Whitmarsh: McLaren intent on adding to title tally in 2012 27 Jan 2012
Running a team with a record of success like McLarens is no picnic, especially after a difficult season. There is no place to hide in such moments, so it helps to be someone who considers the glass half full rather than half empty. Luckily for McLaren, team principal Martin Whitmarsh is a born optimist. Six victories in 2011 was good, but he wants more in 2012. Ahead of next weeks launch of the new MP4-27, Whitmarsh speaks exclusively to Formula1.com
Q: This time last year the MP4-26s mediocre testing form must have already forced you to lower your sights for 2011. But it turned out to be a pretty decent season for you all the same. How is the MP4-27 shaping up? What is your gut feeling?
Martin Whitmarsh: I recognize the point youre making, but first I want to say a bit about 2011, which as you say was a pretty decent year. Very few Formula One teams ever win a Grand Prix, and yet even in a year which youve described as pretty decent but no better than that, we won six out of the 19 Grands Prix - a strike rate of roughly one win in every three Grands Prix. That strike rate more than maintains McLarens all-time strike rate of one win every four Grands Prix, or 175 wins from 703 Grands Prix, since 1966. Were proud of that strike-rate, but of course this season we aim to improve on it again. At this time of year, before testing has begun, you never know how well your car is going to perform relative to its principal opposition. And Im well aware that Red Bull, Ferrari and Mercedes AMG, as well as all the other teams, are working just as hard on their 2012 cars as we are. But, bearing in mind that unknown variable - in other words the performance of our competitors cars - all I can say with any certainty is that the MP4-27 is a logical evolution of the MP4-26, adapted to the new technical regulations, and that from what we can discern its development is going in the right direction.
Q: The MP4-27 will take to the test track for the first time on February 7 with Jenson Button rather than Lewis Hamilton at the wheel. Should we read anything into that?
MW: Not at all, no. As youd expect, with pre-season testing as restricted as it is nowadays, our race drivers will be doing as much as they can. Both Jenson and Lewis will consequently be spending a lot of time in Spain over the next few weeks, and both of them are raring to go. Were fortunate that we have two world champions in our driver line-up - a claim that can be made by no other team - and McLarens ethos has always been, and remains, to treat both its drivers as equal number-ones. Thats what weve always done, thats what well do this year, and as long as Im around thats what well always do. So, to answer your question specifically, it just so happens that our pre-season testing schedule has Jenson driving on the first day and Lewis on the second day, but it could just as easily have been the other way around.
Q: Hamilton had a tough 2011 season. Have you - or will you - have a serious chat with him before he heads into the new season?
MW: Lewis won three Grands Prix in 2011 - one of only three drivers to have won more than a single race. The other two were Sebastian (Vettel) and Jenson. Again, just as most teams have never and will never win six Grands Prix in a single season, as McLaren did last year, its equally true to say that most drivers have never and will never win three Grands Prix in a single season, as Lewis did last year. Indeed, some of the most compelling highlights of last seasons on-track action - from the point of view of a racers sheer talent shining through - were provided by Lewis. In China, in Germany and in Abu Dhabi - and in many other places besides - he was awesomely impressive. Nonetheless, you described 2011 as a tough season for Lewis and undoubtedly theres some truth in that. But, such is the level of his ambition that hes his own sternest critic. Sometimes, therefore, when things dont go quite right for him, he lets it get to him. We saw that last year sometimes. But its a measure of his competitiveness, a side-effect of his monumental will to win. As such, we wouldnt want Lewis any other way. Hes a truly brilliant racing driver - one of the fastest weve ever seen. And thats why, throughout last year, we were always keen to reassure him that we were backing him 100 per cent. People have short memories, dont they? Lewis has been an integral part of McLaren for more than half his life. Hes part of the McLaren story and part of the McLaren family, too. He knows that. Equally, hes been phenomenally successful in the five seasons hes spent with us as a Formula One driver. Hes been in contention for the drivers world championship until the last Grand Prix of the season in three of those five seasons, and of course he won the drivers world championship for us in 2008. Overall, his record of 17 Grand Prix wins from 90 Grand Prix starts places him in the very top rank in Formula Ones metaphorical hall of fame.
Q: Kimi Raikkonen is back in Formula One racing this year with Lotus. From your long experience of him, how do you think hell fare?
MW: Kimi is a great guy, with a super talent. He was very successful during his five seasons at McLaren, winning 12 Grands Prix for us and, although he narrowly failed to win a drivers world championship during that time, he could easily have become world champion in both 2003 and 2005 if hed had a bit more luck or a little more reliability. Even as things were, without that extra bit of luck and reliability required to win world championships, he still won 12 Grands Prix for us and some of those wins were truly majestic. During an FIA press conference at a Grand Prix in the latter half of last year - I forget where - I was asked by a journalist whether the team principals of the teams then rumoured to be considering Kimi for a 2012 drive, a couple of whom were sitting alongside me, should hire him or not. My answer was an unequivocal yes. I stand by that answer, and Im pleased that hes made a Formula One comeback. Hes a very popular driver, and I think Formula One will be the better for his return. No fewer than six world champions will be competing in Formula One this season - more than ever before - and each of them, including Kimi, is not only a fantastic racing driver but also a colourful character with a robust fans following and a unique global allure. If the Lotus car is quick, Kimi will be quick in it; its as simple as that in my view.
Q: For the first time ever, Formula One is heading into a 20-race season and therell be a bit of in-season testing this year too. How will that extensive schedule be manageable? And what good will the return of in-season testing do - other than to provide a chance for those teams who didnt get their cars right from the outset to try to play catch-up?
MW: I think 20 Grands Prix in a single season is probably a natural limit, to be honest. More than that would be overly wearisome for the teams - the mechanics especially - and would perhaps necessitate our having to explore inaugurating a shift system of sorts, as in NASCAR, where more than 30 races per season are commonplace. Clearly, though, that would trigger an unwelcome upward spiralling of costs, at a time when were successfully managing costs downwards. But weve successfully tackled 19 Grands Prix in a season more than once before, most recently last year, and it was manageable then. So I reckon 20 races will be manageable this year, if arduous. As for your question about in-season testing, well, last year we did four pre-season tests and no in-season tests. This year well do three pre-season tests and one in-season test. So I dont think therell be any significant difference from a gruelling point of view, to be honest. Besides, a few years ago we used to go testing prior to every Grand Prix, sometimes in two separate locations at the same time. Whatever we do this year, or indeed in years to come, is likely - in my view - to always remain a far cry from the heady levels of testing we used routinely to manage a few years ago.
Q: Youre still the chairman of the Formula One Teams Association (FOTA). Whats your view of the renegades including the two heavyweights, Red Bull and Ferrari?
MW: FOTA has achieved a great deal in its short history, and its still achieving a great deal now. It would never have come into existence without the staunch support of both Red Bull and Ferrari in its early days, and indeed (Ferrari president) Luca di Montezemolo was its first chairman. Moreover, relations between McLaren, Red Bull and Ferrari remain very good indeed.
Q: Not long ago Red Bull advisor Helmut Marko said that he felt Red Bulls recent success had brought McLaren and Ferrari closer together. Does Ferraris exit from FOTA suggest that that may no longer be true?
MW: As I say, Luca di Montezemolo was FOTAs first chairman. Luca was a hugely inspirational and effective chairman - and, together with the other team principals of the time, he was enormously instrumental in the process of binding FOTA together in its early days. Now, three years later, youd have to agree that one of FOTAs main achievements - and I trust and believe itll be a lasting achievement - is that Ferrari and McLaren have never enjoyed such cordial relations as they do currently. Okay, Formula One teams will always be competitive with one another. Thats natural, and its the way things should be. Our drivers, engineers and mechanics are, and should always be, massively motivated to beat each other on track, just as our commercial people are, and should always be, equally competitive when it comes to acquiring and retaining sponsors. Formula One is a sport, but its also a business - and a serious business at that. But that doesnt mean we cant and shouldnt collaborate when collaborating can confer an overall benefit for the majority, and that applies to all the teams, even those who are currently outside FOTA. So, speaking for McLaren, I can confirm that, at every level and in every discipline - engineering, marketing, PR, commercial, financial, legal and so on - our people remain in frequent and on-going contact with their counterparts within Red Bull and Ferrari, as well as with their counterparts within all the other teams, and certainly that applies to (Red Bull team principal) Christian Horner, (Ferrari team principal) Stefano Domenicali and myself.
Q: Finally, returning to the subject of the 2012 season, if McLaren were to come second yet again, it simply wouldnt do, would it? So, what would you sacrifice to change second to first in 2012?
MW: I think sacrifice is the wrong word. Everyone at McLaren is already working as hard as is humanly possible to change second to first, as you put it, and has been all winter and, although that level of commitment necessarily involves personal sacrifice, I dont think our people see it like that. Formula One people are an astonishingly motivated bunch, and McLaren people are even more driven than most. McLaren has won 20 world championships in the 46 years its been competing in Formula One, and thats a stupendous record by anyones reckoning. Believe me, we fully intend to add to that tally.
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