Q&A: Sam Michael on the rivalry between Button and Perez
|By Jonathan Noble||Monday, April 22nd 2013, 15:24 GMT|
In a year when rivalry between team-mates has hit new heights - following issues at Red Bull in Malaysia and Force India in Australia and China - it was McLaren's turn in Bahrain to find itself trying to deal with a frenetic fight between its two drivers.
As Jenson Button and Sergio Perez battled furiously with each other – banging wheels and making contact with each other – the team knew it was in a difficult situation in wondering whether it needed to intervene.
While emotions ran high on Sunday, both in terms of radio communication and post-race television interviews, the situation calmed down in the hours after the race.
AUTOSPORT spoke to McLaren sporting director Sam Michael on Monday to find out how events had unfolded, how things had moved on since the chequered flag, and whether or not Button and Perez had forgiven each other.
Q. How were Jenson Button and Sergio Perez's moods straight after the Bahrain Grand Prix yesterday?
Sam Michael: Straight after the race had finished, Jenson was interviewed by a large group of TV reporters, as is always the case when a grand prix has come to an end.
Jenson was frustrated that his race-long battle with Checo [Perez] had slowed his progress throughout the event, and believed that Checo had at times been too forceful in his defence - and he made some robust live-TV comments about Checo as a result.
As ever, though, since Jenson is a true pro, just a few minutes later the remarks he then made when he joined Martin [Whitmarsh] for a longer and more analytical post-race interview session with the Sky TV crew of Simon [Lazenby], Damon [Hill] and Johnny [Herbert] were far more diplomatic.
'Fair play to Checo; he had a great race and he scored some great points for the team,' Jenson told the viewers, whilst repeating his misgivings about Checo's on-track behaviour, albeit clearly in a more reflective mood than he'd been in immediately after the race had ended.
Checo, who'd just had a difficult weekend in Shanghai, was understandably delighted to have driven such a strong race in Bahrain, successfully pulling off excellent overtaking manoeuvres to pass both Fernando's [Alonso] Ferrari and Mark's [Webber] Red Bull in the closing stages, and as a result he was visibly very happy when he did his post-race TV interviews.
Q. Did you or Martin Whitmarsh speak to Jenson and Checo about the race incidents?
SM: Yes, of course we did, in order to ensure that everyone had a clear understanding, going forward.
Both Jenson and Checo had an opportunity to express their views to us, and then we gave them the team's position. That position is quite simple: McLaren allows both its drivers to race hard and fair, and in return its drivers must respect that trust and mustn't let the team down. It was a good discussion, and both Jenson and Checo were keen not only to talk the issues through but also to part on good terms.
You have to remember that Checo greatly respects Jenson's ability, expertise and experience, and is keen to learn from him, whilst Jenson is genuinely fond of his new team-mate and recognises his talent. Their partnership is only four grands prix old, but it's already clear that they could well combine to become a seriously potent force.
Q. So do both drivers believe their racing was a bit close to the mark yesterday?
SM: Yes, they do. Checo was understandably pleased with his performance, but he appreciates that at times it was too close to the mark. Likewise, Jenson acknowledges that during the race he reacted harshly to some of the occurrences. Together we've reviewed all the detail – the precise content of which is not appropriate for external discussion. However, the team also has to accept that, in not imposing a team order on either of our drivers, despite our seeing on our pitwall monitors an increasingly intense battle unfolding between them, we weren't adopting what you could term a 'caution-optimised' strategy.
But that's the way McLaren goes motor racing – always has, always will. Some of the most exciting moments of modern-era grand prix racing were provided by McLaren team-mates Ayrton [Senna] and Alain [Prost] fighting each other on track in the late 1980s, and Ron [Dennis] didn't impose team orders on them in those days either.
And Jenson and Lewis [Hamilton] have had their fair share of on-track battles over the past three years too – and, although they caused some nail-biting moments on the pitwall, we didn't intervene. And that was right.
Put it this way: consider the damaging effect it would have had on our drivers if we'd given a team order that they shouldn't race each other yesterday. To be clear, I'm not saying that there will never be a future scenario wherein team orders may be applicable, owing to circumstances such as reliability, just to cite one example.
However, in that case, it's likely that both drivers would be aware of the situation, and would understand it, or, if it wasn't possible for us to make them aware of the situation during the race, the team would be confident of explaining it effectively to them post-race. But no such situation existed yesterday, so a team order would have had no place.
Formula 1 is about motor racing, and 'racing' is the operative word in this context. That's why 100 million people tune in to watch every grand prix on TV every two weeks. That's why Formula 1 is such a popular sport. That's why we all fell in love with Formula 1 when we were kids. And that's why McLaren will always operate in that way: as a race team.
And to be clear, Jenson and Checo want it like that. Both of them came to McLaren on the understanding that they could race, so they fully support the team in that regard.
Q. Sorry to press the point, but Checo said the moves could have ended both his and Jenson's races, so isn't that an admission that the racing between them was too robust?
SM: Well, you have to give Checo credit for making that remark, but please note that he made it immediately after the race, too. Remember, too, that Checo is a young hot-shoe. He's 23. He's started just 41 grands prix, and he hasn't won one yet. He's stood on just three grand prix podiums.
By contrast Jenson is 33. He's started 232 grands prix and has won 15 of them. He's stood on 49 grand prix podiums. And of course he's also a world champion. The gulf in their age and experience is enormous. But Checo is fast and talented, and Jenson's example is and will continue to be extremely helpful to his learning process.
But we – Martin, myself and everyone at McLaren – are happy with that. We hired Jenson and Checo because we wanted Jenson and Checo. They're racers, and we want them to be racers. And the logical extrapolation of that statement is that we want them to race. And we want them to know that, too.
Q. How would you sum up Checo's performance in his four grands prix so far for McLaren?
SM: Melbourne was Checo's first race weekend for McLaren, and both Saturday and Sunday were mixed-weather days. His pace was respectable compared with Jenson's, but we weren't competitive on the Albert Park circuit anyway.
In Sepang we had a technical issue on Checo's car throughout the race, yet he still scored points.
In Shanghai he was fast, but he was out-raced by Jenson in that first critical race stint while managing the tyres was crucial. So, going to Bahrain, he spent a lot of time with us, analysing his data with his engineers. Our instruction to him was to focus hard on optimising his race performance, and to prioritise that over qualifying.
Looking at his race weekend as a whole, he did exactly as he was advised and achieved a great result for himself, while scoring eight valuable points for the team.