Q&A with McLarens Jonathan Neale 25 Aug 2010
Fresh from Formula One racings annual summer break, McLaren managing director Jonathan Neale seemed pretty intent on keeping his cards close to his chest ahead of this weekends Belgian Grand Prix during a Vodafone McLaren Mercedes 'Phone-In' session. But with just seven races left, the 2010 season has entered its last critical stages and considering just how close the title battle is, Neale can be forgiven for staying tight lipped about the British teams planned upgrades...
Q: McLaren in Hungary seemed to fall slightly behind Red Bull and Ferrari. Whats your impression of the title fight?
Jonathan Neale: Its a very close championship at this stage. We underperformed in Hungary. The gap to Ferrari and Red Bull was significant. But in the races coming up it will be a straight development race, as we knew it would be at the beginning of the year, with a number of drivers being very close. I think the low-downforce circuits of Spa and Monza will be very interesting. Everything Ive looked at so far suggests it will be a wet weekend (in Belgium) so that will always throw in a few surprises. Formula One is looking forward to going to Spa. Its a great circuit. The drivers like racing there. Its very close at the top and weve got to fight back and thats what were planning to do.
Q: Whats being done to plug the difference?
JN: Id rather talk about what we have done than what we are going to do. Its no secret that when you have engine regulations that are largely fixed then the majority of your lap time is going to come from aerodynamics. Thats the area all the teams are focused on at the moment. With the regulation changes over the last few years there are far fewer devices on the car, but everyone is working on floors, wings and details down the side of the car and we will continue in that vein.
Q: Looking forward to Spa, whats the mood like in the team?
JN: I think were up for it. Ive been racing for about ten years and I think every time we go to Spa following Hungary the first thing all the drivers notice is the lack of downforce and the speed of the circuit. Im sure by Friday lunchtime well all be scratching our heads trying to work out whats the car, whats the circuit. It will be a case of trying to get as much track time as we can to do our development testing between any dry periods that might emerge.
Q: How important could this weekend be in the overall picture?
JN: I dont think any of the races are make or break at this stage. We were disappointed by failing to get Lewis (Hamilton) to the end of the race last time and we have been looking very carefully to what is going on inside our transmission. Every race is important and it will be a very close end to the season. We want to win it as much as anybody so well rise to the challenge.
Q: There have been reports you will remove the F-duct for Monza. Can the car cope without it or are there worries?
JN: No Im certainly not worried. I read that on Monday morning and there were a few of us raising our eyebrows and looking at that. We have the option to either run it or not. I think at the moment we are just looking at all the options. It is incorrect to assume we can make any decisions as to whether we are or not. We will have the choice. We will watch carefully where the end-of-straight speeds come out during the Spa weekend. Well see how competitive we are and then will make a decision in the following week. The nice thing is weve got options.
Q: So for this weekend, will there be any upgrades on the car?
JN: I hope so.
Q: But you cant reveal what theyll be?
JN: No, not at this stage.
Q: What would be the advantage to not running the F-duct?
JN: I think it all depends on where you want to be for total aero efficiency. Monza and Spa are lower-downforce circuits, but there does seem to be a little bit of a herd instinct going on in Formula One around where downforce is set or where straight speeds are set. Also I think other teams have F-ducts and other teams are performing quite well in a straight line, so if we can get advantage from it we will run it. If by either taking the weight out of the system or by making the rear wing more efficient we can achieve similar speeds and run a different wing for Monza then we will do that. Its in the fine tuning. It certainly doesnt make the difference between winning and not. Its relatively small stuff because its such a low-downforce circuit.
Q: After Hungary everyone was talking about the Red Bull front wings. Do you have a better understanding now about how they were doing that?
JN: Ive read the trade magazines, Ive seen the footage. We cant explain, at McLaren, why the cars operate in the way that they do. We know ours doesnt. Im sure weve spent a lot of time looking at the car trying to figure out exactly whats going on but thats really just speculation on our part. Its a discussion for the FIA and those teams. I presume because Charlie (Whiting) has issued some clarification for the coming races that there is some level of disquiet about what is happening or about to happen, which is why he has taken the action he has done. We are working with the FIA and our first job this weekend is to make sure our car complies fully with all the regulations.
Q: So your understanding is still the same as it was in Hungary?
JN: There have been no big revelations.
Q: Looking ahead at the circuits to come this year, theyll suit the McLarens, Red Bulls and Ferraris differently. Are there any where you expect to be stronger or weaker than your rivals?
JN: It depends on what we can invent between now and then. Clearly at the moment, if you look at the performance that came out in Hungary and consider the performance gap we had there then going back to a circuit that had the same characteristics would be slightly concerning. But were working very hard to do something about that. We will be expecting upgrade packages for Singapore and beyond. I think the other issue all the teams will be facing is the pressure in Formula One. Weve signed up for cost reduction and those resource and cost reductions have been implemented this year which means we have to preserve resource for next year because we cant spend our way out of trouble. That will be a concern for all of the teams fighting the championship. So I suspect it will be one of those long development races and we will be, if we are as close as we are at this stage, expecting to take an upgrade package to the last race.