McLaren’s Whitmarsh: ‘You can never be fully confident’

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It’s a little-talked about, barely whispered fact that Martin Whitmarsh is Todd’s favorite Formula 1 boss.

Oh, Todd’ll throw around a bunch of red Ferrari gear and big up Stefano Domenicali or, if you catch him about 3 a.m. in Vegas while he’s downing Red Bulls the way Grace knocks back bottles of wine, he’ll go on and on about Christian Horner.

But it’s Martin he truly appreciates, truly respects, truly — I’ll say it — loves.

And it’s for reasons such as this Q&A:

Q: Mercedes’ Michael Schumacher has recently likened driving on the Pirelli tyres to racing on raw eggs. What is the perspective of your drivers?

Martin Whitmarsh: Well, there’s no doubt that the tyres are a definite challenge within Formula One and they have added to the spectacle. There’s also no doubt that when a driver has had a bad race he will complain about them. But if they made tyres that were very robust and not challenging in terms of management from either the team or driver’s perspective then I’m sure the spectators will be critical of the tyres as they won’t create the right spectacle. In summary, they are challenging and there have been times when they have certainly given up. The last race in Bahrain was certainly one of those times, where we weren’t in the right window of operation and that affected our performance in the race quite dramatically. But I think it would be wrong to criticise the tyre. I think you’ve got to look at you as a team and what the drivers are doing and look at how to manage the situation.

Q: You started the season very strongly, but in China and Bahrain things dropped off to varying degrees. Are you confident you have fully understood everything that was going on and that you can get back to where you were before?
 The great thing about this sport is that you can never be fully confident. I think we’ve had a car that’s been able to get on the front row of the grid at each of the four races and therefore the pace is there. We haven’t got all the results we wanted and I just referred to the challenge in Bahrain. But I think I believe we will be competitive going forward. We don’t know what the other teams are going to do. People are working hard to understand the tyres and the car and continuously develop it, but we know others will be doing the same. So you can never be confident you can understand everything going on and you can never be confident that the other teams won’t up their game and give you a harder time. But there’s a positive feeling within the team at the moment. We had an interesting data gathering test in Mugello.

Q: It looked like you were running a higher nose there towards the end of the Mugello test. Are we likely to see it again this weekend in Barcelona?
You may well see it again, yes. Actually, if you look at the detail, the height of the front of the nose is one of the more minor pieces of the new front wing assembly. So there’s a range of things. We gathered a lot of information. It’s unusual at this stage for us to have an in-season test so we felt we had to use that to log some data. As you saw, there were all sorts of appendages and sensors etc. fitted to the cars to measure things.

Q: What benefits does the new front wing have?
The situation nowadays in Formula One is that incremental improvements are generally modest. Typically you’re looking at the aerodynamic performance through corners. So you log a lot of data. Classically, of course, you’re looking for lower drag, higher downforce. In the case of the front wing and the nose, the attachment pylons, as you may have noticed, are quite a lot different. The wing’s flap and endplates themselves, it’s all subtle differences. You’re managing the airflow that is enjoyed by the rest of the car and the rest of the aerodynamic-generating surfaces and features of the car. Nowadays it is quite a critical part of the car, you’re looking to find very small improvements. There’s a lot of restriction around the back end of the car. So you do more, often generating more performance, by managing the flow that arrives at them, than developing them themselves. We gathered a lot of data and have given our race engineers a lot of information. You will see it in Barcelona.

Q: Will we see it on Sunday then?
There’s a reasonable chance you’ll see it on Sunday.

Q: We’ve had a lot of headlines recently about lawsuits, protests, tyres and stock options. What has been the standout headline for yourself and for the team?
I think the fact that there have been four winners and that it would have been impossible – not just at the start of the weekend but on the Sunday morning – to predict any of those winners is fantastic for the sport. Of course I would have preferred a straightforward McLaren dominance but it’s been very exciting. I certainly feel that we’re involved in one of the most interesting and intriguing championships. Formula One is producing a great show. For the doubters of KERS, DRS and the tyres, there have been hundreds of overtakes and this is in a sport that a few years ago people were saying there wasn’t any overtaking. We have made subtle changes, DRS in particular, to the pinnacle of motorsport. A lot of people didn’t like the idea. Given how close the racing is there it’s almost like you’re obliged to drop your car into traffic and then your driver is obliged to overtake to make progress in the race. That’s what the sport should be about. So I think the standout thing is what’s happened on the track and the exciting championship we have in prospect.

Q: You’ve said set-up choices are crucial in Barcelona. Why is that and are you confident your team can judge what’s needed perfectly, even if the forecast rain arrives on Sunday?
We are competitive. We have two great racing drivers and a strong team. So if you are on the front row – which we hope to be – then you’d rather it would be a dry and uneventful race. But I think for this sport the changeable conditions are a challenge and it is all part of the spectacle. So if it starts to rain as you go out to the grid, no one can be confident as anything can happen. Even if you don’t make any mistakes you can still very easily get hit from behind in those conditions. You are never confident. I think it really throws an interesting and slightly random challenge into an event.

Q: The team have had some tricky pit stops recently. Have you made any changes for Barcelona?
We have looked at what we are doing and have made some changes to the team and the process and we’ll see them on Sunday in Barcelona – or you may see them on the earlier days if you are interested enough to watch pit-stop practice. I think there’s enormous pressure on the guys. At a team like McLaren you are targeting a sub-three second stop. It a huge physical challenge. If you’ve held a wheel gun it’s really heavy and it’s not an easy task. It’s being done on some very hot components with the eyes of hundreds of millions bearing down on your back. I am always in awe of the level of the volunteers we have. We have made some changes as you might expect following the last race. And I wondered whether we’d have volunteers for some of the more critical elements, but I was astounded by how many guys in the team want to put themselves in that very challenging position. It reflects well on the spirit of the team. There’s been a reasonable amount of practice and we’ll see at the weekend. I believe we’ll have good stops.

OK, if you read thoroughly enough, you’ll know that Todd is now 212% committed to DRS. That’s how much he loves Martin.


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