Q&A with McLaren's Martin Whitmarsh 11 May 2010
Just five races into the season and McLaren are leading the constructors championship with a haul of 119 points. However, it hasnt all been plain sailing for the British team. And the sporadic technical niggles and the sheer pace of the Red Bulls on display at the Spanish race are causes for concern ahead of this weekends Monaco Grand Prix. In a Vodafone McLaren Mercedes 'Phone-In' session, team principal Martin Whitmarsh discusses their chances in Monte Carlo, his worries about a cluttered Monaco qualifying and the possibility of rain this weekend
Q: Could you talk us through the problems the drivers experienced during last weekend's Spanish race?
Martin Whitmarsh: First Lewis. The analysis of the part came back on Monday and we had Bridgestone here. As we said at the time, we did not believe that the deflation was caused by a puncture or a tyre failure. It looks, from all the evidence, that the rim failed, which caused the deflation. The rim failure is being investigated. It could be debris-related, it could be an issue of deflection, or it could be a lack of tightness in the wheel nut, which allowed some flexing. What we know is the rim failed, probably human error somewhere in the process caused it, and that led to a deflation and the accident. In Jenson's case there was a failure within the steering wheel, which took out his dash. The functionality of the knobs, switches and levers on the wheel were fine. That happened quite early. We could check that all the systems on the car were working, but inevitably you rob the driver of the means of being told when to shift. Its difficult to change the array of switches on the wheel without the display telling you. Also when you're behind another car, which he was subsequently, your shift points change when you're in a tow and you then don't have the lights telling you that you have to adjust. What it meant at the pit stop, which caused Jenson to come out of his stop behind Michael Schumacher (otherwise he would have been in front), was that he had no display to help him through the pit stop sequence. The car was then sat at slightly too high revs. That causes a little clutch drag and the spinning of the rear wheels. The crew did a very good job to cope with that in order to make the wheel change. The stop was delayed, but through no fault of the driver or the pit crew. And in light of that obviously Jenson would have been in front of Michael were it not for the problem at the pit stop. So again both drivers had excellent races that were let down by problems on the car.
Q: Just a question on Bridgestone. Its understood that the teams are trying to convince Bridgestone to stay as Formula One racings official tyre supplier at the end of this year. How would you go about trying to convince them?
MW: I think we have to be aware that the Bridgestone board has made a decision and therefore weve got to be realistic. It would provide stability if Bridgestone decided to remain in the sport, but I don't think individually the teams can influence Bridgestone - and nor should they try. I think the sport has to demonstrate to Bridgestone that we are working together on a number of fronts, including being pragmatic about the regulations that influence tyres and their use. We have to be pragmatic about the regulations to ensure that they can perceive a green or environmental challenge in staying in Formula One. And they have to believe that Formula One is heading in the right direction for a company such as theirs to continue to wish to be involved. Clearly there are a number of voices within the organisation pushing to remain in the sport. I think we have got to see what happens. Clearly, both for the sport and the tyre companies, it would be best if we made a decision quite quickly.
Q: As theyve been in the sport for such a long period of time, would that make them your favourite tyre supplier for next year?
MW: I think losing any long-term, and particularly technical, partner from the sport is sad. I think clearly some consistency there would be a good thing. Fortunately, there appears to be a number of other tyre companies who are interested in being involved in Formula One. We have got to encourage the offers to come forward as they are, and then try and collectively, with the FIA, the rights holder and the teams, to try and make the best decision for Formula One.
Q: What's your reaction to the decision to ban F-ducts for 2011? Is it a big disappointment?
MW: I think inevitably the teams have got to consider a whole range of technologies, and the way in which FOTA works is that we all have to make compromises. Historically Formula One had veto rights, which could block virtually any change, so any single team could block any change. That was attractive when you were defending your technology but you had to be practical about it. It made it quite difficult for the sport to evolve and manage in the face of the various challenges that we had. If you then accept a 70 percent voting majority on issues then you need to be bound by those decisions. From time to time there will be decisions that you are less happy with. Overall I think the decisions are the right ones. We are very proud of our guys who thought of it. It's a low-cost technology. There are lots of reasons why it's good for the sport. It doesn't have a high cost - it just needs a little ingenuity. Personally I'm a bit sad about it, but we will continue to develop in that area for the rest of this year. I think a lot of teams are working quite hard in that area in any case.
Q: Do you think the difference in pace between the top teams and the new teams will make traffic unmanageable for drivers during qualifying in Monaco? Do you think the FIA should have taken measures to split the session as some were suggesting?
MW: I think Q1 in Monaco will be very, very difficult and I think it's difficult for all of the cars. We have to accept at the moment that there are six cars which are difficult to avoid. They have been in the order of six or seven seconds slower. And when you're trying to open a gap, you have cars behind you so you can't back off. It's a circuit on which you're likely to catch cars and a circuit on which it's very difficult for those cars to get out of the way even if they want to. So the slowest cars will do the lap, presumably staring in their mirrors, which I'm sure is a distracting thing for them. Even if they see something in their mirrors, trying to respond to that will be very difficult, even if they're on a slow lap, let alone a fast lap. So I think it's very difficult. By choice, I would advocate that we divided it up somehow. Either by merely splitting the field in half, so you reduce the number of cars that have to manage the space on a very tight track, or you have a session, if perhaps you thought - unkindly - that the six slower cars were going to fight it out among themselves, they could go out for the first five minutes. It would therefore have been decided on their own order of merit before the rest of the cars are on track. It has always been difficult but with more cars and a greater performance differential, I think there will be controversy. There are those, and I'm not one of them, who feel that controversy and stewards' hearings after the event are entertaining. I don't share that view, but thats what some people believe.
Q: It could rain during qualifying or the race. Would you prefer rain?
MW: I think if you ask drivers, they would rather have a dry Monaco. I think it's a tight and scary place without rain. I think our drivers are pretty good in the rain. I think their performance, relative to the awesome pace of the Red Bulls, has been pretty good actually, so we fancy our chances. I think Monaco is a unique circuit. I think Red Bull had an impressive qualifying pace, although we were a bit closer in the race. We have two drivers who are good there and McLaren has won Monaco 15 times - many more times than any other team. And we are trying to make it 16, whether its wet or dry or a combination thereof.
Q: What about the challenge the drivers face of racing with a full fuel load - and possibly less-reactive cars - at the start of the race?
MW: The first corner, at the bottom of the hill, on the first lap is always a heart-stopping moment for all of us watching a Formula One race. It is going to be exciting. The cars change a little bit in balance and performance from qualifying to the race. They will have 160kg, coldish brakes and tyres heading into the first corner, and that's going to be very challenging. The really good drivers will manage it, and some others will find it a bit beyond their capability.
Q: What are your thoughts on the performance of your two drivers this season? Button has enjoyed two brilliant victories and Hamilton seems to have deserved far more than hes actually got
MW: I think thats a good summary. Lewis and Jenson have both driven brilliantly this year. They've had a bit of misfortune and both could have got better results than they have had. Jenson has made some very good calls, has two wins to his name and leads the championship at the moment. Lewis has driven just outstandingly. Prior to this weekend he had 32 competitive overtakes in the first four races, which is unprecedented and some of that's due to his own brilliance, and some of it's because he had to come through the field. Clearly he had a fantastically deserved second place not quite achieved at the weekend. Had he had that then I'm sure he would be slightly more content. But the fact is that we go into the sixth race of the season with Jenson leading the championship and McLaren leading the constructors. Red Bull in qualifying look very strong and Ferrari and Mercedes as well. It's just as Formula One should be. It's very difficult to win races and a big challenge to win a championship. That's what we're trying to do, and both of our drivers have driven brilliantly and both of them deserve to have amassed slightly more points than they have so far.
Q: Are you hopeful Hamiltons first win of the season will come soon?
MW: Lewis is high on self-belief. I have been to Monaco a few times with Lewis in Formula Three, GP2 and Formula One, and he's won in all three of those categories. There's no one doubting his motivation this weekend to get a result.