Exclusive Q&A with McLarens Jonathan Neale 05 Aug 2011
Red Bull are riding high in both championships, having scored every pole position plus six wins from the opening 11 rounds of the season. But with McLarens Lewis Hamilton and Jenson Button picking up victories at the last two Grands Prix, the title tide seems to be turning. We caught up with McLaren Racings managing director Jonathan Neale at the recent Hungarian event to discuss his role at the British team and the season so far
Q: McLaren always seemed to be a one man show. First it was Ron Dennis, then Martin Whitmarsh was pushed into the spotlight, and now the same seems to be happening with you. Are we witnessing the making of a new king?
Jonathan Neale: Oh, I dont know anything about that. Martin is doing a fantastic job for the team. But running a Formula One team is hard work. Even when Ron was team principal, Martin and myself, Adrian (Newey) at that time, and Paddy Lowe were visible. The top teams are a serious business. And yes I know that if something changes in terms of the visibility of a person the media radars go up immediately. But it is just an accident of recent events.
Q: There must be a lot of pressure to deal with..
JN: Yes. The expectations and the pressure to succeed are very high. And that is what we probably like. Everybody wants to be publicly tested. Are you good enough? Can you cut it? If you look at Formula One you are tested in front of 170 million people and against 12 of your fiercest competitors, where in reality the performance difference between the cars is really small. McLaren expects to win - and believe me Ron is still there - and if we dont win there are harsh conversations! (laughs) I definitely like the pressure, but yes, there are certainly easier jobs.
Q: You are McLarens managing director. What does the role entail? Ron Dennis is probably still very much hands on
JN: No, Rons not so much hands on with the Formula One team any more. But any entrepreneur, who has committed that much of their life to a business, cares passionately about it. And there is no doubt about Rons passion. So yes, he keeps us on our toes and makes his contribution. But his main focus is getting the car company launched. He has been very generous with the space he has allowed Martin and I to operate in. But the phone still rings
Q: So it must feel a bit like being between a rock and a hard place
JN: Ha, something like that!
Q: Being a successful team means that you have to manage people perfectly and have the right people in the right roles
JN: Yes, that is my job. Martin, as team principal, carries the ultimate responsibility here - so he is heavily involved as well, but he also has a lot of external responsibilities. Hes done a fantastic job unifying the teams as chairman of FOTA and works very hard for the benefit of the sport and for McLaren as well. He is an extremely busy guy so I look after the internal functions of the business - engineering, manufacturing and track-side race engineering are my responsibility. So yes, having the right number of bright people and getting them to work together is the essential point of my job.
Q: What are the jobs upsides and downsides?
JN: Well, there are a lot of upsides doing this job. There are much worse things to do than get up in the morning and come to work in Formula One. It is fast moving, it is exciting and the time difference between cause and effect is really short. If you try something you know pretty quickly if it works or not, so sometimes the pace at which we work can be frightening! So you definitely know youre alive! (laughs) The downside is with a long season it can be quite hard on family life. The mechanics, who travel all around the world and do the winter testing, then immediately go again into the next race season. That is really exhausting. The other thing is that everything you do is so public. If you do a good job that can be very rewarding, but if you dont do such a good job it is publicly painful. I guess that if you work for Ferrari or McLaren and you meet your friends for dinner or go to a parent-teacher conference and meet the other parents, then you get instant feedback about how youve done at the last race. Why did you do that? Why did that go wrong? So it is not really a job that you can switch off from.
Q: You previously worked at aerospace company BAE Systems. Was that job so dull that you needed a change?
JN: No, not at all. I really enjoyed working in aerospace and defence. I worked there for 20 years in a variety of posts. One day I got a phone call from McLaren asking if I would talk to them, but I had a really good job and I loved it because I had been very lucky with the products I worked on. Before joining McLaren I was working on military aircrafts and enjoyed it. But if somebody asked you if you would come and join McLaren would you turn that down? I thought about how I would feel about it in five years time if I had. It was just too good an offer to turn down, so I decided to join. That was ten years ago and I have never regretted it.
Q: Over the last few weeks the car and the drivers have improved dramatically. What has made the difference?
JN: If I knew that I would patent it! I think when you are coming from behind the Red Bulls, you have to take risks. And we have taken risks with the car and weve taken risks with the driving. The drivers are passionate about winning and push so hard that you can easily get to a situation where you overdrive and then mistakes creep in. When we managed to get some performance into the car the drivers started to relax a bit. They know that they have a competitive package underneath them and I think the whole system started to breathe a bit more easily because of that. Well as much as you ever breathe easily in this environment!
Q: Youve just said that you have taken risks with the car. Would you say you have taken more risks than you have in recent years?
JN: I think so. I think that is fair to say. Yes, weve taken more risks. Some we got away with, and some of them we havent. But Formula One is not a business or a sport where you can sit back because everybody else is trying so hard. The moment you hesitate then you know that you will go backwards relative to the competition. And thats not why were here.
Q: How far do you influence the driver line-up? You have to work with these guys much more closely than Martin does
JN: Driver line-up is a team decision. When it comes to choosing a driver line-up you first look at who is available. But then in reality everybody is available, under certain circumstances. The second issue is finding the right line-up for the team. Martin of course, as team principal, gets the choice on that. But Ron will have a view and the shareholders will have a view, as they are representing the brand for McLaren. And behind the scenes the decision will be supported by the analysis my team make. My team will look at performance, consistency, and attitude over a number of years. And then you can come to the conclusion that this person really has something. It helps that we have back-to-back world champions, but of course you always look at the grid to see how everybody rates. That is part of a continuous process. But yes, I am involved, Martin is involved and Ron is involved. My contribution is, of course, more technical. Once we have the drivers here it is my job to make sure that the system around the drivers works well. They have to be happy with their engineers, happy with the logistics and the support system behind them and their trainers. They have to be healthy and feel part of the team. That is one area where Martin had done a fantastic job. Coming in as team principal he has set a new style of working for the team - its much more open. This was also pushed by Vodafone. We are far more accessible and more human maybe.
Q: But isnt it ultimately the drivers who create the right climate in the team?
JN: Yes, thats true, if youve got two guys who really get on, as ours do. These guys have huge respect for each other and both make each other drive better. To have Jenson win his 200th Grand Prix - at the track where he won his first-ever Formula One race five years ago - was just amazing.
Q: Theres talk about having some in-season testing next season. Would you support that?
JN: Yes, a bit of in-season testing would be good. But we must make sure not to undo the good work that weve done with resource restrictions, because weve cut back for good reasons. But I also think that giving some young drivers some time in the car and giving us the opportunity to train mechanics would be good. So yes, I would be in favour of having a little bit of in-season testing.
Q: After the win in Hungary are you back in the title fight?
JN: First of all, we like to win races and have a huge appetite to win many more races this year. Mathematically, the titles are still possible and we will keep on fighting. But even if it wasnt still possible, we wouldnt back off. Weve won four races so far this season and two races in a row, so I believe that we can do well this season. We certainly will not sit back. Of course at some point we will have to take a look at the balance of resources for next year, but I cannot imagine myself and Martin looking at each other and thinking should we just lift now and stop. I cannot imagine that - so we wont!
For Formula One and F1 team merchandise, click here.