Exclusive Q&A - McLarens Martin Whitmarsh 10 Mar 2011
Right now the potential of McLarens new MP4-26 remains unclear to say the least. But what is clear is that if theres one team that you write off at your peril, its McLaren. While some of even their fiercest rivals have faded to the midfield over the years, they have remained at or near the top. No-one is more aware of this than team principal Martin Whitmarsh, now entering his third season at the helm. So while the press may by full of scare stories about their pre-season form, with two world champions at the wheel and a factory-full of title-winning experience, Whitmarshs message is dont underestimate McLaren
Q: Martin, your two drivers won five races in total last season - a number that Sebastian Vettel and Fernando Alonso each managed on their own. Obviously, therefore, the McLaren MP4-25 wasn't a revelation. Will this year's car perform any better?
Martin Whitmarsh: Last year, as you say, Lewis scored three wins, Jenson two. And, although a total of five wins in a single season is a lot more than the vast majority of Formula One teams can ever realistically aspire to - and although we consequently finished second in the 2010 constructors' world championship, 58 points ahead of our traditional rivals Ferrari - I guess the unspoken subtext of your question is correct: we at Vodafone McLaren Mercedes always aim to finish first, so 2010 cannot be considered one of our glory years.
However, in my view the MP4-25 was a pretty good car, although clearly it wasn't quite as quick season-long as the Red Bull RB6. As for this year, it's simply too early to say anything definitive about the MP4-26 or indeed about any other 2011 Formula One car. Time without number, motorsport pundits have come unstuck when they've attempted to extrapolate testing times to predict race results, and I'm not about to join their number now. Suffice to say that we've had a few reliability issues during testing so far, but we're confident that things are going in the right direction now.
Q: McLaren went into the first 2011 test with the old car and you are consequently going into the new season with less mileage on your 2011 car than some of your rivals. Now you're skipping Thursday's running in Barcelona this week. Is there a philosophy behind all that?
MW: The reality is that every decision you make regarding the building and operation of a Formula One car amounts to a calculated and strategic balancing of risk. In the case of the MP4-26, one of the most significant performance factors facing every team for 2011 was the introduction of the new Pirelli tyres - a variable that, by running at Valencia using last year's car, we felt we could more richly evaluate in isolation, on a platform that we already knew and understood.
In actual fact, that first test proved extremely beneficial in providing us with rich, raw tyre data that we've been analyzing ever since. So, while I admit that the introduction of the MP4-26 has been affected by a few reliability issues, we still stand by our decision to defer its introduction by one test. By contrast, by choosing to sit out the Thursday of the final Barcelona test, we've effectively extended our working window by an extra day: we're running Tuesday-Wednesday-Friday-Saturday. Late delivery of new components is always critical in the run-up to the first race, and we felt that Tuesday-Wednesday-Friday-Saturday was the optimal way to ensure we could stretch that window as much as we could. Once again, it's an approach that we've thought about carefully, and feel confident will prove beneficial.
Q: Jenson and Lewis have both indicated concerns about the performance levels of the MP4-26, and some competitors have been quoted as saying that they don't see McLaren among the top three teams right now. That could be psychological warfare - but, if not, how does that situation fit with Ron Dennis's striving for excellence?
MW: As I've said in an answer to one of your previous questions, time without number motorsport pundits have come unstuck when they've attempted to extrapolate testing times to predict race results, and I'm not about to join their number now. So let's just wait and see how the season unfolds - I'm sure there'll be plenty of surprises in store, and to be frank it'll be good for the sport if there are. As regards what you've described as Ron Dennis's striving for excellence, well, I've been at McLaren for more than 20 years now, and Ron and I are just two of a large group of ferociously competitive individuals, all of whom I'm proud to work alongside. I have enormous respect for Ron, both as a colleague and as a friend, but make no mistake about it: the ethos of Vodafone McLaren Mercedes runs right through every single one of us who works for every single company in the McLaren Group. We're all striving for excellence every minute of every day.
Q: KERS is here again. Two years ago, when it was introduced the first time, some people said that it was a nuisance - too costly and almost without benefit. Is its comeback for the good?
MW: In 2009 Vodafone McLaren Mercedes was the first team to win a Grand Prix with KERS Hybrid, and we're very proud of that fact. Not only did Mercedes-Benz High Performance Engines' engineers and our engineers work very well together to produce arguably the best KERS Hybrid system that year, which was and is pleasing of itself, but also we were in the vanguard of our sport's efforts to improve its sustainability credentials. For those reasons, the return of KERS Hybrid can only be a good thing. Going forward, however, I believe we need to do even more to reflect the increasing importance of environmental concerns in the world today, and that's why we support the FIA's 2013 engine regulations. As I've said before and I'll say again, you'll never induce car manufacturers to produce greener cars by kicking a football or hitting a golf ball. But if by 2013 Formula One can present car manufacturers with a powertrain development platform from which it's possible to accelerate learning in terms of improved fuel efficiency for passenger cars, then we'll have achieved something valuable and important. And I really do think it is possible.
Q: There have been endless discussions about the Pirelli tyres. How do they suit the MP4-26? Could 2011 be the year of the driver with the best tyre conservation skills - perhaps Jenson for example?
MW: As I've said before, it's important that we understand the enormity of the challenge faced by Pirelli this year. It's imperative, too, that we therefore acknowledge that they're doing a very good job so far. Yes, we've seen some tyre degradation issues, but the fact is that tyre degradation has been called for by many stakeholders as a positive factor that ought to improve the show. As such, it's a bit unfair to criticize Pirelli for delivering exactly what those stakeholders have requested, isn't it? As regards Jenson, undoubtedly he's an extremely shrewd driver. He's not only quick, but he's thoughtful with it. We saw that in 2010, when he won two Grands Prix in very tricky conditions that demanded the ability to strategize and improvise in extremis at the wheel. So, yes, I'm sure he'll approach the new tyres with an open and intelligent attitude - but then so will all the top drivers, Lewis included. Lewis in full flight is a sight to behold - and long may he remain so - but he's also shown that he can win races in all sorts of cars in all sorts of conditions, so he too will adapt if adapting is what's necessary, I'm sure of that.
Q: It's become apparent that we may see the return of three-stop races. That sounds like a lot of action and will make results even more unpredictable. But how easy is that to execute with 12 teams and 24 cars in the pit lane? Will we see races won and lost in the pits?
MW: We've always seen races won and lost in the pits, and I'm sure 2011 will be no different. Equally, we've had 12 teams and 24 cars before - sometimes more. So I'm not concerned.
Q: Rain or no rain - that is the question...
MW: I assume you're referring to Bernie's idea of introducing 'artificial rain' to Grands Prix. So much has already been said on the subject that I really don't see the need for me to add my opinion here. All I'll say is that I think Formula One has to be the pinnacle of world motorsport, and any modifications we make to it must never compromise that ethos.
Q: You're heading into your third season as team principal. The last time one of your drivers won the world championship - in 2008 - Ron was still in the hot seat. Do you still feel his breath on your neck?
MW: No, I don't. Ron is executive chairman of McLaren Group and executive chairman of McLaren Automotive, and remains a shareholder in both organizations. As such, of course he takes a close interest in Vodafone McLaren Mercedes' race results. He's a Formula One legend, a racer through and through, after all. But, despite his unashamedly competitive nature, and notwithstanding his fearsome attention to detail, he's actually a very efficient delegator. You can't run an organization as multifarious and disparate as McLaren without being able to see the bigger picture as well as the nitty-gritty, and Ron is definitely able to see both.
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