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Exclusive Whitmarsh Q&A: McLaren will turn tables in 2012 16 Nov 2011

Martin Whitmarsh (GBR) McLaren Chief Executive Officer.
Formula One World Championship, Rd 17, Indian Grand Prix, Buddh International Circuit, Greater Noida, New Delhi, India, Practice Day, Friday, 28 October 2011 Jenson Button (GBR) McLaren MP4/26.
Formula One World Championship, Rd 18, Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, Race, Yas Marina Circuit, Abu Dhabi, UAE, Sunday, 13 November 2011 Martin Whitmarsh (GBR) McLaren Chief Executive Officer, Lewis Hamilton (GBR) McLaren, Jenson Button (GBR) McLaren and Jessica Michibata (JPN). 
Formula One World Championship, Rd 18, Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, Race, Yas Marina Circuit, Abu Dhabi, UAE, Sunday, 13 November 2011 Jenson Button (GBR) McLaren MP4/26.
Formula One World Championship, Rd 18, Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, Race, Yas Marina Circuit, Abu Dhabi, UAE, Sunday, 13 November 2011 Jenson Button (GBR) McLaren MP4/26 makes a pit stop. 
Formula One World Championship, Rd 18, Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, Race, Yas Marina Circuit, Abu Dhabi, UAE, Sunday, 13 November 2011 Lewis Hamilton (GBR) McLaren MP4/26. 
Formula One World Championship, Rd 18, Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, Race, Yas Marina Circuit, Abu Dhabi, UAE, Sunday, 13 November 2011 Race winner Lewis Hamilton (GBR) McLaren in parc ferme. 
Formula One World Championship, Rd 18, Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, Race, Yas Marina Circuit, Abu Dhabi, UAE, Sunday, 13 November 2011 Jenson Button (GBR) McLaren MP4/26. 
Formula One World Championship, Rd 18, Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, Race, Yas Marina Circuit, Abu Dhabi, UAE, Sunday, 13 November 2011 Race winner Lewis Hamilton (GBR) McLaren in parc ferme. 
Formula One World Championship, Rd 18, Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, Race, Yas Marina Circuit, Abu Dhabi, UAE, Sunday, 13 November 2011 (L to R): Martin Whitmarsh (GBR) McLaren Chief Executive Officer with Stefano Domenicali (ITA) Ferrari General Director in the FIA Press Conference.
Formula One World Championship, Rd 18, Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, Practice Day, Yas Marina Circuit, Abu Dhabi, Ross Brawn (GBR) Mercedes GP Team Principal, Christian Horner (GBR) Red Bull Racing Team Principal, Paul Hembery (GBR) Pirelli Motorsport Director and Martin Whitmarsh (GBR) McLaren Chief Executive Officer.
Formula One World Championship, Rd 16, Korean Gr Jenson Button (GBR) McLaren MP4/26.
Formula One World Championship, Rd 18, Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, Qualifying Day, Yas Marina Circuit, Abu Dhabi, UAE, Saturday, 12 November 2011 Lewis Hamilton (GBR) McLaren MP4/26,
Formula One World Championship, Rd 18, Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, Qualifying Day, Yas Marina Circuit, Abu Dhabi, UAE, Saturday, 12 November 2011 Jenson Button (GBR) McLaren MP4/26. 
Formula One World Championship, Rd 18, Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, Qualifying Day, Yas Marina Circuit, Abu Dhabi, UAE, Saturday, 12 November 2011 Jenson Button (GBR) McLaren. 
Formula One World Championship, Rd 18, Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, Qualifying Day, Yas Marina Circuit, Abu Dhabi, UAE, Saturday, 12 November 2011 Lewis Hamilton (GBR) McLaren. 
Formula One World Championship, Rd 18, Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, Qualifying Day, Yas Marina Circuit, Abu Dhabi, UAE, Saturday, 12 November 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 team’s 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. We’ve secured second place in the constructors’ championship and we are second in the drivers’ championship, but it’s a frustrating position to be in to be honest. We were second last year as well and we definitely don’t 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 that’s 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 we’ve made some mistakes. We haven’t 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. We’ve been chasing them and we’ve 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 couldn’t 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 what’s 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 we’ve been able to recover, but clearly we shouldn’t 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 that’s something that’s 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 haven’t 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 it’s been a good year for the team. And for Lewis, by his own extraordinary standards, it’s 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. There’s 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 he’s 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 that’s 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. Let’s be open about it. Lewis, throughout his career, has destroyed every team mate that’s 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 he’d 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 it’s 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 let’s win some races. We have two drivers in the team that like winning!

Q: What’s the point of the teams’ association? It seems like it’s 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 wouldn’t be here if the Formula One Teams’ Association (FOTA) hadn’t 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 we’ve 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 shouldn’t neglect them. Would McLaren be interested in running a third car? Yes, we would. But then you stand back and think about what’s 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 it’s 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, we’re trying to. There will always be levels of distrust because that’s the way that Formula One is structured.

Q: Ferrari have once again talked about quitting Formula One racing if things don’t go their way. Is that damaging to the sport?
MW:
It would be very unhealthy if we took it seriously!

Q: So it’s a bit like a barking dog that doesn’t 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 that’s 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 Ferrari’s threats to leave. Would McLaren ever do something similar?
MW:
I don’t think we would. I think we would handle it differently because I don’t 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 McLaren’s 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 there’s 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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