Q&A with McLarens Jonathan Neale 30 Sep 2009
With a rumours of a new driver line-up, the demise of KERS, up to four new teams joining the fray and a 19-race calendar, its set to be all change at McLaren for 2010. In a Vodafone McLaren Mercedes 'Phone-In' session, the teams managing director, Jonathan Neale, discusses whats in store for Formula One racing next year, and the teams prospects for Suzuka
Q: Can you tell us what it means to a team to have a 19-race calendar for 2010? What will it cost you in terms of planning for additional Grands Prix and in terms of the human element?
Jonathan Neale: Theres been a preliminary calendar released which has got 19 races on it. I think the team principals have been talking with FOM and the FIA and over the last few years have come to an understanding that operating upwards of 17 races, and less than about 20, is something that we can handle within the resources that we have. The sequencing of those races is very important and there are some question still to sort out with FOM and the FIA, but one of the challenges is that Monaco and Turkey currently appear in the draft schedule back to back, with one weeks separation. Thats a phenomenal logistical challenge and we, of course, want to do both events, and its important that we do them well, but we just need to bear in mind that physically uprooting all of the infrastructure out of Monaco and moving across to Turkey is not a trivial issue. So weve got some questions around that. All of the conversations weve had so far are very positive.
Were excited by doing 19 races. The bottom line is going racing does cost us money - I think youve heard that before. But under the new arrangements that we have with FOM theres a mechanism by which we get recompense for that. And I think the calendar itself looks really exciting, theres some really tantalising prospects - some traditional favourites that we all love and some new ones that will prove exciting, that we dont know anything about at the moment. From this end were really excited by it. From the human point of view well look at the reserves. It is gruelling for the mechanics, but we are looking to try and top that up and give people a break. Currently the calendar would give the race teams a break during the first part of August. I dont see any major problems with that to be honest with you. Im more excited about the prospect of a good calendar.
Q: After the race in Singapore, Heikki Kovalainen suggested that he needed more help from the team to adapt the car to his driving style. Hes still struggling with maintaining his race pace because of a tyre performance issue. Can you shed a bit more light on the nature of the problems that hes been having and do you think they explain why he hasnt fulfilled his potential this season?
JN: Firstly, let me make it clear that its been our policy, and always will be, to provide a car that is of equal capability to both drivers. So the car isnt customised in its inherent characteristics to either Lewis (Hamilton) or to Heikki. Neither of them have particularly diverse driving styles. There have been occasions in the past where weve had driver pairings where particular driving styles have warranted a different look at the front suspension, for example - I think, without giving too much away, a couple of things that Kimi (Raikkonen) preferred in the car, as opposed to Juan Pablo (Montoya), were interesting. Fernando Alonso had a pretty unique style as well. But I think the difference in driving style between Lewis and Heikki is not a lot and our car is not particularly peaky.
So there are differences, and I think those differences in set-up and options mean that on occasion Heikki has struggled with the softer tyre. And weve done a lot of work recently with Heikki on tyre wear, tyre pressure management and set-up. I think weve been quite clear with Heikki and the press. Heikki qualifies really well. Its perhaps just in the early phase of the race where he has found the car more challenging, or hes felt that he hasnt had the car underneath him that he had in qualifying. So somewhere between those two lies the answer. And if either Heikki or myself really knew the answer to that wed have fixed it earlier in the year. Its something thats very much still a work in progress.
Were hugely supportive of Heikki and weve got a good team of people around him trying to really focus on giving him the confidence in the car during that early part of the race. I thought in Singapore he did a really good job actually. He had the car under him on Friday from the get go. In fact, I think he settled into the groove quicker than Lewis was able to. Lewis on Friday evening still had some frustrations both with the car, the grip, the circuit, the bumpiness. But we did a lot of work over Friday night, not least of which was a chassis change, and he came out of the blocks on Saturday morning and just nailed it. Im not taking anything away from Heikki, thats just what Lewis is capable of. I think Heikki did drive a very good Friday, his qualifying was disappointing because of circumstance rather than anything else. The red flags came, as they tend to do, at exactly the wrong time, and left him in P10. Im sure he would have been much further up the grid and I thought his tussle with the Brawns was good. He was on the dirty side of the track. Rubens (Barrichello) nailed him, but the only reason Jenson (Button) got by was because he was on a longer fuel load. So I thought he raced really well. A good race for him and we said that to him. And we look forward to moving to Suzuka with the same level of aggression.
Q: Williams indicated last week that they havent totally given up hope of retaining KERS for next year. Would you like to keep using it, and is this a possibility?
JN: KERS has been the subject of an awful lot of debate. Its important for Formula One that we continue to push a number of environmental and sustainable energy concepts. From the good work that the FIA do with their carbon reduction programme on behalf of Formula One to some of the work thats now being doing in the regulations on exotic raw materials. Also, the tremendous work being done by some of the petrochemical companies, including Exxon Mobil, who have done some great work on fuel detergents and fuel efficiency. The fuel efficiency that we see in these modern engines, the heat rejection and the management of that is directly relevant to other series, and just good science. KERS at a fundamental, philosophical level, is a really good thing to do. If it was easy everyone would have got there in Australia with a system that works, as we all got the same notice period. The reality is that Formula One spent a lot of money during 2008-09 getting to that situation. We know that if you install it, its probably worth two to three tenths. But once everyones got it, its no longer a differentiator and in order to get there, some of the smaller or newer teams will have to spend a lot of money developing that technology. And that would seem to fly in the face of the fundamentals of resource restriction and lowering the barriers of entry to new teams. So unfortunately they are not easy bedfellows as concepts, but at the moment for the sustainability of Formula One itself and the health of the sport I think we have acquiesced and said that we recognise that the FOTA teams will elect not to run KERS. We have a good KERS system and were very proud of the work that Mercedes and ourselves have done. In the wider interest, we are going to have to let go, but not by any means give up the push towards a sustainable energy.
Q: The upgrades that you ran over the Singapore weekend obviously seemed to go well. What, if anything, do you expect them to add in Japan?
JN: We took a range of aerodynamic upgrades. Increasingly as we get to the back end of the season, we have to be realistic. We are not in the hunt for a championship, but we are in the hunt for performance and understanding - not least of which is that wed like to beat our colleagues at Ferrari, as I know that they would like to beat us. But also were establishing a lot of the base programmes, the know-how, and concepts for next year as well, which is where the lion share of our organisation is now focusing. We took four upgrades, both underneath and on the top of the car, and there were several aspects to that. We also took a new front wing which we ran on the Friday. In the end, with the aero balance that we decided to run, we got the better lap times with the previous wing. But having tested it were taking it to Japan and the following races, just to see where the pack settle out. At the end of the day, youre balancing outright lap times, straight speed and aero efficiency, right on the cusp of matching a front and rear wing together. In the end, everything we took worked, which is pleasing, but we dont have a huge amount to come for the rest of the season. Weve got some bits and pieces that were taking to Japan. We dont expect to have an easy time in Japan by any means. A mark of how far weve come this season will be a comparison of our performance this weekend, versus the tortuous time that we had at Silverstone this year, given that the basic circuit characteristics are broadly the same. If you look at the average circuit speed its up there with Silverstone. Traditionally this year weve done well at the higher downforce, lower speed circuits like Hungary like Singapore like Valencia. So were bracing ourselves a bit for a tougher fight this weekend. Were interested to see just how far weve come since Silverstone. But we know there are one or two teams out there who, as you drop the downforce, do run particularly higher speeds. The usual suspects.
Q: You mentioned Kimi Raikkonen briefly. There are plenty of rumours flying about the paddock at the moment that he has signed, or is close to signing to McLaren for next year. Can you shed any light on the situation at all?
JN: I completely understand why you would ask that question, and youll also understand why I cant be completely transparent with you. With three new teams potentially coming in, with some of the changes at BMW, with a number of other high profile rumoured moves, and what we hope will be the successful return of Felipe Massa, the driver market is poised for a lot of movement. The result of that is that pretty much everybody is talking to everybody at the moment. The newer teams are looking at the existing race drivers and some of the test drivers, as weve got some very experienced drivers sitting in as back-up drivers in F1 at the moment. Were hugely supportive of doing everything we can with Heikki at the moment, and we keep an open mind at this stage. I think well wait and see. I dont think ours will be the first driver move that clinches the market.
Q: What does a possible 28-car grid mean for McLaren? Do you think it will happen?
JN: I think its always good to see the spectacle of new entrants into Formula One, and I think FOTA and the FIA have worked hard over the last two years to find a way where the business model will permit the existing teams, who have been in the sport for a long time, to find a way to get what they need from the business, and find a way of introducing some new entrants to keep the sport healthy. I think a 28-car grid is a really interesting prospect. I read the columns like you do, and listen to the paddock rumours, and how many of those teams actually get there is anyones guess. I hope that they all do, as that will be good for the sport. I suspect that at Turn One, at several of the circuits that we have at the moment, you really dont want to be at P10-12, as thats going to be carnage. But nevertheless, that will be an interesting spectacle and I think it will throw some surprises in there. I think that with the prospect at new entrants, new technology, potentially Cosworth, potentially some Xtrac gearboxes, itll be an interesting technical challenge, and an interesting time for the stewards and the backmarkers too.