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Q&A with McLaren's Jonathan Neale 07 Jul 2010

Jonathan Neale (GBR) McLaren.
Formula One World Championship, Rd 3, Malaysian Grand Prix, Practice Day, Sepang, Malaysia, Friday, 2 April 2010 Jenson Button (GBR) McLaren MP4/25.
Formula One World Championship, Rd 9, European Grand Prix, Race, Valencia Spain, Sunday, 27 June 2010 Lewis Hamilton (GBR) McLaren MP4/25 overtakes the safety car as it deploys due to Mark Webber (AUS) Red Bull Racing suffering a large crash. 
Formula One World Championship, Rd 9, European Grand Prix, Race, Valencia Spain, Sunday, 27 June 2010 Jenson Button (GBR) McLaren MP4/25.
Formula One World Championship, Rd 8, Canadian Grand Prix, Race, Montreal, Canada, Sunday, 13 June 2010 (L to R): Lewis Hamilton (GBR) McLaren with team mate Jenson Button (GBR) McLaren.
Formula One World Championship, Rd 9, European Grand Prix, Qualifying Day, Valencia Spain, Saturday, 26 June 2010

While their leading competitors brought big upgrades to the last race in Valencia, McLaren will unveil a new development package ahead of this weekend’s British Grand Prix. But with just straight-line testing available to the team, it’s difficult for managing director Jonathan Neale to gauge how successful the MP4-25’s facelift will be. Even so, during a Vodafone McLaren Mercedes 'Phone-In' session, Neale was confident it could help them close the gap to Red Bull…

Q: How important is it for the team to do well at Silverstone?
Jonathan Neale:
I think it’s important for the team to do well at all the races. Expectations are obviously high at the moment, certainly in the media, and we can feel that pressure. The drivers and the team feel the weight of expectation on us. I think for us, at this stage of the championship, we look forward to Silverstone. It feels like a home Grand Prix, and clearly we have two British drivers. I’m hoping for good weather at the weekend for the fans and I’m really interested to see how the new circuit will play out. Obviously there are some old corners which we are looking forward to and some new ones as well. So I’m looking forward to seeing what kind of circuit it turns out to be.

Q: Do you think the new upgrade puts a bit of extra pressure on you?
JN:
A lot of teams upgraded their cars heavily last weekend. We have been trying to pull forward a variety of packages we had planned through the season and through to Germany. So at the moment I have a range of things I’d like to get to the circuit on Friday that we haven’t built yet. So we are in a kind of fire fight about how much we can actually get there, but we’re looking forward to it. I think we can confidently predict that it’s going to be a close race, and wide open again. Clearly Red Bull have done a good job so far this season making a quick car. Ferrari are also hard on our heels. I think the fans have a lot to look forward to. Certainly for us, and the whole team, it should be a great weekend.

Q: Following Valencia do you think the safety car rules should be changed? Would it make sense for the pit lane to close if the safety car comes out?
JN:
It’s a really difficult question to answer sensibly. It’s a good one for over a pint at a bar. I think we should be wary of a kneejerk reaction. I think if history has taught us anything in rulemaking in Formula One it is that lurching from one thing to another doesn’t pay off. The rules are there. I think it was a close call. Clearly we hesitated and got things wrong and were handed a penalty for it. Others were caught out by the safety car. But I think that degree of unpredictability, although it sometimes causes us to smart when you just luck in or luck out, is good for the sport. So whilst I don’t think Formula One should ever become a lottery, I do think that the unpredictability of what happens when a safety car comes out - do you call your driver in at the last minute, or not - (is good).

Q: Isn’t it a lottery anyway, as it’s all about when the safety car comes out on the track?
JN:
To a degree that’s true, but it’s a random factor. You can’t predict accidents, and what will happen when the safety car comes out. You have to prepare yourself. I would be wary of a kneejerk reaction. There wasn’t a lot wrong with last weekend and I don’t think we should be instantly rulemaking. The Sporting Regulation Working Group are taking a look at what happened with the FIA and they’ll have some kind of measured response.

Q: How did your aero test of new parts go in Spain over the weekend, and are you confident they’ll be on the car for the race as well as practice at Silverstone?
JN:
Like all tests, I would describe it as a curate's egg. Some bits went very well, some bits gave us some surprises. Of course it’s straight-line testing so it’s not a full test in the conventional sense like we get during the winter. And because of the limited time and mileage that we have, we weren’t able to do a full set of running. We just gathered as much data as we could. We went through all of the race prove-outs, so will the car run happily behind a safety car, can we do an aborted grid start, will it look after itself in pit stops. So we mainly focused on the durability aspects as well as straight-line measuring. And I’m confident that we’ve got a reasonable performance step. Do I think that we’ve got everything that we expected? It’s hard to tell at this stage but I’ll wait to hear what the race drivers say. Friday will be a testing day for us.

Q: So you may just run it on Friday and not for the race?
JN:
Yes and I think that’s something that all the teams are increasingly doing. There have been a number of teams working with complex projects, like blown diffusers or the F-duct for example, which are not just paper exercises. There are a lot of installation issues that you have to simultaneously work on and you need to have a lot of track time to get right. I think one of my colleagues in another team described the F-duct as the ‘F-ing’ duct! It does take time to get these things right. We are ambitious and we’d like to use it this weekend. If the drivers think it’s good, it will stay on and we’ll run it. If not, we’ll continue to develop it.

Q: Is the upgrade for Silverstone a do-or-die effort?
JN:
No it’s not a do-or-die effort. I think it was clear from the second or third race that it was going to be a very close championship, which has been good for the sport. As we’ve seen in the last six or seven races, it’s going to be a test of development for the organisations that sit behind the driver, as much as a reliability test. Red Bull, ourselves, Ferrari, Mercedes, Renault, and at the last race Williams, have all brought significant upgrades. And I think nobody is backing out of what will be a long and exciting championship. So rather than do or die, it’s the next milestone. It’s important to us because it’s the British Grand Prix and we’d like to do well there, but I’m as interested in the upgrade packages for Germany, Japan etc, which are all now in the concept stages.

Q: And will those upgrades be as significant as the ones coming to Silverstone?
JN:
Yes, I think they are a reasonable size.

Q: In what ways do you think Lewis Hamilton has improved as a driver since 2008?
JN:
I think that as Lewis gets more experience, more miles and more races under his belt, then his confidence is growing. He can be an incredibly aggressive and exciting driver, for example if you look at some of the overtaking manoeuvres he’s pushed this year. I think that makes F1 exciting. For those who detract and say there’s no overtaking, if you look at what Lewis has achieved, it’s been phenomenal. He’s also been more measured about what he wants with the car and working with the team and the development process. So both Lewis and Jenson (Button) are now heavily integrated into the development process, not just weekend warriors for us. They are an important part of the development team. I think Lewis, who’s now in his mid-twenties, is more confident in his own judgement. Being pushed by Jenson, as he has been this year, has brought more out of him. I think it’s good when you have got drivers who are very competitive. There’s been a number of occasions this year when I’ve looked up at the timing system and seen the two markers on our drivers, not just close but swapped round occasionally. I think that’s pushing both drivers and the team to get the best out of the package. What I do like about Lewis is that when he gets out of the car you know he’s left nothing on the circuit - he’s wrung its neck. When you know your drivers are really pushing hard, at 100 percent, it creates a huge motivational factor inside the team.

Q: Red Bull team boss Christian Horner has said that he doesn’t think the blown diffuser actually makes that much of a difference and he thinks teams are placing too much emphasis on this. Do you agree? What are you expecting from the upgrade?
JN:
I think Christian might be right. I think that in F1 it’s rare to find golden bullets that will suddenly transform your car from something uncompetitive to competitive. We more than most have found within the last year that that’s the case. It’s just straightforward hard work and effort. I don’t think putting a blown diffuser on a car is going to transform it. Not quite perhaps in the way that the shadow diffusers were able to. But it is early days in the development stages of them and I think most teams, including Red Bull, at the last race made quite an impressive change to their diffuser, which gave them a good step forwards. Renault for example did a particularly good job on their diffuser. I would tend to agree with Christian that it’s not a case of bolting on your diffuser and blowing everyone into the weeds. That’s not going to happen. It is one of the things that we are working on at the moment, as part of a package of changes that we are bringing to the next race and subsequent races. In terms of predicting what it can do, I’m not going to be a hostage to fortune. I’ll wait to see what the drivers think about it on Friday, as we haven’t got any real circuit running on it at the moment so I’ll reserve judgement on that.

Q: Could the updates help you draw level with Red Bull - especially over a single lap?
JN:
That’s our target, but I can’t be that confident as I’m sure Red Bull won’t be standing still waiting for us to catch up. We have managed to close the gap to them in qualifying and we have a competitive racing car, but we don’t yet have the quickest car on the grid. Red Bull may well have that. Ferrari, ourselves and perhaps Mercedes are still pushing to get ahead of them. It’s much better to be on the first two rows, isn’t it?

Q: Now Fernando Alonso has dropped off the pace, do you think it’s a straight fight between yourselves and Red Bull?
JN:
No, I don’t! And I don’t think Fernando has dropped off the pace. I think that he’s a great racer and fierce competitor. He’s smarting a bit from what happened last weekend but I’ve every reason to believe that Ferrari will also be bringing a package to Silverstone and he’ll be there or thereabouts. I think it’s way too early to write off Fernando.