Jonathan Neale Q&A: McLaren are fighters - and its not over yet 10 Nov 2010
If he is to steal the 2010 drivers championship, Lewis Hamilton needs to win the Abu Dhabi race, and his three title rivals need to fail miserably. Its a tough ask, but in a Vodafone McLaren Mercedes phone-in on Wednesday, the teams managing director Jonathan Neale was in fighting mood, confident their man still has a shot at taking his second world crown
Q: Hamilton has said if he cant win the title, hed like to see Mark Webber win it. Do you have any preference?
Jonathan Neale: I certainly dont have any preference. I think its great for Formula One that its gone down to the last race again. Obviously I read the press and I enjoy the subeditors headlines enormously, but I dont take them particularly seriously. I think Sebastian Vettel had a really strong start to the year and then I think Mark really dug in and has done a great job. Ferrari have come on strong with their car and Fernando Alonso is a fighter. I think all the drivers that are in contention are worthy and Im looking forward to the race. But I dont really want to be drawn into the subeditors joy of tit for tat.
Q: Why do you think you are so far off Red Bull and Alonso and how are you going to change that next year?
JN: I think Red Bull have had a quick car from the beginning of the year. The number of one-twos theyve pulled off has been impressive. Of course we can all look back at our seasons and pick the points where weve either had poor reliability with some transmission issues, or where weve had collisions and you think there would have gone our championship. Its very tempting to do that but the reality is the season is long and its made up of lots of decisions, lots of upgrades and lots of issues around reliability. Clearly well have to go back and look at how we can improve, but we would do that every year. We are in there fighting with Ferrari for the next place in the constructors championship, which is valuable, and were going to go and do that to the best of our ability at the weekend. Were going to treat this race like we do every race, which means that Id like to win it. That will be our objective. As for a time for reflection, its not as if this season has been a calamitous failure, its been really close all year. So McLaren will refuse to give up until its over. Were fighters and well continue to do that.
Q: Will you change much for next year?
JN: We change all the time. Well certainly go back and look at where wed like to have made gains. This isnt just a thing at the last race, its a continuous process of evolution and I think thats why McLaren in its current form - and in its other forms, going back to the 1960s - continues to be a successful team and will continue to be a successful team. Theres constant reflection. Were certainly not complacent.
Q: Can you confirm who McLaren will be running at the Abu Dhabi tests next week and what you hope to learn from the tests?
JN: I can confirm we are going to run Gary Paffett and Oliver Turvey. We hope to set a benchmark while we are on the Bridgestone tyres and then have a very good look at how much we can learn as quickly as possible about the Pirelli tyres. Thats our principal focus.
Q: It seems during the course of the year that the cars development hasnt been as successful as you would like. Is that fair?
JN: No, I dont think it is fair. Its not been quick enough to overhaul the competition. But I think that both Red Bull and Ferrari, and certainly in the first part of the season Mercedes as well, have had very strong upgrade plans and on this occasion we didnt quite get enough to get the job done. But I dont see theres been a failure in our development - its been a tough race all year.
Q: Generally speaking, over the years, youve let your drivers race. In 2007, Hamilton and Alonso were very close on points going into the last race and Kimi Raikkonen seemed a long way back, but he won the title. Given Red Bulls situation this year, are you surprised they havent prioritised Webber, as Vettel still has a mountain to climb in Abu Dhabi?
JN: To be honest Im not that surprised. They have had their challenges during the year and it is very difficult when youve got a car that is very competitive and youve got two drivers who are good. Its a very easy thing to get wrong and its a very delicate balance, as we all know. I think youve got to let the drivers go out and race. The drivers know whats at stake and theyll sort it out on the circuit. Its going to be a really tough race and I cant wait to get out there and watch it.
Q: In terms of development, it seems as if its not been as effective as last year
JN: I think theres a big difference between trying to nudge your way ahead of fierce competition and coming back from oblivion when everybodys written you off. I think the context is different. The process isnt different. All of us are used to seeing a lot more risk-taking on Fridays. Its interesting to watch the pace of the cars develop, comparing the teams who are continually changing the cars and the pace of the car to the teams who are at least publically saying theyre not bringing any more upgrades. We know theres a lot of performance to be found in car set-up, but to get a car set up you need to have a reasonably stable car configuration. The challenge for all of us who bring a lot of upgrades is how to continue to develop set-up as well. The teams that have stopped upgrading their cars are getting quicker because the drivers and race engineers are learning to run what theyve got.
Q: After the Brazilian race, where Hamilton and Button found themselves stuck in traffic after their pit stops under the safety car, do you think the sport should bring back the rule that allows lapped cars to unlap themselves under the safety car?
JN: I think theres a great danger - and Formula One is guilty of it collectively - of kneejerk regulation changes when something happens in a race. Do you remember at the beginning of the year there was speculation the season might be a somewhat dull procession? Well its been anything but that. So I dont think we should make changes just on the basis of Brazil. It adds to the spectacle. If I detach myself from the fact that we had something to lose, and put myself in an armchair with the fans, then I think I want to see the quick drivers earn their money and come through. I think it is just better spectacle.
Q: How confident are you that there is a realistic chance of Hamilton winning in Abu Dhabi?
JN: I think it depends on your vantage point. If I knew what Red Bull were bringing, Id have a view. They will be trying to bring as many last-minute upgrades as Ferrari and ourselves will. I think rain is unlikely, although I could be proved wrong. So it should be a conventional race in that sense. Reliability will play a big part this weekend. We are at the end of the season and people are taking risks. It will be hot, dusty and its going to be close.
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