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Exclusive Eric Boullier Q&A: McLaren's woes won't hurt 2016 prospects

14 Jul 2015

McLaren’s original plan for 2015 called for the team to be breaking into Q3 by mid-season at Silverstone. But while they are clearly behind such schedules, the data suggests there is a lot of unrealised speed in the Honda-powered MP4-30. Racing director Eric Boullier outlines where and why the team is struggling, how they plan to rectify the issues, and why a disastrous start to the year doesn't spell trouble for their 2016 campaign...

Q: Eric, let's start by being optimistic: what positives are on the horizon? Have you reached the bottom, so that you can finally start climbing again?

Eric Boullier: We all know the level of commitment from McLaren - that doesn't need to be discussed. But the positive is the level of commitment of Honda, and the fact we know that our cars have not tenths but seconds of potential that can be unlocked. We cannot physically use that because we have reliability issues, but if we overcome those we will be able to make major steps forward, believe me.

Q: Honda's new CEO Takahiro Hachigo started his job in June and was at the race in Austria only days later. This is an indication that the F1 project must be very high on his agenda. How did it go down having to take him to the very back of the grid?

EB: This was his first visit so he needed to see the entire grid - and the cherry on the cake was that we were waiting for him at the very end! (laughs) But let's be serious: it was good to see him coming only days after he took office because that demonstrates the commitment of Honda. This is definitely long term. Him coming in this difficult moment - that was a hugely positive sign for us. It is a good source of motivation.

Q: No hard words? No complaints?

EB: No, no. We are not ready, we are not doing a good enough job right now - but we know that we have a lot of potential in our car. Just give us time. Once we've solved some of the reliability issues we will make absolutely significant steps forward.

Q: How tired are you answering all these questions about the mood in the team?

EB: It is an extra source of motivation to work hard to stop these kind of tiresome questions!

Q: But aren't they a sign that people care?

EB: Ha, they do! Thank you very much for telling me. (laughs)

Q: McLaren and Honda had a schedule for when they would be competitive again. How far off that are you right now?

EB: Difficult to pin it down to a number. If you tell me tomorrow that we can run full downforce then we will be seconds faster. We will feel competitive if we can be in Q3 all the time and fighting for top six. That would be a major achievement even if it doesn't sound very exciting, as we are here to win. We still target being competitive by the end of the season.

Q: Was it not the plan to be in Q3 by mid-season?

EB: Yes, that was the plan. True, we're a bit off that. 

Q: What is the glitch? Both drivers say that the car feels okay - but it is not fast enough and not reliable enough.

EB: Yes, because we cannot power-up the car. The car is pretty well balanced. We are working to bring more downforce like everybody in the pit lane. We are missing speed on every part of the track.

Q: Why is it that you cannot 'power-up' the engine?

EB: It is not completely down to only power - it has also to do with the driveability of the engine, which has proved very difficult and complex to manage so far. Let me give you an example: we all have the same power in terms of electrical power, but some engines are doing a better job in recovering the energy. That is why you see a difference in qualifying and the race. We are not able today to unlock the full recovery potential because if we do it creates reliability issues - and that hurts us in terms of performance. But it is there! We just have to find the right remedies to unlock it. 

Q: That sounds as if it is a sole matter of the power train and that the chassis is pretty much on the positive side?

EB: Ah, if we had more downforce we would be faster as well. The car is balanced, yes, and the concept that we have put in place is working - but in the end we need to be better everywhere!

Q: What about yourself? You are a racer at heart so hanging around at the back must feel like a bit of an insult…

EB: Ha, it is not an insult - but as a racer you want to be back in your world, which is to be competitive. If you want to chase the ultimate performance to fight for the results you are looking for, that is one thing. And if you are sent to the back of the grid for performance reasons, that is your problem. But if it is because of a penalty, it is not really very motivating, even if it is part of the game.

Q: It sometimes seems that fate is really conspiring against you: a damaged car and terrible conditions spoiled the recent Austrian test and cut short the much-needed running time. How much did that hurt?

EB: It put us behind again. Every time we don't run we can't validate the car - so we put on hold the next aero-package development because we don't know if it is good or not, or whether we should go right or left! And the one point Fernando [Alonso] was able to bag in Silverstone is not really a compensation for that. 

Q: As Austria was the last in-season test, you will be condemned to test every Friday of a race weekend…

EB: …and Saturday and even in the race!

Q: Jenson Button said lately that a podium this season is rather unrealistic. Is that what you have emotionally accepted?

EB: No. I am repeating myself: if we can unlock the potential we will maybe be fighting - with some luck - for a podium. If you can deploy your MGU-K power on the straights on every lap, that is worth a lot of time. Today we can't do that.

Q: How accurate is Fernando's statement that this significant change could come in two, six, or eight races?

EB: …or even ten races!

Q: Is it that vague, that it could happen any time? 

EB: No, not any time. It is not that easy - it is not switching on something in the car and it works. A consequence could be that if you fix one problem you jump ahead not by tenths but by half a second; another problem - another half a second…

Q: Jenson said after Silverstone that he hopes to close the gap significantly by the end of the season - but should the gap to the front still be more than two seconds, will that hurt McLaren-Honda in 2016?

EB: No, because we have seen that Ferrari and Mercedes were able to do major steps between their first and second years. We also expect that in our case.