Whitmarsh: McLaren competitive, but nobody dominant 12 Mar 2012
This time last year McLaren were in desperately bleak mood after a difficult winter. Fast forward to 2012 and the British team seem to have a real spring in their step. With the MP4-27 impressing during pre-season testing and drivers Lewis Hamilton and Jenson Button chomping at the bit to wage a convincing championship challenge, team principal Martin Whitmarsh is feeling optimistic. In a Vodafone McLaren Mercedes Phone-in on Monday, Whitmarsh discussed McLarens title chances, Pirellis 2012-spec tyres and much more
Q: After last year are McLaren in a position to challenge for the championship?
Martin Whitmarsh: I wish I could say yes. I think, firstly, the winter has been a better one than last year. We went to last years Australian race having not completed a race distance and having been spectacularly uncompetitive during the winter. Our sense is that this year we are competitive. The bad news is that we dont look like we are dominant. The good news - for us and the sport - is that nobody else does either. We all say it at this time of year that fuel loads, tyre and test programmes interfere with the ability of teams to judge relative performance. Long runs and some race simulation work that some of the teams do gives you a better feel and indication rather than the headlines at the end of each day. I dont think the Red Bull did any qualifying hot laps. I presume some others may have run lighter fuel. But the cars been reliable. The drivers like it. I think they feel buoyant in it. Positively, weve brought modifications to the car and development enhancements. The car initially responded in line with our analysis and the upgrades delivered the performance and the characteristics that we had expected them to. So with reliability, a reasonably competitive car and a car which is responding positively and as predicted to changes, we should feel that we can be competitive this year. We are then aided by a strong team and two hungry, competitive and fast racing drivers. We should be expecting to win races this year and if we can win enough of them hopefully that will lead to the championship.
Q: McLaren changed the concept of their splitter and tea-tray at the final test in Barcelona. What was your thinking behind that? Is it related to your rivals and their high noses?
MW: It has nothing to do with the high noses. Theres always a constant review of the aerodynamic strategy. We have been able to get a tremendous amount of front end in the car recently. Its a strategy we have pursued since last year. But you do so at the detriment of the rear end. This year we have spent time looking at removing the under-nose splitter, which probably enhances the efficiency of the rear end. In the future, if we develop a lot more rear downforce then we may well go back the other way again. But the modifications we brought were certainly giving us more rear aerodynamics, which was beneficial to where we are in the latest development cycle.
Q: Are you pleased with the tyres this year?
MW: We have certainly have been testing some difficult tyres on occasion. But we are testing them in track and ambient temperatures that are lower than the temperatures in which we will race, so that will have an influence on their performance. We have also had difficulty re-firing up used tyres. So thats when you have used a tyre, put it through a thermal cycle and then allow it cool and then subsequently reuse it. We had difficulties and I think some of the other teams had similar difficulties too. That could be because of the tyres, because of the track or because of the ambient temperatures. It still remains a bit of a challenge. In truth, if the tyres become too robust and the drivers and the engineers dont complain about them then it probably is to the detriment of the show. I think we should expect Pirelli to give us real challenges which will challenge us and drivers on occasion. Some of the tyres we had at the beginning of last year greatly contributed to the spectacle of Formula One so we dont want them to be too good, as much as the drivers would like that. We need the challenge in Formula One.
Q: Whats McLarens view on customer cars? If you were in charge, would you want to see customer cars?
MW: Fortunately I dont rule the sport, which is probably just as well for everyone. I think philosophically, were not sure that customer cars are the right thing for the sport. One characteristic of Formula One, or one of the features that differentiates it from other branches of motor sport, is having teams that are constructors, who are responsible for building their vehicles and we have the variety that flows from that. So, philosophically, I dont think it is the right thing. If the regulations allowed it then wed obviously have to look at it. One day it might become necessary to either allow some of the small teams to survive or to allow new entrants, for there to be some form of interim customer car allowed. But at the moment I think to do it would be a threat to the middle-order teams. Forgetting whether were philosophically for or against, forgetting whether were willing to do it or not, I think weve just got to be careful that some teams might find it attractive, but for the middle-order teams - the Williams and the Lotuses and Force Indias and the like - maybe its a threat to their structure if there was an arrangement whereby customer teams were able, without the capital investment and without the long-term investment, to compete with them. It would depend how they were positioned, whether they are one year-old cars, current cars or what level of performance they are allowed. We need to keep an open mind. We need 20-ish cars. Wed like them all to be relatively competitive to put a show on in Formula One. And we may have to resort to a variety of tactics in the future in order to do that.
Q: Lewis Hamilton is determined to refocus on racing this year. Is that something you yourself prompted? Were you concerned he wasnt focused enough last year?
MW: Theres been a lot of discussion about how Lewis was last year and how hes approaching this year. The fact is Lewis is an immensely competitive individual. He has extraordinarily high standards. He only won three races last year, which is not what he expected from himself. When you have a season below your own high expectations when youre any athlete, including racing drivers, then you will choose to refocus and consider your approach. I have known him since he was about 11 so have seen him develop. He knows about Formula One racing and what it takes to win. If hes going to have a long and successful career then hes got to have the right balance of enjoying life and motor racing and being competitive and focused. Everyone around him this year can see it in his body language, in what happened in testing and how hes conducted himself in the media. Encouragingly it suggests he is definitely focused on firstly beating his team mate and all the other drivers too.
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