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Jonathan Neale Q&A: McLaren are fighters - and it's not over yet 10 Nov 2010

Jonathan Neale (GBR) McLaren.
Formula One World Championship, Rd 3, Malaysian Grand Prix, Practice Day, Sepang, Malaysia, Friday, 2 April 2010 Lewis Hamilton (GBR) McLaren MP4/25.
Formula One World Championship, Rd 18, Brazilian Grand Prix, Race, Interlagos, Sao Paulo, Brazil, Sunday, 7 November 2010 Jenson Button (GBR) McLaren MP4/25 and Nico Rosberg (GER) Mercedes GP MGP W01.
Formula One World Championship, Rd 18, Brazilian Grand Prix, Race, Interlagos, Sao Paulo, Brazil, Sunday, 7 November 2010 Jonathan Neale (GBR) McLaren
Formula One World Championship, Rd 6, Monaco Grand Prix, Qualifying Day, Monte-Carlo, Monaco, Saturday, 23 May 2009 Lewis Hamilton (GBR) McLaren on the grid. 
Formula One World Championship, Rd 18, Brazilian Grand Prix, Race, Interlagos, Sao Paulo, Brazil, Sunday, 7 November 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. It’s a tough ask, but in a Vodafone McLaren Mercedes phone-in on Wednesday, the team’s 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 can’t win the title, he’d like to see Mark Webber win it. Do you have any preference?
Jonathan Neale:
I certainly don’t have any preference. I think it’s great for Formula One that it’s gone down to the last race again. Obviously I read the press and I enjoy the subeditors’ headlines enormously, but I don’t 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 I’m looking forward to the race. But I don’t 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?
I think Red Bull have had a quick car from the beginning of the year. The number of one-twos they’ve pulled off has been impressive. Of course we can all look back at our seasons and pick the points where we’ve either had poor reliability with some transmission issues, or where we’ve had collisions and you think ‘there would have gone our championship’. It’s very tempting to do that but the reality is the season is long and it’s made up of lots of decisions, lots of upgrades and lots of issues around reliability. Clearly we‘ll 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 we’re going to go and do that to the best of our ability at the weekend. We’re going to treat this race like we do every race, which means that I’d like to win it. That will be our objective. As for a time for reflection, it’s not as if this season has been a calamitous failure, it’s been really close all year. So McLaren will refuse to give up until it’s over. We’re fighters and we’ll continue to do that.

Q: Will you change much for next year?
We change all the time. We’ll certainly go back and look at where we’d like to have made gains. This isn’t just a thing at the last race, it’s a continuous process of evolution and I think that’s 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. There’s constant reflection. We’re 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?
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. That’s our principal focus.

Q: It seems during the course of the year that the car’s development hasn’t been as successful as you would like. Is that fair?
No, I don’t think it is fair. It’s 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 didn’t quite get enough to get the job done. But I don’t see there’s been a failure in our development - it’s been a tough race all year.

Q: Generally speaking, over the years, you’ve 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 Bull’s situation this year, are you surprised they haven’t prioritised Webber, as Vettel still has a mountain to climb in Abu Dhabi?
To be honest I’m not that surprised. They have had their challenges during the year and it is very difficult when you’ve got a car that is very competitive and you’ve got two drivers who are good. It’s a very easy thing to get wrong and it’s a very delicate balance, as we all know. I think you’ve got to let the drivers go out and race. The drivers know what’s at stake and they’ll sort it out on the circuit. It’s going to be a really tough race and I can’t wait to get out there and watch it.

Q: In terms of development, it seems as if it’s not been as effective as last year…
I think there’s a big difference between trying to nudge your way ahead of fierce competition and coming back from oblivion when everybody’s written you off. I think the context is different. The process isn’t different. All of us are used to seeing a lot more risk-taking on Fridays. It’s 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 they’re not bringing any more upgrades. We know there’s 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 they’ve 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?
I think there’s 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 it’s been anything but that. So I don’t 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?
I think it depends on your vantage point. If I knew what Red Bull were bringing, I’d 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 it’s going to be close.

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