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Exclusive Eric Boullier Q&A: Performance push will begin in Barcelona

17 Apr 2015

McLaren and Honda have already taken great strides since the opening race of the season, but according to racing director Eric Boullier the real thrust of their development work will come on stream at round five in Barcelona. In an exclusive interview the Frenchman maps out McLaren's future plans and explains why the team could yet shock the paddock in 2015, even if their current form isn't up to scratch...

Q: Eric, is the word catastrophe in your vocabulary?

Eric Boullier: Haha. Yes it is, but not in my racing world! 

Q: Some people might challenge that this season...

EB: A lot of people pin their expectations on the past McLaren-Honda relationship. But it is almost impossible to be successful again in year one of a new partnership - and we don't want to compare anyway. Honda came back to F1 and they have their own strategy. They have a strong, long-term commitment. They have done a tremendous job already - but obviously when you are at the back of the grid that is simply not good enough.

Q: McLaren-Honda is going a completely new way with the power train, and revolutionary concepts sometimes need time - but in a sport where you are only as good as your last race result time is a difficult matter. Is it running out?

EB: No, I don't think so. I am not stubbornly and stupidly convinced. But I know what we are doing. We know we need time. It is not only about engine maturity or chassis maturity, it is about building relationship. Everybody has a strong commitment. I said before that we want to be number one. Mercedes has done a stunning job in building a very high-level performance package, so we have to be different and obviously have to take some risks. The context is that Honda has decided to come back to Formula One two years ago - but in two years they have to catch up what other had three years to accomplish. We should be judged on how fast we are recovering.

Q: Does that mean that people are a bit short-sighted when they use the world catastrophe in connection with the McLaren-Honda partnership?

EB: This is why I said: yes, catastrophe does exist but not in my world! People have short memories as well. If you are competitive in Abu Dhabi they won't remember that at the first race of the new season. 

Q: Fernando said he left Ferrari because he didn't want to finish second in the championship again. But as it stands, he'll be fighting with the Marussias for 17th...

EB: Fernando is very good. His mood is very good. Obviously nobody is happy in P17, especially at a team like McLaren-Honda. But everybody is grown up enough to know where we are and where we go short, medium and long term. People are surprised that the spirit in the team is good; they think we should be desperate. But on the contrary! Everybody - McLaren, Honda the drivers - knows where we are, where we will go and how we will go there. It's not confidence but understanding the situation. We know that we will go through some painful times, but we will be successful. 

Q: Can you explain where the biggest glitches are? Some of the drivers say after they follow a McLaren that the car looks fantastic in the corners - so is pace all that has to be added?

EB: Be patient. I know our results are not exactable, but no panicking. We have some strength already in our package, but the full package is not mature enough to run in its full capacity. We do have a lot of reliability issues but we will be able to power up from time to time. It was 4.5 seconds in Australia, 3.5 in Malaysia, 2.5 in China. We will not manage to be one second behind at every race but the recovery is moving on. Give us a few races, then you will see - then we will be able to unlock more potential from our car. 

Q: How is the situation with [McLaren CEO] Ron Dennis? The word defeat is probably not in his vocabulary and the two of you had a conversation in Malaysia that didn't look pleasant for either side. Is his patience wearing thin?

EB: Ask him. It was okay. There were some issues that had to be fixed, but nothing wrong between the two of us. He has full understanding of the situation.

Q: What would help you? More in-season testing?

EB: The big help would be time. Actually it took Mercedes four years to get to where they are now. Honda started from scratch two years ago. Everything is in these two phases.

Q: We see that the mood between Red Bull Racing and Renault is strained - how is it between McLaren and Honda?

EB: Different. We are obviously in a different phase. I would not say honeymoon any more - but clearly it is constructive work and far from the divorce court! (laughs) 

Q: Can you draw a picture of the 2015 season? When will you progress out of Q1 for example?

EB: There will be a strong development push until the summer shut down. This development push will be the base for next year's package. I think we will surprise some people by the end of the season - probably not winning races but raising the bar of our competitiveness.

Q: There is a rumour that you will bring a new iteration of engine in Barcelona...

EB: No, no, not in Barcelona - but from Barcelona onwards there will be performance enhancements regularly. That will mean Barcelona, Monaco - all the races until the summer shut down. The magic 'huge, change everything packages' are finished these days but we will have a new base that will allow us to keep bringing more performance in the short term.

Q: There have been discussions about rule changes for 2017. Would that help McLaren-Honda, or have the opposite effect?

EB: It is true that the rules are very restrictive. As far as we are concerned on the chassis we can develop the car as much as we want, [but] maybe there is something wrong in the engine regulation, as it doesn't help you if you have to catch up. Changes in the engine regulations could help Honda so in some ways it could be positive.

Q: As the next race always has priority, what kind of result would soothe your soul here in Bahrain?

EB: We still don't know how much performance we will be able to unlock here. Last race we were just a tenth off the midfield pack and if we can unlock just a bit more performance we probably can jump some of them and be in a better position in qualifying. 

Q: If you can unlock performance can you also unlock reliability?

EB: This is the thin red line. One thing conditions the other. We only have four power units for the season per car. If we go crazy and burn four engines in four races then we will be penalised in every race that follows. So we have to limit the damage by making sure that we progress steadily without being crazy. If we introduce a package and there is some risk, we have to accept that. If not, we don't do it.

Q: Why not put some holes in the car floor so that your drivers can stick their legs through and run for their money...

EB: Ha, that probably is a long-term plan! (laughs) And Jenson with his triathlon experience could even finish on the podium...