Q&A with McLaren’s Jonathan Neale

Last weekend’s Australian Grand Prix was almost a clean sweep for McLaren with pole position and victory both wrapped up by the British team’s drivers. In a Vodafone McLaren Mercedes ‘Phone-In’ session, managing director Jonathan Neale discusses the Melbourne event, the furor surrounding Mercedes’ innovative rear wing and Pirelli’s 2012-spec tires…

Q: Did the team expect to perform so well in Australia?
Jonathan Neale:
We knew it was going to be very tight. Everybody asks the team how it’s going to work out in Australia and it’s so difficult to predict. Through testing you have no idea what fuel loads people are running, they’re at the circuit at different times of day with different tires and everybody’s very circumspect. And I think for us that continued right the way through Friday to Saturday because we didn’t have dry running on Friday morning. Both drivers thought the car was really well balanced, but the circuit was still pretty green and there wasn’t a lot of grip. And then in the afternoon, of course, it was damp so that threw some of the test plans up in the air. You don’t really know until you go qualifying for real. And there are a number of teams there who have the ability to be up there or thereabouts. So it was a great present to be on the front row and it was a huge relief, but not something that we could have confidently predicted beforehand by any means.

Q: Can we expect more of the same in Malaysia?
In terms of looking forward to Malaysia, it’s still too early in the season to be making any longer projections. The circuit will be warmer and therefore the working of the tires will be different. I was watching (Force India’s) Paul di Resta being interviewed and he was saying that some teams have been having trouble warming the tires up. So we will see the same close grid and qualifying again in Malaysia. I’ll be very happy to be on the front row in Malaysia, but we’re definitely not counting that as a done deal.

Q: Is the talk over Mercedes’ rear wing just a storm in a teacup?
Mercedes were very quick during qualifying and there is enough YouTube footage of Michael (Schumacher) being very defensive about not having the car photographed under the front wing. But I think we have to rely on the FIA. All the teams are going to be trying to extract the maximum within the permitted regulations and innovation, particularly if a car is quick, certainly comes under challenge. And we understand that well. But I don't understand well enough what Mercedes are actually doing and we have to rely on our colleagues at the FIA. We are all obliged, if we have anything that we think is innovative or pushing the interpretations of the regulations, to disclose that to Charlie Whiting and his colleagues. And I'm very confident that Mercedes will have done that and got a ruling that's okay. So it’s interesting.

Q: At the end of last year McLaren team principal Martin Whitmarsh said he hoped Pirelli would give the teams more headaches with the 2012 tires after high degradation wore off towards the end of last year. On the evidence of testing and the first race, have Pirelli delivered and would you like anything different from them?
I think there were lots of really exciting things in the race. I thought there was degradation in the tires – we certainly experienced it. We were shuffling cars and trying to manage tire wear through the race in expectation that Australia does throw up safety cars. I think Pirelli’s doing a good job. I think it’s too early in the season to tell. At the moment I don’t have enough running to make any suggestion about what we’d want Pirelli to do more or less of, especially until we’ve run a wet race. It will be interesting to see how both the intermediates and the full wets perform. We need to get a bit further through the season before we can give you an objective answer. But I think Pirelli are doing a good job.

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