Q&A with McLarens Jonathan Neale 20 Jul 2011
McLaren had a tough home Grand Prix at Silverstone, coming under attack not just on track but also in the British press, who were as eager as ever to create headlines - good and bad - about the Woking team. In a Vodafone McLaren Mercedes Phone-in, managing director Jonathan Neale talks about how they coped with the tension - and how they plan to fight back in Germany
Q: There has been a story about (team principal) Martin Whitmarshs job being under threat, rumours about Lewis Hamilton, and niggles between McLaren and Red Bull. What is the view from the inside? And why did it all seem to come to a head in Silverstone?
Jonathan Neale: The right people to ask about that are the people who wrote the article. Martin has done such a fantastic job for McLaren and for FOTA. Up until the last race we were the only ones putting up a credible fight to Red Bull. Both of our drivers have won races. An awful lot of people behind us on the grid, whilst they may be looking at the bit of heat we get in the press, wouldnt mind a bit of the action we get. I think its just part of the media circus and expectation at a home Grand Prix. If you dont deliver - and we didnt - then you expect to get a bit of comeback on that. We just look at it internally, smile and move on. I dont take it very seriously. As for the niggle or tension between us and Red Bull then just remember that we are ready to knock bells out of each other on the circuit. There was a reasonable amount of tension over regulations at all the teams over the last Grand Prix. It was unfortunate that we allowed that regulation speculation to develop up to 11.30 on Saturday morning. Its not ideal and it does create tension but its probably good for the show. It doesnt mean anything serious in terms of what were doing at FOTA. The way that we are running the sport and moving forwards is business as usual.
Q: Presumably Whitmarsh gets distracted by FOTA and you pick up the slack on that? What is the succession plan?
JN: Thats not something that we are going to publish or that we need to have ready as a parachute just in case. We want Martin, Lewis and Jenson here for the long term. As for the distractions, I dont see FOTA in that way. Its an essential part of managing the sport and his job and Martin handles it very well. If I go back to the days when there was less cohesion between the teams and then look back over the 10 years that Ive been here then I think we are in a period of great development for the sport. If you look at the cohesion that has now developed around engine regulations, if you look at the ability to bring in some kind of resource restriction, or us trying to develop our more carbon-friendly agenda, that stuff wouldnt have happened previously. And yet we would certainly have had the same consumption of energy and distraction, spats in the press, trooping up and down to the World Council, that sort of stuff. I dont see it as a distraction - its part of the job. I think hes done it well, which is why they have asked him to do it again this year. No concerns on my behalf at all.
Q: Fernando Alonso and Ferrari have talked about taking more risks to win this season. Do McLaren feel they have to do the same? If so, what do those risks involve?
JN: Formula One isnt something that you can play safe with. It is about taking risks and you try and get the balance right. Clearly when you are coming from behind as we and Ferrari are, then you have to work very hard at that. Some risks you take work, some dont. One example of that is when we put Lewis on a lighter fuel strategy at Silverstone to give him the ability to attack from P10. When youre sitting there with a car that has lost over a second of lap time, given the engine regulation interpretation for that event, then just chugging along with everyone else isnt going to get the job done. So we took an aggressive strategy with him. I think it also means in terms of car development that we have to push to close the gap. None of us is going to sit here and make it easy for Red Bull. Every one of us wants to win races so thats what were going to do.
Q: Hamilton mentioned at Silverstone that McLaren are going to get a shock when you come to negotiate a contract about the amount of the sponsorship commitments hes willing to do. Are you willing to accommodate a reduction and how does that compare with what Jenson has to do in the team?
JN: This is a difficult question to be open about. Obviously negotiations with both drivers are confidential. We are a commercially run team with a fantastic group of partners, from Vodafone to our technology partners like Akebono who do terrific work around the brakes. Thats all part of being a well-funded, successful team. We do recognise as well that the drivers are human beings with a finite capacity. But if youve got two world champions in your team then youve got to expect that everybody is going to clamour to see them. You have to be mindful of that. Yes its equal, yes its a balance.
Q: You said earlier than McLaren were the only ones putting up a credible fight to Red Bull, but at Silverstone we saw Ferrari take a massive step forward. Do you think McLaren have fallen behind and are now the third-fastest team?
JN: I hope not. I think if you look at what happened in Silverstone then the impact of the interpretation of the rules cost us more than Red Bull and Ferrari. You heard various people from Ferrari saying that they had lost two to three-tenths, Red Bull lost more than that and we lost more than both of them. We probably went backwards relative to them by about 0.7/0.8s. Thats why we found ourselves surrounded by some of the other teams. So we look forward to the return to the Valencia regulations for this weekend. We are not complacent about the progress that Ferrari have made or the cars that Red Bull have developed. Our job is to beat both of them and thats what we are going to do.
Q: Ferrari did massively redesign the car for Silverstone. It was almost like a B-spec car
JN: Yes, but if you go back and plot the gap to pole in qualifying then Ferrari have made steady progress over the last four or five races. We watch those figures as well. I think in the early parts of the Silverstone race, some teams were struggling to switch their tyres on, but we were able to get our drivers - and tyres - into competitive positions in the changeable conditions to the delight of the crowds and TV audiences. Lewis and Jenson did a fantastic job. But for other factors, we probably should have ended with the cars in second and fourth or something. If that had happened we might feel differently about the whole Grand Prix. In the later part of the race, as it dried up, Fernando was able to show what he could do and the underlying pace of the car. We are not intimidated by it.
Q: There is talk of bringing back a limited amount of in-season testing. Are McLaren in favour and what form would you like to see it take?
JN:I think, cautiously, yes. However we dont want to lurch from one part of the regulations to the next. We brought in restricted testing as part of the resource restriction agreement with the other teams and the FIA, to be able to restrain some of the runaway costs. We reshaped the organisation and deliberately did away with some of the test team. That has other effects in that its more difficult to test out and try some of the younger engineers or mechanics and the pressure at the other end - for the race team, those travelling - is enormous. I think we are getting towards breaking point, as Ross Brawn has said in previous interviews. We have to be very mindful about the travelling community - those employees and their families. So I think if the point is to share the workload and give a development opportunity to young drivers and mechanics then Im in favour of it. But if we get back into unbridled tyre testing and runaway costs then it would be counterproductive to the good work that weve done in the past.
Q: In terms of the points situation, when will you shift your development focus to next season?
JN: We keep that under constant review. The organisation exists to win races. If theres a chance to win races, then well continue to do so. While it is mathematically possible to win the championship, it's possible and well fight for it. And even if it isn't, it wont mean that we're not going to try and win races. Its good for us, our drivers and it's what we're about. The priority between this year and next year is constantly under review. We're not going to make it easy for Red Bull, put it that way.