Malaysia GP Friday Press Conference
Team principals and drivers:
Tony Fernandes (Lotus)
Heikki Kovalainen (Lotus)
Vitantonio Liuzzi (Force India)
Otmar Szafnauer (Force India).
Q: First of all, a question to both team principals. How important is this grand prix for you given the area and the location of your teams?
Tony Fernandes: For me it is very special. The first time Lotus is racing in Malaysia which is our home base and we have received a tremendous amount of support over the past week, so a special moment today getting the cars out and getting Fairuz (Fauzy) in the car as well. Both Jarno (Trulli) and Heikki did a superb job in the second session, so overall I can’t wipe the grin off my face. A good day.
Otmar Szafnauer: Likewise for us. A grand prix in Asia is important to us and glad to be here. It is a great place. I personally have been here quite a few times and it does allow our owner to watch the cricket one day, watch the Formula One racing the next and back to the cricket; as it is so close he flies between the two.
Q: Tony, just recap the story so far particularly when it comes to the racing itself. It is a long story, but if you would just summarize it.
TF: Well, we obviously started two tests later than everyone. It has steadily improved. We had some issues in the early days with hydraulics etc. but the car has got better and better. We had some tweaks along the way, but nothing major. The key aim has remained the same: to finish the races and try and be the best of the new teams and put minor upgrades on whenever we can. Our major upgrade will come in Barcelona. I think at each stage the drivers are becoming more comfortable with the car. We are getting to know a lot about the car. We have taken some weight off and we are looking forward really to Barcelona. Between now and Barcelona we will just try and see what we can get out of the car. But it has been a good start. Remind everyone we only had six months in building this and as Mike keeps telling me - 8,500 parts. It was a heavy car as we took the conservative option of building a more reliable car and that has paid off I think.
Q: What has the reception been like in Malaysia, particularly this week?
TF: When we first announced it I think most people thought I had gone completely nuts. That has been with me most of my life. When I started Air Asia people thought I was completely nuts as well. I think over the last six months we have made the nation more and more believers and our neighbors. We are getting tremendous support from Singaporeans, Thais, Indonesians and now as I walk around the streets everyone is saying ‘good luck, congratulations, we are there for Lotus.’ It has been really overwhelming. I knew we would get support but I didn’t realize how much it would be and as I always said to Bernie (Ecclestone) and Max (Mosley) at the time when you have more local involvement Formula One will be much bigger. It really will become a global sport. Right now it is predominantly European. Just the response we are getting and you see from the ticket sales that we are hearing that it is going very well and the reception Heikki and Jarno got, I think they were kind of blown away with the positive response they got, so it has been fantastic.
Q: What is the thinking behind the use of the third driver on Friday morning with Fairuz? Will you be doing that at other grands prix or is it just here?
TF: I think we don’t think too far ahead. The plan was to give Fairuz a shot and Heikki very kindly stepped down. Really part of this whole experience and I think good for Formula One is to get other nationalities into Formula One. It makes it more relevant. People do not come to the tracks because it is a track, people come to see what is in the track or what is in the stadium. If there is more local involvement, then it becomes more of a natural to come. If you are just watching a bunch of foreign teams the emotion is not there. Part of our whole Lotus experience is to try and develop drivers. We know it is going to be a long experience. We have started already. We have got a boy in Formula BMW and we have got a 10-year-old now who we are sponsoring in karting. Today was to give Fairuz a chance at testing in his home circuit. As for the future we are not sure. We will have to wait and see but all I can confirm was that it was for Malaysia only at this point.
Q: Heikki, your impressions do you have of the team’s performance?
Heikki Kovalainen: I think the performance has been better than I was expecting. The first time that I went to visit Mike and so on, just before Christmas, I think there were four people working and Mike was telling me it is all going to be fine and we are going to be finishing races. I did have my doubts. But little by little the team has actually very positively surprised me and I have no doubts now anymore that we wouldn’t be successful. I think we have hit all the targets and we have been ahead of the schedules and the team is incredibly professional. The work with the team goes exactly the same it went with McLaren or with Renault or with any top team. The boys, engineers, mechanics and the team management have all been involved before, so the operation runs as professionally as any other team. We just need a bit of time to put some performance into the car and at the moment I am very happy where I am and I think things are going incredibly well.
Q: What has the build-up to this race been like? Been busy?
HK: Yeah, very busy. Even with last year’s team I did have a lot of marketing but this week has been a record. It has been a fun week with, like Tony said, a very positive welcome for us. Everywhere we have been, not only with our team partners, but commercial people being involved, but a lot of fans have turned up to our events which is very positive and it is a range of different people who are interested in the whole group of Lotus, what we are doing, the whole style of Lotus. It has been very good, a very enjoyable week for me here and meting a lot of local people. I must also say from Finland I have received a lot of positive feedback from the Finnish media, from the Finnish fans, my Finnish friends. We have touched people everywhere which is fantastic.
Q: A little summary of how things went today?
HK: I think very well. I missed the first session to give Fairuz a go, but I was comfortable I could pick up the pace immediately on the second session. I have been around here many times and also in Melbourne I was very comfortable with the car and I felt 110 per cent comfortable to miss just one session and get back on the pace and it confirmed my feeling. The car was almost there. The performance is still not what we want it to be but in terms of balance it was not that far off. We tweaked a little bit and we probably work a bit overnight, but I felt that I was straight on the pace and I am feeling comfortable, so I am very happy after today and everything worked out as we were planning.
Q: Otmar, tell us about the progress made over the winter as the team is now much more of a top 10 team.
OS: That was our goal over the winter to capitalize on the fact we were good at some circuits last year, extremely good, and a bit lacking in some of the others. Our focus over the winter was to make sure we kept that advantage on circuits where we were good but also improve on those where we weren’t. We tried to add downforce significantly but efficiently and that was our focus over the winter and I think it has paid off. It is early days yet. We have only had two grands prix so far. This is our third and we are working again at getting both drivers into the top 10. We have been close in the first two and we have scored points as well. Those are our objectives. So far so good. However, it is going to be difficult as the year goes on as everybody is bolting on performance race by race.
Q: Pace of development, that’s the all-important thing, isn’t it?
OS: It is now, even more so than in years past. Perhaps we’re on part of the development curve that’s pretty steep and because of it, it seems that every race people are adding performance to their cars. We need to do the same, at the same rate, if not greater.
Q: And could you just explain the thinking behind your use of the third driver and when will we see Paul (di Resta) again?
OS: You’ll see Paul again in China, in one of the sessions and our thinking behind that is that there isn’t much testing anymore; even winter testing is very critical to the racing drivers. So we basically just use one of the sessions on Fridays to give Paul some seat time and it’s that simple. If, heaven forbid, one of our drivers gets injured or is ill, it’s always nice to have a third driver who has driven the car before and that becomes difficult to do these days without testing in the summer, so that’s the reason for it and he’s done a good job.
Q: Tonio, your feelings about the performance so far this year, particularly qualifying because you’ve been out-qualified so far this year?
Vitantonio Liuzzi: Yeah, personally I feel pretty OK. We covered our objective in the first two grands prix because we scored points. Regarding qualifying, I don’t have much to say. I think everyone is working on new rules regarding mirrors, because I think a lot of teams have struggled with handling qualifying traffic, because in both cases I was caught up with Williams and BMW Sauber, so I never had the chance to have a clear run especially in Q2. So overall I don’t feel that negative, because I never had a problem in the past, especially in qualifying. It’s not something that particularly worries me for the future. For sure, you don’t score points in qualifying anyway. It’s something we have to improve but we have to keep on pushing to develop the car because the racing is important. We’ve already scored points in the first two races and we have to keep on going.
Q: What are your personal aims for the whole season?
VL: To be as consistent as possible, trying to score points at every race. We know that’s not easy because the others are not sleeping and I think we have a really tight fight, especially with Williams and Renault for the fifth position in the team championship. The championship is still very long, so a lot will depend on the development side. But this is our target, to be consistently in the points or close to there and trying to bring the team up and develop together.
Q: What about today? Give us some impression of how the circuit is, because it’s a circuit that seems to get washed every evening, there never seems to be an opportunity to get any rubber down, there’s only one support race.
VL: It wasn’t too bad in the afternoon, I have to say. In the morning I lent my car to Paul to give it a go, but it wasn’t too bad in the afternoon. It was still improving every 15 minutes because the more rubber that went down the better it was, especially in the high speed corners, but I think it will be like this all weekend because the weather forecast is not great, even tomorrow and the day after. I think we will have quite a special race, pretty similar to Australia, or even more so because it won’t be spitting, it will be a wash-out, quite heavy rain, so I think we will have another interesting race, but not much rubber down for qualifying.
QUESTIONS FROM THE FLOOR
Q: (Mike Doodson) Tony, things have been tough for the four new teams that came in because there have been restrictions on testing and so forth. Tony will point to the fact that both of his cars finished the first race, so that probably wasn’t too bad for him, but do you think that in future there should be exemptions made for new teams to allow them to do more running, and perhaps to be more competitive and to make sure that the new drivers that come in aren’t going to get in the way of the ones at the front, as they are racing for the lead?
TF: I think in terms of testing, we literally had no more time to do so. I think the FIA, if you had asked ‘can we have some more testing?’ I think they would have allowed it, but in our case it was just that time was against us. Do I think more should be allowed in terms of new teams versus the established ones? Let’s say there were four sessions, should we be allowed a couple more? I think that’s not a bad idea, to be honest, because you’re competing against teams that have been around for fifty or sixty years. I was talking to someone at Virgin, actually, it’s something that we think would be a good idea going forward if a new team was to come in next year. If they wanted it, I don’t think it would be a bad idea. In terms of drivers slowing down or whatever, I think that’s all up to the FIA and their licensing system. If they give the driver a super license, then he should be allowed to compete and is fine to compete. I think that’s where it is. I think the slowing down etc. it’s racing, isn’t it? There’s always going to be guys slowing down; you have to overtake, you have to lap them and I think that’s what racing is all about. So as a layman - which I am, I’m not someone who has been in Formula One for very long - I do think there’s a little bit too much emphasis put on the backmarkers and their safety issues etc. I don’t think that’s an issue at all. They’re all competent guys and I don’t think they are going to cause any safety issues.
Q: (Santhosh Kumar - Deccan Chronicle) Mr. Fernandes, suddenly there is a lot of interest in India in Formula One. We have the Force India team and a driver and we are supposed to host an Indian Grand Prix next year and even you have Indian roots. Do you think it’s good for the sport as it enters the second most populous country in the world?
TF: Without a doubt, I think it’s tremendous. That’s why Bernie’s been hoping to get an Indian driver in and I think it’s great to have Force India. Without a doubt. There’s a billion people there. You only have to see the success of the IPL (Indian Premier League, cricket) and the kind of excitement that’s created in the country. If Formula One can get that in India, I think that will be great for the sport. As I have been saying consistently, I still think Formula One is predominantly a European sport and I always tease Bernie and I say ‘when you have a night race in Silverstone or a morning race in Silverstone because of the Asian audience then you know you have a global sport.’ So we don’t have to start our race at four o’clock in the afternoon. So I think that’s the challenge for FOM and the FIA and all the teams: to really make it a global sport, and I think having the involvement of India and, as I said, it’s not just about the tracks, we can build tracks all over the place, but until you get the Karun Chandhoks, until you get the Fairuz Fauzys, until you get teams like Force India and Lotus, then you’re going to get the real participation. The IPL would not be as successful if there were just foreign teams, if there wasn’t the Deccan Chargers and the Kolkata teams owned by Shah Rukh Khan (Indian actor). If it was Brisbane coming over to play, I don’t think you would get the packed audiences. So I think it’s tremendous that India gets in there. I will look forward to going. It will help Vijay (Mallya) because he can watch a cricket match and just walk over to see a Formula One race at the same time.
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