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McLaren's Jonathan Neale on Hamilton, Honda, Michael & more 23 Nov 2011

Jonathan Neale (GBR) McLaren Managing Director. 
Formula One World Championship, Rd 15, Japanese Grand Prix, Qualifying Day, Suzuka, Japan, Saturday, 8 October 2011 Lewis Hamilton (GBR) McLaren celebrates with his team. 
Formula One World Championship, Rd 18, Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, Race, Yas Marina Circuit, Abu Dhabi, UAE, Sunday, 13 November 2011 Rain drops on a McLaren MP4/26.
Formula One World Championship, Rd 16, Korean Grand Prix, Practice Day, Korea International Circuit, Yeongam, South Korea, Friday, 14 October 2011 Sam Michael (AUS) McLaren Sporting Director. 
Formula One World Championship, Rd 18, Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, Preparations, Yas Marina Circuit, Abu Dhabi, UAE, Thursday, 10 November 2011 Jenson Button (GBR) McLaren MP4/26.
Formula One World Championship, Rd 16, Korean Grand Prix, Practice Day, Korea International Circuit, Yeongam, South Korea, Friday, 14 October 2011 Lewis Hamilton (GBR) McLaren.
Formula One World Championship, Rd 16, Korean Grand Prix, Qualifying Day, Korea International Circuit, Yeongam, South Korea, Saturday, 15 October 2011 Lewis Hamilton (GBR) McLaren MP4/26.
Formula One World Championship, Rd 14, Singapore Grand Prix, Qualifying Day, Marina Bay Street Circuit, Singapore, Saturday, 24 September 2011 Jenson Button (GBR) McLaren MP4/26. 
Formula One World Championship, Rd 12, Belgian Grand Prix, Qualifying Day, Spa-Francorchamps, Belgium, Saturday, 27 August 2011 Race winner Lewis Hamilton (GBR) McLaren celebrates on the podium.
Formula One World Championship, Rd 18, Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, Race, Yas Marina Circuit, Abu Dhabi, UAE, Sunday, 13 November 2011

Ahead of this weekend’s season-ending Formula 1 Grande Premio Petrobras Do Brasil 2011, the McLaren team’s Managing Director Jonathan Neale, speaking in a Vodafone McLaren Mercedes Phone-In, talks about Lewis Hamilton’s Abu Dhabi triumph, rumours of a renewed Honda alliance, Red Bull’s 2012 ‘catchability’, and Sam Michael’s first weekend with his new colleagues…

Q: After winning in Abu Dhabi is Lewis Hamilton a changed man?
Jonathan Neale:
Lewis did really well in Abu Dhabi and drove very consistently all weekend. Like any race driver he wants to win and when you don’t win for a while it gets very painful. Certainly it will have been boost to his confidence. Talking to him after the weekend it was clear he really enjoyed that. As you may be aware we get everybody together here in the McLaren Technology Centre after each race to go through what really happened behind the scenes and there was a huge cheer and applause for Lewis and it sounded very good indeed. So we go to Brazil and we really hope we are competitive.

Q: There were some stories over the weekend in Germany that you might be hooking up with Honda in the future. Have you talked to Honda or any other manufacturer about a technical partnership or an engine deal?
That’s all wide of the mark. We are very happy with and enjoying our partnership with Mercedes-Benz. We aren’t quite sure where that story came from in truth. But I can stop the rumour and say that we are entirely focused on out Mercedes-Benz relationship. It is a long one spanning many wins and championships and long may it continue.

Q: Is there a concern that in 2012 you will become a ‘customer team’ of Mercedes-Benz, whereas Red Bull will be more or less a ‘works’ team with Renault?
I don’t think that’s a concern. Of course Mercedes have their own team and it’s right and proper that a degree of focus is going in that direction. I have just been talking this morning to Thomas Kerr at Mercedes-Benz - we speak frequently - and we want the same thing. It’s in our interest to have a consistent engine. Thomas was pleased Mercedes got six cars in the top ten in qualifying on Saturday in Abu Dhabi. They take real pleasure and delight in that, as they should. And of course we like to beat them all as well, so that worked well for us. They are formidable technical partners and we enjoy that relationship.

Q: What were (new sporting director) Sam Michael’s first impressions of the team? He was in Abu Dhabi with you…
Williams were very gracious in releasing Sam to us early and therefore Sam doesn’t go ‘operational’ until the first race of next year. The reason we wanted to bring him in early is that it gives him time to look at us, get a feel for the team, get to know some of the players and start soaking a few things in. Sam brings a wealth of experience - not just from Williams but from teams before that. He’s a seasoned professional in his own right, but he’s only been with us for a couple of weeks. What we are not going to see is a sudden ‘eureka’ moment. We are going to give him time to find his feet here before asking him about how we can improve. I’m confident he will do that. He’s a nice guy and well-respected, in technical terms and the racing scene. It’s a bit early - one race where we win. We did say though that if he turns up and we win then he can certainly come to a few more.

Q: Pirelli’s plans for the tyres next year are to make them softer and change the compound across the board. Is this something the teams have been asking for to boost the spectacle? And how will the changes affect your drivers next year, given that we’ve seen generally this year that Button can keep the soft tyres on form longer than Hamilton?
We have certainly seen a number of different combinations of tyre structure and compound. Pirelli are an innovative organisation and want high performance. Their engineers, just like all the team engineers, will be pushing hard to improve the product. We have all really enjoyed the racing this year where we had tyres that the drivers had to be quite cautious with or at least occasionally trade outright pace for longevity. That has added a dynamic to the challenge for the drivers. In terms of their goals for next year then I don’t think there’s a radical shift in either compound or construction which is looking to move dramatically away from where we are. I think it’s more of a trend and evolution in that respect. On one or two of the circuits this year the soft tyre has been perhaps a little bit on the edge of where we would ideally like it. Pirelli have also been very good at managing all of the teams’ expectations. So there isn’t division among one team or another. We’re not able to influence them any more than any other team and I think it’s important, from a governance point of view, that they hold that mid-ground. In terms of Lewis and Jenson, I think broadly the nature of the racing will be the same in that we’ll still see drivers pushing to get the tyre warmed up and make sure they can get a hot lap out of it in qualifying. So depending on the nature of the car, some will be able to do it in one lap and some are going to take three or four laps to do it. And yes, if you’re really aggressive and flashing all over somebody’s rear view mirrors as you swing around behind them, trying to overtake them, you are definitely going to damage the tyre. And I’m sure if (team principal) Martin (Whitmarsh) was here the answer to that would be ‘make the car faster, get out in front’. And I’m sure he’d be right. But I think it’s pretty much the same for both drivers.

Q: McLaren have been working for ages on their new car. But what can anyone do to stop Red Bull being dominant again, given that the rules changes have reverted to 2009 in terms of exhausts, diffuser etc. ?
The reality is it’s up to the rest of us to do a better job. They are certainly not going to be holding back. They have got themselves into a good position with a package that works well with these regulations and on these tyres and clearly they’ve been able to exploit that over the last few years. Anybody who has watched the sport over a number of years will have seen teams hitting the sweet spot for a couple of years and then tail off. That’s not always caused by regulation changes. Sometimes they’re just caused by being caught up or changes in technology. That means that over the last 20 years or so you would write McLaren and Ferrari off at your peril. The two organisations have been around for a long period of time and have powerful engineering organisations. We just need to start quick and not spend all our year recovering. Obviously our ambition is to be at the front, so is Ferrari’s, but you would never bet against Red Bull being very strong.

Q: Are you confident of doing well at Interlagos this weekend?
I think so. The car should be competitive in Brazil. There’s not a large upgrade package with it. Most of our focus is now on next year. The one thing that is going to change for next year are the regulations that surround the exhaust geometry and blown downforce. So there will be some car changes. It’s always a good boost finishing the season well. Jenson is currently 10 points clear of Fernando (Alonso) in second place in the standings. Both drivers want to win this race. Lewis, after the win in Abu Dhabi, and Jenson, who has just had a very good second half of the season. So we are looking forward to a good race this weekend and to the end of what’s been a long season.

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