Simon Roberts Q&A: McLaren may have cracked Buttons issues 20 Jun 2012
McLarens Jenson Button and Lewis Hamilton fared very differently at the last round in Canada. Whilst Hamilton earned his first victory of the season, Button came home a lap down in 16th. After some hard work back at their factory, operations director Simon Roberts is hopeful the team have identified what was holding Button back. In a Vodafone McLaren Mercedes Phone-In on Wednesday, Roberts discussed how a subtle variance made all the difference to Button, plus gave his thoughts on Force India, the Pirelli tyres and the resurgence of Ferrari
Q: Jenson Button seems to be struggling more and more as the car develops. Is the team worried the developmental direction is hindering him?
Simon Roberts: Just before I answer your question Id like to explain my role here. I am operations director here at McLaren Racing. I basically run the whole delivery system from design to the cars on the track. I attend just over half the races and in my capacity at the races Im there to make sure the team has the management support. Jenson has had a very difficult time over the last few races. I think Canada was very interesting. Both drivers have the same cars and parts available to them. And although they adapt the set-up to suit their driving style, clearly we had something different, in terms of the tyre and car performance. Theres been a huge amount of work carried out back at the factory, analysing the data to check everything was as we thought it was. Were pretty sure at the moment that theres nothing untoward with Jensons car and theres actually nothing fundamentally wrong with the set-up. But, subtly, there are differences with these cars. And I think going into Valencia we are quite optimistic we have identified them. I think we can have a slightly different way of getting Jenson's car under him for both qualifying and the race.
Q: So can you say what the subtle differences are?
SR: Im not going to go into exactly what they are but they are very subtle. It isnt like they are running a fundamentally different aero balance or anything like that. This is buried down in the detail. And youre seeing already this year how teams get right in the sweet spot with the tyres or miss it and I dont think we were far off. There was definitely nothing fundamentally wrong with his set-up. But on the day, clearly there was underperformance. We think weve stepped nearer to understanding it all. Whether weve cracked it, only time will tell. Its been a painful but interesting learning exercise for us.
Q: You spent a spell at Force India on secondment. Are you pleased with how well they are doing or do you think theyre not making the most out of this years unusual season?
SR: I think the guys are doing a really good job over the first half of the season. I think their approach is quite different to the one we take at McLaren but, given their capability, I think theyve scored pretty well early on. I guess, like all the teams, theyre already looking forward to putting upgrades on the car for Silverstone, but well have to wait and see. They turned a corner a few years ago and its good to see. Its a hard championship. Some of the teams around them have won races this season so with that level of competition, its pretty tough.
Q: McLarens operational procedures have come in for some criticism so far this season. Do you think the way the team executed decisions from the pit wall and pit stops so well in Canada represents a turning point for the rest of the season?
SR: Well I hope it does. Weve made changes to the way we do things. The guys on the race team have done a huge amount of all work all season to try and refine the pit-stop strategy and even the way we approach qualifying. I think we were fairly pleased in Canada and hopefully we have turned a corner. Hopefully we can consolidate what weve been doing and keep it in the sweet spot.
Q: Ferrari seem to be getting stronger and stronger. Are you worried about their progress?
SR: Weve noticed that they have improved quite considerably. The car they started the season with was a bit of a handful. But we dont worry about them anymore or any less than anybody else. There are four or five teams that on merit can easily win any of the races. And as weve seen this year, its actually more wide open than that with other teams able to get it just right on the day. Were more circumspect in a much broader sense now. We have to be careful going into qualifying to find an aggressive strategy, if you are to put yourself in a good position in the race, but not affect the use of your tyres going through. Its about getting a balance. So we dont underestimate Ferrari or any of the top teams. They know what theyre doing and are pushing as hard as we are. So I wouldnt single them out - you have to take a broader view these days.
Q: Pirellis Paul Hembery recently said that he thought the top teams were now starting to get the hang of the tyres and, as a result, the championship might settle down. Would you agree?
SR: I saw his comments and when I saw it I thought he knows something. He obviously talks to all the teams and all the teams are learning without a shadow of a doubt. But whether anyone has actually really solved it I dont know. I think every race that goes by, the more data we get. Certainly the big teams have got a lot of analysis going on in the background and were always making steps forward. I think we did learn a huge amount in Canada but whether weve cracked it or not, I wouldnt like to say. If we get a one-two in Valencia then Id say that weve done a pretty good job but its a challenge. All the cars are very competitive and a small mistake in qualifying can make a huge difference these days.
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