Exclusive Eric Boullier Q&A: Bright future beckons as Lotus 18 Nov 2011
According to Renaults team principal, its always possible to learn from problems and turn bad fortune into good. And Eric Boullier hopes his team can do just that in 2012 after a season blighted by the bold - but ultimately flawed - R31. Although the cars successor will by no means be conservative, valuable lessons have been learnt as Renault - soon to be renamed Lotus - target a brighter future. Boullier discusses the problems of 2011, the on-going uncertainty surrounding Robert Kubica, and his plans to ultimately sign more big names
Q: Eric, whats the matter with Renault at the moment?
Eric Boullier: Which problem?
Q: You started the season well, but its since tailed off dramatically
EB: We have already explained many times that the innovative exhaust that weve built doesnt work at low speed. So at all the tracks with low-speed corners we are struggling a lot. This includes Monaco, Budapest, Singapore and Abu Dhabi, where we struggled like hell, because the exhaust doesnt work. And there is nothing we can do because we have no downforce. But the car, if you compare the performances we had in India or Japan or Spa, is sometimes faster than the rest. We havent always transformed this performance into points - for different reasons which have nothing to do with the performance of the car.
Q: The team took a risky decision when they implemented the forward-facing exhaust. What did you expect to gain?
EB: Well, if it worked we would definitely be inside the top four in terms of performance all the time. The fact is that it is working in some places because of the layout of the track. We know that it is working in fast corners and medium-fast corners - there we have the downforce - but it isnt in slow corners.
Q: So how will it be in 2012? Will you stick with the concept?
EB: Weve learnt from our mistakes. We had some reasons to go innovative. Actually I took the risk, as I backed (technical director) James (Allison) when he offered me this solution. The team was in a process of transformation and the objective for Genii was to be world champions, but not just world champions for one year but as an established top team. It took Red Bull five years to be at the very top. Part of the game is that when you restructure a team internally you have to stimulate the creativity of your people - and this year was the right time to try something different. I think that without the loss of Robert (Kubica) the situation would be very different.
Q: So in the end youve been punished for being too innovative. Can you take any positives from it though?
EB: Yes, because weve learnt a lot about the process. We understand that we have to be very careful about all the regulation changes and all the processes involved in it. Weve based our concept on one blowing system, which meant that when we had to rethink it before Silverstone we lost eight weeks. We had to balance that. We probably took the innovation too far and that is why we are paying the price now. But what we have achieved internally is good. The experience - well, the bad experience actually - means that weve gained. It will be a benefit in the future.
Q: Did you push the innovation so much because you hoped to cut corners on the way to becoming a top team again?
EB: No, not at all. But we have taken over a team with excellent people. Sometimes, though, if people work together for too long their creativity drifts off. So when you want to shake that up again it also means that you have to give them some freedom to do what they want and take some risks. It either works or it doesnt work! For us it worked at the beginning but then we faced some other problems. Overall, though, it was a good experience.
Q: So after a bold and brave 2011 car, will the 2012-spec car be more conventional?
EB: No, that would be a mistake. Probably not that extreme - but definitely not conservative! I want to keep the rivalry within my engineering group, but probably with more control.
Q: Are you satisfied with your drivers? Has Bruno Senna lived up to your expectations?
EB: Yes, I think he has fulfilled the expectations. Part of the plan to be back as a top team is that we definitely have to use the experience of very fast young drivers with a high profile. So yes, he fulfils expectations so far and now it is up to us to see if he - and Vitaly (Petrov) in fact - can deliver more in the future. We want to be a top team with top-class drivers.
Q: This team has traditionally always had a big name in one of its cockpits. So what will the driver line-up for 2012 look? You cannot possibly stay with Petrov and Senna. Who will be your big name?
EB: To let you in on a bit of a secret, I dont want just one lead driver. In the short term - in the next two to three years - I want two big names. I want to fight with the big names and to fight with Vettel and Webber, Hamilton and Button. So yes, I need two big names and the target is to have two big names by 2014 or even 2013. 2012 we know will be another year for rebuilding the team and so we are not in the position to attract big names now. And by the way, the driver market is closed anyway for 2012 so our priority is not to have a big name in the car but to have a fast car which can then be given to a big name to win races. We should do it in this order and not the other way around - even though I would agree that a big name would help to make the car better, definitely.
Q: What is the state of affairs with Robert Kubica? Have you given him an ultimatum because you cant wait forever?
EB: The situation with Robert is easy. We have a moral obligation to make sure that we give him a chance. To make a decision in October or November would not change anything in this team as the driver market is closed. I am waiting for him to tell me how he feels and I need a commitment from him. We also need to make a plan if it (his recovery) is not going as planned, as I dont want the team to be blamed. It was him who got me in trouble this year and now if he cant come back he has to tell us about it. He has to tell us, but we also must not be stupid. We need a plan.
Q: When do you expect everything to be sorted?
EB: Soon. Very soon. I am not the hostage of this situation anymore. My master plan already stands and I am not expecting anything. What I want is for him to commit to me and say Yes, I can do it or No, I cant do it. We are ready, the car is ready for a test and if it takes time then obviously its because he is not ready. But then we reach something very emotional - the driver needs to convince himself that he can drive, both mentally and physically.
Q: Is there a plan about when he could test again?
EB: No, theres no plan at all at the moment.
Q: What about tester Romain Grosjean? He was overwhelmed when he was teamed up with Fernando Alonso as a rookie, but many believe that he can now deliver. Will he be considered?
EB: He is part of the plan. We would like to have him in the car if Robert cannot come back. It is true that in 2009 he was not ready to be in Formula One and he clearly burnt himself. Even so his performance was quite good - he was only three-tenths off the pace of Fernando even though the car was not very good at that time, which makes it even more difficult for a young driver to step into F1. When he runs on Fridays he shows that he can deliver and gives good feedback. Clearly the guy has talent and everybody is convinced about that. It is my job to make him ready to step in.
Q: So if Kubica cant come back the seat could go to Grosjean?
EB: Yes, yes, and I have not been hiding this fact for weeks, months even. So if Robert doesnt come back, he is definitely one at the top of the list.
Q: You will continue to use an engine from a French manufacturer next season. How much will that help Frenchman Grosjean into the cockpit?
EB: It has nothing to do with it. We have a contract with Renault until the end of 2013, so driver and engine are two totally different things.
Q: With the benefit of hindsight, do you regret having parted company with Nick Heidfeld?
EB: (Puts his finger on his lips as a sign for no comment)
Q: What about Kimi Raikkonen?
EB: What about him? I have just explained how we want to go about our driver line-up for next season. But yes, there has been contact - look at this call (Boullier holds up his mobile phone) - this was from his manager.
Q: If had to describe the teams 2011 in one line, what would it be?
EB: Huge frustration! We havent been able to deliver what we would have wanted, but we have hope that we can transform this experience into something positive for the future.
Q: The team will change its name to Lotus in 2012. Will you keep the black and gold livery?
EB: We have a new chassis name, we have a new team name and probably in two to three weeks we will announce our strategy and everything that goes with it. At that point you will see what this team is planning for the long term. It has a very bright future.
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