Q&A with McLaren's Martin Whitmarsh
Red Bull may have won the last two races but McLaren have scored enough points to retain the lead in both championships. In a Vodafone McLaren Mercedes 'Phone-In' session, team principal Martin Whitmarsh discusses F-ducts, blown diffusers, the team’s chances at the forthcoming Hockenheim race and their rivals for the titles…
Q: At Silverstone you brought your new blown diffuser. After trying it on both cars on Friday you decided not to run with it on Saturday. Williams, meanwhile, used it on the one car and tuned it in before using it for the rest of the weekend. Looking back, do you have any regrets?
Martin Whitmarsh: I haven't watched what Williams were doing. I think inevitably you want to bring performance to the car as quickly as you can. We were developing a blown diffuser for the forthcoming German Grand Prix. We wanted it to be available to both drivers. I think there are pros and cons of sharing the development parts between drivers, particularly when you are trying to stress equality. A floor with a blown diffuser is not something you can take on and off the car during the course of a practice session. It's even difficult between the two practice sessions. So I think our idea was to get as much data and make sure we were treating the drivers as equally as we could. I don't regret taking it, I don't regret running it on the Friday. I think at that time there were a number of things happening at the circuit.
Obviously it was a new circuit, it had some entertaining bumps in the new section and it also had some bumps in the older sections of the circuit, presumably from construction traffic, which is not a feature that you normally have to deal with at Silverstone. It was gusty and clearly we can't test before races. So I think we got good information. I think there was some view within the team by Sunday that we could have left it on the car and it would have been okay and able to perform. But I think we were conscious of the need and desire to score as many points at the British Grand Prix as possible. So a decision was taken on Friday to eliminate some of the variables. We couldn't eliminate the bumps or the gusts - but we could eliminate that. We had other items on the car - a new front wing and various other upgrade pieces were left on the car. And I think it was the right decision. We then had a back to back in a sense in that on Saturday we ran the car with a non-blown diffuser and that in itself was useful to compare with the data that we had generated the day before. So I think we did the right thing and I'm comfortable with it.
Q: Jenson had some issues on Saturday but on Sunday, with no changes made to the car due to the parc ferme conditions, he enjoyed a great race. How did that happen?
MW: Clearly we've been working hard to develop the race car this year. I think the race car has been fairly quick and on a number of occasions it has been quicker than any other car, including the Red Bull. In qualifying we have comparatively struggled. But I think it was a view that Jenson had based on the qualifying car. I think in the race he was quite comfortable.
Q: Obviously until you’re on track you can't be certain, but based on the work in the factory, how confident are you that the diffuser issues you had have been solved?
MW: You can't be entirely, but I think we go into Hockenheim with more information. We've made some modifications in the light of that data and we will be running the blown diffuser on Friday. I suspect we'll have it on for the weekend, but we'll make the call in light of the data on Friday evening.
Q: Do you feel like you've kind of 'dodged a bullet' by keeping hold of the championship lead even though you may have fallen a bit behind in the development race?
MW: I'm not sure we've been behind in the development race. I think we've had a car that's been capable of winning races. You need a car to be reliable and quick enough to win races. I think we've had both of those things generally. It's always nicer to be quicker, it's always nicer to be more reliable, but I think we're in a reasonable position. But we know that we've got to continue to develop the car if we are going to win both championships this year.
Q: Rain has been forecast for the weekend. Do you think poor weather could disrupt your preparations?
MW: Inevitably any race weekend can be disrupted by weather. Personally I don’t pay too much attention to weather forecasts until we get within 48 hours of it because they swing around. We’d prefer it to be dry - you can get more information - but we’ll deal with what’s thrown at us.
Q: Considering Hockenheim’s low-speed corners, do you think Red Bull could have an advantage?
MW: They are likely to be the main competition considering what we’ve experienced so far this year. But we don’t take anything for granted. Mercedes will want to be strong in Hockenheim and I’m sure they’ll be pushing hard and so will Ferrari. It’s a very competitive season. I personally think the Red Bull has been quickest on traction out of medium to high-speed corners, that's been their strength. Other people might analyze it differently. But we’ll see. They'll be strong, no doubt, but so will others. We’ve got to continue to develop our car if we are going to be successful.
Q: Bridgestone will bring their hard and super-soft tires to the Hockenheim race. Do you have any concerns?
MW: I think it's, so far, the broadest spread of tires that we've seen at an event, and therefore it's likely to have an impact on some of the strategy and how the race runs I would imagine. I think it is likely the super-soft will be quite a short-life tire - so if you qualify on the super-soft and others behind you are able to fit the prime then that's going to have some impact on how you run the race. So it will be different, that's for sure.
Q: You’re leading the championship - what does that mean for the atmosphere within the team?
MW: Everyone here is working very hard, there’s a good team spirit. People are working together including the two drivers, who are great team members and helping the team achieve the successes that it has this year. In terms of its spirit and its commitment to winning both races and the championships, the team is where I’d hope it to be.
Q: F-ducts and blown diffusers have dominated the technical upgrades this year. How significant are this year’s changes to the car compared to previous changes?
MW: I think this year generally people knew what was coming. There would be more extreme versions of the double diffusers, which of course disappear next year. So the double diffuser last year was something of a surprise to many of us, who wouldn't have deemed it legal if our engineers had brought such a concept to us. So that was a bit of a surprise and it created a bigger set of catch-ups and difficulties and challenges for the team. This year I guess the two things the teams generally didn’t expect to see were perhaps the move back to blown diffusers. They have been in Formula One several times before. They have challenges attached to them, but I think it's clear that you can get some performance. So that’s been an interesting tension for teams as they try and understand that. Similarly the F-duct clearly wasn't anticipated. Oddly, because a non-switched F-duct was first introduced on the McLaren in Monaco last year, so 14/15 months ago, and variants of that were developed. The switchable one obviously started this year and caused a bit of surprise, debate and a challenge for teams. I think both blown diffusers and F-ducts are not super-expensive to implement. Certainly an F-duct is a series of carbon fiber ducts and a slot in your rear-wing element, so by Formula One standards and costs, it's within the means of any team to develop and exploit. Blown diffusers have got a bit of a heat management challenge, but that aside, they're not too challenging. They’ve created some interesting dynamics in the season so far.
Q: Do you now see the title as a two-horse race between Red Bull and yourselves, given how far Ferrari have fallen behind?
MW: I'd love to believe that, but experience has told me that you can't write them off. The fact is Ferrari are a strong team, they're technical capable, have fantastic resource and they've got one former world champion and one other top-flight driver. Mercedes-Benz similarly have got one former multi-world champion and a very good driver in Nico (Rosberg). So I think it's too early to write them off. We need to try to improve our car and do as good a job as we can do. Red Bull clearly are the principle challenge at the moment, but I don't dismiss the others.
Q: And what about the two-horse race going on in your team at the moment. The momentum is clearly with Lewis Hamilton at the moment, is there now a feeling that he’s becoming the team’s de facto number one?
MW: Not yet. Jenson is second in the drivers' championship. He has had two great wins this year and has proven that he's a great racing driver, he’s a great reader of the race but also someone who could recover from 14th to fourth is a phenomenally quick and adept racing driver, and also has a lot of determination. I'm sure Jenson hasn't given way to Lewis's charge for the championship. He will want to win this weekend, he will want to move that momentum back in his favor, and that's just how it should be.
Q: You’ll test the new diffuser alongside the old diffuser at Hockenheim on Friday. Can you explain how the back-to-back tests will work?
MW: One of the challenges is that whereas flaps, wings and various aerodynamic appendages are fairly quickly changed on a car, and therefore you can during the course of a session do back to backs tests. Front wings are an example, as drivers can change front wings mid-run. The blown diffuser is a completely different floor, it has different heat management components and obviously different exhaust. And therefore it's not possible to perform an in-session back to back and it's quite difficult to do it even between sessions, so I think you've just got to rely on the data that we've previously collected. There will be modifications to the diffuser, components that we may change between the cars or from one to another. So there is a compromise. In the old days we'd go testing, you'd prepare two cars and run them alongside each other. We can't do that. We're torn between the priorities of developing your car and looking at longer-term improvements, versus the very limited amount of track time that the drivers get to understand that particular event and that race circuit. They haven't been to Hockenheim for two years, and really make sure that they're as prepared as they can be for Saturday qualifying, which is all critical. So it’s not easy but it’s the same challenge for everyone, and an interesting challenge because of the very limited data set you have to make those decisions.
Q: Could you end up with one driver running with the blown diffuser and the other not?
MW: We're working at the moment on the premise that we'll have blown diffusers on both cars to start with. It is possible. At Silverstone Lewis wanted to keep the blown diffuser on Friday night, but we took the decision there to switch them both back to the older diffuser. So we’ll see. If there was a preference from one side of the garage to the other - if I can, we'll avoid that - but we'll do it if we think it's the right way to perform during the course of that weekend. There are advantages, as you can imagine, from running one car in one configuration, one in the other. Provided that in so doing, you don't end up - rightly or wrongly - be accused of treating the two drivers differently.
Q: Were you at all surprised by Red Bull's advantage in qualifying at Silverstone, and how do you see it playing out at the forthcoming races?
MW: It's always difficult to see that. They are clearly very good in traction out of medium to high-speed corners, particularly so in qualifying mode. I think we're gaining an understanding of that, and progressively it's our intention to overhaul them in that regard. I think our car on heavy fuel is very competitive. The drivers are often able to make good progress at the beginning of a race. And that's the balance. At the moment we've put a lot of effort into producing a car that's very quick in the races. I'm sure Red Bull are looking at that as well, but we've often been as good or quicker than them in the race. Generally we haven't qualified as well. We are working on that. We intend to ideally be quicker than anyone in the race and in qualifying. I think now the drivers have got to continue performing at all of the top teams. But this year's championship will be won by the team that either makes the least mistakes or, probably, the team that continues to develop its car at a faster rate than its principal competitor or competitors.
Q: In the last two races we've seen Lewis making contact with Sebastian Vettel at the start. Is there any concern that he's being a little too uncompromising at the start?
MW: The answer is you want them to be as aggressive as they can be, provided the car comes round intact and not requiring a pit stop at the end of the first lap... A Formula One standing start is one of the most exciting spectacles and it's a very critical phase of the race. It’s when you are closest to your competitors. You can lose places or gain them. You have to take some risks. You have to have a degree of aggression to do it well. I believe Lewis has done that very well, so indeed has Jenson. He came round from 14th to eighth in one lap at Silverstone, which was mighty impressive. You don't overtake cars like that without taking some risks. The skill of the really great drivers is balancing that risk and taking the requisite amount of risk for the gain that is achievable at the start. I think both drivers have done a very good job in that regard.