ranging changes. All the people in Force India at Silverstone and Brackley are excellent, with a good pedigree and know exactly how to go racing, so we have no concerns there. We have changed a few things such as the way we introduce upgrades and we make sure that everyone is well connected and knows exactly what is going on in the company. What we haven't done is impose any radical procedures or strategy; it's just a realignment of the way we do things.
Q: Everyone loves it when underdogs triumph. Internally, how important has it been to Force India to finally become Formula One points scorers?
SR: I think it's a real advantage to be called the underdog as it gives the team a real boost when you do get results. It shows we can put a competitive car through to Q3 and race very successfully, as we did in Spa and Monza, and shows what can be achieved even with limited resources. Hopefully in Suzuka we will have a similar showing and we are really looking forward to that.
Q: Much has been made of the superiority of the Mercedes engine. How much of the VJM02's brilliant performance of late is down to the team's choice of engine supplier?
SR: The choice of engine has really helped us from a reliability point of view. We are happy with the relationship and we get fantastic support from the guys in Brixworth, who help in the garage and back at the factory. I'm not sure how the performance can be compared to other engines, as we have limited experience with other engines under the new regulations, so you can't make direct comparisons. All we can say is that we are happy - it's reliable, it's got good performance and we have been able to develop a very quick car around it. That's what counts - the whole package.
Q: Other than the engine, what contribution have McLaren Mercedes made to Force India's 2009 success?
SR: Apart from the engine we also get the gearbox and the hydraulics from McLaren. That's allowed us to concentrate on integrating the rest of the car around the power train and balancing the performance between chassis and aerodynamics. For a small team it's really difficult to design and develop your own engine, gearbox and hydraulics, as well as chassis, suspension and aero, so effectively it has helped us realign our resources internally to focus on reliability and deliver a competitive package.
Q: What feedback have you had from former McLaren colleagues, now that you are equalling and even beating them?
SR: We have had a fantastic response from everyone in the pit lane and it has been very uplifting that everyone has been pleased with what we have achieved. It's been nice to say thanks to everyone who has supported us, both internally and externally and to walk with some pride down the pit lane and have people - some who you don't know well - saying 'well done', 'good job' and being genuinely pleased for you.
Q: How impressed were you by Vitantonio Liuzzi's race debut for the team at Monza, and are you hoping to retain the same driver line-up for 2010?
SR: We are really impressed with Tonio at Monza. To jump into the car after 18 months out and deliver that sort of performance was tremendous. It was unfortunate that we had a small but terminal problem in the race as without it he could have been in the points and it would have been a fairytale story. It didn't happen but we are still pleased. All credit to him. The driver line-up we have right now is very strong and we are happy with both, but for the time being we will continue to focus on having a strong finish to the end of the year.
Q: How is the VJM03 progressing? Do you think the ban on refuelling next year will help or hinder your competitiveness?
SR: The VJM03 is currently being planned as a normal programme. Last year we designed and delivered the car after November 10 when we signed the McLaren and Mercedes deal, which was a sprint, but this time we have the normal planning and design programme. The guys back at the factory are beginning to work on that and we will balance this development with the VJM02 running competitively. The VJM03 should be competitive, and we hope to be in Bahrain at the start of next season with a car with top 10 potential that's also reliable. It's the second year with the Mercedes and McLaren guys and this partnership will be much stronger - people work much better when they know who they are working with and what to expect, so it should be an easier integration programme for the power train and we expect to see a result of this next year.
Q: McLaren's Pat Fry said recently that all the teams still have plenty to learn about turning the extensive 2009 rule changes to their advantage. After the shake-up we have seen in the pecking order this year, do you think things will settle down again in 2010 - and where do you see Force India in the mix?
SR: I tend to agree with Pat, I think the teams have been learning their developments up and down the pit lane all year. The rate of development is very high this year - last year with the regulations all teams had extracted the maximum performance for the car. I think we are still learning a lot now: obviously shadow diffusers were the big story at the start of the year and the front wings have progressed dramatically. Even over the Singapore weekend we have seen some teams running new front wings. We have done a good job moving forward and we would like to be right there in the mix at the start of 2010 and taking it forward.