Martin Whitmarsh does not know how competitive McLaren will be in Australia
Team Principal expects tyre degradation to be a major issue
By William Esler
Last Updated: 11/03/13 4:19pm
After 12 days of testing, the McLaren Team Principal sat down with Natalie Pinkham for an exclusive interview, during which he also discussed new recruit Sergio Perez and potential upgrades to the MP4-28.
Pre-season gave very few clues on which team would set the early season pace - indeed Red Bull's Sebastian Vettel described it as "the least conclusive ever" - and that is a view shared by Whitmarsh.
"The real answer is I have no idea - you go around the organisation and all the various engineers and they are all doing that analysis," he said.
"I think we have seen in the past that testing is not a good guide of the real form and it is not a good guide because the conditions are very different. I think everyone was struggling with tyre graining and I rather fear and suspect they might be [the case] in the races.
"At the moment engineers are considering this to be a cold weather phenomenon and we will be ok at the races - but I have a feeling that in China, we are going to be talking about tyre graining and tyre degradation quite a lot, but we will see.
"I think people have been doing different things, but unquestionably Mercedes have stepped up and you would expect the other usual suspects - McLaren, Ferrari, Red Bull - will be reasonably competitive.
"But you never know - maybe we have been kidding ourselves and some have been sandbagging more than others and some have been trying more than others and you try to kid yourself depending on whether you are a pessimist or an optimist."
Whereas most teams have opted for an evolution of their 2012 cars, McLaren have taken the radical decision to embrace a completely new design philosophy, despite this being the final year of the current regulations. Whilst that may mean they are not on the pace at the start of the season, Whitmarsh is hopeful the choice will pay off by the end of the year.
"We finished last year with the quickest car, so had we continued to work on and develop that car, we would be at a higher performance level today than we were at the end of last year," the McLaren boss added.
"What we chose to do though was because inevitably it gets more and more difficult throughout the lifespan of a car to find performance, it becomes almost asymptotic in terms of performance up lift. What we have done is said 'what are the limitations of that car and let's redesign them fundamentally.'
"In doing that we will open the door to develop throughout this year but inevitably it gives you a challenge at the start of the year to make the car as competitive as you want, but the race is going to last until November and we believe we have given ourselves the scope to continue developing it.
"But, we will only know the answer to that in November and we look back on it and say 'did we develop that car race after race as we intended?' I hope we will, we believe we will but we won't know until we have done it."
One thing McLaren will not be developing, however, is a passive DRS device, which Red Bull, Lotus and Sauber experimented with during testing.
"I think there is now a limit to what you can get out of passive DRS, but there are all sorts of tricks that you are trying and I think the task for any team is to work out where you are going to get the biggest bang for your buck," Whitmarsh said.
"We have a finite resource, we have a finite number of people, money, testing and time and we've looked a number of novel designs - like the original F-duct - over the years and we have invested time, but I think at the moment we are not concentrating on that area.
"Obviously we will see what our competitors are doing - Red Bull are a team that many people will follow, so we will see what happens. We won't rule it out, but we are not active in that area at the moment."
Sergio Perez will embark on a new chapter in his career in Australia when he makes his debut as a McLaren driver and Whitmarsh thinks he is settling in well to his new surroundings.
"Sergio, or Checo as we all call him, has settled in fantastically," he said.
"It is a daunting company, it is a daunting team for a 22-year-old to come into and look at the shoes he is filling - not just Lewis [Hamilton], but all the other great names: [Niki] Lauda, [James] Hunt, [Alain] Prost, [Ayrton] Senna, [Mika] Hakkinen, [Kimi] Raikkonen - some incredible talent that have driven for this team.
"So he is realising now that there is a lot of pressure being a McLaren driver, but he also recognises that we are a team that works together and we are a very driver-centric organisation. At the end of the day that is what everyone wants to talk about - all the great cars and great engineers are interesting to some - but actually this is about drivers and that is what it should be about. I believe he can be competitive and he and I and many others in the team will be very disappointed if the season ends without him winning a race - and I think it has to be multiple races, so that is the challenge that he has got."
The Mexican will be partnered at McLaren by Jenson Button and whilst Whitmarsh is sure the most experienced man on the grid will help Perez develop as a driver, he says the 2009 World Champion has a more intense competitive streak.
"Those that have been around Jenson a little bit this year, you feel an immense competitiveness and confidence about him," the 54-year-old said.
"He is a great, great team player so he is fantastic to have in the team - he is positive, he is uplifting and he is a normal bloke, so you can sit down and have a conversation with him. I think Sergio has found him to be very, very welcoming and I said to Sergio from the start he would be and to learn everything he could from Jenson.
"Jenson will always be honest, he will always help you if he can - apart from when you pull out of that garage! When you pull of that garage, he will want to kill you out on that track and that is how it should be."
Many have been quick to class Button as the number one driver at McLaren this season, but the Team Principal added that they will maintain their policy of treating both drivers equally.
"We don't run a number one driver policy, people like to talk about that but we are not running one," Whitmarsh said.
"But occasionally you will get a de facto situation because if one driver has the experience and can take control of the team and can stay ahead of the other, then he will be considered by the media as a de facto number one and that can work quite well. In the past we have had the situation where by the policy of treating our drivers equally, our Championship aspirations are hampered by the fact that they steal points from one another.
"But we still think it is right to go into every season giving both drivers and equal opportunity to win. That is our philosophy and I think it is the right sporting approach. But if there is one driver who takes the initiative, takes the lead and is consistently ahead of the team-mate, then he is maximising the points he can get out of the McLaren car and that is sometimes better if you are focused on the Drivers' Championship.
"2007 is a classic case of when we should have won the Drivers' Championship, but we didn't, we lost it by one point. Had we had a different philosophy and strategy we would have won the Drivers' Championship that year.
"I don't regret it as what we stand for is treating the drivers equally and the fact that Jenson is here to day stems from that philosophy. Jenson would not have joined us three years ago had it not been that he had the conviction that at this team he would be given equal opportunity."