Q&A with McLaren's Phil Prew 03 May 2011
While McLarens victory in China last month certainly raised the British teams spirits, they are under no illusions about how tough it will be to keep reigning world champions Red Bull off the top step of the podium at this weekends Turkish Grand Prix. In a Vodafone McLaren Mercedes Phone-in session, principal race engineer, Phil Prew, discusses the pace of Red Bull's RB7, the challenge of this years new Pirelli tyres, the changing nature of strategy decisions and his hopes for the Istanbul Park event
Q: Weve had a long three-week break. What have you been working on? Will you be able to maintain the momentum after your win in China?
Phil Prew: It has been a long break and was well received by everyone who has been travelling and working hard at the first three races. It gave us the opportunity to reflect on the areas where we have been strong and where weve been weak. There have been continual improvements in pretty much all areas I would say. From the lessons learnt through testing over the winter to the early races, as well as the continuing work to improve our tyre usage. Theres also obviously a continuing desire to get more downforce into the car.
Q: Will all the time back at base pay off in Turkey?
PP: We obviously are hoping to close the gap. We dont have the fastest car at the moment and Red Bull are still the team which we hope to close the gap on. Were adding upgrades to the car in Turkey, which will hopefully help. But we have seen over the first three races that the difference between cars varies from track to track. I think Turkey will be a reasonably strong track for our car. We need to handle the tyres well and I think we will continue to be competitive. Of course everyone else will be aiming to improve their car at the same time. As always, we hope weve done enough.
Q: Were expecting high tyre degradation in Turkey and weve seen many different strategies playing out in many different ways. What are you expecting in Turkey? Could we see a few more tyre gambles at Istanbul Park?
PP: Potentially. As you say, the tyre degradation is certainly going to be a large factor in Turkey. I think that will certainly be tending towards a three-stop race. There are some benefits of having new tyres available to you, however, I think the competitiveness of the field will force you - pretty much - to run multiple new tyres through qualifying. I think our position will be to take qualifying position over having new tyres in the race. Im not discounting what we did with Lewis, for example, in China. We were fortunate enough to get through both Q1 and Q2 with a single set of option tyres, which allowed us to save one set of options. But I dont think you would choose not to compete in Q3 for the sake of tyre saving.
Q: The last round in China was one of the most thrilling races in a long time. Is that evidence that the 2011 rule changes are working - and that they will work elsewhere?
PP: There has definitely been some exciting racing. It has taken on a different shape to what we saw last year. I think theres a very significant chance that will continue as we move forward. We will see a convergence of strategy, but that said, cars seems to be using their tyres quite differently and people will always opt for different strategies. So I think we can expect some more exciting races.
Q: It appears Red Bull are much more quicker than you in qualifying than in the races. Have you managed to work out where that advantage on Saturday comes from?
PP: We are aiming to improve the performance of our car right the way through the range, both in terms of qualifying and in the race. I think tyre optimisation may be one area and the use of elaborate engine modes may be another, with the generation of downforce being quite highly influenced by the exhaust flows. There are many reasons why it may exist and, as I say, we are aiming to improve our performance both in qualifying and the race, and hopefully get close in both areas.
Q: How far behind Red Bull do you currently estimate McLaren are in terms of lap time?
PP: I think that we are between three tenths and half a second off the pace of Red Bull and obviously that is the gap that we are aiming to close.
Q: Ferrari are hopeful theyll make a big step forward in Turkey. Will you have to look out for them too at Istanbul Park?
PP: We never underestimate their performance and are fully aware that they could make a big improvement, once they get a better understanding of their car and get it to work properly or get the full potential from it. I think weve seen at times, certainly in races, that Ferrari are showing very strong pace. They dont seem to have hooked it up in qualifying just yet, but we are fully aware that we need to chase down the Red Bulls and also keep a wary eye on the cars behind, like Ferrari, Mercedes and indeed the Renaults, whove shown very good pace as well.
Q: Pirelli were working on a harder development version of their tyre, which they decided not to use and will instead bring the usual hard tyre. Is there any concern about how well this (usual) tyre is going to last? Would you prefer to have more durable rubber available?
PP: I think the degradation and wear on both of the Pirelli tyres - the option and the prime tyre - is going to be a challenge at this race. Its a demanding circuit. But its down to the teams to try and get the best performance from the tyres. Having the hard development tyre available perhaps would have changed the look of the race a little bit, but providing its the same for everybody then I dont think its a big difference. We fully respect Pirellis decision to continue development, and I believe that we will have the opportunity to test those new hard tyres again in practice, ahead of their potential introduction in Spain. So we may well see them in the near future.
Q: How has the pit wall dynamic changed since last year?
PP: I think we have to be perhaps a bit more dynamic on the pit wall than we were in the past. Thats receiving information both from the drivers feedback and observation, lap time performance and measurements from the car to indicate specifically tyre performance and tyre degradation. I think partly, in the past, with the Bridgestone tyre, we had a lot of experience with that tyre and therefore going into the race we had a far better idea of what the races would look like and how they would play out. This year, we are still learning about the tyres to be honest. Every time we go to a new track we are seeing a slightly different performance profile. They dont last as long, as we all know, and that means that we have to be a lot more on our toes and be prepared to adapt to what other cars are doing and also to how our own car is using the tyres and how the tyres are performing. With more stops there are obviously more decisions and it is quite a challenge. We have a very strong team both at the track and also back here in Woking at the MTC (McLaren Technology Centre) who are working specifically to optimise the strategy for both cars and thats what we aim to do. We try to cover all eventualities. If I take China as an example, we went in with a plan if we needed to adopt a two-stop if the tyres were performing better than expected, or if we needed to adopt a three-stop if we saw high degradation, which ultimately we did. So were aware of the options going into the race and we also have some figures that will tell us which strategy were able to - or need to - adopt. So at various stages through the race, youll assess where your position is, how the fields opened up, how the tyres are performing, and that will help you make the decision of how youre going to execute the race. So I wouldnt say we wing it, but we certainly jump to different strategies depending on the observations we make during the race.
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