Q & A with Martin Whitmarsh

McLaren's extraordinary Malaysian Grand Prix weekend took another painful twist on Sunday morning when newspaper reports suggested that Lewis Hamilton had threatened to quit the team and Formula 1 over this week's controversy

Q & A with Martin Whitmarsh

Shortly after that revelation, team principal Martin Whitmarsh and Mercedes motorsport boss Norbert Haug sat down in front of the media to give their side of everything that has unfolded since the fateful stewards hearing in Melbourne.

Q. If you go in to the stewards and you say he wasn't instructed to let Jarno by, and they have radio transmission that they will obviously listen to, how did that situation arise?

Martin Whitmarsh: Well I think after the Australian Grand Prix as far as any of us were concerned there was no controversy and therefore I don't think any of us contemplated any issue that was going to arise, we had committed no offence. I think Davey had in my view... in the heat of the moment, I think he felt very guilty. The background is, following what happened in Spa there was a hyper-sensitivity about overtaking under a safety [car period]. When the incident happened, Lewis informed the team that he had overtaken Trulli, as far as we were concerned under a safety. And of course we didn't have the monitors that race control had, and the reflex action from Davey was to make the call to tell the people speaking to Lewis to let Trulli through.

Now that was wrong and it was unnecessary and I think Davey as many people know him is a person of huge commitment, wants to do things right, and he made an error. The error in itself was not significant and we spoke to the FIA under the period of the safety car, asked them if we could reverse the position, and told them what had happened. Understandably race control were busy and said 'look we will have to deal with this after the race'.

I think Davey carried some guilt because he had made a mistake and was very hard on himself and I think in the heat of the moment with the stewards, unnecessarily caused Lewis, and led Lewis, to mislead the stewards and one event fell into another. I think it was very difficult for Davey, because I think he had that guilt, and this is a guy who after 35 years of fantastic service and an impeccable record, made a big error. And it was in that heat of the moment, but you know, I don't categorically know that. It is just what I believe happened and what led to it.

Q. Is there anything different about the radio procedures that the FIA has this year that made you think that they might not have listened to it?

MW: No no, I mean the FIA has had access to the radios for a number of years, so they listen and there was a conversation with Charlie. So I think everyone realised that, or believed, that Charlie was listening. It was a very sensitive part of the race. Again in reality no offence had been committed, the information was openly available to the FIA and that's what makes the circumstances that unfolded fairly extraordinary.

Q. Can you explain how Lewis could be having conversations with the FIA about quitting the team and Formula 1 and yet you and Lewis had no conversation about this in four days. Lewis was thinking about leaving and you knew nothing about it, and also presumably Ron knew nothing about it, or did he?

MW: I had spoken to Max on Friday, I know that Anthony had spoken to Max, and spoken to other FIA officials. First I knew of what you just said was this morning. We have asked Anthony only five minutes ago if this is true and Anthony has told us that Lewis has not spoken to Max.

Q. Did Anthony say that he had spoken to Max?

MW: I knew that on Friday morning both I and Anthony spoke to Max, I also spoke to Charlie Whiting, Alan Donnelly, so I know that but I am told that Lewis has not spoken to Max.

Q. My second question is, that on Friday when you advanced the case that no one outside of Dave Ryan or Lewis Hamilton had any idea what case they were going to put to the stewards in Sepang, I think most of us feel that is too incredible to be true. And can you explain how no one would have discussed this with Dave Ryan, especially after the team was notified?

MW: The team learned about the stewards hearing I think at about 10.30 in the morning. I think it was informed... I was travelling here at the time and Dave and Lewis attended that hearing. I arrived after that hearing, in the aftermath of it and did anyone else discuss it with Lewis and Dave? No I don't believe there was any discussion. If you are asking did Ron discuss it, I don't believe there was any discussion with Ron either.

Dave is a sporting director. He is a senior and trusted member of this organisation so... I happened to be travelling in that period of time, which you know I... one of the criticisms against me is that I was on holiday, that I didn't arrive here in time. And I have got deep regret about that. But clearly as I left Australia on Sunday evening I wasn't aware of an issue. An issue was started to be reported on Wednesday, which I was told about, but frankly I did not believe the scale of it nor the speed of it.

I didn't know that the Australian stewards would be here and I hadn't imagined - and again maybe a big misjudgement on my part - but I hadn't imagined that there was going to be a stewards hearing here. I knew that there was an issue developing on Wednesday and that I had to speak to the people directly, which I did. Through to Friday morning Dave still held the view that he had not lied to the stewards, and that process I needed to go through. On Thursday night I left here with the feeling that this was a very severe and significant and embarrassing event for this team. Something which we have apologised for, I have apologised for and I apologise again to the media, to the FIA, to the World Motor Sport Council, to the president for what has happened.

On Friday morning I felt I was going to talk to Charlie Whiting and I was going to ask Charlie Whiting what he thought. Did he feel... He was present, he knew what had gone on, he had had radio conversations during the race, listened to the radio. But I came to the view on Friday morning that in fact I didn't need to speak to Charlie.

I took a very tough decision, probably the most difficult professional decision of my life, to shatter a life of a very close colleague and friend and a huge part of this team. After which I'd made that decision, there had been suggestions that I was under pressure to do it. There was no pressure from the FIA or anyone else, I took a decision, I then spoke to Charlie, I then rang Max. I spoke to Alan Donnelly about what had happened.

As a team we arranged... I knew I was in the FIA press conference as you know and that I [had to] say something there. I had to apologise for the fact that I came here on Thursday, that I was late, when I arrived this event had unfolded. I had a human instinct, which was wrong probably, to defend colleagues, both Dave and Lewis, and in doing that and jumping to that defence, I hadn't done the necessary homework for which I am deeply regretful of. But having spoken to Lewis, and Lewis told me on Thursday evening that he felt he had lied. Dave still did not, but I reflected on it overnight, and had to come to the view that I had to suspend Dave. I told the FIA what had happened and explained it to them, I explained it on Friday.

Of course I have got a lot of regrets, I wish I had come straight here. I wish I had anticipated it. But in truth even if I was here on Monday, Tuesday and probably Wednesday, it wouldn't have made any difference because it wasn't an event that was unfolding or that we were aware of. And Lewis wasn't here either, he had gone on his own holiday somewhere. I hadn't spoken to Lewis... since the race I am sure I would have said great job or something to that effect. I left early Sunday evening and went on holiday and Lewis did either on Sunday night or Monday. The story that he then spoke to the FIA was something that I learned this morning and when we checked just a few moments ago we were told it isn't true.

Q. I don't understand how four days later those two guys could go in to a stewards hearing and stick to their story when this was in your own press release on Sunday. And secondly are you 100 per cent convinced that Lewis is an unwilling victim in all this and that he was completely forced to go along with it?

MW: I think Lewis has very bravely sat before the media and has confessed his guiltiness. That is not something that Lewis is comfortable with, I'm sure he is embarrassed and deeply regretful and I think he has expressed that. We for our part, have to accept that Lewis is a world champion, he is an ambassador. We have got to lead him and direct him and that duty of care we failed on and that's something that we are deeply apologetic for.

I don't think Lewis believes that he is without blame. In fact I know he doesn't believe that but he made a mistake, he's a world champion and he didn't set the standards that he would hold dearly, so he feels very bad about that.

I think the press release... we didn't believe that, and I didn't believe, that letting Trulli past was contentious on Sunday night. Again we actually didn't do anything, there was no offence committed. In the heat of... for whatever reason, Dave personally thought he had made a mistake and that influenced his judgement, which was completely unnecessary. And that was the great sadness of this. It was something which didn't need to happen at all.

Q. In light of what Lewis's manager said to Max Mosley and the way they feel they have been let down by the team, how do you see Lewis's future here? Have there been talks with his manager? Do you expect them?

MW: Well again I have read some stories this morning but I have obviously spoken to Lewis quite a few occasions and Anthony. We are here trying to do a job and go racing and this has been quite a distracting influence, but in all of those conversations the commitment from Anthony and Lewis to this team has not altered. It's been extreme and there has been no hint of what has been reported this morning, so at the moment I don't believe what has been reported.

But I think what we do know is as a team we have got to learn from the mistakes that have been made, I have got to learn. I have made mistakes, I said it on Friday I'm saying it here. I have to represent the team, I have to apologise on behalf of the team to you guys, to the public, to the FIA. And I have to apologise on my own behalf because on Thursday I hadn't done my homework, I was ill-prepared and I made some mistakes. Lewis has done the same. It's been a pretty tough time for him, we have been trying to deal with this and allow Lewis to concentrate on doing the best job we can here, we are a racing team trying to go motor racing.

So everything that Anthony and Lewis has said to me has been incredibly supportive, appreciative of what this team has done for them and there has been no hint of anything that they've said that would cause me to believe that they would contemplate [leaving] for this or any other reason. Now something different has been reported in the media, but a leading part of that was that he had spoken directly to Max. I don't believe that happened because Anthony told us minutes ago that there was no truth in that story.

Q. Have you considered your future, are you considering your future with the team?

MW: Well it wouldn't be true if I said I wasn't because at a time like this you think about what you got involved with this sport for and it wasn't for this sort of thing. You also think about what is best for the company and this great team. And it hasn't been a great experience for me. It wasn't what I started out 20 years ago to experience.

However the loss of Dave is a huge hole, he was such a pivotal part, he ran this team, let's be frank. There are various people that have been the figureheads but Dave ran this team, he made the operational decisions, he made it happen. And to take him out of this and deal with this weekend, the distraction and the operation in very difficult circumstances, to plan going to the next race as well, and contemplate the future without Dave has been challenging in the extreme.

I think I've been very fortunate, there have been some deeply painful moments for me over the course of this weekend, but there have surprisingly been one or two moments when your faith in humanity and this team is restored. Because there are some very kind things that have been said, I have had fantastic support from within the team. And I owe it to not just the people here, there are a thousand people in Brixworth, Woking and Stuttgart and our other partners who concentrate on this programme, and I have got to do what I think is best to stabilise a very difficult situation.

In the longer term I can contemplate my own future. Of course it is not self-determining, it's for the shareholders of this team to take a view and that's something they have to decide what's the best thing. There is a representative of the largest shareholder sat alongside me and I think it's ultimately for those people to decide what happens in this team, not me.

Q. Therefore you will not be resigning, it will be a question of them resigning?

MW: I'm not resigning this weekend. We've made a commitment to look at how we arrived in this situation and we've got to learn from it and we've got to do better in future. We will do a better job, I think therefore it is wrong to rule anything out, I've got to look at what is the best way forward for this team and how can we do better in the future.

Q. The German nation is waiting for a clear statement from Mercedes-Benz now. Is Mercedes still wanting to be a part of the McLaren team when it makes one image disaster after another? Does Mercedes have to think about their relationship?

Norbert Haug: First of all I have to explain my role in the team. We are not running the team, we are a 40 per cent shareholder as everybody knows. I am one of the directors on the board of McLaren, and of course we discuss these issues internally. I am in permanent contact to Stuttgart, I am reporting to Dr Zetsche directly and of course we will sit down next week.

I'm not absolutely of the opinion that McLaren is creating one disaster after the other, in the meantime we won the world championship. I have full trust in Martin, just to point that out, and the whole affair is not what we want. Absolutely not. But still I have the feeling that these guys went and they were probably a little bit afraid of losing fourth place. And then all of a sudden they said no when they should have said yes. Because in hindsight you should have had a print out of the radio conversation, because you can look at it anyway. And if we are honest probably something like that has happened to all of us.

This is not an excuse, but we are not creating one problem after the other and I think we had a good relationship. I know exactly what money we are spending and I know exactly what positive values we got from last year. This is currently not a positive value - the newspapers are full of our stories. It is certainly not creating the right image. If it would not be bearable, then we need to sit down in Stuttgart and take our decision, but for now I have all the faith and all that I can put behind Martin. He is a great guy and runs the team in a very good way.

Q. There seems to be two interpretations of what has gone on over the past few days. One is this vast conspiracy of lies and the other just seems to be sort of incompetence in the way the situation has been handled. What's your response to that?

MW: There is no conspiracy of lies. Whether it is competence, incompetence, the fact is do I feel uncomfortable that I went on holiday on Sunday and I had a few days away of course I do. But that's in a pretty busy programme I think you have to do some of those things. Now that the scale and the enormity of it is clear you can look back, just as Dave, Lewis and feel that this is something so ridiculously small to start with and so innocuous that has grown into something so large. And that is something of massive regret. Ultimately as I have said earlier I am accountable to the shareholders at McLaren, and it is for them to make that judgement which I have no doubt they will do.

Q. Why did the stewards not listen to the radio transmission before they interviewed the drivers and the people involved? Can you explain what the protocol is, and whether they had heard the transmission and they were trying to see if someone was going to lie and be put on a hook? Also, in the decision you took about Davey, did you consult Ron about that?

MW: In answer to the first one, certainly Davey believed that Charlie was fully aware of the radio communications. And Charlie was sat in there. When I asked Davey if he felt the stewards had listened to it, he did not know but he was on the assumption that this was information they either had heard or would hear as they contemplated the case. I guess frankly, and I am not trying to criticise any process, we are not here to do that, the stewards ultimately faced with the facts that they could see, made the right decision and we were heavily penalised for that.

This thing has unravelled by a heat of the moment panic. I don't think anyone could have contemplated that, so I don't subscribe to the view that the tape was listened to, and it was a trap that was set. Because it would not have seemed like a trap it was a very unusual and totally unpredictable outcome in my view.

Talking about Davey, it was my decision. On Thursday night I thought I would go and speak to Charlie because Charlie was there, and one of the questions I was going to ask was did he think he had lied, did he think Lewis had lied? In the end, I came to the conclusion without talking to the FIA, that I had no alternative with regard to Davey. So I made that decision. I wasn't prompted by anyone not the FIA, not Ron.

It was my decision, and it is one of those issues where on the one hand, if you do it you are accused of scapegoating, and if you don't do it you are accused of not taking matters seriously enough. So I realise in this situation that there wasn't going to be a right outcome and certainly I was going to be judged badly either way.

But the primary issue, was I had to do what I thought was right. And that was with a very heavy heart, because as I say Davey is to anyone, he is an incredibly hard working diligent individual, a very tough individual, who I had to shatter on Friday morning. But I have to accept that that was my decision. I think it was the right decision. However, sad that I am, I know Davey, I know his family, then having to talk about it in front of the media makes it a lot, lot harder. You want, inevitably, these decisions within the family to be private ones but clearly, as is demonstrated by what has happened now, we are not able to keep these things private. They are poured over in intimate detail, which is painful for Davey, for this team and for his family.

Q. After the stewards meeting in Australia, Davey must have come back along with Lewis and spoken to the team. Surely at the moment he would have told you what he told the stewards. So how come nobody at the team said to him that that was not what happened? And if that hadn't happened, why had he not discussed it with anybody?

MW: Davey didn't discuss it on Sunday evening. I am sure I spoke to him when he came back from the stewards, but there were a lot of things going on and we were packing up and leaving. He, even until Friday morning, did not believe that he had lied to the stewards and that is human nature to seek to justify to yourself. Again, while on Wednesday, there started to be the stories in the media, I was then travelling here and had no knowledge that the situation was going to accelerate.

I didn't expect the Australian stewards to be here. I didn't know there was going to be a stewards hearing again. And by the time I was here, obviously in the aftermath of Thursday evening, I spoke again to Davey and I spoke to Lewis, and there was a degree of denial still going on there. And, that is why I had decided to speak to the FIA but after a night of reflecting on it, [that is why] I came to the decision I did on Friday morning.

Q. If Davey and Lewis had told the stewards that there was no call to pass Jarno, and yet on the radio transcript it was clear that it was. How come when they came back from the stewards, and even in passing conversation, they did not mention that? And how come no one said, we are going to get busted for that?

MW: It is clearly on the radio, and I think that the questions that were put were Davey interrupted a question that was put to Lewis, so he maintains that they did not answer the question which was: Was he asked to repass? And Lewis was asked, did you slow up to allow Trulli past? And Lewis said no, and at the time he had justified it to himself because as the telemetry later showed, he did not particularly slow up, he pulled over.

The two I am sure were uncomfortable, but we were not aware. And I've said to Davey: Did you deny the radio conversation? And his response on Thursday evening, was dont be ridiculous. Charlie was sat there. Charlie heard it, and it is recorded, how could I have done that? What I believe he did was, when Lewis was asked about it, before Lewis gave an answer, Davey interrupted the questioning and that is the start of this misdirection.

Q. McLaren's image as an ethical team has once again come into question. Are you expecting any commercial ramifications?

MW: Your premise is right, but this is something that has unfolded over a race weekend. In dealing with it, and going motor racing, I haven't spent time contemplating longer term. We have to, after this event, regroup and contemplate how we go forward.

Q. When a misdemeanour is committed by a group of people, usually action is taken against them. Davey Ryan has already paid a price, and he could pay the full price in terms of his career at McLaren, your own future is in question, do the team really believe Lewis was an innocent virgin being misled by the big bad wolf? Or will the team be taking action against him?

MW: The team and Lewis have been penalised because of this, and had the points and the race classification removed. I think there has been quite a lot of other suffering. I think Lewis has admitted that he is not entirely innocent, and I think he did that for himself very bravely two days ago. We've got to reflect on how we got from something so innocuous at the start to this situation, and learn from it.

Q. Will action be taken against Lewis?

MW: I don't contemplate any further action against Lewis.

Q. Going forward, the FIA is bound to be looking at this and previous times that you were up against them in the stewards office. Can you categorically say that Davey has never had a pattern of this behaviour before, and has never told half-truths in the previous occasions you have been up against the stewards?

MW: I can tell you what I believe, and that is that I believe Davey has 35 years of an unblemished record and I think that is my sincere belief, and that is the belief of most people in this room. In the heat of the moment, when he felt he had made a mistake, Davey was not trying to get an unjust result he thought, wrongly, he knee jerked into something that he thought was just securing the right outcome. But I do not believe that Davey has misled the stewards, or withheld information, from the stewards before.

Q. It is a well trodden ethos that McLaren wins as a team and loses as a team. How badly has that been damaged this weekend, and what will it take to repair it?

MW: I dont think it has been damaged. I think the team has pulled together. The loss of Davey is a huge hole in this organisation, and in reality it is not just picking up all of the things that he did, because there was no list of it, but it is about how we operate as a team, of McLaren and Mercedes, about how we come together positively to the circumstance. I haven't yet seen the benefit coming out of this weekend, because I am not quite that optimistic, but I do think that we have to learn from it and we have to be better in the future. So, I think that the team has held together very well this weekend and I am very grateful for the support that I have had and the team have had from lots of people here.

Q. One key touchstone of McLaren is that no one is bigger than the team. Did you contemplate suspending Lewis, if Davey Ryan had done something wrong and Lewis had not been as truthful as he might have been? Could you have stood him down for this race?

MW: There is no doubt, and Lewis has already accounted for himself, that what happened was very serious. I had to reflect on the fact that Davey, as sporting director was the senior member of this team. He had the duty of care to guide Lewis as an ambassador. We fell short in that regard and that is why I came to the conclusion with regard to Davey, and whilst Lewis inevitably just as a team comes out with blemish and shame, I think he has been penalised both in a tangible sense in terms of points removed, and quite a lot of other sense of pain and shame that has happened over the course of this weekend.

Q. What is Ron's involvement in all of this, and what sort of dialogue have you had with him? Is it true that he did not want Lewis to make the apology, and that he cancelled plans to be here on Thursday?

MW: Ron wasn't planning to be here officially. But Ron is a racer and this race last year he did not plan to come to but came at the last minute. I've had three or four conversations, relatively short ones, and in truth they were: do you need my help? How are you holding up? I am grateful that I had some sense of support from him. But he knows that I had to make these decisions. So I have had that sense of support, but Ron has not been pulling the strings on this one. And, it is clear that I have to take accountability for what has happened this weekend.

Q. When you took over the role as team principal, it was downplayed the difference that it might make to your role. Have the events of the last week changed your perception of the role of team principal, or maybe change how you approach the job in the future?

MW: I think it has been an accelerated learning curve, let's put it like that. I have been in this team for 20 years and I hope over those years I have made some contribution. This has been an experience that perhaps I was not as prepared for. McLaren, with Lewis Hamilton in it and with this sort of controversy gets a fair bit more attention than most of us are accustomed to. So I have to learn from that. I hope that once weve understood, learned from it, and can come out of it, then we can return to focusing on a racing team, which is what I joined in the first place to do.

Q. The FIA has made it fairly clear that it considers Lewis was put in an impossible situation and it is not going to take any action against him. You as a team are not off the hook. In your conversations with Max did you get the impression, or did he hint, that there would be a summons to the WMSC or further action against you?

MW: I think the reality is that I rang Max to tell him what was happened. I think he was kind enough to give me views and advice, and I think I have to treat that as a confidential conversation. Max was helpful and I am grateful for that, but it was not a conversation that I should be talking publicly about.

I rang him, one to inform him and to seek his guidance. I am not sure it is appropriate or fair that I then disclose what the content [of that conversation] was, but I very appreciative of the time he gave me on the phone. In the course of the conversation he did not refer to the [WMSC], I've spoken to Charlie and he didn't, and I've spoken to Alan Donnelly and it is clearly a decision that Max will take, and he will take the decision that he thinks is right.

Q. FOTA has been hugely concerned about the image that F1 projects to the fans, its customer base, yet we have controversy after controversy. You head up to the SWG for FOTA how badly do you think these various controversies, diffusers or this issue, are affecting the image of F1 worldwide.

MW: Well, it clearly isn't helpful. F1 is going through a very difficult time. We have a lot of automotive manufacturers who have made a tremendous commitment to F1 over the years. They have got huge challenges as businesses.

Ironically this year we have opened up all the radio conversations during the race. We have made our drivers more available. We are contemplating ways in which we can improve the spectacle and information for fans around the world. FOTA is a body that hasnt happened before. It is in its early days. There are diffuser controversies and a whole range of issues that challenge the unity that has been achieved within FOTA. There are a number of things that those within FOTA are very proud have been achieved in a few months, but as I have said several times this weekend, certainly McLaren isnt perfect.

We have made some big mistakes which are damaging to us. And we are very sorry for that. But they are also sadly damaging to F1 and the image of F1. That is not something that any of us can feel comfortable about.

Q. F1 is about drivers, not teams. McLarens role in this will probably be forgotten by the wider world, but the bit that wont be forgotten is the part of this affects Lewis and there have been comparisons now between Lewis and Michael Schumacher as being a great driver but having a tarnished career. He will carry this for the rest of his life, whereas you guys will be forgotten. How do you feel about that?

MW: Well, I feel sad. But I think Lewis has I think an enormous humanity. He has put his hand up and said that he has made some mistakes, and that he is deeply regretful of that. He has been very brave in making those statements that he has during the course of this weekend, and we for our part are trying to put our hand up and demonstrate our concern and our humility over what has happened.

It is not something that any of us feel very good about. Anyone who sits back and looks at what this started from, and what this started from, [knows] it is quite ridiculous. Although people like the idea of conspiracies or those sorts of things, it was an innocuous and silly incident where we were not guilty of anything that has led to this. I think Lewis is still a young man, but he is a world champion and he has to be accountable and responsible for his actions. He is an important ambassador to this sport, and I think the greatest shame that we as McLaren haven't given him and led him well enough to uphold the standards that he intended to or wanted to.

Q. What about the comparison to Schumacher?

MW: Lewis has openly and bravely admitted what he has done wrong, and he has apologised. I think that is in contrast with some other things that have happened in F1, so I think there is a difference.

This process, at the heart of it, are a group of committed, dedicated, hard working individuals who are fallible, and have made some mistakes in the heat of the moment. They are damaging, but I think people understand that no one is perfect, and it is for those people from that to decide whether they forgive and balance the equation of the greatness of various people.

I fully acknowledge and have a great passion for drivers, and the public ultimately are interested in the driver achievements and their bravery, but all of the 20 drivers that are taking the grid today are extraordinary young men with huge bravery, who are going to participate in a very dangerous, very exhausting, very challenging contest this afternoon. Sometimes there is a sense when we talk about F1 that we dont always appreciate that.

I have been very fortunate to work with a lot of great, great drivers. And Lewis is very much one of those, and people will ultimately judge him to be a great world champion, and hopefully a great multiple world champion, and they will recognise that he is human.

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A Formula 1 pitstop is a rapid-fire blend of high technology and human performance. PAT SYMONDS describes how the science of margin gains makes stops so quick

Formula 1
Oct 10, 2021