As Formula One prepares for the world title showdown between Lewis Hamilton and Felipe Massa, Ron Dennis faces another tortuous, nail-biting afternoon, waiting to see if all McLaren's hard work will come to fruition in 2008.
Speaking to the press after qualifying for the season finale in Brazil yesterday, the McLaren boss explained why despite the pressure of a title fight his team were calm and ready for battle, and why he knows, whatever the outcome, that they have done their level best to deal with any eventuality. Autosport.com was there to hear what he had to say.
Q. Given what happened to Lewis two days ago, do you think it's right to continue to put your drivers up for these sorts of promotional events?
Ron Dennis: Why don't you ask a controversial question? The reality is that we have obligations that we have with our sponsors and obviously some of these present opportunities for people who are being properly credentialed to get involved in our press conferences. That was a press conference that by its very nature related to the dedicated driver programme that we have in this country and eight other countries throughout the world.
We are monitoring how effective that is because we can see how many lives we saved. That was a conference which lasted an hour, this was two practical jokers and we just have to be dismissive of it. You know, Lewis was initially a little upset because he didn't understand what it was all about and you don't expect to have two practical jokers in a media event. You just relax and don't let it get to you and realise that these things happen in this world and just look at those people and feel sorry for them if that's how they are going to try and get something.
Q. Almost all of the time that Lewis is giving away to Massa is in the middle sector on that Q3 run. It's almost four tenths in the middle sector?
RD: The guys at the front are on three-stop strategies - simple as that. It's just fuel load. You don't have the level of competitiveness that we had in practice and Q1 and Q2 and then suddenly lose it.
We know how much fuel we put in the car, we know what the expected laptime is for that fuel load and we were close to that time. It's purely a different strategy. The problem with a three stop strategy is that the whole thing is refelctive of what they have to do an d what we have to do. The three-stop strategy gives you tremendous vulnerability to two things - rain and safety car. And our objective is to come in the first five. We knew that we wanted to eliminate those things.
Obviously Toyota isn't a threat. Massa, we don't have to beat him, we can finish behind him, so we have to avoid first-lap incident and run a disciplined race and I think our strategy will become very apparent to everybody and that's our target. To go that light really puts you at a huge risk if it rains.
Q. So following on, the other question mark that raises is do you feel it's safer to have your driver who has a lot to lose starting in a pack with other cars around him, one of which is Fernando Alonso who passed him from the same place last year rather than having him off the front?
RD: Off the front, with a safety car or weather, could cost us the world championship because from tenth back you've got everybody fuelled long. All of those guys are going to be ahead of anyone who has to stop in the early part of the race and that's going to be a challenge, to get past them. You don't need much - trying to get past people even on a circuit where you have the ability to overtake is fraught with risk. So it's a complete risk assessment.
We've run every single analysis not just for two weeks, for longer, of what is the right thing to do. Whatever the outcome, the decision we took was absolutely the right decision, we don't regret one moment of it.
Q. How do you feel on the eve of this race compared to last year?
RD: Well, you know I feel a little hungry, so I'm going to a Churrascaria! I'm completely relaxed, the team has done a great job through the whole season. There are lots of great moments of frustration - Spa was very frustrating, the penalty we had in Fuji was very frustrating. There's things that obviously didn't go as we wanted them to but in the end we have done an exceptionally good job here. We were a little bit confused by the performance later but it was very apparent there were a lot of light cars yesterday. There's not much that we haven't provided for.
Q. How do you get around Fernando Alonso's enduring bitterness. He says he would rather any team other than McLaren won the championship?
RD: First of all I wasn't there. If you are accurately quoting Fernando and he said he'd rather have anyone other than McLaren then it would be very easy and it's very tempting to go back and talk about some of the weaknesses in his character, in his approach to grand prix racing. But I'm not going to do it. I hope that, not just him, all the grand prix drivers should realise that to come down to the last grand prix to determine the world champion is a good thing and that both of these guys should be given every opportunity to try to beat each other. I hope that all drivers are clean and appreciate that their role is to allow these guys to fight fairly and not interfere with the world champions and that applies to everybody including Heikki and Kimi. That's my wish and I hope whoever is world champion isn't soured by the behaviour of any other driver.
Q. Lewis comes here seven points ahead of a Ferrari. How much better is Lewis now than a year ago?
RD: It's just maturity. The statistics prove everything. He was more world championship points accumulated since the beginning of last year than any other driver. But he understands now that you don't just drive the car at all times to win the race and that's one of the many things that he has learned over the last year. He's maturerer, a better race driver, more tactical. But it's no more than you would expect having had the experience of last year.
Q. Did you say it has taken two weeks of background analysis or did you decide two weeks ago?
RD: No, we used all the time to run every single possible scenario that we could think of. And also introduced all the problems that we imagined could occur and factored those in. Can we damage a nose? Can we stop? Can we change a nose and still come fifth? All those things we factored into every scenario we could think of.
We increased the intensity of the real-time analysis so we should be able to pick up any variation or tyre pressure within two or three seconds so that if he does pick up a puncture and he's a few hundred yards from the pit-lane entrance that we can pick it up fast enough. Every single part on the car has been re-analysed. We looked at the history over the last year of each components reliability, anything that falls close to being of concern.
These things have been selected out of known batches, eliminate what we call infant mortality by running a number of tests over a period of time. It's a phenomenally detailed and focused effort to get the most reliability we can. I can say whatever the outcome, if our car fails - and we don't want that to happen - that no more effort could have been put in than we put in.
You can only do your best and if that isn't good enough you've got to be able to look back and say is there any more we could done? And I can categorically say now that we couldn't have done more. The 0.15 of a second that we improved the car from the last grand prix to here is the most expensive tenth that we have ever, ever produced. We threw everything at this race, to get that squeezed out after the intensity of our development programme has been a huge amount of effort.
We can't have made it faster, put more effort into making it reliable and we can't have put more effort into trying to accommodate anything that could happen in the race tomorrow. If we fail, you will obviously be very critical especially as I've set myself up, but the one thing we won't be doing is going away from here saying we screwed up because we could have put more effort into it.
Q. Can you quantify the aggregate performance gain over the season?
RD: We hit our target and our target was two and a half seconds from the first race to this one. Theoretically we should able to go back to Australia and go two-and-a-half seconds quicker. By and large, every circuit we have been to we have been quickest and we have made significant steps throughout the season.
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