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Eric Boullier Q&A: McLaren will make ‘massive progress’ in 2016

29 Feb 2016

Rewind the clock 12 months and it was panic stations for McLaren and Honda as they found themselves bereft of both reliability and performance. Things have improved considerably since then, but from the outside it still appears that McLaren are a long way off where they need - and want - to be. But what’s the truth? Are things moving in the right direction and will we see McLaren challenging towards the front in 2016? Following the first test in Barcelona, we caught up with the team’s racing director Eric Boullier for an exclusive chat…

Q: Eric, different cultures deal very differently with failure. Having had such a difficult season last year, what did that do to a partnership from different sides of the world? On the surface it was surprisingly quiet - but was there a storm underneath?

Eric Boullier: No storm, but yes, everybody takes failure differently. McLaren have a long history in Formula One, so we have the know-how to react in a difficult situation. We’ve tried to help our partner and in the same way respect the way they go about things. I think in the end both companies took the right decisions and now it’s just a question of how long it takes before it delivers.

Q: You were permanently travelling back and forth between the UK and Japan last year. Did that do the trick in calming down the difficult situation?

EB: It does help, yes. But you have to break through the system and build up an environment of trust and understanding, and the level of understanding took another step over the winter - which is very good. We will probably always have a kind of unbalanced situation between Honda and McLaren in some ways, but one thing completely unifies us: McLaren wants to win tomorrow - and Honda the same. Now it’s all about matching each other’s expectations. Because it is clear that if you don’t have the expected results there are some emotions and some stress behind the scenes. As long as it is constructive it is fine, despite the fact that nobody is happy about where we are. 

Q: When you say that the understanding took another step over the winter, it was probably because there were no races. What about the next poor race result - or not even going that far into the future, a poor test day? Will everything break down again?

EB: No, definitely not. The change is here to stay and the new management understands and is happy to re-enforce it the way we want, and that is an indication for me that we are going along the same path. But having said all that, don’t get me wrong: the communication between the two companies was always good - it was more about agreeing processes and protocols. We have to converse to the same point - and there we’ve been a bit in the dark.

Q: Honda has appointed a new man for its F1 involvement - Yusuke Hasegawa to take over from Yasuhisa Arai. Was that also to speed up the process of ‘going along the same path’?

EB: Mr Hasegawa attended the first test and I sat down with him to talk and we discovered the same understanding about what we want to achieve.

Q: What did 2015 do to the drivers? Until 2015 Fernando was considered by some to be the best driver on the grid. But some of those same people question that now...

EB: Really? These can only be people who don’t understand racing!  

Q: Let’s look into the future: how hot are McLaren-Honda this season? What’s your guess? The first test was hopefully not a good indicator, as McLaren were always more or less at the bottom of the timesheet…

EB: We can’t say any numbers - it’s still too early. But we are making big improvements and making massive progress. And there will be massive progress this year. The fact that there is more freedom for the engine manufacturers will have an impact, as you are able to change your targets and your timing. I definitely don’t want to build any wrong expectations - that would be wrong for everybody, including the drivers.  

Q: What real indications do you have? Will 2016 finally be a case of 'and they all lived happily ever after’?

EB: Ha! Not really - because for that we would have to win the championship! This 'happily ever after' is a bit early days. But it will come!

Q: Let’s have a look at McLaren’s 2016 racer: what’s new? On what do you pin your hopes? McLaren always had a good chassis, so it’s again all about the power train?

EB: No, it’s not that simplistic. Yes, as far as McLaren is concerned we’ve been working very hard on the huge evolution of the car. We left no stone unturned. The car from last year has been really stripped down to details and we’ve tried to correct any weaknesses and it looks positive on the first test analysis. We have really improved the car itself. And we want an engine that matches that.  

Q: McLaren has the oldest driver pairing. Is that a sound decision? In 2015 it might have been - but is it still?

EB: As long as we are happy with the drivers and vice versa it can go on very long.

Q: Everybody says that with the changes looming for 2017 it’s best to keep what you have, as stability will be key - so it make sense to also keep your drivers?

EB: Well, everybody has opinions - and I have mine. Yes, stability is good, experience is good - but sometimes you also need a kick, a different wind that’s blowing.

Q: A young, daredevil driver?

EB: You have to balance your organisation. If you change both drivers it’s a bit of a risk - if you keep both drivers I will be happy as long as the momentum is there. 

Q: You are a racer by heart. What would make this racer happy?

EB: Winning. With both my drivers! Short-term happiness: good progress this season. That ‘happily ever after,’ I am afraid still has to wait! (laughs)