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Exclusive Q&A - Whitmarsh on McLaren's annus horriblis 22 Nov 2013

Martin Whitmarsh (GBR) McLaren Chief Executive Officer.
Formula One World Championship, Rd17, Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, Practice, Yas Marina Circuit, Abu Dhabi, UAE, Friday, 1 November 2013 Jenson Button (GBR) McLaren MP4-28.
Formula One World Championship, Rd19, Brazilian Grand Prix, Practice, Sao Paulo, Brazil, Friday, 22 November 2013 Sergio Perez (MEX) McLaren.
Formula One World Championship, Rd19, Brazilian Grand Prix, Preparations, Sao Paulo, Brazil, Thursday, 21 November 2013 Jenson Button (GBR) McLaren MP4-28.
Formula One World Championship, Rd19, Brazilian Grand Prix, Practice, Sao Paulo, Brazil, Friday, 22 November 2013 Tom Kristensen (DEN) talks with Kevin Magnussen (DEN) McLaren.
Formula One World Championship, Rd16, Indian Grand Prix, Buddh International Circuit, Greater Noida, New Delhi, India, Practice, Friday, 25 October 2013 Sergio Perez (MEX) McLaren MP4-28.
Formula One World Championship, Rd19, Brazilian Grand Prix, Practice, Sao Paulo, Brazil, Friday, 22 November 2013 Martin Whitmarsh (GBR) McLaren Chief Executive Officer.
Formula One World Championship, Rd15, Japanese Grand Prix, Race Day, Suzuka, Japan, Sunday, 13 October 2013 Kevin Magnussen (DEN) McLaren MP4-28.
Formula One Young Drivers Test, Silverstone, England, Day One, Wednesday, 17 July 2013 Kevin Magnussen (DEN) McLaren MP4-28.
Formula One Young Drivers Test, Silverstone, England, Day One, Wednesday, 17 July 2013 Kevin Magnussen (DEN) McLaren.
Formula One Young Drivers Test, Silverstone, England, Day One, Wednesday, 17 July 2013 Sergio Perez (MEX) McLaren.
Formula One World Championship, Rd19, Brazilian Grand Prix, Practice, Sao Paulo, Brazil, Friday, 22 November 2013

This time last year McLaren had one of, if not the quickest car on the grid. Twelve months on and team principal Martin Whitmarsh is powerless to prevent an almost unthinkable fifth-place finish in the constructors’ championship. Ahead of the 2013 season finale in Brazil, we caught up with Whitmarsh to discuss what went wrong, why Perez had to go, and why his replacement Kevin Magnussen could just be the next Lewis Hamilton…

Q: Martin, the Queen would call it an annus horribilis. What do you call 2013?
Martin Whitmarsh:
Hopefully a very forgettable year. (laughs) I will try and forget it. But it is not over yet. We are racers. There is the chance of rain tomorrow and dry for Sunday, but I would love a chaotic race. When you have a competitive car you don’t want anything to upset the natural order - you want a standard race - and fear the wet. But this year we’ve been desperate for a wet race - and we hardly ever got it. So even if the forecast is against us, we hope for a wet race and hope for some of the great things that Jenson (Button) - and Checo (Sergio Perez) - can do.

Q: Why hasn’t it been possible to catch up?
MW:
In fairness we’ve caught up a little bit, but we are nowhere close to Red Bull - they are a class apart and you have to accept that. When you look at where we were in the last three or four races we have actually been there racing with Mercedes, Lotus and Ferrari - so we’ve been up there racing and caught up a bit. But ordinarily, if you have a bad car - and it’s not the first one we’ve had - you can put a whole lot of effort into it by either fixing a problem - that’s a quick fix - or just going all the way. But now the rules for next year are so different that we had no choice than to commit to next year. If we would have worked on this year’s car very hard we would potentially suffer for next year’s car. We’ve been off the pace a second and a half during the season, which means that we were six months behind - so we took the development effort back in Woking and focused on next year. We’ve done experiments on Fridays and made a bit of a progress, but frankly not enough to challenge the Red Bulls by a long way.

Q: Checo paid the price for McLaren’s disappointing season. Was that so?
MW:
I can see people saying that, but I don’t feel that. I think Checo is a very lovable guy and will be in Formula One next year - and we’ll do what we can to assist that because he deserves to be in Formula One. His mission was to come here and compete and beat Jenson. Jenson is a tremendous benchmark - not an easy one to beat - and this move was not against Checo, as I think he’s done a decent job. What went wrong for him was that Kevin Magnussen existed. All F1 drivers are good, but the extraordinary ones that have arrived in the last few years were Lewis (Hamilton) and Sebastian (Vettel) - extraordinary talents - and you are looking for the next extraordinary one. In the shape of Kevin and Stoffel Vandorne we have two extraordinary young men, who may or may not achieve the pinnacle of Formula One, but our belief is that both have the potential to do that. I went up and down the grid and if you ask the knowledgeable people and ask them who is the most exciting talent not in Formula One at the moment, I think they would say Kevin Magnussen. Having said that, I have offered him to a number of teams and we couldn’t get a situation for him to be in F1, so we decided to move him to ourselves. If Kevin didn’t exist, probably Checo would still be driving for McLaren next season. But Kevin exists.

Q: So Checo’s misfortune was that McLaren didn’t find another drive for Kevin…
MW:
Yes, that contributed. But the strongest conviction is that Kevin is an extraordinary young man who deserves to be in F1. I hoped and tried to find him a cockpit - I even did a deal and shook hands with a team principal up and down this paddock - an absolute deal - but he stepped back…

Q: …but you don’t want to say who it was?
MW:
I would like to but I won’t. Even after 25 years I find that difficult to deal with - I know I shouldn’t, but I am still hopelessly naive. I still think that if you look somebody in the eye and shake hands then that’s a done deal. When it turns out like in the Magnussen case, then I am shocked - and I tell myself ‘learn, don’t be naive’. So having to face this situation, I decided let’s go for it with Kevin ourselves. I think F1 needs these young super talents to come in, but the problem with the sport at the moment is that money is doing most of the talking with most of the teams and there is a danger that we create a vacuum of young talents. It is even difficult to get young talents into GP2. If we don’t find an F1 cockpit at another team for Stoffel we probably will put him in GP2. The danger with G2 is that you have a lot of drivers there with financial backing who stay for four or five years - and that is the wrong signal. After two years kick them out. Talents fear it and avoid it, so we have to change that. The last time a rookie won the series was Lewis, so I hope it will pull that off again with Stoffel.

Q: Checo’s sudden departure was not the normal McLaren style. Why did you have to go down that route?
MW:
This is a fantastic sport, but there are inevitably in every job moments that are not pleasant. Picking up the phone to Checo a few weeks ago I said: ‘Listen, I told you before we had Hulkenberg, Di Resta, Massa - we’ve had a lot of choices. But you are not under threat from within Formula One, because in my view people can argue over who is the better of all these guys and I feel that not enough difference has materialized to justify a change.’ But I also said to him: ‘Your only threat is from within - from our young drivers.’ I don’t think he took that as seriously as he maybe should have. But he knew that. I also said to him: ‘We are not talking to anybody - whatever it says in the media - and before I talk to anyone I will talk to you.’ So some time ago I told him that I was going to see Kevin Magnussen’s management and that I was going to talk about a drive for next year. I told him it may not happen, but that it is a serious intention and that’s why I am telling you. Making these calls is not the nice part of the job, but it is my responsibility. We are a loyal team: loyal to our partners, to our staff and to our drivers. But occasionally you’ve got to make the hard call - and that ends up with me. Let me tell a little story. I was flying in a small plane from Japan to Korea and there were four or five drivers on the plane. Suddenly an ex one - Martin Brundle - said: ‘I remember when you fired me.’ Then David Coulthard said: ‘I also remember when you fired me.’ Heikki Kovalainen was on the plane as well - and he also could remember when I fired him. All in all the plane had eight passengers and from these eight I had fired five! I do love drivers - we are a driver-driven team. When a driver wins it’s his greatness - and if he loses it’s the team’s fault! So firing is a tough thing to do, but you have to do this sometimes and make these calls. Checo did nothing wrong. But I have to make decisions that I believe are for the benefit of the team in the long run. You might argue that the call came very late, but think for one moment: the Ferrari seats were gone - and he was never in contention; the Red Bull seats were gone and he was never in contention; the Toro Rosso seats were gone and he was never in contention; and the Mercedes seats were gone and he was never in contention. At the time I told him the Williams seat was available, the Lotus seat was available, the Force India seat was available, the Sauber seat was available, and the Caterham seat was available - so actually every seat he was a candidate for was still available. It was late but not too late and I do believe - and I have spoken to three teams personally and recommended and supported him - he is good enough to be in Formula One. He deserves it and I believe that he will be in F1 next year.

Q: Usually it is not a McLaren habit to take on a rookie - Lewis was pretty much the exception to the rule. Why then in these difficult times? Do you expect Kevin to be the next Lewis?
MW:
I certainly hope so. The honest answer is that I believe that he could be - but if you ask me do you know, then no, I don’t. There is a lot of risk. That is why my first choice for Kevin was to put him in another team and do a year or two and then bring him back. That was my first choice - and if that was not possible apart from some very small teams, he joined us.

Q: Could it be that you took Kevin because you know 2014 will be a transition year for McLaren, with the 2015 move from Mercedes to Honda power, and so it could be a test season for you to see whether Kevin really is the next Lewis?
MW:
I hope not. I believe that Mercedes is doing a very good job, so there is no reason why we can’t win the championship next year. We want to win races as the seasons are much shorter and much more pleasurable when you’re winning races. I can you assure of that from personal experience. (laughs)

Q: Can you outline McLaren’s master plan for 2014? You will run a car with an engine that is only good for 2014, so it will seem like this season all over again - running one car whilst designing another, knowing that at the end of the season the current car goes on the trash heap…
MW:
I cannot say that it’s an ideal situation, but I don’t want to make excuses either. No excuses. We should be able to win. Sure, it’s a bit of a compromise - but nothing is ideal in life. Our future is secure with the seven-year partnership with Honda, so we are fighters and racers and we will go out there and do a good job. No more years like this one!

Q: So three words on 2014…
MW:
Consistently win and enjoy. Oops, that’s four…

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