Q: Nico, Force India made a late start to the pre-season, but still managed to get both cars to the finish in Australia. Was that a surprise to you, and can you repeat that here?
Nico Hulkenberg: Well, yes, Melbourne came as a bit of a surprise - a very positive one indeed. Of course, we were a bit lucky with a number of DNFs, but you also have to earn that luck and stay in the race. We were there when it counted and didn’t make any mistakes. So it was a good start to the year, race-wise.
Q: For much of last year Force India were generally weaker in qualifying than in the races. Is this a trend that you expect to see again this year, given the fact that you started P14 in Melbourne and finished in P7?
NH: A bit yes, but not quite to the extent of last year. Right now we are a bit too far behind compared to our competitors in terms of pure speed. We need to catch up a bit more to fall in the 2014 pattern. But yes, the race is still our preferred part of the weekend. (laughs)
Q: Have you had a bit of a wake-up call in terms of qualifying? In Australia you started from P14 and Checo (Sergio Perez, Force India team mate) from P15; now here you hold P13 and Checo is starting from P14…
NH: Not really a wake-up call. It is pretty much what we expected. We know that we have a huge mountain in front of us that we need to climb. And we have a pretty good idea how we can make this car faster, but it is not an overnight fix. It will take a few more weeks before we start to bring real performance to this car. Under the circumstances - that I was out on used tyres as we wanted to save the softs for the race - I think we did a decent job.
Q: What can you say about the VJM08? You hardly knew it before the race in Melbourne…
NH: Yep, that’s true - we didn’t have that much testing. To be honest I was really comfortable right from the very beginning - even in testing. The car is pretty similar to last year’s car. A lot of carry-over items like the steering wheel - we do have a few new functions - but more or less it is the same as last year. There was not too much adaptation work to be done, so I felt at home very quickly again. That can make a difference.
Q: What about the reliability bonus that was always part of Force India’s success - will it also do the trick in 2015?
NH: Yes, I think reliability should be one of our strengths again. The car and the Mercedes power unit come together pretty well. But we’ve only done one race, so let’s wait and see if it lasts.
Q: The first race always throws up a few surprises - what was the stunner for you in Melbourne?
NH: How much Ferrari have caught up. They have made a huge step forward on the engine side and pretty much closed the gap to Mercedes. And that doesn’t only go for Ferrari, but also for Sauber. They have made a big step and now have a strong car as well. This was a bit of a surprise, or at least interesting to see.
Q: After Force India’s fight for position with McLaren in 2014, will your immediate opponents now be Sauber, Toro Rosso and Williams?
NH: I think Williams is still some way ahead, but it is our target to catch up by the second half of the season. But for now yes, it could be Sauber and Toro Rosso. Lotus is the dark horse as we haven’t seen too much from them yet - at least not in the race.
Q: What are the expectations here in Malaysia, in what is a completely different environment to Melbourne?
NH: The good thing here in Malaysia is that anything can happen the moment it starts to rain. It was on the lap when it started to rain in qualifying that I overtook some cars - and that hasn’t happened to me for a long time. And should we get another little bit of ‘help’ from some of the other teams retiring early then things should be possible. But to be honest, I expect a tough weekend for us here. Of course I am optimistic as I can be, but knowing the characteristics of the car I am rather prepared for a difficult race - especially as the forecast says that it will stay dry, which doesn’t help us.
Q: What is the weakest link of the car? Is it the aerodynamics?
NH: It is a fact that aerodynamics is king these days, so that is the main area of concern, though I have to say that the balance is pretty good. What we really need is something that presses the car down - and I don’t mean me putting on weight! (laughs)
Q: Will the experience of the drivers make a difference? Two of the teams that qualified ahead of Force India have rookies or very inexperienced drivers in their cockpits - will they suffer when conditions get tough with rain or a safety car?
NH: Hopefully they will! (laughs) But judging by the first race the rookies did pretty well, though of course they also have quite decent cars. But yes, here in Malaysia there might be situations where experience can help us to have the edge over them. But that remains to be seen.
Q: How do you see the situation with the tyres this weekend?
NH: Well, the degradation is pretty high here, like it is every year, so I am sure everybody is prepared for that. It’s good to know that we have some new softs spare (for the race)…
Q: What’s your guess at how many stops there will be? Three? Or do you think you can manage the race with two stops?
NH: We will have to see on Sunday. My guess is the two stops would be very ambitious.