McLaren's managing director Jonathan Neale spoke with the media, including AUTOSPORT, this morning during a team phone-in and gave his views on both the team's current prospects and wider issues facing Formula 1.
He remains confident that McLaren will not let Red Bull get away in the championship battle, but acknowledged that his team cannot afford to slip any more chances slip away.
Q. What has your reaction been to the news that the US Grand Prix will return to the Formula 1 calender?
Jonathan Neale: I saw the headline and whilst I'm not aware of details I think most of us in Formula 1 would relish the opportunity to go back to America. It's a really important place for us to be. Our markets and our sponsors all want to operate there and Formula 1 has to do something about the package and the way in which we present it to make it acceptable to one of the world's largest markets. Without any expert knowledge on it - I'm not going to bluff my way through it - I'd say it is fantastic news if it turns out to be true and if we can make it happen.
Q. What does F1 have to do to make a success of a US Grand Prix?
JN: I'm not qualified to answer this question, and there are smarter men than I trying to find the answer to that question. I think we should ask the Americans, we should look at what the TV networks want and we should look at the way in which sport is consumed in America as a family and ask whether we have an offering that is going to work over a weekend when the American culture provides for family life and sport in a slightly different way.
I think we may have to look at the whole formula for working in America to serve that market. But again I am no expert in that area, there is a FOTA commercial committee as well as CVC and FOM who I'm sure want the same things and are looking at how to make that happen.
It would be great if we are going to back to the States then that is a breakthrough and we should make a really good attempt at doing it well.
Q. There was a story after Monaco that Paddy Lowe had spotted something at the rear diffuser of the Red Bull and successfully got it taken off the car, could you shed some light on that?
JN: In terms of specifics you are better off talking to Red Bull because I am not aware of Red Bull taking any action directly of us doing anything. But all the teams, particularly when there are big packages coming in to the European season take a look at each others cars and there are matters of interpretation from one to the next.
One or two of the teams spoke to us about things on our car and we've spoken to some other teams. I wouldn't say there was any big issue, it was kind of business as usual for the European season. What is really good to see is that rather than this stuff being played out as major spats in courtrooms, the technical directors are collectively doing a good job of clarifying each other to try and make sure that we run the sport in a seemly way. As far as we were concerned Red Bull ran a legal car in Monaco and there were some queries that we had, but I am not aware that they did anything specific on the car.
Q. Is Red Bull realistically beatable this season?
JN: Yes they can be [beaten]. Obviously ourselves, Ferrari and Mercedes and others are trying to do just that. They are about 0.8s ahead in some circuits. We know just based on our own experience that we closed 2.5s a lap gap between the start of the season and Hungary last year so we've demonstrated that kind of gradient is do-able. They have a quick car and it is up to the rest of us now to get the job done. I suspect that they won't have that advantage all season, but I'm sure if you speak to Adrian Newey he will say that they are working just as hard to stay ahead. I think they are eminently catchable and it's our job to do that.
Q. What is your reaction to the news that Pat Fry is leaving the team?
JN: Whenever somebody of Pat's calibre leaves the team it is sad, and we like Pat very much and he is a fine engineer but people have their lives to lead and want to do other things. It doesn't give me any concern for the performance of the team or what we do for next year's car at all because we are still a team that has strength in depth and we are committed to maintaining that. Yes it's regrettable but Pat has to move on and do other things with his life and we have carried on as you would expect.
Q. Red Bull is believed to be introducing its F-Duct this weekend - can you shed some light on any retro-fit difficulties they might have and do you think they can catch you up in that area?
JN: Yes I think they will be able to catch up depending on how they realise it. Ferrari has also done good work in that area and has demonstrated it has been able to get a wing to switch. So it doesn't surprise me at all that Red Bull will be there or thereabouts. Once you reveal these things at the beginning of the season and everybody figures out what you are doing and how it works, then the gap gets closed very quickly. Formula 1 is fantastic at invention and intrigue and part of that makes the interest of the sport. A bit like the Red Bull car which has various features on it that everybody is looking at and trying to understand.
Q. Which preference does McLaren have on tyre manufacturers moving into 2011?
JN: Short answer to that is that we don't have a preference. What I would say is that we very much enjoyed working with Michelin as we have enjoyed working with Bridgestone. They are great technical organisations and the amount of support that they give the teams from data and windtunnel information as well as loads, FE models etc, is well established and they know their way through Formula 1. We have a huge amount of respect for Michelin because we worked with them for many years. It is also true that we worked with Pirelli albeit a long time ago. There are still stories in the corridors here about what the Pirelli qualifying tyres were like. And that was before my time. I am pretty sure that any of the teams that are competing for the tyre bid we would be happy to work with - we just don't have current experience with Pirelli.
Q. Jenson Button is still saying he would like the car tailored a bit more to his style, can you shed some light on what it is he is looking for?
JN: If I am really honest I don't think that Jenson's fluctuation in form is anything to do with him, I think it's us. I don't think we have given him or Lewis [Hamilton] a car that will put them on the front row of the grid yet so they have got their work cut out.
In the early part of the season Lewis found himself in a few difficult positions and then consequently has done a lot of overtaking manoeuvres. We obviously let Jenson down in Monaco by dispatching the car with a piece of support equipment in it which was not great. Jenson and Lewis are working really well and in terms of their drives both of them are leaving nothing on the circuit. The obligation is now on us as a team to get the car to get the job done, and not for the drivers themselves to look at what they need to do next.
In terms of tailoring the car specifically for him then there is nothing about Jenson's driving style relative to Lewis's that says they want to exploit the tyres any differently. They have slightly different preferences for braking but by the time you are into brakes, you are in second orders of magnitude compared to front suspension, wheelbase etc.
So we are very happy that having these drivers doesn't mean your chief engineer has got to open up two or three development paths which sap the organisation of energy. So we are not looking at different suspension layouts for one or the other and it means that we can then focus on getting more downforce and getting more out of the tyres which is essentially the only way we are going to close the gap to Red Bull. That and be operationally more effective.
Q. When you say being operationally more effective is that referring to cutting out the errors like those seen in Monaco?
JN: I think it is that. Formula 1 is not at all tolerant and nor should it be. We came out of China on a high and then we have dropped points in the last two races and when it is as tight as it is in the championship and there is only a small gap at the top of the drivers' championship table and also the constructors', it is all still to be played for. At the moment Red Bull has the upper hand but I am confident that won't be the case by the middle of the season, and when it is this close you just can't afford to make those kind of mistakes - so we need to eliminate those from our game like everybody else does. Red Bull I'm sure would say the same thing, if you look at the potential of that car and the points that they perhaps didn't achieve, they may have their own frustrations.
Q. Lewis has said that the McLaren MP4-25 will be in its element in Turkey, can you tell us why you think that is?
JN: The circuit has long sweeping curves, Turn 8 being one of them, and at the moment our car seems to work better on the high-speed circuits. We have more of an issue on the low-speed corners, which has been well-documented by Martin Whitmarsh or myself in previous races, and it is something we are trying to improve.
We saw some of that with the way that we tried to get the car through the new section of the circuit at Bahrain, and we are working on a particular area of the car at the moment. It will work better, but I am sure that a number of the teams are taking upgrades, and we will see what everybody brings. But it is a sweeping circuit and very smooth so you can run the car reasonably stiff which will probably suit us and we will see what happens.
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