Jonathan Neale Q&A: Too early for McLaren to admit defeat 06 Jul 2011
The consensus may be that Red Bull are the dominant force, but there have also been more than enough twists and turns already to make the 2011 Formula One season one of the most thrilling in the sports history. And whenever Red Bull do falter, it seems to be McLaren who are there to pick up the pieces. And with the tightened engine-mapping regulations coming into force at this weekends Silverstone race expected to shake up the established order even more, the British team are hopeful they can capitalise on any resulting upheaval and breathe life into their championship hopes. In a Vodafone McLaren Mercedes Phone-in, managing director Jonathan Neale talks about rule changes, dips in form, driver rumours and much more
Q: At the European Grand Prix both your drivers seemed pessimistic that the Silverstone track might not suit the McLaren package. Ten days on, what reasons do they have to be optimistic?
Jonathan Neale: I think we underperformed at Valencia. We didnt really get the car dialled in properly. We had single-lap performance as we showed on Saturday, but we couldnt get the tyres to last in the same way as Ferrari and Red Bull, so we were disappointed by that. We understand the reasons why and have done something about it. Its not something I can talk about in any detail, for obvious reasons. Silverstone, of course, is a very different circuit. Canada and Valencia had broadly similar aerodynamic characteristics. Theres no reason for anyone to make a read on our performance on those circuits relative to Silverstone. We are really looking forward to Silverstone - a high-speed circuit, two British world champions, its a home Grand Prix and theres a huge amount of excitement in the build-up to it. After Goodwood last weekend, you can really feel the British motorsport season taking off. Weve got an upgrade for the car and the aerodynamic package will be improved. But I guess the technical landscape will be pretty much dominated by what happens to everyones cars with the changes to the technical regulations on engine loads. Colleagues in other teams are already speculating about that in the media. Theres no doubt its going to affect all of the top teams. Its definitely going to affect us and Red Bull have said it will affect them. The key question is who is it going to affect more? I dont think were really going to know that until Saturday afternoon, so Im not going to speculate on that. But it will certainly have quite a big impact on everybody. So to return to the question, weve learnt from the lessons past and well test that when we come to circuits of a similar style to Valencia. And the guys should be optimistic because I think weve got some great upgrades for this weekend.
Q: Would you say your performance in Valencia was a bit of a blip - a temporary dip in form - rather than a downward trend?
JN: I would. I dont think we delivered to our full potential there. I am certainly regarding it as a blip. Other teams have made some steps forward but thats the nature of the sport. If you let your guard down for a moment in this game then in the top quarter of the grid the race to upgrade is ferocious and you end up with others nipping at your heels, so you pay a price for it. But Im not in any way disheartened or dissuaded from our ability to be at the front at Silverstone.
Q: How realistic are your hopes of winning the title this season, considering nobodys come from as far back in the championship before?
JN: Certainly if you follow stats and history then the odds are short. But as you know history is no predicator of future performance. There is still a long way to go in this season. Red Bull have had a dominant package but the only other team to have won a race has been us - and weve won two of them. And were fighting very hard for them. I think the uncertainty which has been raised by the recent engine regulation changes will make it really interesting this weekend and could open the season up. Were working very hard. We want to win more races and this championship and its way too early to admit defeat.
Q: Youve won two races - and you could have won in Spain and Monaco. Would you say youve missed the best opportunity to beat Red Bull?
JN: If anybody plots the underlying qualifying pace and race pace then youd see that we are catching Red Bull. They still have had an advantage in qualifying but our rivals have been on record in the media as recognising that we have had a faster car at a few races and well continue to keep that pressure up. Theyve certainly had a qualifying advantage and thats the thing we have to work on much harder.
Q: Red Bull have been a dominant force since the end of 2009. Has it forced McLaren to change the way you respond in trying to catch up to Red Bull. Do you have to think about things differently, make changes in the team?
JN: I dont think its because of Red Bull per se. But you cant sit still in this sport. If you look back at what it takes to win over three or four decades then you cant sit still in your organisation, or sit still in your research and development programme. I personally think that whereas in the past we might have relied on Red Bulls lack of reliability to be something to capitalise on, the guys have really made a step forward this year. But the development rate at the front of the grid with McLaren, Red Bull and Ferrari has certainly stepped up over the last two to three years. When you couple that with the resource restriction agreement that FOTA have rightly put in place to limit the budgets then you have to look at how productive, how effective and how smart we are. But that is partly what makes it so interesting.
Q: Weve had all sorts of speculation over the last week about Lewis Hamiltons future at McLaren. How does that affect the team and how important is it to keep Hamilton for your ambitions?
JN: Well I dont want to be unduly dismissive of the press but we are entering the silly season for drivers. There has been a lot of speculation about it. Of course Im contractually bound not to disclose any of the contractual content or issues in that but we are on record as saying that we would like Lewis to stay and be a part of the team. Hes a fantastic competitor and we love working with him. Hes also said that he wants to stay here with the team and Im very hopeful that thats the way it washes out. In terms of how it affects the rest of the team, then Lewis, Jenson (Button), Pedro (de la Rosa) and the guys are in here, they eat at the restaurant with us, we climb in and out of cars and talk to each other and there is no difference. These guys are fighting very hard and they have got the full force of Vodafone McLaren Mercedes sitting behind them. We want to see them on the podium. The future is the future. Right now they're here with us and we love working with these guys.
Q: How difficult has it been to adjust to the mid-season regulation change and to what extent has unexpected rule tightening impacted your upgrade schedule?
JN: Clearly when you develop the car around an underlying theme or technology, when that technology is modified by regulation it upsets the apple cart a bit. There's no single piece of the car that works in isolation, so if you affect one part of the car it often has a much wider impact. Certainly in terms of the balance of the cars in the top half of the grid this weekend everybody is going to find that a bit more of a challenge than it was. So that would have stopped some development programmes that would have been quite useful. But history has taught us that we have to be reactive and our R&D programmes can be turned around and reemphasised, and thats what weve done. But weve had to cancel some programmes and point them in a different direction. Im sure there will be plenty more twists and turns before this season is over.
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