Exclusive Q&A with McLarens Martin Whitmarsh 24 Jul 2012
Jenson Buttons second place at Hockenheim last weekend may have eased the pressure on McLaren boss Martin Whitmarsh, but the Woking team are still a way off where theyd like to be midseason. Whitmarsh admits that life right now would be much easier as an F1 fan than as team principal, but he knows pressure comes with the territory. More importantly he knows he is leading a squad with the capacity to recover
Q: Martin, we are mid-season and despite the enthusiasm of McLarens fans at Silverstone, you cannot paint over the fact that McLaren have not performed to their own high standards. What are you doing about it?
Martin Whitmarsh: First, you are right. If you are McLaren you cannot be happy. We had a quite big upgrade at Hockenheim and from what weve seen it is working fairly well, even if we didnt have the chance to run as much as we would have liked to in the free practice sessions due to the conditions. But dont forget, in some ways it is one of the most unusual seasons - and I know what I am talking about as 2012 is my 24th season in Formula One. We had some great moments, especially at the start of the season, and the fact is that only four races ago weve been very strong and then we probably lost it a bit. We did not score all the points we could have scored, but we definitely will not leave it there. (laughs)
There is a tough development battle going on. Right now you have to say that Ferrari is the most improved team. Theyve done a good job, and Fernando [Alonso] is doing a great job in my opinion. Red Bull has improved too, with Mark [Webber] doing a great job at Silverstone. If you ask me what went wrong at Silverstone - probably the low point of our season so far - then I would say qualifying went wrong and from there it was hard to recover. We have addressed that situation with a big enough upgrade to hopefully carry us until the summer break.
I think it is also fair to say that sometimes we have severe problems with the tyres. I would not say that there is anything wrong with the tyres. Its just that we are right at the knife-edge and sometimes it falls the wrong way. There is no doubt that tyres have an enormous effect this year - probably too much in my view - but, on the other hand, for the fans it has been an incredibly intriguing season so far. For us in the team weve faced some moments of desperation and frustration. But probably it is good that were getting a hard time. I doubt it would be good coming in a natural order to every race. We have seen two great championships in the past two years and just when you think it cant get any better from a fans point of view, it can. Who can predict the outcome of any race this year? Id love to say that it would be us, but no, you cant. Probably it is more rewarding to be a fan this season than a team principal! (laughs)
Q: You are third in the standings, just one point ahead of Lotus. Is that down to Jenson Button not fully playing his part, despite his improvement at Hockenheim?
MW: I would not want to lay the responsibility on Jenson. The facts are Jenson doesnt have the points on the board that you would have expected, but we are a team and we are expected to give him the car he wants. Jenson won in dominant style in Australia not so many months ago and he hasnt lost that talent or that hunger. He wants to win very, very badly. So its on us to give him the car he is comfortable with and with which he can turn the tyres on - thats our technical challenge. Between us we havent done a good enough job.
Q: What is the four-month plan to get back on top of the standings come the chequered flag in Brazil?
MW: Ha, if we are first and second in the drivers championship and first in the constructors, then I will leave the season happily behind me. Thats the challenge. I am fortunate enough to have been with this team for eight championship wins. Id like a few more and Im hopefully young enough to see another eight! That is for McLaren. For Formula One, it is the sport that I love so - stepping aside from McLaren - I hope that its decided with the last chequered flag and that until then we sit on the edge of our seats for every single lap. We had in the past less gripping championships with near certainty of who was going to win, so from that point of view it is gripping. We have to connect to younger people, who got lots of entertainment options apart from sitting in front of the television. We are challenged by these options, so we have to be entertaining and I think we have achieved that. Formula One is a world sport, of which there are only two - soccer and Formula One - so it is fantastic to see whats been achieved in our sport over the last 30 years. And we should be aiming to do it again in the next 30 years. I hope we can capture the imagination in North America. They are such a huge market, they love cars, and we are the premier motor racing in the world. So when we can provide them with entertainment - and we have a product that is massively exciting - then I sure we can make it.
Q: McLaren proudly presents its driver pairing as the most harmonious in the paddock, but can such cuddly conditions also stop them driving each other forward?
MW: Well, I understand the analysis, but no, I dont think so. Lets put it another way. If we can get Jenson to qualify high up and he is on the same part of the race track as Lewis, I can assure you that you wont see any cuddliness! (laughs) We saw last year that they had contact a few times - dramatically so in Canada - and I dont like quite that much contact, but there is no doubt that they both desperately want to beat each other. If for whatever reason they are further apart, then it is quite easy to be cuddly. But, for sure, Jenson wants to beat Lewis when he gets close to him at the track.
Q: Lewis said that he will think about his future in the summer break. Is his future still with McLaren? And what other options would you have?
MW: Based on what Ive been told and what Ive observed, Lewis wants to stay with this team and McLaren very much wants Lewis to stay. Unless something rather surprising happens, we will get there. Maybe we are over-comfortable with each other, but we havent had the urgency to resolve that contract issue, so we all said, Okay, lets sort it out in the break. And we are only one week away from the break. I suspect that we can resolve it during that period and come back with clarity for the rest of the season. In truth there are not that many options for either of us. It is not impossible for either of us, but I think we are a pretty good fit. We both want the same things, so rightly or wrongly, it is not a big panic issue for me. (laughs)
Q: Formula One racings commercial rights holder looks set to extend its board with three team members from Ferrari, Red Bull and McLaren. Can you tell us if McLaren have found the right person yet?
MW: I dont think that it is a secret anymore that nine teams have signed the contract - and I really hope that the silver team next door [Mercedes] will sign very shortly and it will be then that we will take up our board position. Wed like to see that all the teams have signed before we join the board - and then we will make our decision. I think it has to be clear that anyone joining this board isnt there to represent their team interests but try to contribute to Formula One and take a broader view. It is a phenomenally interesting opportunity. We have to come together more effectively - then we can make it an even better sport in the future.
Q: There is a rumour out there that it will be you joining the board for McLaren
MW: I have heard that rumour too. (laughs) I might not be acceptable to the board, but it would be an honour to do so. So lets wait and see if the rumour comes true.
Q: You were recently quoted as saying that the FIA must be part of the new Concorde Agreement. What is your fear if they are not?
MW: Well, my fear is that at the moment the deal hasnt been done and therefore it adds some volatility to the situation. At times Formula One has lost opportunities because of inner frictions. We create dramas out here between us rather than saying, Hey, this is a fantastic sport, a world sport, and we should all work together and point in the same direction! When Bernie [Ecclestone] says we have to make this sport a success in America then we all line up saying, Yes, lets do it! But we lose too much on the way to this yes. I have a very good relationship with Ferrari - I hope I have a very good relationship with Ferrari! Weve known them for 30 years now and have been fighting them on the track, in the pit lane, in the paddock, in FIA meetings, in court - everywhere. I respect that Ferrari is the biggest brand in Formula One. Period. And for McLaren to say that is not something that comes easy, and has been said too often before. But its a fact. And the second largest brand in Formula One is McLaren. Brand-wise we are number two. Maybe in 50 years we will be bigger than Ferrari, but at the moment I respect what they represent. Of course we want to beat each other - that will never change as it is the nature of the sport - but consent should be possible.
Q: Coming back to the FIA, would Formula One be possible without them?
MW: Name aside, anything is possible. But I dont think it is a productive thing. Bernie is the vital component. But, Bernie aside, the sport would be poorer without Ferrari, without McLaren, so we dont need the challenge with the FIA of trying to do it. Could we set up our own rules, doing the scrutineering, doing our own administration, between Bernie and the teams? Well, anything is possible, but why do it? Inevitably youve got the interests of the world governing body, youve got the interests of the commercial rights holder and youve got the individual interests of the teams. Still we must to come to the point of saying Formula One is big and important to all of us, so in large areas we should be aligned and if we just can put aside our individual differences and focus on what we all want - for example to be successful in America - then that reflects on all of us. I hope that there will be a Concorde Agreement that ties it all together because at the moment there are individual contracts. If we were not happy with our contract we wouldnt have signed it, so I am not complaining, but the danger is that if we all have individual contracts that is probably not aligning us and bringing us together. The Concorde is a tripartite agreement - teams, commercial rights holder and FIA. It has never been perfect, but its a model that before we abandon it we should be very cautious. Why reinvent something if it functions? Lets use it.
Q: Returning to McLaren and where it stands right now, it might appear that youd rather be an F1 fan than the team principal. When do you think you will be able to be both again?
MW: Ha, yes, I am a fan. If you take what I think are the two toughest jobs in the paddock - being team principal of Ferrari and McLaren - if you arent winning, youre getting a hard time. I am only the fourth team principal of McLaren: Bruce McLaren, Teddy Mayer, a certain Ron Dennis, and myself. Weve won a quarter of the Grands Prix since 1966, so we are doomed to win. But I am long enough in the sport that when I became team principal this wasnt a shock situation. I knew. You cannot be team principal of McLaren or Ferrari and complain about media pressure. You would be stupid if you did. If we go two or three races without winning, thats when you start reading your obituary in the papers. (laughs) But thats life - and if you are sensitive dont do the job
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