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Exclusive Eric Boullier Q&A: No panic over McLaren's stuttering start

03 Feb 2015

After the first three days of pre-season testing at Jerez, McLaren-Honda's 2015 car has managed just 44 laps in total - in stark contrast to the likes of Mercedes, who have clocked up almost ten times that amount. But McLaren racing director Eric Boullier insists there is no sense of worry within the camp - particularly as the issues are also a symptom of just how pioneering McLaren and Honda have tried to be in order to catch the world champions...

Q: Eric, how has your winter been? Full of headaches?
Eric Boullier:
No, not many headaches - just a very busy winter. We had a very good schedule in place - including Abu Dhabi, and past Abu Dhabi - so yes: busy, but no headaches. 

Q: The last time we spoke was the test in Abu Dhabi - the first track outing for the renewed McLaren-Honda partnership, which was a pretty tough two days. What has changed since then? The first three test days in Jerez don't seem to be easier - is that something that worries you?
EB:
No. We have a very ambitious plan for McLaren-Honda and if you want to close the gap with Mercedes you have to do a better job than they did. They did an amazing job, so we have to do an outstanding job. We have tried to be on top of everything to be the best [and] bring new technology as well. It is challenging - and we are committed. And that is why we are testing. One by one we fix the issues - and hopefully sooner rather than later we will then start to work on the performance. 

Q: So after three days and only 44 laps nobody is getting nervous?
EB:
No. Not at all.

Q: How much have the two companies grown together since?
EB:
We are fully satisfied with how the two companies have grown together. Regarding any cultural differences McLaren has set up the proper communication channels in talking with Honda from day one. And since then things have flourished around this basic structure. Now we have constant communication channels between Sakura, Woking and Milton Keynes. Even if there are still some language issues, it is working absolutely flawlessly.

Q: What do McLaren expect from Honda this season - and vice versa? How much wishful thinking is involved?
EB:
No wishful thinking. The expectations are firstly to work jointly, and that we are already doing - we are one team and that is very important. The expertise of McLaren in F1 is very important as well: McLaren is on top of every procedure and process, and that is very useful for Honda - and vice versa. We benefit from the huge resources from Honda. So we will be successful.

Q: Regarding your engine development in 2015, how much you can do will depend on how much in-season development your rivals choose to do. How will that work?
EB:
There was a previous interpretation that would have been even worse! At some stage there are still some discussions running. What we are really aiming for is fairness - that is very important. The story with these [development] 'tokens' is maybe exactable as a compromise, because it allows a new entrant like Honda - which has started one year later than the others and now faces the huge challenge to catch up - [the chance] to catch up. You cannot be stuck to what you have, not being allowed to develop your product. So let's wait and see - as I said discussions are ongoing. We all want F1 to be more spectacular - and we want more engine manufacturers in the paddock - so we need to find the right compromise for the future to encourage them to join. And that also includes stability - that it is clear where we are going. So there are many topics left on the table for the coming years. (laughs) 

Q: McLaren have changed their aero philosophy. You are not chasing the elusive peak downforce any longer, but the ‘maximum usable downforce'. How do you know that this works on track?
EB:
In the past there was a race for downforce, and I don't only mean at McLaren. It was a fever at all the teams - to chase the highest number. That was in some ways also a political issue as it always stopped every argument in the process of building a new car when you could show these elusive numbers - something in the way of ‘wow, look what we have!' Then you come to the track and maybe - or maybe not - you get these numbers as there are also correlation issues behind it. So what if you have a car with a lot of downforce in a straight line - who cares? F1 is spectacular when a car can corner fast - so it is the usable downforce that is more important than these theoretical numbers that you can get. We want to give our drivers a car that is what we call ‘driver friendly' because they can push it to the limit - and because it is fastest in the corners. That's it. 

Q: Is this different philosophy significantly visible on the car?
EB:
Yes, I think so.

Q: Where?
EB:
I will not tell! It is not so much visible from the outside. It is basically the management of the airflow around the car - under the car, over the car, inside the car. We have changed all that. So it's a little bit aero on the outside, but it is the inner life!

Q: With Fernando Alonso you have hired a returnee who left years ago with some hard feelings. Now when you look at the new photos of Ron Dennis and Fernando they seem like best buddies. Is that just put on for the camera?
EB:
Ha, there is a genuine good feeling. The past is the past and they get on better - more mature. It was all a long time ago. For the sake and the interests of rebuilding McLaren-Honda's success everybody is happy - not to start a new chapter, but to finish unfinished business. 

Q: How do you motivate someone who has left a team because of a lack of success when you can hardly promise him more?
EB:
I think he has seen enough and understood enough from us to build his own conclusion. And his conclusion was that he believes in the project, he believes in the people and the resources. I think he believes that we can be successful. No, wrong: he believes that we will be successful. Even if he hasn't done that many laps in the past few days. 

Q: Jenson Button is in the cockpit and Kevin Magnussen has been benched for the 2015 season. Can you tell us the reasoning for this decision?
EB:
It was for a long time not clear - but then it became clear. We had to decide the strategy for the team and the company, and we went for Fernando and Jenson. But we believe that Kevin has a future in F1. I think he will benefit from this year as well and will come back bigger by watching two world champions. 

Q: Ron said that McLaren easily have the best driver line-up. Some would disagree - so how are you selling that statement?
EB:
We have a driver line-up we believe in. This is most important. We have a good combination of Anglo-Saxon and Latin character - a good combination. So it's one of the best in the pit lane. 

Q: So far no title sponsor has been announced? That is very unusual for a top team...
EB:
I cannot answer this one. I am not in charge of this part of the business.

Q: Can you draw a likely scenario for McLaren-Honda's first half of the 2015 season?
EB:
First, to see the chequered flag as early as the first race. That would be a major step for this new technology, to run for that long. And then the performance will come. We have been brave enough to work with Honda on the ultimate performance of every part of the car. So we know we have a performing tool - now we have to make sure we can race and develop the tools to exploit the car. From that point we will be successful. 

Q: So when will you be able to show all the sceptics of your new philosophy that McLaren and Honda are right?
EB:
I have no idea. We are just past the third day of testing now and there is still a lot to go through. The commitment is huge.

Q: Can that philosophy also backfire?
EB:
No way, no way. We have to go ahead.