Q & A with Jonathan Neale

Following another strong weekend for McLaren in Valencia, where Lewis Hamilton led for much of the European Grand Prix only to be beaten back to second by Rubens Barrichello, the team heads to Spa with renewed confidence

Q & A with Jonathan Neale

During a McLaren media phone-in, the team's managing director Jonathan Neale explained why he believes it will start 2010 from a stronger position, how Heikki Kovalainen is building in confidence and what McLaren is doing to try and continue to improve the MP4-24.

Q. Although the 2009 regulations were supposed to improve overtaking, they seem to have worked only marginally. Is it something that Formula 1 remains committed to working on?

Jonathan Neale: Yes of course it is really important that F1 remains an attractive show that has great drama, and overtaking remains a key part of that. We saw the largest aerodynamic regulation change in 20 years, designed in part by the Overtaking Working Group and in part by the FIA, aimed at slowing the cars down. We saw different tyre regulations as well which have caused plenty of drama this year, with the super-soft, soft and medium tyres.

But I think what none of us expected was that the grid would be so close. People talk quite fondly about racing in the 1970's and they forget that in those days the difference between first and second on the grid could be up to a second - and sometimes more - and some cars didn't even qualify, So when you have cars that are that far apart, cars coming through from the back to the front, or mistakes being made, produce a lot of overtaking. This year, front-to-back of the grid, is probably only a second and a half and when you have got that level of closeness it is more difficult and more challenging.

But yes it does remain something that we are committed to doing. I wouldn't say that the races are without overtaking, it's very circuit dependant of course. The circuit that we have just come from in Valencia is pretty tricky. The circuit grip changes through the weekend and there are very few run-off areas, so if you try an ambitious move then all hell can break loose.

But we shouldn't get downhearted about it. I think Spa is a really good example of how a great circuit can produce some great races. During the course of this week I was watching the re-run of last year's race and reminding myself of that gigantic battle between Kimi [Raikkonen] and Lewis [Hamilton] in the rain. At one point Kimi was off the road, looking for grip, for what looked like about half a mile trying to get back on the circuit, and it was fantastic drama.

The regulation change created some new front-runners and we underperformed at the beginning of the season so that created some changes and some drama. I think there is much more we can do with circuits and I still think there is much more we can do with the regulations.

Q. What updates will be on the car this weekend, and will both drivers be using the shorter wheelbase chassis. In addition to that, what measures have been put in place to prevent you relying on updates to be competitive early in the season in 2010?

JN: In terms of the package for this weekend, I would say it is evolution rather than revolution. Spa requires a different downforce level to the circuits we have been running on recently so we do have new wings for the car available for both drivers. But that is more a rebalancing of the car for the circuit rather than an outright performance gain in itself. I think most of the teams will be doing something very similar.

We have the short wheelbase available to both drivers, or both engineering teams, and when I spoke to Pat Fry last night when we were going through the analysis, I would say that it is one of the options that we have for this weekend. Depending on how the circuit is on Friday we can go either way, so we are not committed in one direction or another on either car. But it is available to both drivers.

How do we not end up in the situation in 2010 as we did in 2009? I would say that I am enormously proud of the work that Pat Fry, Neil Oatley and Paddy Lowe have done with the car to go from 2.5s in week 11 in Mlebourne, to being able to lock out the front row in Valencia.

It's a testament to a huge amount of hard work, but it is also evidence of what I said at the beginning of the season, which is that we hadn't done anything wrong with the car, we just hadn't done enough.

When you end up with a car where you have taken a completely wrong turn, i.e you've screwed up the stiffness or you have done something to make it really unstable, it is notoriously difficult to get that back. We had just under-developed the aero package and then in the cut and thrust of what happened between week 11 and getting to the first European race, we turned the organisation upside down here because we knew we had to fight back and try and overhaul teams that in themselves were pushing forwards.

I'm delighted we were able to do that, but we went down some paths that were blind alleys, and although they were performance gains in their own right, it was clear by the Spanish Grand Prix that there were emerging trends on the cars. Two in particular - the very aggressive shadow diffuser was one and the other was the broadly out-washing front wing-endplates.

In the melee that was going on here to pull ourselves back, I think we were slower than we might have been, had we stepped back and looked at it. But hindsight is a wonderful thing and that is how we got to where we are now.

In terms of the confidence for 2010, then the regulations are different, but they are evolutionary rather than revolutionary. The fundamental aerodynamics of the package are the same. The big changes will be in the weight of the car because we will have to carry the fuel that we need for the whole race. We are going to go back around the loop on vehicle dynamics because the front tyre will be changing and therefore the weight distribution and the forces will have to be managed separately. But the essence of the aerodynamics will be based upon existing technology and the extension of a stable platform that we have.

If we were still scrabbling around at the back of the grid while we are going through the release of the car form for next year - which will happen over the next month - then I would be very much more concerned than I am now. We are not complacent by any means. We have to recognise that our car has KERS on it, which is probably worth 0.3s, and we have a very good engine package. If I compare where other teams' chassis are, it's clear that while we have a competitive package, we do not have the benchmark chassis and aero performance at the moment. Therefore we will not be sitting on our laurels but working to recover that on this year's car and going in to next year, it's a stretch for us.

Q. Heikki Kovalainen appeared to struggle for pace in the race at Valencia, did he do enough to secure his drive for 2010?

JN: I think that Heikki had a really good weekend. There was lots of talk after Hungary in the media and here about how we were going to support Heikki with his race pace. He has always qualified aggressively, and if you look at his Q2 performance, he has been phenomenal. He is a very quick driver.

We have been asking ourselves the question are we doing enough to help him protect the tyres and therefore maintain the inherent pace that he has? Is there anything we can do to support him with tuning the car, and in the simulator with his driving style?

We spent quite a lot of time with him pre-Valencia taking that apart with him systematically, and I personally was very pleased with his drive on the weekend. In P1 and P2 he was pushing, his qualifying lap nearly eclipsed Lewis, who is no slouch. If it hadn't been for that wobble coming into the last turn then it was clear he would have been on pole.

Stints one and two were good and then through no fault of Heikki's we put used prime tyres on his third stint, rather than new tyres, and as a result they were slower to warm up. That was physics, that's Heikki.

Was there a difference between Heikki's race pace and Lewis's? Yes. Is it very much? No. Heikki will take that with some confidence and build on that into Spa.

Q. Do think Luca Badoer's performance has damaged the reputation of test drivers in general and what can be done about the current situation where they get so little running?

JN: Luca Badoer is a very experienced driver. I don't agree that he has damaged the reputation of other drivers. I think it was an extraordinary challenge to come in to a street circuit with low grip and concrete barriers and keep the car in one piece, which he did all weekend. I am sure that Ferrari will be looking at his pace and wondering what will they do next, but I am not concerned that there is a wider implication in terms of how good the other third drivers are.

The issue around how we keep the third drivers 'match fit' is a very good point. The team managers will continue to meet on the sporting regulation working group and just look at the balance of what we are doing for young drivers and also make sure that we don't fail to support our test drivers. Pedro [de la Rosa] would like more time in the car.

Some of the teams have simulators which are a way of keeping the pace up, but there is nothing like the full forces of being match fit. I think the sporting regulation group has now got to look at how we support the third drivers.

Q. What are your aims for Spa and Monza and how much benefit will KERS be?

JN: The car that we have now, that we started to develop from Germany is very different to the car that we had in the preceding races. It's true to say that circuit characteristics [that have suited us] have been the slower speed ones, so slower average speeds, which tend to be Monaco, Hungary and Valencia were always likely to suit a car with inherent performance characteristics.

The real answer is that we don't know what is going to happen at Spa.

If it were based on the first few races, then we really struggled in the high-speed turns. During the first four or five races the drivers reported that it was unstable at the rear. They didn't know where the car was and for a driver that is pretty horrific. If you can't lean on the car and know that the rear-end is really underneath you then you are not going to find that 98th percent of the grip level.

The car is much more stable now and much more planted at the rear end, and the aggressive shadow diffuser that we have put on the car and will continue to develop, does lock the car down and make it more stable.

I expect us to perform, compared to what we would have done, much better on a circuit like Spa, but then there are other teams like Red Bull that should be very strong. If Brawn have got over whatever was going on with their ability to heat the tyres up, then they will be strong.

As for us, our desire is to be right up there, but I would be kidding everyone if I said we were confident.

Q. What steps have the team taken to avoid a repeat of the pitlane mix-up in Valencia?

JN: A lot. It was a very aggressive strategy call and it was just a little too late. Not by much. And you saw the result of that, in the end it was not material to Rubens [Barrichello] jumping us. That was always going to happen. Certainly we would have been able to put Lewis closer to Rubens if we had either executed the stop properly or allowed him to go the extra lap. It was marginal.

It's important that we don't dwell on the past and look forwards, but I have been through all of the data. I have replayed the video footage of the stop probably 100 times, looking at every movement of who did what, and who said what. We have forensically taken it apart and looked at what we need to do. I have to say in defence of the garage, they are blameless. It was an unfair criticism of the guys that manage the tyres and work the cars. The pitlane crew did an excellent job, but our decision-making was slow so we compromised them.

What we need to do for this weekend is to learn from that, look at our decision-making, and everybody on the pitwall has been through the debrief, and we will be sharper this weekend.

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