Q&A with McLaren team's Whitmarsh and Haug The Chinese Grand Prix could determine the outcome of the drivers' championship this weekend in Shanghai. Lewis Hamilton leads the standings by five points from Felipe Massa, while McLaren Mercedes trail Ferrari by seven points in the constructors' championship. McLaren F1 CEO Martin Whitmarsh and Mercedes-Benz Motorsport Vice-President look ahead to China.
Martin Whitmarsh - Whenever a world championship is at stake, history has taught us that adopting either a too aggressive or too circumspect approach can be risky. How are you playing it this weekend?
MW: "For qualifying, you want to have a suitably aggressive strategy otherwise you are not going to be in the race. Then, as the race develops, you are afforded the possibility to become slightly more circumspect to ensure you’re scoring the points you need to fight for the world championship. And that is the approach we take into these races."
In terms of coping with the pressure, will the team be doing anything different this weekend?
MW: "The reality is that the last race of the season is no different from the first. However, at the end of the year it’s much clearer in everyone’s minds that the championship could be decided by a mistake - one made by another title contender or ourselves. Both teams have made several mistakes this year but, at this critical stage in the season, a further mistake by either side could determine the championship. As a result, everybody within the team is being very diligent and cautious. We have done a fantastic job so far this year and we aim to round off the season by continuing that approach."
Will this circuit favor the MP4-23’s technical package?
MW: "As this season has progressed, it’s become increasingly difficult to characterize the circuits that favor ourselves or favor Ferrari. And that has gone away because both teams have understandably addressed some of the weaknesses of their cars. But Shanghai is a good circuit, with a good mix of corners that requires a good car to get the best from it. To that extent, there’s every reason to suppose Ferrari and ourselves will be very close there."
Norbert Haug - You must be pretty downbeat after last weekend’s Japanese Grand Prix. Starting from pole position and third place on the grid and bringing home zero points was certainly not what you had expected from a Grand Prix that Lewis dominantly won a year ago?
NH: "With our results in qualifying, of course, we all wanted to win also this year’s race. Without the incident with Felipe Massa - which put him to the very back of the field - Lewis still could have had a decent finish in the points. An engine failure finished Heikki’s race and his chances to win. So it was a bad weekend for all of us. We put these results behind us and will now be fully focused on the Chinese and Brazilian Grand Prix. Felipe Massa made one point on the track and got another one as a result of Bourdais’ penalty; so he did not benefit too much as Lewis is still leading by five points."
Last year saw Lewis arrive at the Chinese Grand Prix with a 17-point advantage but leave with it reduced to just seven points. How does that make you feel ahead of this year’s race when Lewis arrives with a five-point advantage?
NH: "Last year’s race was indeed one of the worst for all in the team. Lewis had been dominant in the opening stages, but we made a wrong call bringing him in for a tire-change. it was a race we should have won but didn’t - and that was our mistake, not Lewis’s. But that’s history. After a difficult race at Fuji Lewis is still five points ahead in the championship; so the team and him have it in their hands to get the job done in the final two races."
Why is the Chinese Grand Prix important for Mercedes-Benz?
NH: "For Daimler and its premium brand Mercedes-Benz, China is a very important, and quickly growing, market. We have been manufacturing the Mercedes-Benz E-Class in China since December 2005. Two years ago, we opened a new plant that produces up to 25,000 E- and C-Class models per year. Last year, we sold 30,600 Mercedes-Benz cars in China - a 44.9 per cent increase on the year before. Between January and September ’08, sales increased by 53.6 per cent compared to the same period in ’07."