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Exclusive Martin Whitmarsh Q&A: 2013 McLaren too ambitious 24 May 2013

Martin Whitmarsh (GBR) McLaren Chief Executive Officer.
Formula One World Championship, Rd4, Bahrain Grand Prix, Practice, Bahrain International Circuit, Sakhir, Bahrain, Friday, 19 April 2013 Sergio Perez (MEX) McLaren MP4-28.
Formula One World Championship, Rd6, Monaco Grand Prix, Practice, Monte-Carlo, Monaco, Thursday, 23 May 2013 Martin Whitmarsh (GBR) McLaren Chief Executive Officer.
Formula One World Championship, Rd5, Spanish Grand Prix, Qualifying, Barcelona, Spain, Saturday, 11 May 2013 Sergio Perez (MEX) McLaren MP4-28.
Formula One World Championship, Rd6, Monaco Grand Prix, Practice, Monte-Carlo, Monaco, Thursday, 23 May 2013 (L to R): Martin Whitmarsh (GBR) McLaren Chief Executive Officer, Sergio Perez (MEX) McLaren and Carlos Slim Sr (MEX).
Formula One World Championship, Rd4, Bahrain Grand Prix, Qualifying, Bahrain International Circuit, Sakhir, Bahrain, Saturday, 20 April 2013 Jenson Button (GBR) McLaren MP4-28.
Formula One World Championship, Rd6, Monaco Grand Prix, Practice, Monte-Carlo, Monaco, Thursday, 23 May 2013 Martin Whitmarsh (GBR) McLaren Chief Executive Officer.
Formula One Testing, Day 1, Jerez, Spain, Tuesday, 5 February 2013 Sergio Perez (MEX) McLaren MP4-28.
Formula One World Championship, Rd6, Monaco Grand Prix, Practice, Monte-Carlo, Monaco, Thursday, 23 May 2013 McLaren-Honda MP4-4 Jenson Button (GBR) McLaren MP4-28 rear wing.
Formula One World Championship, Rd5, Spanish Grand Prix, Practice, Barcelona, Spain, Friday, 10 May 2013 Jenson Button (GBR) McLaren MP4-28.
Formula One World Championship, Rd5, Spanish Grand Prix, Practice, Barcelona, Spain, Friday, 10 May 2013 Martin Whitmarsh (GBR) McLaren Chief Executive Officer.
Formula One World Championship, Rd4, Bahrain Grand Prix, Practice, Bahrain International Circuit, Sakhir, Bahrain, Friday, 19 April 2013 Jenson Button (GBR) McLaren MP4-28 leads team mate Sergio Perez (MEX) McLaren MP4-28.
Formula One World Championship, Rd4, Bahrain Grand Prix, Race Day, Bahrain International Circuit, Sakhir, Bahrain, Sunday, 21 April 2013 Martin Whitmarsh (GBR) McLaren Chief Executive Officer.
Formula One World Championship, Rd1, Australian Grand Prix, Practice, Albert Park, Melbourne, Australia, Friday, 15 March 2013 Sergio Perez (MEX) McLaren MP4-28 and Jenson Button (GBR) McLaren MP4-28.
Formula One World Championship, Rd4, Bahrain Grand Prix, Race Day, Bahrain International Circuit, Sakhir, Bahrain, Sunday, 21 April 2013 Martin Whitmarsh (GBR) McLaren Chief Executive Officer signs autographs for the fans.
Formula One World Championship, Rd1, Australian Grand Prix, Preparations, Albert Park, Melbourne, Australia, Thursday, 14 March 2013

When McLaren romped to victory in the final two races of 2012 there was every reason to believe that the Woking-based team would be serious championship challengers this season, even withstanding the loss of Lewis Hamilton to rivals Mercedes. But with the MP4-28 failing to live up to expectations, rather than planning a title push, team principal Martin Whitmarsh faces the daunting task of turning McLaren’s fortunes around. In this exclusive interview, he discusses their current struggles and the form of drivers Jenson Button and Sergio Perez, but the first topic on the agenda is Honda, with whom they will join forces in 2015…

Q: Martin, last time we spoke you didn’t know anything about a McLaren-Honda link up. What do you know about it now?
Martin Whitmarsh:
Well, I guess I have to admit it now: it has been done. (laughs) It was a very important announcement for McLaren. I had the good fortune of working together with Honda in the late 1980s and early 1990s and won world championships, so I know their passion for motor racing. I have to say that we have a tremendous partner at the moment with Mercedes and it is obvious that they have a long and successful racing culture and passion. There are not many other automotive companies that have that level, but I would say that Honda is definitely there. For us - for our business model - we needed to have a relationship with an OEM (Original Equipment Manufacturer) - we need to be a works team. It’s been a challenge for the last few years as we progressively came away from being a works team - something that was surrounded by much speculation - so the Honda partnership is fantastic news for us and it is good for Formula One. Honda will be around for a long, long time - they have an absolute commitment for staying. They will be with us initially, but they will be with others at some point as well. Formula One needs automotive companies that are passionate about the technology, passionate about the challenge and passionate about racing the way Honda is.

Q: What were the reasons for ending the partnership with Mercedes after 20 long years? Was it because you fell from works status to customer status and were looking to get back to works team status?
MW:
Basically yes. Sure, there is a lot of sadness as a 20-year partnership and so many great moments cannot be brushed off that easily. It is not an easy thing to pull away from, but ultimately for a team like McLaren we do need to be a works team - we need their full support. Frankly there have been other opportunities around, but none of them was interesting enough to contemplate leaving Mercedes - but Honda is Honda. They are one of the only other OEMs that has that consistent passion for racing. So it became irresistible to us - it was the right thing to do.

Q: Is Honda the better deal?
MW:
Well, you can easily imagine that commercially it was very advantageous for us. Let’s leave it at that.

Q: Why will the switch to Honda take place in 2015 and not 2014? Why wait another year and then have to face another major change, when your opponents will have already recovered from the upheaval of the 2014 rule changes?
MW:
Of course it would have been better to make a cleaner transition, but it was a timing issue. Honda has to build up the capability and facility and engineering and they hadn’t started in time. They are not going to be ready in 2014 - so yes, this aspect is a bit untidy, but it became necessary.

Q: So was there some hope from your point of view that the 2014 changes would be postponed until 2015?
MW:
Selfishly, for McLaren, that would be a very good outcome! But in fairness to Mercedes, Ferrari and Renault, they have made a commitment to a date - but we would be happy to change even now.

Q: The McLaren-Honda partnership won four consecutive drivers’ and constructors’ titles between 1988 and 1991. With this legacy are you destined to be successful?
MW:
There will be a massive amount of expectations and pressure. Honda and ourselves have to learn to work together again and I am sure that we will get back to competitiveness as quickly as we can. The goal is very clear: to consistently win together. Whether that will be immediately or will take a bit of time, we have to wait and see. It will be a big challenge coming in in 2015 when all the others have been running a year.

Q: What’s your guess: will McLaren’s relationship with Honda outshine the 20 Mercedes years?
MW:
I hope they will top the 20 Mercedes years. They certainly convinced us that they would. They are somewhat uncomfortable, certainly, with their last exit (from the sport) and they’ve made it very clear to us that they intend to come in and be durable and to remain in Formula One for a long time.

Q: Clearly McLaren are not where they want to be performance-wise at the moment. What is the team’s Achilles Heel and when will you overcome it?
MW:
Well, hero-to-zero happens very quickly in this business. Not so long ago we had the fastest car on the grid - and now we don’t. It’s tough - and believe me we are annoyed with ourselves - but we are working hard to try to improve.

Q: Can you pinpoint the cause of the problems?
MW:
Frankly the car is not fast enough. With the benefit of hindsight we were too ambitious last year. We had a competitive car and made decisions to make very big changes in the expectation of aggressively making a big step forward - and that backfired. In hindsight we should have evolved what was already a competitive car. We didn’t do that and are paying the cost of it - but we are learning a lot from all this pain. If I try to look for positives, we’ve learned a lot about ourselves and it makes us more resilient. Of course, I’d like to be competitive now. I love to go to races with a realistic prospect of winning. The team has won 182 Grands Prix and I have been around for just over 100 of them and it is never enough. (laughs) So if you are in a period like this it is not the most satisfying thing to go motor racing.

Q: When looking at the situation, is it fair to say that you’re having a rough time now, you’ll probably have a rough time next season and might have a rough year in 2015…
MW:
Might be. But I think teams go through these phases. We are a long-term team. We are very fortunate with great shareholders. We have fiscal stability, we’ve got a good budget and we have a great new partner in prospect - so there a lot of things to be positive about as there are a number of teams here who struggle to survive. So yes, we are having a tough time, but we’ve been there before. We will fight through and do the best job we can.

Q: Speaking of budgets, who will replace Vodafone as title sponsor next year. Will you have a title sponsor from 2014 onwards?
MW:
Fortunately there are a number of options. If you look back there have only been four title sponsors in 50 years of McLaren history. We are very comfortable with where we are on that one.

Q: So will there be a title sponsor next year?
MW:
In all probability there will be a title sponsor at the front of our name.

Q: You introduced huge upgrades in Barcelona and Jenson Button said that now you have some ideas about what works and what doesn’t. What are the facts?
MW:
Nearly everything we had in Barcelona is still on the car so that indicates that it works. We have a new front wing here (in Monaco) and some other bits and pieces, and we are working hard to bring more new parts to Montreal. I would love to have a magic way to resurrect quicker, but unfortunately it is only hard work that will help, and I am sure that we will become more competitive as the season moves on.

Q: Sergio Perez and McLaren - is it correct that there is a bit of disappointment on both sides?
MW:
Put it the other way round: Checo (Perez) has the right to be disappointed. We wanted him to come into a competitive situation at McLaren, so he’s got the right (to be disappointed). But he manages that very well for such a young man. He’s been an excellent team player. Again, the other way around: he came into a massively pressured situation where our car is not as competitive as he, and we, wanted it to be. The first three races he made no mistakes, but he was probably a bit hesitant. In Bahrain he very aggressively outraced his team mate - that was a good measure. The following race he out-qualified his team mate and his team mate is a very high-standard driver and proven world champion. So I think it is fair to say that the first three races he looked a little bit hesitant and cautious, trying not to make mistakes because if had he made mistakes everybody would have jumped on him. So in fairness, he has made no mistakes and he has a steep learning curve. We are absolutely delighted with him. If we give him a good enough car he will win races and if we get it together well enough he’s going to win a world championship.

Q: What about Jenson’s dreams of another shot at the drivers’ title? It all looked so promising at the end of 2012: the MP4-27 was the fastest car on the grid, there were no big regulation changes, Lewis Hamilton was going to another team, there was the possibility that Red Bull would be exhausted after three titles… Jenson looked a logical candidate for a title challenge. How do you sweeten his current P10 in the drivers’ standings?
MW:
We all thought that he would have (challenged). He has every right to feel disappointed and it’s great of him that he has kept this disappointment to himself. That makes him a great team player. What I know is that there is no point in dwelling on disappointment. We have to turn it into determination to get back to where we belong as quickly as possible. Both guys are racing each other now - and we allow them to do that because it is good for the show and the dynamics - and that is exactly how it should be.

Q: Give us your prediction as to where you’ll stand by the time of the team’s home race at Silverstone.
MW:
What I can say is that we will have a quicker car in Silverstone than we have today. How much we gain I can’t predict, as it is also depends on what our competitors do.

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