Exclusive Q&A with McLarens Martin Whitmarsh 09 Nov 2012
The Abu Dhabi Grand Prix was another difficult weekend for McLaren. Though Lewis Hamilton was far-and-away the fastest man around the Yas Marina Circuit, another technical failure saw him retire from the lead of the race. Team principal Martin Whitmarsh reflects on the ups and downs of 2012, the departure of Hamilton to pastures new, and the impending arrival of rising Mexican star Sergio Perez
Q: Martin, what were the factors behind McLaren and Lewis Hamilton parting ways?
Martin Whitmarsh: (Takes a deep breath) The simple answer is that I dont know. Lewis would be able to answer that question much better than me. If I were speculating there are a number of factors and the prime one, I think, is that there comes a time when a man feels he has to flee the nest. I think it was a bit of that and a range of different emotions. He has been with us for so many years that I do not fully understand it.
Q: There has been speculation that there must have been something bigger than wanting to flee the nest. He would have the chance to become world champion with you in 2013, a chance that is arguably non-existent with Mercedes, given that there are no major regulation changes for the cars next season. So what was it?
MW: We made Lewis an offer - an offer, which I believe is more money than any other driver at the moment is being paid. That leads us to suspect that our competitor and our partner Mercedes-Benz offered a bit more money. I dont know that, but I think for Lewis made his decision. I am disappointed in one sense, but you have to focus on going forward.
Q: Three months ago you said you were so sure that this wonderful relationship would not end in 2012
MW: In fairness, if I had said three months ago that Lewis might leave I probably would have made some fantastic headlines, but that wouldnt have been in our interest. It would have created a lot of disturbance and pressure. Lets speak frankly. The media try to create entertainment from our faux pas. Imagine if I had said Lewis was going to leave. It would have been immensely destabilizing and honestly I didnt think that he was going to leave. I was surprised, but I was not shocked. He told me right after Singapore and I am pretty sure he hadnt made up his mind until after Singapore - the Monday or Tuesday after Singapore. I think it is always bad to make a decision in the aftermath of a bad race. He was pretty sure that he was going to win that race and it was a disappointment and as I just said it is never good to make a decision in such a situation. I respect his decision, but I believe that he would be better off with us - we are the stronger team - and we intend to beat him next year!
Q: Hamilton has spoken about the great opportunity a big team like Mercedes can give him. What does that make you?
MW: Ah, you have to justify your decision. He is not going to say hey, they offered me more money. He is also not going to say that hes made an awful mistake. I hope he thinks today that hes made an awful mistake and I hope he thinks that next year. Hes made that decision and he has to live with that decision. I have known him since he was 11 and worked with him since his teens and I know we will both be very emotional after Brazil. We have had one or two emotional moments since the decision was taken and I believe, but you must ask him, that we have a very good relationship.
Q: Do you think he has already regretted his decision?
MW: I think he has on occasions, yes. Probably, when you make a decision you have to tell yourself that the decision is made so you have to look forward. You say okay, that it is in the past so you dont spend too much time thinking about why. You just look forward and make the best out of the new situation. Right now we still want to win races. We are motivated by that and our conversation circles around that. And maybe he is completely dispassionate about it, but my guess is that we both will have very emotional moments in Brazil. When the separation has arrived.
Q: With Hamilton you banked on an inexperienced driver and hit the jackpot. Will the same happen with Sergio Perez? Do you have a passion for giving rather inexperienced drivers a chance?
WM: Yes, we do. Some of the greatest moments in my life Ive had when working with Mika (Hakkinen) when he was young. And we won the world championship with Mika. And with Lewis, when he was young, so I am excited. It is a risk taking on a young driver. Bear in mind that when we took on Lewis he was the same age as Sergio is today and he was incredibly young, incredibly raw and incredibly talented. Now when Sergio gets to Australia in 2013 he will arrive with the kind of pressure that he cant imagine right now. If you are a Ferrari or McLaren driver the scrutiny you are going to have is probably greater than a Red Bull driver and certainly more than Mercedes or any other team. At the first race, if he is not on the first two rows and fighting for a win the pressure will start to ramp. He doesnt know that yet
Q: But you yourself will also have to be prepared for the pressure, as it will also be the time to question your decision
MW: Of course it will. I have the good fortune - or bad fortune - to be considerably older and I am used to such situations. (laughs) I have read my obituary a number of times and I can handle that, so I am not worried about me. I am also not worried about him. We have the winter to prepare him
Q: What do you mean by prepare?
MW: He will spend a lot less time in Mexico than he realises at the moment. (laughs) That means he will be in the simulator, will be with the race engineers, he will be with the strategy people, he will be with the general engineering team, he will turn up considerably fitter and stronger than he is today.
Q: That sounds like a 24/7 job until Melbourne 2013
MW: Yes, but he doesnt realise that now! (laughs) My experience of him is that he is really talented, he is very young and he is very raw. He is intelligent and has a nice humility about him. But also you can also sense the belief that he will be a world champion one day.
Q: What do you see in him first? Is he an enormous talent, someone to open new markets, or someone with a cash-rich sponsor?
MW: I can absolutely say that he is in our seat because of his raw talent potential. We believe that he is the one to really get the job done. It is very exciting to develop someone like that. His rookie year was impressive, as is his pace and jaw-dropping podiums this year. He has been doing that in an environment where natural talent met a quite good car, but he didnt have the pressure. You come to McLaren and youve got the scrutiny and the pressure! And you either do well and survive, or he will struggle. You asked me if we are one hundred percent sure that hes the right man for us - I cant be. It might be but there is risk in such a decision, as you never know before you start. But we wouldnt be doing it if we hadnt some idea. We signed him; were paying him a very good salary. Up until today we have not had one Mexican sponsor, not one Peso from Mexico up to now. Will we get some? Possibly, but that wasnt the motivation. If you look around, who were the options? The options were Paul di Resta and Nico Hulkenberg. We opted for Sergio Perez. We are a bit too British, so a bit of Latin blood will be quite interesting. (laughs) He has not always been consistent and maybe he has been a bit wild sometimes, but he has sparkled. The really good guys, they always find an opportunity to be there and do it. True, he was lucky to get on the podium, but he did get there. He was there and ready that very moment. He was not afraid of anyone and he didnt please Ferrari with what he did. Natural talent got him to where he is now and now we really will turn him into a professional racing driver, properly prepared. Sometimes a driver peaks early and then they dont get any better. But when you speak with Checo you see a kid but one that is deadly determined. Yes, he believes that he is better than anyone else. They have to believe that!
Q: So you are also familiar with his nickname Checo?
MW: Yes, we will call him Checo. Ron (Dennis) calls him Checo.
Q: How do you expect the relationship between Jenson and Sergio to be? Does Jenson deserve to be plagued by a guy 10 years younger?
MW: Well, that is an interesting one! I have to say that when I called Jenson to tell him the news - he was in Japan at that time - it was a classic Jenson answer. He said, Yes, you made the right decision and I support it. I am really looking forward to it. Hes got something special. Jenson is such a gentleman, and he is so smart that I already told Checo to learn everything from him that you can, to watch him. But the fact is that when they get to Australia Jenson will want to assert himself as number one in the team. We had that debate. And from what I believe Sergio to be, he will want to beat the old guard. My guess is that they will get on well together, but of course on the track they want to beat each other. I believe it is a tough, tough fight that they will have next year.
Q: The drivers championship is gone but second in the constructors is very much still within reach
MW: Well, we will be fighting to the wire in Brazil and then lets face where the season has taken us.
Q: Fernando Alonso has said that he is not primarily fighting Sebastian Vettel but Red Bull designer Adrian Newey. When you see Red Bull Racing about to walk away with a third consecutive constructors title, do you regret that you let Newey walk away from McLaren?
MW: I think regret is not a productive emotion. I think Adrian is an exceptional fellow, hes a friend and he does a fantastic job, but the fact is that since he left us we have won more races than he has! (laughs) Yes he is pretty hard to beat, but we have also got some great people. We definitely can do a better job than we have. We have underperformed. We have a car that has been quick at most races, quickest at many of the races, but we havent nailed it and that is frustrating. But we know we can do a better job and thats what we are going to do.
Q: Since the Formula One paddock left Europe McLaren has run out of luck. What has to happen to turn your fortunes around?
MW: Yes, we have underperformed at the last couple of races. We have underperformed on the reliability side, and back to the tyre excuse, we havent been able to get the options running. When you look at the developments we have made progress, but to be honest in the last couple of races we havent brought a big enough step in my opinion. So (technical director) Paddy (Lowe) and the team have to push - we have to find more. At the same time we are working hard on next years car.
Q: So after another disappointment in Abu Dhabi, where Lewis took pole position but had to retire due to fuel-pressure issues, what would be a conciliatory end to the 2012 season for McLaren?
MW: Oh well, an ideal finish is that we get a one-two in the last two races and that our principal competitors falter But to be honest I dont think that they are going to disintegrate on us. We like to win races and thats what we are going to try for. We have had five great wins this year and Id like to make it more than five before the end of the year.
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