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Exclusive Pat Symonds Q&A: Challenging Ferrari difficult - not impossible!

05 Sep 2015

After a dismal race in Belgium two weeks ago, Williams have bounced back strongly in Italy, with Felipe Massa and Valtteri Bottas claiming fifth and sixth on the grid. The big question is, do they have the pace to challenge Ferrari in the race? Williams’ chief technical officer Pat Symonds certainly thinks so, as he tells us in this wide ranging and exclusive interview…

Q: Pat, the last two races must have been rather disappointing for Williams. What was the problem?

Pat Symonds: Well, true, Budapest and Spa were not really what we wanted. I think in Hungary, it’s certainly a circuit that is a bit more difficult for us to perform well at. Nevertheless Valtteri was in a good position before his collision with Daniel Ricciardo – and had it not been for that he very likely was on for a P4 or P5 finish. And P4 or P5 wouldn’t have been too bad. But unfortunately we ended up with a hard weekend. In Spa it was different. In Spa we had multiple problems. In Budapest we were a bit unlucky. In Spa the configuration of the car was not right for the circuit all weekend - we simply didn’t get the set-up right. If that were our only problem we could have had an average weekend, but we had a very specific problem on the first set of tyres on both cars. We started on the soft tyres and went to the medium, as on both cars the soft tyres were not performing. If you have two things that aren’t great and then you make a mistake at the pit stop – there you go. If one thing goes wrong it costs you a lot – but three things are simply too high a number.

Q: So what do you do here to get away from that number three? Clearly not all things are good that come in threes…

PS: The set-up thing is rather easy to tackle. We actually know what we need to do. The problem with the pit stop is down to procedures and training and discipline, and we have been working hard on that. You need good people for that. If we see that they are not good enough we move them somewhere else so there have been changes there. The tyres not getting to temperature in the first stint is a much more difficult matter. You have theories – but it is very difficult to prove them. We are always working very hard trying to understand the tyres – and we need to continue doing it. Here in Monza we’ve got our tyre management perfect. All four tyres on both compounds were working really well in qualifying and I am pretty confident we’ll get them good for the race as well.

Q: What are you reading out of qualifying?

PS: We are in a position where we pretty much expected to be. I had hoped that we would be a little closer to Ferrari, but I know that they’ve had quite a good engine upgrade – and more power helped them quite significantly on this circuit. We know where we are relative to Mercedes. When we don’t perform very well, as in Spa, we find Lotus, we find Red Bull and we find Force India close to us – and I don’t like that situation. We’ve got to be in front of them – and here we are. We are back to our normal place. So the reading of today is: we are back to situation ‘normal’! And all indications show that we should have a very good race. Improving our position and fighting with the Ferraris will be difficult - but not impossible!

Q: In the past you have been in the situation that Mercedes is in now: being the leader of the pack – but still not free of mistakes. How big is the pressure level when you sit at the pit wall?

PS: It is enormous! It is that kind of pressure that keeps you awake at night. But for me it’s the pressure I enjoy. I enjoy having to make decisions – and making them quickly. Good decisions - I hate bad decisions! But that’s my life – I have been in motor racing since I left university. I don’t know the ‘real world’! (laughs)

Q: Nobody makes ‘good’ decisions all the time. What do you think is your percentage of bad decisions? Fifty-fifty?

PS: I would not be here if fifty percent of my decisions were wrong. Yes, I have made some bad decisions. But with all my grey hair I am still in F1 probably because I have made quite some good decisions.

Q: You haven’t been at some races. Was the reason for that because you were back at base, looking to find the next urgent push in development?

PS: Yes. Most of the teams adopt the kind of model where there is more than one technical director. At Williams we don’t have that yet, so I not only have to look at what is going on at races but I also overlook our design department, our aerodynamic department and the design department. I can’t do that if I go to every race. Racing is important, but with Rob Smedley [Head of Performance Engineering] I have a good man at the races if I am not there.

Q: You said that all the speculation about Valtteri moving to Ferrari had irritated the team. Can you say what indications you noticed?

PS: I think indications are not necessarily physical indications. You just know it, as I have been through this so many times before seeing a driver or a senior person who is leaving. To be successful here you have to pay so much attention to details and you need incredible focus. You can’t be thinking about anything else. And if a driver is thinking about ‘Am I going to drive for Ferrari? Am I not going to drive for Ferrari?’ - or ‘does Williams want me anymore?’ then they definitely can’t be at their best.

Q: Was Valtteri’s mindset at times already travelling to Maranello?

PS: I think that while this was going on I think that Valtteri probably wasn’t so good in results as in other parts of the year. If you ask Valtteri I’m sure he wouldn’t agree with me.

Q: You saw Michael Schumacher many years ago depart from your then team Benetton for Ferrari – was that something similar? Are there fears when you think you could lose a top man?

PS: It was different with Michael as we all knew that he wanted a change - and it was a very quick thing. It wasn’t talking and talking things all over. He said: I am going to Ferrari - here it is. And we said: ‘fine - what a shame’! And we thought: ‘let’s win another championship before he goes’ - and that’s what happened!

Q: What do you think about the fact that Renault might be buying Lotus back? Many years ago it was your team…

PS: Well, this team has had quite a few names on the door - maybe they still have the name badges from before! (laughs)

Q: There are rumors that Red Bull Racing is lobbying for a Mercedes engine. Would that be welcomed from Williams’ side? Would you be happy about it?

PS: Of course we wouldn’t. We have worked well with Mercedes and I am happy with how things are at the moment. If Red Bull do get a Mercedes engine - I still want to beat them! And we can do it.

Q: But you would prefer to keep the number of Mercedes clients like it is?

PS: Of course!

Q: Coming back to the Italian Grand Prix. Where do you see Williams?

PS: On the podium. Definitely. Either one - or maybe both. Who knows?