Q&A with McLarens Sam Michael 04 Jul 2012
Since joining McLaren a few months back, sporting director Sam Michael has been caught on a rollercoaster ride of a season. From the highs of victory at the Australian opener, to the lows of pit-stop blunders, and back again with a win in Montreal, its been an unpredictable introduction to the team. But, as Michael explains in a Vodafone McLaren-Mercedes phone-in on Wednesday, its been a ride that hes relished. He discusses the form of rivals Red Bull, getting on top of the pit-stop issues and how he thinks his team will fare at Silverstone this weekend
Q: You have been with McLaren for a few months now. How are you enjoying the change in team - and role?
SM: The role at McLaren is going really well. Im really enjoying the company. Its a very driven place and that stems from the top and the work Ron Dennis and Martin Whitmarsh have put in over the last 20 to 30 years. Its a really enjoyable place to work. Its quite different to other Formula One teams. Its extremely academically driven and has moved on a lot from a traditional race team. So far its going really, really well. The role is very wide-ranging and all-encompassing and its getting the best out of me, definitely.
Q: Red Bull showed significant pace in Valencia after some upgrades. Was that circuit specific or something thats going to translate to other places?
SM: It probably has got some circuit-specific nature to it. Valencia hasnt been a track where weve been very good at. If you look forward to Silverstone its definitely more in line with where the McLarens strengths are. However, its clear Red Bull have taken a step forward, although I dont think its as big as the pace that Sebastian Vettel showed in that first stint and we are hoping to correct that at Silverstone. But if you look back to Barcelona, we were almost six-tenths in front of them before we took the penalty. So, I think, looking at the type of track Silverstone is we could be looking for a repeat of that. We have upgrades going to Silverstone as well, as we do at every race. So we are hoping they can bring at least a tenth. So regardless of where Red Bull were in Valencia - and they were very strong - our target is to be on the front row and challenging for a win.
Q: You said you didnt think the pace of Vettel in the first stint was necessarily reflective of the pace of the Red Bull. Why is that?
SM: Because of the changes that they made to the car. If you look at the pace, it was a second a lap quicker virtually. That is quite a lot when youve changed fairly secondary parts on the top surface of the floor. That is where we know theyve changed. To get a second a lap in Formula One would be pretty impressive. When we arrive in Silverstone well find out if that is the case. But Id be pretty surprised if they maintained a second-a-lap gap to the rest of the field. It was impressive pace but ultimately, as weve seen throughout this year, if you get the tyres working properly and you fall into that window then you can generate enormous amounts of grip. Weve seen that probably four or five times this year. So Sebastian was certainly better on the tyres in that first stint. I think it was reflective of that rather than the car.
Q: As we saw last year with the money raised for injured Australian speedway champion Leigh Adams and the response to Maria de Villotas accident this week, motorsport is a big community. Can you give us your thoughts on that sense of community?
SM: McLaren actually has a relationship with Marussia. We were in touch with them first thing yesterday morning. Simon Roberts at McLaren is responsible for that and we offered our help immediately. They were pretty much on the way already but we offered any help. You saw the same thing when Williams had the fire in Barcelona a few races ago. We are a big business but motor racing is still motor racing. Incidents like that bring everyone back to where true values lie. You mentioned Leigh Adams, who is a friend of Mark Webber and myself. When he had his terrible accident last year on his motorcycle, we all got together and helped. You see lots of examples of that and not just in Formula One. Although were in F1, the drivers have all grown up through various categories throughout the years and touched on different motorsports - cars and bikes as well. Its good to see the community pulling together when terrible accidents happen, like what happened to Maria yesterday.
Q: In Valencia we saw Jenson Button start to make progress again. He seemed much more confident with the car. Can you talk us through the changes in set-up and whether you think it will bring him greater success over the season?
SM: Jenson is definitely getting himself on to a good curve. If you look at the challenge these drivers have now, in Valencia in Q2 for example, the guys from first to 13th who were trying to get through to Q3 were split by just under a second. That shows how extremely tight Formula One is. Normally, a team mate could be three- or four-tenths and probably drop one or two places. So the gap from Lewis (Hamilton) to Jenson hasnt been that great but its been massive in terms of positions. And Jensons just getting on top of that. Hes been very contained and maintained his confidence within the team. Hes worked really hard in the simulator and with the engineers to try and understand where he can improve. And hes doing that. As a team were fully behind him. From a set-up point of view, Lewis and Jenson have different set-ups and there are particular reasons for that and different driving styles. But they are all things that make up a driver. Jenson is a different driver to Lewis but a very good one at that, as we saw in Melbourne. And Im quite sure hell regain that soon.
Q: Obviously there has been a lot of talk about pit stops recently. In Valencia you said the key is consistency rather than peak time. What have you done to increase that consistency? Is there a danger that all the procedural changes over the last few months - swivel jacks and lights etc - has engineered in a little uncertainty.?
SM:We already had the fastest stationary time in Montreal and improved that in Valencia with the 2.6s stop. And we can definitely go further again, as there were losses in that stop that we can take even more time out. The total pit-lane time was four-tenths faster than Ferrari, who were the next quickest team. Ferrari have generally been four- or five-tenths quicker than everyone else this year. Our target is consistency. Our target is not the fastest stationary time but the fastest average time. Our internal target is to achieve three-second pit stops consistently. Consistency always has been our goal and all of the technology that we have added has actually been to add consistency, rather than speed. We have gained speed at the same time, but that's not at all our focus. This year at McLaren, we have been on a technology and personnel ramp-up. We have introduced a lot of different parts in a short space of time, like a traffic light system, fast jacking systems and retained wheel nuts. The very nature of R&D is that you sometimes get things wrong and that's what happened to us in Valencia with the front-jack failure, which was mechanical and had nothing to do with the operators. If you look back at the other teams who have introduced some of these items before us, they went through similar pain and some of them are still going through it.
For consistency its important to have good equipment. But its also working on your people. We have put a lot of effort into that with training schemes at the English Institute of Sport, working on our choreography in pit stops. Working in a pit stop is like being a goalkeeper in a football match: nobody really cares about it until it really matters and you have to deliver. You dont have the ability to win a race but you do have the ability to lose one. Everyone has similar pains. Look at Red Bull in Montreal, they had a problem with a front-right tyre. Look at Ferrari in Valencia last week - the front-left tyre wasnt even changed when they changed the front wing on Massas car. Mercedes are still having problems retaining wheel nuts. So were not unique in having issues with equipment or technical process. We do take it very seriously internally.
We identified the problem in Valencia and why that failed and the design has been modified for Silverstone. On Monday this week, we completed 800 pit stops on the jacking systems, with no faults at all. So during a race weekend, we would probably do about 50 pit stops, including all of the practices. So effectively we did 16 Grand Prix weekends on Monday. So we believe that we have solved it, but at least we have done good due diligence on the new design we have got for Silverstone. If we go there and have a fault we can say that we have done as much as we could, which is what we do in engineering. We also had a problem with our right-rear gunner who was cut by the front-wing endplate on Lewiss last stop. That was because the box was so tight. He has recovered very well and he may be back for Silverstone. But we have a backup plan in case he's not.
Q: Pirelli are bringing an experimental hard tyre with them to Silverstone to try on Friday. Are they welcome?
SM: It will actually just move the working range slowly and it will be interesting to see them in action in Silverstone. It wont be raced at Silverstone. We will be using the hard and soft compound which should make the racing interesting there.
For tickets and travel to 2012 Formula One races, click here.
For Formula One and F1 team merchandise, click here.