Fresh from Formula One racing’s annual summer break, McLaren team principal Martin Whitmarsh can’t wait for the on-track action to begin this weekend in Belgium. During a Vodafone McLaren Mercedes 'Phone-In' session on Thursday, Whitmarsh discussed the close battle for the title, upgrades and the thorny issue of team orders…
Q: McLaren had a great couple of races just before the summer break. What do you think prompted the turnaround for the team and will you be able to carry that forward? Martin Whitmarsh: I hope so - and I believe that we can. But I think, as we’ve said a few times this year, this season is very difficult to predict. There are a number of reasons for this. We came out of the box fairly quickly, arguably slipped a little bit behind and we have pulled back up again. We have got to be aware that Formula One this season, with relatively stable regulations, is extremely competitive.
So to establish and retain a competitive edge is difficult. Undeniably, the tires have been a really substantial challenge for all the teams. The influence of the tire has on many occasions been greater than the underlying development of the vehicle itself. All of those things have made it quite a challenging season for everyone. But we had a couple of good races before the break and since then we’ve continued to push hard to develop our car. We have passed the halfway point of the season but it’s incredibly open. Fernando (Alonso) and Ferrari have done a good job, but with nine races to go and with the performance that we were showing going into the break, then we should be focused on winning more races and on the championships. Everyone recognizes they are wide open and we are certainly in contention. zzzz
Q: McLaren’s technology is being increasingly used in fields above and beyond F1 - most recently in a children’s hospital. Could you explain a little about these extracurricular activities and why the team likes to get involved? MW: McLaren have sought to diversify their business activities outside of Formula One for some time. And that is most manifest in our automotive strategy. But aside from that, which is a very big business venture for us, we have McLaren Electronics which provides the principal ECUs on all the Formula One cars, it provides a lot of software, sensors and telemetry data in F1, all of the engine management in the Indy Racing League and we have also taken over responsibility for the engine and fuel injection systems for NASCAR sprint cup series. So they are the more natural and obvious extensions. But in Formula One we are used to gathering lots of data in real time and modeling and simulating with that data to make quick decisions like pit-stop strategies etc. Those disciplines clearly have an application outside of Formula One and motor racing. So it’s been very interesting for us as a business to be involved elsewhere. A particular case, which has had a bit of publicity recently, was our involvement with the children’s intensive care unit in Birmingham. It was a good project for us to be involved in. We used the processes and software that have been developed in our motorsport program in a very interesting, human and challenging environment. It’s early days yet. I think we’re confident that we can provide solutions but clearly it’s for a healthcare expert to make a decision on the extent to which it can be used beyond the trial.
Q: We’re looking ahead to a big regulation change in 2014. What has been set in stone and what is up for debate? MW: The 2014 engine regulations are particularly challenging for Formula One. I think they were and are an appropriate set of regulations. Formula One has to do a better job at promoting the development of technology and engine efficiency. Looking forward, we have to develop technology that is relevant for society and the major automotive manufacturers. Clearly at the moment we like relatively large capacity, high-revving, normally-aspirated engines. As racers we enjoy those. But there’s quite a big difference between those and what the manufacturers have in their cars today and what they are concentrating on in the future. Formula One has introduced KERS technology which has been a challenging but useful project. Looking ahead to 2014 though, there will be a lot of emphasis on fuel efficiency, downsized turbo-charged engines, and an increased emphasis on kinetic energy recovery and exhaust energy recovery. All of those things - if you look into the R&D programs of major manufacturers - are what they are working on. It’s important that Formula One is interesting and relevant to manufacturers and a major sport like Formula One must demonstrate that it’s addressing the issues and challenges that face the whole of society. We know that Ferrari, Renault and Daimler are working very hard on this. It’s a big challenge. I think, inevitably, whenever you make a change, there will be some people who are uncomfortable. But we’ve reached a point now where there is sufficient commitment from those manufacturers that the F1 community have to get behind them and support them. We must make sure that we reward those who are making that investment in the sport.
Q: Returning to this year, Jenson Button is now 88 points off the lead of the championship. How do you rate his chances and will there be a point where you will expect him to support Lewis (Hamilton) rather than go after his own wins? MW: There may well come a point but with nine races to go and with 25 points available per race win, things can change quickly. McLaren prides itself on going into each championship giving both drivers an equal opportunity to win races and fight for the championship. We therefore have to be measured in terms of when we talk to those drivers about putting their support behind another. I can assure you both drivers will be going into the Belgian Grand Prix trying to win the race we will do everything we can to let them have a go at it.
Q: Would you say Button is almost back to his best? MW: He had some strong showings just before the break but he’s a winner. He wants to get back winning. He had a fantastic start to the season. He’s very intelligent and has spent a lot of time and effort trying to understand the tires. He’s incredibly fit. He has an easy manner about him with the media, the team and his life, which sometimes gives the illusion - wrongly - that he’s not absolutely focused on trying to win. He and Lewis have a great relationship but - make no mistake - Jenson will try and beat Lewis this weekend.
Q: What’s the situation with Lewis Hamilton’s future at the team? When will it be resolved? MW: It will be resolved in fairly short order. Lewis and the team have been focused on a little bit of relaxation after a hard first part of the season. We have also been keeping our foot hard on the throttle to make sure we're developing the car. Winning is what is important. We are focused on those things and we’re progressing things in the background, whilst not letting it get in the way of doing our job. We’ll know in due course and when we’ve got something to say we’ll make that statement.
Q: Have you got any further with double DRS? Will you be using it soon? MW: I think you’ll see that over the next few races the majority of cars will have new wings I imagine. At any one moment we have a variety of development projects on going. The double DRS is interesting but it hasn’t received the maximum amount of resource. We have a finite amount of resource and we try and judge where we will get the biggest bang for our buck. We have found other projects that deserve that resource and we have had greater performance return from them. I think there are other variants of it starting to be seen on other cars. They might not follow the pattern that we saw on the Mercedes. But we are not announcing when, where or if we are going to introduce it. I think you will see different wing variants and other visual items on our car in scrutineering later today and as they take to the track. So there will be new bits but McLaren will not have a double DRS in Belgium.
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