Q & A with Martin Whitmarsh

Martin Whitmarsh fielded questions from the press today in the latest of Vodafone McLaren Mercedes' pre-grand prix teleconferences. AUTOSPORT joined in to hear the McLaren chief's thoughts on progress with its blown diffuser and the state of the championship battle

Q & A with Martin Whitmarsh

Q. Williams initially ran its blown diffuser on one car then managed to get it tuned in for the rest of the weekend, whereas McLaren tried it on both cars then removed it. Do you have any regrets about the way you played that?

Martin Whitmarsh: I haven't watched what Williams were doing. I think inevitably you want to bring performance to the car as quickly as you can. We were developing a blown diffuser for the forthcoming German Grand Prix. We wanted it to be available to both drivers.

I think there are pros and cons to sharing the development parts between drivers, when you're trying to stress equality. A floor with a blown diffuser is not something you can take on and off the car during the course of a practice session - it's even difficult between the two practice sessions.

So I think our argument was get as much data and make sure we were treating both drivers as equally as we could. I don't regret taking it, I don't regret running it on the Friday.

I think at that time there were a number of things happening at the circuit - it was a new circuit, it had some entertaining bumps in the new section and it also had some bumps presumably from construction traffic - not a feature that you normally have to deal with at Silverstone. It was gusty. And clearly we can't test before races. So I think we got good information.

I think there was some view in the team that by Sunday we could've left it on the car and it would have been okay and able to perform. But I think we were conscious of the need and desire to score as many points at the British Grand Prix as possible. So a decision was taken on Friday to eliminate some of the variables - we couldn't eliminate the gusts or the bumps - but we could eliminate that. We had other items on the car - a new front wing and various other upgrade pieces were left on the car. I think it was the right decision.

We then had a back to back in a sense, as much as you can do between days, in that on Saturday we ran the car without a blown diffuser and that was useful in itself to compare the data that we had generated before. So I think we did the right thing and I'm comfortable with it.

Q. After qualifying at Silverstone, Button said the car was undriveable but he performed well in the race. With no way to change the car in parc ferme, how did that improvement happen?

MW: We've been working hard to develop the race car this year, I think the race car has been fairly quick and has been quicker than the other cars, including the Red Bull, on some occasions. In qualifying we have comparatively struggled. But I think it was a view that Jenson had based on the qualifying car. In the race he was quite comfortable.

Q. Obviously you can't be certain until you're on track, but based on the work you've done at the factory, how confident are you that the issues you had with the new diffuser are solved?

MW: You can't be entirely confident, but I think we go into Hockenheim with more information. We've made some modifications in the light of that data and we will be running the blown diffuser on Friday. I suspect we'll have it on for the weekend, but we'll make the call in the light of the data on Friday evening.

Q. Do you feel you've 'dodged a bullet' in a way by keeping hold of the championship lead through the races when you've been a little bit behind in the development race?

MW: I'm not sure we've been behind in the development race - I think we've had a car that's been capable of winning races. You need to be reliable and quick enough to win races. I think we've had both of those things generally. It's always nice to be quicker, it's always nice to be more reliable, but I think we're in a reasonable position - but we know that we've got to continue to development the car if we're going to win the championships this year.

Q. Do you think Red Bull might have an advantage on the low-speed corners of Hockenheim?

MW: I personally think Red Bull has been quickest on traction out of medium to high speed corners, that's their strength. Other people might analyse it differently. They'll be strong, no doubt, but so will others.

Q. Do you have any concerns about the wide tyre compound range at Hockenheim?

MW: I think it's the broadest spread of tyres that we've seen so far, and therefore it's likely to have an impact on some of the strategy and how the race runs, I would imagine. The super-soft is likely to be quite a short, light tyre - so if you qualify on the super-soft and others behind you are able to fit the prime then that's going to have some impact on how you run the race. It will be different, that's for sure.

Q. With things like the F-duct and the new diffusers, how significant are the changes to the cars during the season this year compared to other years?

MW: I think this year generally people knew what was coming - that there would be more extreme versions of the double diffusers, which of course disappear next year. The double diffuser was something of a surprise to many of us, who wouldn't have deemed it legal had our engineers brought such a thing to us. So that was a bit of a surprise and it created a big set of catch-ups and difficulties and challenges for the team.

This year I guess the two things the teams weren't expecting to see were perhaps the move back to blown diffusers - they have been in Formula 1 several times before and they have challenges attached to them, but I think it's clear that you can get performance - and the F-duct, which clearly wasn't anticipated. Oddly, because a non-switched F-duct was first introduced on the McLaren in Monaco last year, 14/15 months ago and variants of that developed. The switchable one started this year and caused some surprise, debate and challenge for teams.

I think both blown diffusers and F-ducts are not super-expensive to implement. So by Formula 1 standards and costs, it's within the means of any team to develop and exploit. Blown diffusers have got a bit of a heat management challenge, but that aside they're not too challenging.

Q. Do you now see the title as a two-horse race between Red Bull and yourselves now that Ferrari has fallen behind?

MW: I'd love to believe that, but experience has told me that you can't write them off. Ferrari are a strong team, they're technical capable, have fantastic resources and they've got one former world champion and one other top-flight driver and Mercedes-Benz similarly have got one former multiple world champion and a very good driver in Nico [Rosberg]. So I think it's too early to write them off. We need to improve our car and do as good a job as we can do. Red Bull clearly are the principle challenge at the moment, but I don't dismiss the others.

Q. Momentum is clearly with Lewis Hamilton in your team at the moment, is there now a feeling that it's going his way?

MW: Not yet. Jenson is second in the drivers' championship, has had two great wins this year and has proven that he's a great racing driver, a great reader of the race but also someone who could recover from 14th to fourth is a phenomenally quick and adept racing driver, and also has a lot of determination. I'm sure Jenson hasn't given way to Lewis's charge for the championship. He will want to win this weekend, he will want to move that momentum back in his favour, and that's just how it should be.

Q. Can you explain how the tests of the blown diffuser will work at Hockenheim?

MW: One of the challenges is that whereas flaps, wings and various aerodynamic appendages are fairly quickly changed on the car so during the course of a session you can do back to backs and for example drivers can change front wings mid-run, the blown diffuser is a completely different floor, different heat management components and obviously different exhaust. Therefore it's not possible to perform an in-session back to back and it's even quite difficult between sessions so I think you've just got to rely on the data that we've previously collected.

There may be components as part of the blown diffuser that we change between the cars, so there is a compromise. In the old days we'd go testing, you'd prepare two cars and run them alongside each other. We can't do that. We're torn between the priorities of developing your car and looking at longer-term improvements, versus the very limited amount of track time that the drivers get to understand that particular event and that race circuit, as they haven't been to Hockenheim for two years, and really make sure that they're as prepared as they can be for Saturday qualifying, which is critical.

Q. Could you end up with one car running the blown diffuser for the race and the other not having it?

MW: We're working at the moment on the premise that we'll have blown diffusers on both cars to start with. At Silverstone Lewis wanted to keep the blown diffuser on on Friday night, but we took the decision there to switch them both back to the older diffuser. If there was a preference from one side of the garage to the other - and if I can, we'll avoid that - we'll do it if we think it's the right way to perform during the course of that weekend. There are advantages, as you can imagine, to running one car in one configuration, one in the other - provided that in so doing, you don't end up, rightly or wrongly, accused of treating the two drivers differently.

Q. Were you at all surprised by the scale of Red Bull's advantage in qualifying at Silverstone, and how do you see it playing out at the forthcoming tracks?

MW: It's always difficult to see that, but clearly they're very good in traction out of medium to high speed corners, particularly so in qualifying mode. I think we're gaining an understanding of that, and progressively it's our intention to over-haul them in that regard.

I think our car on heavy fuel is very competitive. The drivers are often able to make good progress at the beginning of a race. And that's the balance - at the moment we've put a lot of effort into producing a car that's very quick in the races. I'm sure Red Bull are looking at that as well, but we've often been as good as or quicker than them in the races, generally we haven't qualified as well. We're working on that. We intend to - ideally - be quicker than anyone in the race and in qualifying.

I think now the drivers have got to continue performing at all of the top teams, but this year's championship will be won by the team that either makes least mistakes or more probably the team that continues to develop its car at a faster rate than its principal competitors.

Q. In the last two races we've seen Lewis making contact with Sebastian Vettel at the first corner - is there any concern that he's being a little too uncompromising at the start?

MW: The answer is you want them to be as aggressive as they can be, provided the car comes round intact and not requiring a pitstop at the end of the first lap... A Formula 1 standing start is one of the most exciting spectacles and it's a very critical phase of the race. You have to take some risks. You have to have a degree of aggression to do it well.

I believe Lewis has done very well, so indeed has Jenson - he came round from 14th to eighth in one lap at Silverstone, which I believe was mighty impressive. You don't overtake cars like that without taking some risks, and the skill of the really great drivers is balancing that risk and taking the requisite amount of risk for the gain that is possible at the start. I think both drivers have done a very good job in that regard.

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