Exclusive Whitmarsh Q&A: McLaren will turn tables in 2012 16 Nov 2011
They may have won six Grands Prix this season, but finishing runner-up to Red Bull in both titles has been hard for McLaren to swallow. A tricky winter off-track was followed by a difficult spring on it, and only in the summer did the British teams fortunes finally turn - by which time it was too late. Team principal Martin Whitmarsh explains what went wrong, how they put it right - and why they will do better in 2012. Plus he discusses the Hamilton-Button dynamic, resource restriction agreements, team politics and more
Q: Martin, McLaren are the 2011 runners-up. Is that good enough?
Martin Whitmarsh: No it is not. But you have to say that Sebastian (Vettel), Red Bull, and (Red Bull chief technical officer) Adrian Newey did a fantastic job. Sebastian in particular did a spectacular job. But we are not here to come in second, so inevitably we are not satisfied with this. Weve secured second place in the constructors championship and we are second in the drivers championship, but its a frustrating position to be in to be honest. We were second last year as well and we definitely dont want to make it a habit. Now we could look back and ponder about it or we can turn it into positive motivation. We have had six great wins this year and we can even make it seven great wins this year - and thats the goal - so we are focusing on that. We will try and win again in Brazil. Sebastian will again clearly be the guy to beat even if he was unlucky in Abu Dhabi. There are a lot of views about the invincibility of Red Bull. Certainly Mark (Webber) is a very good driver. People keep asking us how we plan to beat Red Bull but on most weekends we do beat 50 percent of them. Unfortunately, right now, we are not beating the other one if he stays in the race! (laughs) As a team weve made some mistakes. We havent done as good a job as I like us to do but hopefully we will end the season with another win. Then we press the reset button, spend a few weeks away in the winter and next year is another year.
Q: When - and where - did it go wrong?
MW: Sadly there is never a simple answer, a single incident or a singular issue. We had a disastrous winter where we were seconds off the pace and the truth is that our first long run - a run of a race distance - was the Australian Grand Prix. We did a little bit of a Houdini in the weeks leading into the first race where we took some chances and regained some semblance of competitiveness. From there we - to an extent - guessed what we needed to do to bring about real competitiveness. What we had at the first race was more or less a first shot at a different concept and I had hoped that we could optimize it quite quickly over the coming few races. In truth it took us a few races longer to find something better. I think that Adrian and Red Bull had been working very hard on the blown exhaust phenomena - and they had head start. Weve been chasing them and weve tried to close the gap. I would say that three quarters of the way into season we had a few races where we had a faster car but we couldnt capitalize on it. As this is also a development race, we are certainly a lot closer to them than we were in February. Red Bull have done a very good job. We were behind them, Ferrari have been a bit behind us, and the rest have been quite far behind. This is probably the story of the 2011 season.
Q: How can it be that a team like McLaren have a miserable winter? Did February come too suddenly?
MW: No, not really, (laughs) but typically in September or October you make some decisions based upon the best development information, the best interpretation of the regulations and the best knowledge of whats possible, and those decisions lead you to a joyous or painful year. And I think in this particular case there have been bad decisions. The primary reason clearly was that though we understood that there was a blown-exhaust phenomenon to exploit, we had a concept that was too ambiguous and too complex to exploit it. It consumed a lot of our development and design effort as we fought to get a system that could be reliable. Normally you push development work during the winter, but if you use that time on something that was conceptually wrong then it is very difficult to recover.
I think we are a good racing team and we responded to the emergency. It makes me really proud to see the speed with which weve been able to recover, but clearly we shouldnt have had the need to recover at all. That took a lot of time, attention and capacity. But then over the season we have had only one mechanical failure, and we had one pit-stop failure. Though thats something thats not really shocking, you have to say that Sebastian and Red Bull have really minimized theirs. But in fairness to our drivers, if you give them a car that can be on the front row then you can control the pace and can look after your tyres - which has become a really important issue - but we havent given them that luxury. They have had to fight a little bit harder, and if you have to fight a bit harder, you will eventually run into calamities. Overall I have to say its been a good year for the team. And for Lewis, by his own extraordinary standards, its been a disappointing year. Lewis expects more from himself and the world expects more from Lewis, so this season has been very challenging for him. Theres been a lot going on in his life.
Jenson on the other hand is a person that is easily underestimated. You could ask whether he really is a fighter and whether he has the hunger, because he has such superb manner. Sometimes that might be a worry before you know him better, but I have to say that I know him a lot better now. You only have to stand back to see how hard hes raced and how hard he pushed in Canada for his incredible win. It was raw determination. He has his battles with Lewis and wants to beat Lewis and thats as we want it to be. I think we have a very good dynamic in the team because I know that teams can often talk about tranquillity and relationships in a team and put some spin on it, but I think that anyone who witnesses our drivers sees that there is genuine respect there. Even in the heat of the moment like in Canada where Lewis could have been easy meat for the media he showed extraordinary maturity and the way it was handled spoke volumes about the relationship in the team and especially between the two guys.
Q: Do you think Hamilton underestimated Button?
MW: Possibly. He probably did, yes. Lets be open about it. Lewis, throughout his career, has destroyed every team mate thats come his way. Bear in mind that in many ways he virtually destroyed Fernando Alonso when Fernando was a two-time world champion and Lewis was a rookie. He did the same with Nico Rosberg in karting frankly - and every other team mate on his way into Formula One. He was disarmed by Jenson at the beginning and he probably thought that he was a nice guy, but hed beat him. And he was probably surprised. Jenson on the other hand is of course also keen to beat his team mate but he would never do it in an underhand manner. For both drivers its true that there are no politics involved and both want to contribute equally to the team. Of course when you join a team as a driver and know that I have known Lewis since he was 11 you might question whether you would be treated equally. But all the talk about who is the number-one driver in the team is media-made, as McLaren have always been a team that let their drivers race. That is our spirit and we remain true to it.
Q: Since the Valencia race in June, McLaren have been systematically improving, but it has proved too late. It must have been tough for the drivers
MW: Sure, that was a tough one, (laughs) but then this goes for everyone in the team. We all want to be champion. In the end we are here to win races, so lets win some races. We have two drivers in the team that like winning!
Q: Whats the point of the teams association? It seems like its just the bigger teams against the smaller teams, whilst some feel Ferrari President Luca di Montezemolo simply uses it as a tool for media attention
MW: Well, firstly you have to acknowledge that there is always a lot of intrigue going on here and there are always a range of egos. But I think that there would be a number of teams that wouldnt be here if the Formula One Teams Association (FOTA) hadnt stepped in. It is the only body so far that is trying to control costs and that is definitely in the interest of the small teams. The big teams would rather be testing, would rather have more people, would rather use their wind tunnels more and their CFD (Computational Fluid Dynamics), so I think that the big teams have made more sacrifices. Formula One needs diversity. I have a good relationship with Luca and (Ferrari team principal) Stefano (Domenicali). We do agree on many things, but not on everything. So again, we need to sustain the smaller teams. Take our history, for example. This team has existed since 1967 and weve won a quarter of the races since then. At the same time about a hundred teams have disappeared, so we are pretty aware that we need them and shouldnt neglect them. Would McLaren be interested in running a third car? Yes, we would. But then you stand back and think about whats for the greater good of the sport. And at the moment we should concentrate on creating a sustainable, viable business model for all the teams.
Q: There is a lot of suspicion about the Resource Restriction Agreement (RRA), with everybody seemingly believing that everybody else is cheating. So its perhaps not such a viable business model? Where does the suspicion come from?
MW: At the base of those beliefs are competitiveness and paranoia! (laughs) When I spoke to Christian (Horner) recently, I said to him that when you win people immediately believe that you have an illegal front wing, diffuser or whatever and that you are cheating the RRA. That is a natural state in Formula One - unfortunately - and always will be. We just have to try and manage it. FOTA is there to work for the teams and for the good of Formula One.
Q: So it is designed to manage the distrust amongst the teams?
MW: Well, yes, were trying to. There will always be levels of distrust because thats the way that Formula One is structured.
Q: Ferrari have once again talked about quitting Formula One racing if things dont go their way. Is that damaging to the sport?
MW: It would be very unhealthy if we took it seriously!
Q: So its a bit like a barking dog that doesnt bite
MW: I have been in this sport for over 20 years and I have heard that said many times. In fairness I have never believed that Ferrari would step out of the sport - I might be wrong, but thats my opinion. I think they have never done it that often or as vigorously as is claimed in the media and sometimes they might do it out of passion and frustration. If you told me to take my pension and put it into two teams that would be here in ten years time I would put my money into McLaren and Ferrari. I think these are the teams you can absolutely rely on to be here in ten years time.
Q: You claim passion and frustration are the source of Ferraris threats to leave. Would McLaren ever do something similar?
MW: I dont think we would. I think we would handle it differently because I dont think it does anyone any good. If you have a bad result, you are better off being determined to have better ones in the future.
Q: Switching to 2012, are McLarens prospects bright?
MW: We, of course, want to win both championships - and both our drivers want to win. We are working very hard to get there next year, but theres been a bit of uncertainty over the technical regulations. I think that DRS has worked very well, Pirelli have made some very interesting tyres and despite the dominance of Sebastian we have had some great races. We are looking forward to turning the tables on them in 2012.
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