Exclusive interview - McLarens Martin Whitmarsh 15 Mar 2013
Over the winter McLaren lost their star driver. Now their technical director is headed to a rival team and their title sponsors have announced their departure at the end of this season. On top of that, their new car looked decidedly short of pace in Melbourne on Friday. So is team principal Martin Whitmarsh still optimistic for 2013? We caught up with him after the opening practice sessions at Albert Park to find out
Q: Martin, in recent months McLaren have lost some very skilled people. How will that affect the team?
Martin Whitmarsh: By skilled people I presume you mean Lewis [Hamilton] as a skilled driver and Paddy [Lowe] as our technical director. I hope - and believe - that the team can cope with the departure of both. Of course you put on a brave face, but of course are also sad seeing such talents deciding to go. In the case of Lewis weve known that for quite some time and have decided to take on a very young, talented driver with Sergio [Perez]. We have great expectations of him and will watch carefully on how he will develop. In the case of Paddy, McLaren is a big team of people and many have been around for 20-odd years, so there is a lot of knowledge there hence it is probably too early to say what impact Paddys departure will have for the development of this car.
Q: Lewiss was an emotional farewell - how was Paddys? Why did he leave? It cant have been wanting to flee the nest as it was for Lewis
MW: I recruited Paddy some 22 years ago, so have known him for a pretty long time. He was made an attractive offer and sometimes people want to have a change in life - facing a new challenge - and that seemed attractive to Paddy. Clearly. I cant put myself in his shoes to know the how, why and where - and the emotional farewell has not happened yet. This will happen at the end of the year.
Q: The battle for technical talent is fierce in the paddock right now. How can you avoid this becoming a cost driver?
MW: You cant. This is how the market works. Talents want to be paid. However balanced these individuals are, if theyve been made an extremely large financial proposal then it is very difficult for them to resist the temptation to go and do it. Of course some can, but not many.
Q: Are you speaking from your own experience?
MW: As I just said, thats how the market works.
Q: You have opted with Sergio for a raw diamond. How much cutting has been done so far?
MW: He came as a raw diamond, and worked and learned a lot over the winter. He is a super young man and it is a pleasure to work with him. He is ten years behind in learning from Jenson [Button], but I believe that he will develop into a great world champion in the future.
Q: Where do you see his downsides at the moment?
MW: It is an enormous positive that he is so young, but inevitably it is also a downside. Hes got the youthful hunger and the desire for the future, but at the same time he hasnt got the experience. But you cant cram the experience into someone. Hes got the right attitude and hes going to learn and get better and for that I believe we will have many great years with him.
Q: Bernie Ecclestone said that he could imagine Jenson blossoming again this year. Are there any indications of that?
MW: Yes, I believe he can. There are plenty of indications, but what we have to do is to give him a good enough car to bloom. And Friday has been a hard day for that. We have been - like any team - through cycles and understood very well what happened.
Q: So what did this first Friday of the season tell you about your 2013 car? Was it shocking?
MW: No. We came here with a few questions which we wanted to get answers to and at the end of this first day we have got a list of questions which is much greater than those we started with. We will pull together and improve that product to make it competitive.
Q: Ferrari team principal Stefano Domenicali thinks that Red Bull will be their biggest challenger this season - no word on McLaren. Is this annoying?
MW: No, it is not annoying not to be mentioned. I think it is annoying not to win! I am not worried about what others say in that regard. We just want to win. I dont spend a lot of time worrying what the other teams think.
Q: Last year we had to wait almost half the season to get a better picture of the pecking order - will we see the same this year?
MW: Based on the first day, I very much hope so! (laughs) But lets wait and see. Time could be a friend.
Q: The tyres again seem set to play a major role - and now you have two drivers who are known to be kind to tyres. Is this making you confident?
MW: It should. Both are intelligent drivers and have proven that they have the ability to handle the tyres well. I hope that in the course of the year there will be occasions where we will be grateful that this is the case.
Q: The winter tests seemed more inconclusive than ever, with conditions that had very little relevance for most of the races. Some would say you were testing for nothing. Is a change needed - and how could that change look?
MW: Clearly the alternative is to go to the Middle East or go to the Southern Hemisphere, which is warmer during the winter. There is obviously a cost and logistical factor, which is why teams are against it. But yes, ultimately it is foolish to spend lots of money for tests that dont give answers to our questions.
Q: What would be a good year for you? And what has Sergio got to do to justify your signing him?
MW: A good year would be to win races and perform consistently, to learn and get stronger. I hope - and believe - that this is what is going to happen.
Q: Vodafone, McLarens title sponsor, is quitting at the end of the season
MW: Vodafone has been a fantastic partner and great for the sport. They have pulled out of Manchester United, theyve pulled out of the Australian cricket, the English cricket, theyve pulled out of UEFA - their strategy is clearly to come away from sports, which is sad for sports, sad for Formula One and sad for McLaren. We have to respect their decision and make sure to work for them this year.
Q: What about the talk of switching to Honda engines in the future? They are not ready for 2014, but what lies beyond that?
MW: We have a clear contract with Mercedes for 2014 and 2015 and we are not commenting on other engine suppliers. We have a great long-term partnership with Mercedes and we are contracted to be with them for now.
Q: How long is for now?
MW: As I just said, we have a contract over the next three years and we are focusing on doing the best job we can with them.
Q: So we wont be seeing a Telmex McLaren Honda team in 2015?
MW: I doubt it. You want to draw me into something! (laughs) As I said, I doubt it as it is not in our plan at the moment.
For tickets and travel to 2013 FORMULA 1 races, click here.
For FORMULA 1 and F1 team merchandise, click here.