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Q&A with McLaren's Martin Whitmarsh

Martin Whitmarsh

Martin Whitmarsh, Chief Operating Officer, McLaren Group, is confident that the new MP4-23, launched just over a week ago and currently being put through its paces at the Jerez circuit in Southern Spain, will be a title winning contender, especially after all the problems the Woking based squad faced in 2007.

The following is an interview conducted with the McLaren man shortly after the official unveiling….

Will the MP4-23 have the same wheelbase as its predecessor or will it be longer?
The wheelbase is longer but the significant factor is weight distribution. Last year, we worked hard to develop weight distribution. However, during the season there is a limit to what can be done and to change weight distribution, you’ve got to move the ballast around. So although we achieved virtually the weight distribution we were seeking to last year - that was done by including the extremes fair amount of ballast. We hope that this year’s car achieves the optimum weight distribution without putting ballast at the extremes of the vehicle, so that’s an advantage in terms of central gravity and …. [inaudible, Ed] So as a product of that – the wheelbase has changed slightly but not too much.

Has the MP4-23’s development been affected by the FIA investigation?
I would like to say it made no impact, but the reality is a whole variety of things stray into the time of the engineering and management team. We were fighting to win a championship last year - ourselves - and Ferrari. In the last probably third of the season we were putting a lot more work in the development of the product to compete for that championship, so I’m sure that we both were slightly distracted from developing this year’s car. However, I think it is maybe a testimony of the determination of both those organizations that we are out launching the cars early. The car that is being launched downstairs, I think as is the case with our competitor, will not necessarily look the same in Australia – in fact it certainly won’t look the same. We will evolve and develop the car between now and the beginning of the season. There is quite a lot of performance left in it. We have to fix a specification which gives the aerodynamics and the other development engineers the opportunity to develop the performance of the car. We hope and believe that we have done that but we’ll keep pushing. But inevitably, there are lots of pressures, in any business, on time. So, to answer your question, we have had a number of distractions over the season, but I hope, overall, that we have had enough focus and concentration to have a competitive car.

What are you doing this year to ensure your drivers get equal treatment?
I believe both our drivers last year felt they were treated equally. I think there was speculation externally and there often will be in a very competitive season. But I don’t think anyone within the industry, anyone within our team or our drivers felt that we were treating drivers unequally. It’s a policy and a strategy that we have had for a number of years. There are pros and cons of the approach clearly on occasions. If you have a very competitive season, with drivers very closely paced, then you are potentially stealing points from one who is competing for the championship. But overall I think it is testimony to perhaps the enthusiasm and the passion that someone like Heikki Kovalainen can join this team. I think he does so with the assurance that he is going to get every possibility and every chance to win races and win a World Championship. That is the position today. We’ve got no favorites. We want to win races we want to win the championship and both drivers currently today are at the same starting point. They both will be given equal support, the equal ability to do so.

It is widely known that you’ve agreed with the FIA to freeze development on three areas of the car. Does this handicap you?
No. We volunteered those three areas because we didn’t want there to be any ambiguity or any question during the course of this year that any of our program had been influenced by the events of last year. We, of course, are happy that there is no influence in the developments of last year’s car or this year’s car, but we accept that it would be useful for us and for this sport to live without any of those questions and challenges, so we came up with those three areas. We do not believe that we are handicapped by that. We are with equal opportunity with the other teams to develop a hopefully competitive car, to compete and hopefully win races. Clearly there is lot of areas, a lot of tools on the car to address various handling issues and despite the regulation changes which obviously take away some of the electronic aids. Nonetheless we are confident we can develop a car which gives our drivers the opportunity to win races.

What is Vodafone McLaren Mercedes’ position on the latest plans from the FIA on cost reduction?
In truth, we have been concentrating on preparing for this season. We were developing the car until the very last race. That took a lot of our time and energy and we crossed over from that development program to the development of this year’s car. I think there is a lot of discussion and proposals circulating about the future of Formula 1. There is a FIA meeting of the team principals on Friday in Paris. We will be attending that. I think that is the right place for us to discuss and put forward our views rather than to do that through the media.

What are the main changes on the MP4-23, how did you compensate for loss of traction control?
Inevitably when you are developing a new car there is an evolutionary process, and in particular if it is reasonably competitive car you try to focus on the strengths of the car and retain them. We certainly had a number of circuits where MP4-22 was extremely competitive and we hope we can return there this year and be equally competitive. We sit down in an analytical way but we are very critical of where we felt perhaps on long runs, perhaps in some of the high speed corners, where we had deficiencies in the car and we were very concentrated on those areas of vehicle dynamics to improve the performance. But inevitably it is an evolution – Formula 1 is so competitive now and the cars are so integrated in every aspect, in every system that year on year we chance about 85 percent of the part count of the car.

If we include the engine as only one component, there is nearly 12,000 parts that build a car. 85 percent of those are new at the launch of a car and of course they’ll evolve during the season so I think each year there’s evolution. Each year, you try and retain what you perceive to be the strengths, you try and attack the areas of weakness in the car and you evolve and improve the performance. Formula 1 nowadays is about tiny fractions of a percent performance, incremental differentiations, so we’re just going through every single component, trying to make it lighter, make it more stiff, make it more efficient, trying to build systems which the driver likes and help him get the best out of the package.

There are nowadays unfortunately precious few eureka moments “I found 3 seconds in the wind tunnel and the other parts”. Of course we like our engineers to be still striving to find those but it really is a continuous development and every single component has to be examined and every system has to be developed, so it is a real tough struggle for all engineering teams. But it is an enjoyable phase of the year, we go through the season fighting every other weekend, we go into the winter and to an extent all of our competitors’ performance is taken away from us as a comparison data point. We then have to concentrate on improving the car in the absence of that relative information.

We know that the car that’s sat downstairs is quicker than the car that finished the Brazilian GP only a few months ago and we also know that it is slower than the car we’ll take to Australia. We hope that the improvements we’ve made are enough but you’ll always have a little bit of concern in the back of your mind, supposing that your competitor has found the breakthrough that your team hasn’t. They are rare, nowadays in Formula 1, but we don’t know how improved our competitors will be – we hope not as improved as us. The fundamental weight distribution of this car is quite different – in fact it has been moved forward. That is un-ballasted. We were achieving the weight distribution largely that we wanted last year by putting quite a lot of weight forward.

However, in this coming year you will be mindful of the fact that rear tires will have harder duty – therefore we’ve naturally got to do things within weight distribution, within aerodynamic characteristics, suspension kinematics which endure longevity of the tires. Over one lap, you’ll get it alright and I’m sure there will be not much difference in balance over a long run than inevitably the drivers will give the tires a slightly harder time so we have to find ways in which we can facilitate the protection of the tires.

What about the gearbox – given that you have to use it for four races?
We started a development program a year ago to develop the transmission system. We have to last four races but also have minimum widths of change gears. We have done a lot of work - a lot of it was done here in Stuttgart in fact. We have a very good dynamic transmission test facility quite close to here and that has been very central to our program, as have the transient dyno meters that are running very very close to this press conference. So we have done a lot of work – we think we’ve done our homework and we think we’re heading for a reliable season with regards to the transmission. It’s a discipline that we’re able to learn from Mercedes-Benz. I think the advent of multi event engines was a big big challenge for all of the automotive suppliers of engines.

This season just gone, Mercedes-Benz did a fantastic job. So we can look at a whole range of aspects, but I think we shouldn’t overlook the fact that we had 100 percent reliability in the races last year. That was a huge effort and a huge achievement of Mercedes-Benz High-Performance engines. We’ve taken some of their engineers who have been involved in the transmission program. And I think that is a feature of this partnership. We’re able to switch engineers and management members between the chassis program and the engine program. Everything is completely open and completely cooperative – everyone is willing to learn from one another. So I hope we hope we have learnt enough from our engine partner that our transmission is reliable.

Is there a sense of relief in the team, you can now make a fresh start this year?
New car, one new race driver, it’s only the second year of other race driver, I think we’ve done a reasonable job to improve upon an already competitive package, so it is an exciting time; everyone in the team at this time wants to get down on the track, wants to get a base line, make sure we got to the reliability and the basic handling of the car, make sure it stacks up and is aligned with the simulation analysis that we’re doing all winter and then it is exciting week on week to improve the car. There will be all sorts of sand-bagging and gesture laps between various teams when we get together in next few weeks. Nobody could really know fuel loads, ballast, tire situation… So there will be lots of speculation, we’re as bad as anyone, we’ll be speculating. When we’re quickest during the day, we’ll assume all the others are running honestly – when we’re not the quickest during the day, we’ll assume people have run new tires and have run light. But that’s the nature of racers and that’s the nature of Formula 1. We’re deadly competitive, we’re fighting to win every day, but none of the winter testing times do anything for you – it’s what happens on Saturday in Melbourne and then on Sunday afternoon. Melbourne has got particular characteristics, as we saw last year, it can swing quite quickly from there to Malaysia and that was a positive direction for us last year. But of course we’re hoping to go to Melbourne with a competitive package. We’d like to win the first race of the year and we’d like to win a few more after that.

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