Q&A with McLarens Philip Prew 22 Sep 2010
The last time McLaren raced at a low-speed, high-downforce circuit was at Augusts Hungarian Grand Prix. With neither Jenson Button nor Lewis Hamilton qualifying higher than fifth, and the only points garnered coming courtesy of Buttons eighth-place finish, it was a performance to forget. Two races, a raft of upgrades, and the introduction of tighter flexible bodywork tests later, and McLarens principal race engineer Philip Prew isnt feeling concerned about this weekends downforce-friendly Singapore event. In a Vodafone McLaren Mercedes 'Phone-In' session, Prew also discussed the championship battle, the fight to balance 2011 developments with 2010 demands and the pit stop that cost Button a win at the last round in Monza
Q: What upgrades will you have for Singapore?
Philip Prew: A big weekend, certainly after the difficulties and lack of pace we had in Hungary, which I guess is our reference for a high-downforce, slow-speed circuit. In Hungary we all recognised the pace wasnt where we needed to be, and since then weve had a whole number of upgrades on the car, some of which weve already run at Spa and Monza. They will be carried over to the next race. In addition to that there are further upgrades that we will see in Singapore which is a new front wing and other devices, which are looking to increase the downforce on the car. Also I think our understanding of the car - how to exploit the car, how to get the downforce to work for us - has improved since Hungary. So were optimistic we have closed that gap and hopefully well be competitive. We know some of the upgrades are working as weve seen that at previous races in Spa and Monza, albeit at different downforce levels, so were hopeful that what weve added to the car over the last six weeks since Hungary will be sufficient to close that gap up.
Q: How close do you think it will be between the top three teams this weekend?
PP: Id obviously like to think it will be very close. I think it should be competitive between Red Bull, Ferrari and ourselves. The legality clarification and changes that weve all made in response to that could well influence it. This circuit is quite bumpy and that could affect how much compliance at the bib end, which has obviously been tightened up quite significantly. Only time will tell if weve done enough but were confident that weve added performance and our understanding of the car for such a circuit has improved. Were optimistic that the gap, which was massive by Formula One standards, should well have reduced.
Q: You mentioned the track is quite bumpy. They have resurfaced it in part this year. Is that good news for you?
PP: I think so. Our car does prefer smoother circuit thats for sure and hopefully that will have some influence. Until we actually run, its difficult to gauge how much improvement the resurfacing will have made. But hopefully its a step in the right direction and doesnt give us too many problems. I think one of the areas theyve resurfaced is actually the main straight - between Turn Four and Turn Five - and that was strange as it was bumpy in a straight line, which is inconvenient for the driver. They have to adapt their driving line to avoid the bumps, so its not really a bumpy entry, which is a real stability issue, it was just literally they had to drive off line to avoid bumps, so it may not be a massive performance differentiator. We shall see.
Q: How disappointing was it when Button lost the lead of the race after his stop in Monza? Would you do anything differently with hindsight?
PP: In terms of the strategic decision of when we stopped were still comfortable with that. The newer tyre after the pit stop was faster. However, our pit stop was not competitive to Ferrari. We lost time through coming into the pit lane to exiting the pit lane, relative to Ferrari, which was 0.8 of a second and that was sufficient to lose our track position. Had we been through the pit lane at the same speed then Im confident we would have come out in front or at least given Jenson far more of a chance to defend his position. So sadly it was the pit losses that meant we lost the lead. In terms of strategic call were still reasonably comfortable that we made the right choice. If we stopped on the same lap as the Ferraris maybe that would have put different pressure on the two teams so it would have been different. But with the knowledge that we had I think we made the right call. Of course, to was massively disappointing to lose the lead when wed been leading for so much of the race.
Q: How do you find the balance between developing this years car and next years? With the different regulations for next year, is there a risk youll start 2011 at a disadvantage?
PP: I think its a balance thats always difficult to find. We have a separate development team working on the 2011 car, they are obviously eager to have resource and wind tunnel time. Equally those of us who are still competing this season are pushing very hard to continue the development of this car. Its one of the balancing acts that we have had to make over the last couple of years, and hopefully we do a reasonable job doing it. As we approach the end of the season, the reality is now the time to manufacture, develop and produce a new component is getting short. So the focus is really looking to exploit the components that we have to make sure we get the best performance out of them. We have upgrades coming though, but to start a new project at this stage would be very difficult to design, develop, implement and deploy on the circuit. Its a difficult balance but something that we hopefully know how to do.
Q: Everyones expecting this weekend to be the true test of the more stringent flexi-bodywork regulations. Are you expecting it to be a true test?
PP: I think the regulations that are in place now means that it should be a level playing field and everybody knows the constraints that we have to operate in. I think thats good for the sport and for the teams. The advantage that was felt to be gained by Red Bull and Ferrari in Hungary will be harder to exploit.
Q: In terms of engine, you guys are on to the seventh. Is that a worry?
PP: No, certainly not. I can tell you now that the use of our race engines is exactly as we planned back in March. It was always our intention to run new engines at Spa and Monza to take advantage of the new engine on the most power-sensitive races. So were running exactly to plan ourselves and its not something were concerned about. As for Ferrari, I think that despite having fitted the eighth engine, they are probably following the same sort of approach as ourselves. As for using the eighth, I think that will only affect their Friday running, in terms of running used engines on the Friday. From the information I can gather - gleaned from press releases etc - then sadly I dont think that will give us any advantage over them Im afraid.
Q: Who are you most worried about in the title race? Mark Webber or Fernando Alonso?
PP: I think any driver who is able to finish the remaining five races in a competitive position - i.e. in the top three/four - will be the most dangerous driver. I think that it comes down to consistency. Any one of the five drivers in contention who has between three or five good results will be in a strong position for the title. Our target now is to get 10 races finishes, so both our drivers to the end of the five remaining races. If we achieve that then I think weve got as good a shout as everybody.
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